Yes it's more about giving than receiving. But a more immediate concern is the way giving here in Sri Lanka is fraught with cultural implications. It's not a clean thing, which I guess it never is, in any culture. An amazing feature of the Fulbright is that I've had so many opportunities to give in so many contexts. As I sit to think about it I can recall that there are dozens of "giving" transactions I've experienced, some more successful, at least as I perceived them, and some less so.
But here I want to focus on certain peculiarities of giving that I've noticed, experiences that are both strange and frankly, unsettling. Does this mean they were "unsuccessful?" Not necessarily. Does it mean I'm still trying to figure them out? Very much so.
So for a moment consider this scenario. It's not as much about giving at a personal level as it is about the nature of exchange here (if I can be as presumptuous as saying there is a "nature of exchange here."). I guess what really struck me was the fact that this had to do with sacred exchange.
I was visiting the Kelaniya Temple with the driver from our guesthouse, Susil. I could have gone straight from Galle Road to the temple, I think on the 138 bus (not the Kiribatgoda bus--the other Kelaniya bus) but it would have taken me a good two hours. I was glad to spend the money to go with Susil. I had someone to guide me through the experience and also to reflect with me. (Still took a couple of hours each way).
At the sprawling parking lot, where we pulled into a shady space that had to be vacated by two child-vendors Susil suggested, "should we buy some flowers?" Great idea, I thought, though I had no idea how to conduct such a transaction or which flowers were appropriate. We settled on a small basket of white flowers you see on every shrub here, for Rs 100. They were like a cloud in a basket. Instead of doing what I should have done I lifted them to my nose. Nothing like a cultural guide to let you know, ever so gently, that you don't smell the flowers out of respect.
I had looked at the array in front of us, some flowers being sold at booths, some offered by individuals the way hawkers would sell you tickets outside of a show in our cold country. One amazing flower hit my eye, a flower I never got close to but which nevertheless struck me with its exotic appearance. Something between a cattail and a partially shucked corn, the sorghum-like monocot was appealing in an exotic, almost dangerous sort of way. Susil told me, "those come from the North Central Province (where he's from)." What I understood next didn't make total sense but I could make out the gist of it. "People buy them and bring for an offering. Then some people collect and bring back to sell." Bring them back all the way to Rajarata? No dummie. They bring them back to the parking lot. Maybe it's the hawkers who sell them. Strange thing I thought. But the glorious energy and crowds and interest in the visual setting and our limited common language kept me from asking more.
Some weeks later I was in the Deep South near Batapola with my friend Karu. He was there to dedicate a lamp to the village Ponsala on the occasion of the centennial of his father's birth. A handsome lamp it was, tall and gleaming in its special shelter (he took no hesitation in telling me how much the outfit had cost or how badly the first builder had messed up and how much repairing the damage had cost-what a way to celebrate the "giving" occasion!) Back to the lamp, and this was a wonderful thing to see. Parents sent their children up a short staircase where they could pour oil into the appropriate receptacle and then step down (lots of scary flame and flowing dresses but no casualties in the hours I witnessed it this particular Poya day). A series of dozens of lamplets at the bottom were fed this way and the lit wicks surrounding the stem of the lamp shone merrily. Quite a sight.
At the bottom of the towering lamp was a larger receptacle. It was there I assumed to store oil that would keep on being burnt for days or more. I didn't ask. Karu offered, "People come to empty that lamp and they resell the oil." I was sure he told me this out of anger or distaste or disdain, exactly what I had thought Susil projected when he told me about the flowers at Kelanyia temple." My answer, which I thought was appropriate and appropriately sarcastic (Karu's English was also quite limited in spite of the fact that he had first presented himself as an English teacher and spoke very highly of his own language prowess), was, "Wow. Great for their Karma."
Karu's response, which may have picked up my sarcasm, was a surprise. "Actually there's no harm done. Someone has made an offering and they feel good about it. Someone can make some money selling the oil, and they can give another person a chance to make an offering." And 'round it goes. Where it stops nobody knows. What does this say about giving? What does this say about the way "sacred" is parsed here? What does this say about property, individual or communal? How does this convey information about "intent," "merit," or religious offerings? Do we even understand these things in our own society?
The final giving I want to discuss is somewhere between "sacred" and "secular," if these terms have any meaning. I wrote about this in a couple of other posts, "Time to give school supplies" and "Endless pocket of need." In short, I gave hundreds of dollars worth of school supplies to a nearby girls' orphanage that had reached out in their need. What about the aftermath of that giving?
My friend and fellow Fulbrighter Kim Kolor happens to teach English there once a week. She recently was asked to bring the girls notebooks. "Notebooks!" I popped out of my chair. I brought them a few hundred a couple of weeks ago. Didn't they get distributed to the girls? Kim, embarrassed now, which she shouldn't have been- this wasn't her doing-told me she'd seen the piles of school supplies, even the backpacks, piled up in Sister Helen's office. The girls hadn't been given a thing. Kim suggested that there's a culture of hoarding here in the East--who can blame them?-and that if I wanted to see the supplies in the girls' hands maybe I should go over there and give them myself.
Who can know what Sister Helen's motives were? Will she mete out the supplies, which we were told were urgently needed, as she sees fit? Will she save them for another term? Were the girls given supplies from another source that also responded to their "urgency?" Will these supplies be sold? Did I do "good" so that the "good" could go on in an ever-revolving basis? Not my problem, I guess I can say. But the signals I picked up from these experiences are signals hard to read and even more difficult to interpret.