Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Your sarong tells who you are

I'm in Batticaloa in the far eastern part of Sri Lanka. This geographical section of the country is a huge checkerboard of ethnicities and religions that live together in a sometimes uneasy balance of mutual coexistence. I have not heard nice things said by members of any group about members of any other group. 

At almost any hour of the day you may hear canned religious chanting of one group or another. Usually in this neighborhood, Kallady, the outermost island of Batticaloa, the canned music comes from the nearby Hindu kovil. Its lively cadence and sensuous melodies tell a tale (or tales) of worship that I know nearly nothing about. But I can count on being woken up by the bell ringing and cheerful sounds from the kovil, just a few moments after the first roosters crow their good mornings for the benefit of all. 

Close by church bells may ring, and for all I know they are the bell I hear in the morning and not the kovil. There are dozens of churches all around. Incidentally we are staying on Dutch Bar Road, so named because the old time Christian Burgher population (people descended from European colonists who made Sri Lanka their permanent home) built their community here in the breezy precincts of Kallady.  

A mile or two south of here is Kattankudy, a predominantly Muslim community. I haven't heard the distinctive wail of the muzzein calling people to worship up here in Kallady. But maybe I have. There's a large mosque in Batticaloa town and every  day early in the evening I hear a series of very deep vocals, a somber assemblage of dark tonalities, from that direction. 

But the canned music from across the lagoon could well be coming from the local Buddhist ponsala, one of very few in this part of the East. A bit strange that it's right next to the police station, a national institution dominated by the Sinhala majority. Bottom line here is that just as religions seem to stake their claim on the ground here they are also taking space in the airwaves. The sarongs men wear here make a similar territorial claim. 

I don't usually write about what people wear or about fabric though both interest me greatly. In fact there's almost nothing here that doesn't interest me. During a quiet moment at our guesthouse the other day, before Janet got back from a vacation down south with friends, I was asked whether I was bored. "Never," I answered. "I am always learning here." So it follows that the question of textiles has been inspired in part from my friend Lily Herman and her RISD students. They are in Batticaloa for these three weeks to work on a "capacity building" and "community empowerment" project. Their idealism, energy, and intellectual drive are certainly a demonstration of what "capacity" may mean, whether or not it's applicable to these stranded, incapacitated parts of Sri Lanka. 

Amazing yesterday one of the students who's a textile major explained knots to me. She taught  me how basically the same knot whether large or small influences the look, the feel, and the absorptive capacity of a fabric. 

In the same way, a line, a pattern, or a color makes a statement of who the wearer of a particular sarong is. Actually I had intuited this and asked a few people though I never got an answer. Sometime later, when I was wearing one of my sarongs, a Sri Lankan acquaintance offered the information to me unsolicited. 

The first sarong I bought on this trip was purchased with the help of a motley crew who took me to a couple of local tanks. The chief irrigation engineer of the Batticaloa Agriculture Department, his assistant, and their driver. The three gentlemen were, in order, a Tamil Muslim, a Tamil Hindu, and the driver was a Sinhalese gentleman. We had stopped in Eravur, a predominantly Muslim town a few miles north of Batticaloa and I pointed to the sarong I wanted. A good ten minutes of examining and handling the fabric, yelling at each other and at the shopkeeper, and bargaining (which I hadn't asked for) resulted in a price one third below the ticketed amount. "He'll take Rs 650," I was told. When I reached into my pocket all of them, even the shopkeeper, were sheepishly downcast. Their expressions asked why I hadn't bargained for Rs 600. 

The sarong, a lovely understated  blue green tartan with just enough bright touches to cheer the eye, is still, in a way, my favorite. It was a couple of months later wearing it at our Colombo guesthouse when I was told it was a distinctly Muslim outfit. 

No offense meant and I hope none taken, but as a foreigner here you're pretty much a walking freak show. Just look at the way Sri Lankans dress to see why and how you are out of context. So no matter what you wear you are bound to offend and amuse in equal measure but in general your intent is not taken quite seriously. In other words you can pretty much get away with whatever you want to wear, as long as it doesn't fly in the face of perceived decency. But during a trip to the far south of the country, which is primarily Buddhist, I made the decision to leave my Eravur sarong (made in India by the way) behind. 

Instead I wore a sarong I had bought back in 2013 at the Paradise Road shop in Colombo. It's one of two sarongs I bought then (could have bought the whole shop) and I thought gorgeous threads like these were a bargain for the Rs 1950 I paid at the time (you can get a feeling for tourist prices by this comparison). One sarong I wear at home in Boston on our very few hot days. If I'm entertaining my kids they make no effort to hide their feelings, "Daddy, not that dress again! Take it off. Please." I brought to Sri Lanka this time the companion sarong to the culprit, which is blue. This black and gold striped version, the first time I wore it at our Colombo guesthouse, was almost torn off of me with admiration shown by one of the workers. I guess it does have a certain air of elegance, maybe even worth what I paid. Anyway it doesn't insult anyone. I guess it's pretty neutral in the ethnicity department. 

I just got a new sarong that Janet bought in the south at a large batik factory. Its spectacular random pattern of color and texture is, I think, a real delight. I haven't seen any sarongs like this though I've seen a lot by now. Sarongs come in a dazzling range of colors and tones, some patterns painted, others woven, or like my new one, batiked. Men wear them in bright colors, sulky colors, even light pink and blue. But I haven't seen much green. This sarong got a special reception by our Batticaloa guest house staff. Yes, one or two of them took the material in hand like at the Colombo guesthouse. "Nice material," they seem to say, as the old joke goes. But this sarong collected stares. I've been around here more than a week and we spent two weeks here before. So people know me. They've seen me in my improperly tied sarong, worn a bit too high, so I imagine they expect pretty much anything. But I think it was the color of this sarong they took notice of. Why?

The Sri Lankan flag is dominated by the lion symbol, the totem animal of the Singhala (lion = Singha). There is a green stripe on the flag to symbolize the Tamil minority, an unfairness (I think) that could be rectified by abstracting the flag in its already beautiful array of hues. So, the sarong Janet bought me is green. An inadvertent choice except that it does happen to be my favorite color. My conjecture is that by displaying this color, I am also displaying my sympathetic feelings for the people I live among here. Just a conjecture. But maybe what you put on your body does count. 

1 comment:

  1. I had to use an image search to look into Sri Lankan attire to fully understand what you meant regarding standing out as a traveler. As I sit in Kenmore Sq. watching students stroll by, it's amusing picturing a group of us transported to Sri Lanka and how foolishly dressed we would suddenly seem in context.

    Out of curiosity, what is the atmosphere like as a visitor, even a familiar one, in an environment with so many different ethnicities that have a somewhat tense relationship with each other? Does any one group consider you a part of their group more so than another, or is it vice versa, or are you strictly considered a friend, but a visiting friend? I think that melting pot dynamic is fascinating.

    Also curious as to what the last picture is of?!