Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Making a kottu of meaning

Along the Old Kalmunai Road southbound from Kallady about 1 or 2 km you run into a ragged looking field overgrown with giant milkweed and rough grasses. A couple of cows chew and nibble from the not-delicious looking greenery. In the near distance to your right is the lagoon, impassive, choked with light. If you slow down just before this piece of no-man's land that looks like an open field with a very fine patch of road running through it you see there is a church along the road. Just past the church there is a small booth with a brown-shirted soldier. What is he doing there? Which border is he defending? Against what and for whom? Why is this simple mini landscape so confusing and so fraught?

On the other side of the field, past the handsomely paved road with a carefully painted traffic divider the ladies start wearing abayas. The color of the gents' sarongs changes. Many of them wear head coverings. The trees have disappeared. The houses and shops are more ramshackle, set below the road across dusty verges. The narrow road is crowded with bicycles, pedestrians, and scooters. You may cross this border freely. But mosques replace churches here by the roadside and the prettiness of the road has ended. New perfumes and costumed children finish the picture, one that you might not note so poignantly from the driver's seat of an air conditioned car. The haphazard scene is full of meaning and identity. 

In a large studio of a suburban campus undergraduate design students lounge and whisper. Some giggle from behind their open laptops just like they do in my country. A ragged bunch of skinny boys with clownish haircuts and clothes, and a few shyer girls, more conservatively dressed, a bit more focused on the work they are about to present their month's work to their professor. They look relaxed or nervous but the impression is circus-like. They have prepared lackadaisically for their presentations though some scribble furiously on large white sheets that contain their project. Whether they have prepared well or poorly this "batch" will "pass" with the required 50/100 or better, no matter what the external reviewers suggest in score or in written notes. They carry forth the mission of their university in toxic lockstep with the authorities who promulgate programs of dubious good for the public. But very good for lining the authorities' pockets and polishing their prestige. A cookie cutter batch of future young professionals who will go on to perpetuate the will of developers, certain governmental officials, and perhaps a foreign government and its businessmen. 

A poisonous bumper sticker appears. Its message is chauvinistic and signed in blood. Its tone is exclusionary and pointed. It creates a jagged, hazardous gulf between peoples who may or may not be striving to nurture a foundering peace. The intent of this divisive meme is clear. "We" are one but "they" are not of us. The meme is painted on the "others'"gates. Pundits, journalists, would-be lawyers from the "we" side defend it. They twist like pretzels to make a kottu of the meaning of this meme, painting it as patriotic, calling it inclusive. A bumper sticker? What's the big deal? It's a haphazard amalgam of colors and lines. Random. Harmless. A nice design everyone can embrace. If you are one of "us." If you're not, go East to a place where you won't see this bumper sticker. I wonder why. 

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