Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Big men and blessings

This is an excerpt from my novel of Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet." It explores just what the title suggests. 

I have some questions for you. Maybe book groups will discuss these questions in the future, when they come in the special book group edition, in the back of the book. Some of these questions are:

Why doesn't the author do well in spaces packed with bodies and heavy gas?

Why doesn't the author seem to like kowtowing? Shouldn't people be allowed to do whatever their culture dictates?

How can country folk be meaner than city folk (you might need to read another excerpt to answer this question). 

What is it about religions that tout "mercy?"


Big Men and Blessings

The big men order people around but they are as subservient as the small men, always to a bigger man, his hair dyed darker black, his outer sheath of honesty whiter. The big men bow, not just to bigger men, but in kowtowance to smaller men they deem valuable or important. Important or valuable. Little something? Little man. Let me offer you a fingerful of arrack. Let me persuade you to drink arrack with me. Let me beg you to take arrack. Take arrack with me and my friends. Actually we don't drink arrack. We prefer whiskey, the British drink, the drink of discernment and by association, the drink of power. We are physically large like our monstrous cars. We are monstrously large and you are small but you are important and you are valuable to us let us beg you to drink with us, just a little, mix it with sprite if you wish, it's a starry night, let us say our prayers by praising you. You have come to us. You are our honored beloved one. You have blessed us with your presence. You have tamed us with your smallness. With your wizenedness, with your preciousness with your gentleness with your bloody feet from walking our fields. In your wake we smell the petals of aralia, aralia because this is the Sinhala west but we've brought it here lock, stock, and barrel to the East, to greater "Ampara." Amp it up. Bring the troops. Make a parade. Bring the poor and landless. Build a stockade. Make this Our Landscape oh ye Naga, ye Yaka. Wrest it from the jungle. Wrest it from the Tamil, that it may be ours. Can you say a prayer like this in Sri Lankan? Can you say this prayer in Sinhalese? Can you worship a Naga like you worship a Ganesha? Just to be certain? Even though it's not certified? Take protection from all sides and sources that you can big man. 

A malli kowtows to his ayya. A worker kowtows to her mistress. A carpenter kowtows to his employer and his mistress. A child kowtows to his Uncle. Uncle kowtows to the Priest. The pat on the head, "good child" uplifts and separates. The good cloud hovers, the timbrels clink and clatter, the tumbrels resound on their roads of blessing. You have been anointed. You have sloughed off duka by knowing your duty. You have banished evil. You have submitted your spiritual papers. You have paid your dues. Paid your due. Frightened away the bad. You have paraded with flowers. 

You have been given a small basket of white flowers. You know now not to smell them out of respect but you think cupping your hands and kissing will be enough. But no. But Lo! You are to carry. Don't tarry. Grab the plastic basket like a basket of French fries but for heavens sake, really, don't smell it and don't eat the flowers like you would french fries. Any more than you would sample the birds of paradise. Just the berries. Just the berries the National Treasure tells you to try. Don't so much as look at the flowers. And don't look at the hundreds of faces of hundreds of worshippers who cup their hands and touch the rim of the basket or the fluffy top of the flowers and kiss their hands or make abeyance. Step up when your host steps up and step down when your host steps down. Don't slow down for the elderly or crippled who try to fight their way in for a chance at the rim of the plastic basket. Don't stoop for the stooped or for children or for those who are bent. Forward. March. Slow but quickly. Must get to the next ten steps of this worship.

Follow your host. Watch the rim of his sarama and thank your intuition that you brought long pants and white shirt and knew to take off your shoes somewhere outside before this began. Swim through the crowd that has parted for you but which would eagerly descend on you. No drinks today because it's full moon! They are thirsty for the aroma of incense and the priestly recital. But first you must reach the priest in the wake of your host's progress. 

On high the priest sits and a gutter, painted blue, of running water surrounds his place, dug from the ground just outside his dwelling spot. The paint is a nice touch because water is blue. You stay outside, barefoot on a rice mat, near the blue gutter, under a light bulb. Very nice and pretty it is. And you are let inside after your host who has sponsored this and sponsors every Poya event has received words. His generosity to the hermitage knows no bounds. He donates flowers and incense sticks and food and drink. It makes people think. 

The priest blesses, which is the least he can do. He smiles benign thanks for your presence and your four words of his Holy Language that you manage to speak, "inneva," the most irregular verb and the most instrumental because. It implies existence. Existence is power. Non existence is nonexistent. Kaput. What about Being? What about Enlightenment? Would we like to stop being and have we experienced the non-being many many times before? Is this why the flowers? Alive but dead. Alive bud dead? At the end of the night they will be swept like so many pieces of trash into dustbins for disposal. That's interesting I think.

The blessing is one word he can push out, "Protect," which the visitor is happy enough to receive. The visitor's wife doesn't like these things, doesn't wish to have her wrist tied or her forehead anointed with ash. Wouldn't that look silly on a foreigner? Foreigners look silly all the time. 

There are many more steps to take. Down from the hermitage and keeping on the same gravelly path they came on. Keeping on the same too-large-pieces-of-gravelly path with ouch! Tender little toes! Tender little soles! Tender little souls. Ouch. Ouch. Don't experiment on me. Oh they are simple country folk. Doing things the simple country way. Talking to their dogs much more happily than they talk to their children. Is this tweetable? 

The monk or is it a priest or is it an abbot or are these just distinctions we use in the West? chants and delivers for what seems like an hour. The visitor's pants don't give like a cloak and this can be bad or it can be good. It can be bad because it constricts and makes sitting cross-legged or even with the legs out harder and less comfortable to do. It can be good because it constricts and gives the sitter (who woulda known?) resistance, a kind of third angle to support him on this hoary venture. The chants and intonations are interspersed with words, maybe, of preaching. The visitor has ended up next to his host, smack dab in front of the priest, who looks very comfortable on his chair and doesn't speak down but literally does speak down in his magnificent orange to the packed room of cross-legged or straight-legged worshippers. The visitor mustn't show discomfort (please don't experiment on me!) so he watches out of the corner of his eye, without moving his eye, for when a neighboring body but especially his host's body shifts its position. This is tricky. This is hot. The room is packed with bodies. He doesn't do that well in places where bodies are packed and the air is scarce. Does carbon dioxide sink? Is there oxygen higher up? Why didn't he learn his gas laws better? He's supposed to be a scientist. What sort of bloody scientist is a botanist? (Just kidding). Why do the bodies in this room stay so still and supplicating and supine and subservient? The preacher has a fan. The preacher has a big round fan. Sometimes it covers his face and the visitor can jiggle a little, even if he can't move big time. This is a small mercy. But religions of mercy are special for not showing mercy. Remember the Crusades? Is that unfair game? Unfair to bring up in this context? Unfair to call names. You weren't there! 

The gas is heavy in the room and there is no movement. The humble sit in corners or on the floor where they have stopped moving. Is this unfair? Why is it only the priest who has a fan? Is everyone equal under him? Can a Big Man be small in stature and his hair not dyed? But still. Those robes. That shoulder. 

The intonation of verses does not cease. But certain verses the group catches on and repeats. The verses build. He is deaf and dumb in this language but he can tell when the voices grow and the participation excites. There is a short crescendo and a sudden burst of two or maybe three lines where the crowd cries out in unison. And the gas laws go into effect (well they were always in effect that's what it's like with the gas laws. They're universal. At least as far as we know on this planet). Stop hesitating, stop slowing down and speed up. What happens when the crowd cries out in unison one time, twice, a third time? A breeze picks up from all that warm exhaled carbon dioxide. Everyone cools down from the circulation of air. Everyone feels relief. It is the miracle of the gas laws! The intoning goes on. 

Finally he senses then sees people standing up. He follows. Eyes meet his and he is told by those eyes to shake a leg! Get a move on! The doors have opened!

Outside a mass of incense is burning. Glowing incense sticks, thousands upon thousands of them ignite the dusky air made dusky by the smoke of thousands and thousands of incense sticks. He his handed some sticks, lit. He sees the dagoba. He joins the parade to the dagoba, just a few steps ahead. They circle the dagoba. They deposit lit sticks. They grab more sticks and circle some more. The air is heavy with humidity and smoke. This is cinnamon country. The south. Galle. The going around seems not to stop but he realizes he's nowhere near anyone he knows. People start to fall out of line. He sees he can. He deposits the last of his incense sticks in some sand where other sticks are stuck and he goes to stand in a corner near the exit to the courtyard where some kids play and an old percussion instrument hangs from a tree. He has faith. Faith that they will pick him up on their way out. Through the awful smoke he sees the women folk from the family. They are washing drinking glasses in a sink. The visitor hadn't seen the sink before and he hadn't seen any of the ladies. Now they were washing glasses like it was a regular glass washing day, maybe glasses whose rims were touched by the lips of the priest or the monk or the abbott? Don't dare ask. Only be thankful that there they are in the flesh after all that carbon dioxide and all that smoke and all the words, more words than he heard in a long time in a language not his. 

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