Sunday, February 7, 2016

Hegemony, dunes of garbage, dagobas, and Sinha-le

This is an excerpt from my novel of Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet." This section explores how our protagonist the "visitorstranger" started to understand questions of hegemony in Sri Lanka long before he could articulate them. Some people won't like reading this. 


As it unraveled, as he visited a handful, tens, dozens, maybe 100 maybe 200 of these "tanks," (such a tiny sliver, such an unreliable paltry  "x" of the 30,000 lakes there were to see). The landscape of puzzle of seens and unseens, sensed and insensible and scents and ascents and he saw them now and as he went along, gawd! never in a straight line, always as curved at least as the trunk of a coconut palm, but didn't that curve add strength? in new and different perspectives. Each tank had its own perspective. Its own curves and aromas and directions and spillways and dikes and forest and aspect and sluices and mud. Tank was such a military term. But the Portuguese cartographers labeled them this way, on maps with elephants and wild trees. The interior, unknown to them with its thousands of magnificent lakes, was painted as a fantasy. Tourists who bother to look out the window see that fantasy today. The Portuguese designed their maps to show a fantasy. The fantasy was a truism for the future but the military sounding word "tanks" had a past that was unsuspected and undetected, but which had consequences deep into the future. 

Fast past to the Kelaniya temple and its gorgeous frescoes of Solias Mendis. Those Yakas running in fear of The Lord Buddha serene and untouched. Scattering them, obliterating their dastardly practices taking a home in the forest among them, claiming a home in the forest among them. What story did this tell? Blessedly blissfully free of knowledge he could, like any illiterate peasant, bring to the present the Life of the Buddha by walking through the image rooms of the island. Awesome. Like cathedrals of Europe these told stories of faith to the preliterate. Some in Kattankudy, a marginal liberal slice of some few, still True Believers, admitted that Buddha could be a prophet. But a minor one. After all. But the Mendis murals. And every image room on the island. They could have been designed for the postliterate just as well as preliterate because their message crossed boundaries of language and even culture. A thousand words and all that. 

Wake me up and tell me to be happy. My scientific experiment is working. But I'm here as so much more than a scientist. And in a trajectory so meandering. How can I unroll it for you? Daughter would you like to wake up and watch me sew a tale? No mother I want to sleep. Father would you like to see me paint? No son you are not doing the cobbling I taught you. Where is the boundary between cobbling and painting and sewing and sleep? Isn't the border fluid and wide? And why all the bother with borders and boundaries and no-mans-lands and wastes that belong to nobody and spaces lifted off the map and lines drawn one way in a 1:50,000 and completely differently in the 1:10,000 edition. What happens to straight lines? They curve. What happens to strict boundaries? They blur. Why the trouble with blurring and curves and boundaries, sewing and cobbling and painting and oxenyoke making? Can you tell me dear when you wake up from your dream nightmare of Starbucks drive thrus?

The incense stick is designed. Smoke falls off or rises from it in patterns regular and discernible, also disturbable. Smoke flows like a smoke-cave of tiny tiniest bits of particulate matter. They remind you of the bus stand in Dehiattkandia a designed town where rainforest once lushed. But it had to become a Sinhalese stronghold in the East. No wonder we never heard of this in the West. From 30,000 feet these boundaries blur. But there is no religion designed to deal with despair. Is this because despair was invented in the 1800s and most of the religions are much older?

The visitor climbed to the top of Mihintale Rock, shaped like a cashew, a very long time ago. This is what he wrote: 

"On the ground you wouldn't know it. Dusty roads, scrub forest, greasy towns, the occasional cooling expanse of rice paddies. But from the citadel rock of Mihintale, the founding place of Buddhism here and the highest point for miles around, you sense the power of this place, agriculturally, socially, and politically. It is a landscape of culture and spirituality, a landscape that reflects its people and their collaboration with nature. From the white bubble stupa atop Mihintale you stare out to the west and in front of you lie the giant dagobas of Anuradhapura, enormous white bubbles in the hazy smoky morning landscape. With Mihintale, these epitomize the cultural and political hegemony of the Sinhalese in ancient times and in the present."

"Cultural and political hegemony..." Did these words presage his later discoveries? How did he come up with this stuff when he didn't know a thing? Possible he just felt it? Possible those cute 'bubble stupas' just got their message across? We rule. 

Look how "design" filtered into the discussion. What was he thinking? How did 'design' fit in? Here are the words he used: 

"About 2500 years ago the ancient Sinhalese, who traded with civilizations as far away as Greece, started designing dams (‘bunds”) that transformed their landscape."

And "boundaries!" But this was years ago when the beauty of it all overwhelmed the senses. Or was it "deadened" the senses? He wrote

"I realize these were boundaries! The tanks and their associated religious architecture were originally the focal points of separate villages that grew together over the centuries."

Villages. Dogs. Rice fields. How nice. How very nice. Can't say enough nice things about them. And if you can't say anything nice...

"In a real way the tanks, not the rice fields, are the source of life," he wrote. Might they be anything else? Like the source of power? 

Then he finished up, innocent little lamb writing for an architecture magazine in Seattle, 

"Evidence of royal power is part of the broad landscape, bubble stupas spreading across the horizon like clouds that touch down onto the earth, and giant Buddhas like the Aukana. But the hegemony of the Sinhalese civilization lay in irrigation and agricultural works they mastered. A landscape of richness, sustained over thousands of years."

The end. What a nice ending. Because everyone knows Sri Lanka is a Democratic Socialist Republic. No kings here. So it's safe to write about them through the haze of history. Like the haze of nationalism. Identity. Blood. We're beyond all that. No blood libel! We're equal in the eyes of the "breath of the nation," our laws! And we live in harmony. Just check Wikipedia. No one writes about Matale there!

He went for a bike ride some years later once the rug was pulled from his eyes. He wrote: 

"Why is going on the prettiest and quietest roads you have ever gone on and can ever can hope to go on are such an upsetting experience? Is it that going on roads like this in our country would mean you were horribly lost? Probably not. 

Is it the dunes of garbage on the most beautiful sand beaches you've ever seen? Maybe. 

It it the "tsunami danger area" and "tsunami evacuation route signs? Why no signs for "terror and suppression evacuation? Repression and warfare evacuation?" Was no one protected from the evil that reached here, generated elsewhere but as the crow flies, not that far? Are the houses out here destroyed by time, tsunami? Or are they part of the ruined lives of a thirty-year conflict?

So he did a survey. On his bike. Every tuktuk that passed him or approached him. Looked at the front and back. Parked tuktuks he looked at all four sides. Lots of Sri Lankan flags. It was just National Day! But where were the Sinha-le bumper stickers that "Tamil" drivers put on their three wheelers and "Tamil" hawkers sold "to make a living." Everyone loves that meme we're told in the "Mirror" and the editor of "The Nation," a great patriot he is!, that this is about our shared heritage. Beautiful! Like the pathetic hawkers of Warsaw selling armbands for a few groschen. They were at the same time a symbol of the hawkers' religion and a symbol of the Nazis' criminality. They were heritage like the Sinha-le meme is! Great to be part of the flow of history. Or is it the ebb? You tell me. Maybe these great stickers just haven't gotten to Batticaloa yet. Sold like hotcakes in the south so none left for distribution to the East? The East. Why is it all so familiar? Was it a past life of the visitorstranger?

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