A family comes to dinner, expats who live in London. There are two daughters, animated and excited, highly educated professionals who describe themselves as "on the wrong side of thirty." Both parents have excellent English and the lady is a close cousin of Mr. Thavarajah, he later tells me. But the first night they're here Thavarajah doesn't come out. He's had a long couple of days, several funerals to attend, some encounters with the police (I find out later, after his third time being pulled over in a week, they are always on the road in force like this, not just because it is holiday season).
The girls tell me it's their first time to Sri Lanka, at least the first time they can remember. The family always went to Malaysia where Dad's relatives lived. They travel around for a couple of days and I don't see them but yesterday afternoon ebullient Dad sticks his head in and says hi. Then I see them at dinner and the family dynamic is different.
Mom has brought a small gift for Thavarajah in a red bag. The only animation she shows is when she gives it to him. She is very quiet. From the back she looks almost shrunken. Her head is bent slightly. She's not eating the crabs that Dad happily snaps and devours. The girls banter and I have the strong impression they are trying to lighten the mood. The younger girl especially. She kibitzes with her father and they tease each other. She says a few happy things to Mom. The older daughter too, but she seems almost as serious as Mom.
I'm only conjecturing. Making assumptions based on body language and speech I can't quite hear. It's none of my business.
Thavarajah is at the table not eating but smiling. He keeps on a steady smile, I think like the girls, to cheer Mom along. I've never seen him smile this much. What is he saying with his steady happy face? It was a long day visiting Mom's ancestral village. How can it have been a happy day? There is so much sadness in the air. I am attuned to this sadness because I know something about history and I've been in Israel many times. It is a sadness of permanent loss, a world wiped away. Here it was violence and exile and brutality and terror and occupation. Children and family and good good can go only so far in remedying these experiences.
I can't know what the family saw yesterday or how they perceived it. I can infer from my day with Thavarajah and his son Darshan. We drove south yesterday from Pasakudah, a ruined beach where they had a meeting in the kind of gorgeous hotel tourists expect. Besides for the dead beach, shored up by sandbags, bits of broken coral on the shrunken sand strip I saw two things we lack here at the modest Riviera Resort in Kallady. First, an extensive lawn. Not littered the Sri Lankan way. Littered the western way with cigarette butts, cellophane from cigarette packs, drinking straws, things strewn and hidden. I collect some to show my grinning hosts. "This is what's missing at the Riviera!" They get the joke.
The other thing we see driving out is the massive asphalted parking lot, exactly like we have built in the United States. A great place for the tour buses that must come here, unloading guests, spewing and idling in the sun. A parking lot like this draws heat during the day and absorbs it, creating an island of fierce heat that defies the moderating breezes from the coast. It creates a desert. All the more reason to crank up that AC! The asphalt surface repels water, which collects and drains away into the ocean, lowering the local water table (it's all sand here), creating erosion (means we have to pave more since the soil surface is unstable), and flooding in the rain. There are no trees.
The hotel has built a perfectly ruined ecosystem, including blasting away the reef next to the shore so tourists could bathe. But the surface is rough. Most people stay near the sun-blasted pool.
As we drive south from the hotel I'm told that the nearby liquor store was opened by the hotel owners, a perfectly legal way to use your license and expand business. Liquor licenses are expensive (Thavarajah tells me he pays Rs 600,000 annually for his) and he could open a liquor store too. "But local people will abuse it." The people who own this hotel are outsiders (Sinhalese, I'm told) and Im told further that they don't care about the community. So here it's a clear equation. Money or community. What about karma?
We drive further south to Chenkalady. Janet and I spent an hour here waiting for the bus to Maha Oya. Here a major roadblock stood during the war. It was the town just next to Eastern University where Darshan majored in math, and he tells me it took over an hour to go the 20km or so into Batticaloa. It wasn't the only roadblock.
I know that in Israel roadblocks stopped terror. I know also that they caused a huge inconvenience and shame to people who had to put up with them day after day. The world made a hue and cry over the "cruelty" of roadblocks in the West Bank. How did the world respond to the situation in eastern Sri Lanka? Terror here was stopped too, but at the expense of the social fabric. People hated these roadblocks and they still bristle under police presence. How can you attain peace when these animosities continue? Can't we design a better way?
I'm shown houses, lots of them, that were confiscated by the military to house officers within military camps, suddenly visible on either side of the road. These camps, which were somehow invisible to me before, drive home the seriousness of the military's presence around Batticaloa. During the war and still now.
Thavarajah is pulled over by the police, incredibly, for a third time this week. His license is checked and for the first time there's no citation. I am incredulous. What am I seeing?
I ask about tourists. They were blocked until 2009 I'm told. How did you get along as a guesthouse? There were lots of NGO people staying. What about the military. Did you have up accommodate them? Only on Poya. They'd come to demand alcohol (it's illegal to serve it on Poya days). So I'm introduced to yet another facet of Thavarajah's tale of repression and brutality. Something I can still only dimly understand, if not for the constant pulling-over by the police.
Our trips to the devastated villages haven't been happy. Nor was this trip though we all were jovial enough. How was it for this UK mom with lovely grown UK daughters to see her ancestral village in Akkaraipattu?
Years ago when we were in the Yucatan, in Valladolid where the Mayan rebellion took place, I dreamt I was sleeping on a bed of knives. It was the most unsettling thing. I think I was picking up on some kind of feverish fierce energy there in that lovely still-barely-ruined-by-tourism place. Last evening I picked up on Mom's sad energy. And there are many, many energies like that around. I dreamt six hours ago that a wave, powerful and steady, shook the foundations of this place. I looked out to sea and another wave, stronger and more massive, was on its way.