Thursday, March 31, 2016

I can remember

I can remember is an act. I can remember is agency. I can remember produces energy, is of energy, portends energy, releases energy. It spews and sprays and rolls and explodes in energy and energy giving. It draws energy and it is the source of energy. I can remember is light but not the bogus light of fireworks false and temporary and potentially harmful, to put out an eye or remove a finger or otherwise disfigure on the Indian Ocean coast south of Colombo. I can remember is the light through Colombo's smog, the turn of a Wellawatta roadside, the picking up of shattered glass in a shattering moment of certain, tremendous, unutterable light-reflecting force. I can remember carries and holds that force and in giving forth pours that force. It pours that force in a stream without banks in a bank without locks in a lock without combinations in combinations far, wide, foreign, fabricked, bricked and unbricked, atonal but musical, muscular, lilting. I can remember, the act of testimony, ordinary words, words that flow, words from everyday, words that sound regular as though these regular ho hum day to day banausic ordinary plain common drab silly something words were put together in a lie. A truth that sounds like a lie a truth that's disguised as a lie like a made up something like a story like a telling or a fable or something light like lite but not something with the weight of truth. 

The lie is like a story as the story is like a lie. You tell it as though "fine now, are you satisfied?" But without that ironic look on your face and with your eyes straight forward shining rather suddenly as you find your breath and you find your pace and you string the words and you repeat the words, some of them more than once, some of them many times like subunits in a polymer of pain or prayer because this truth cannot be borne as a truth but as a story or a fable firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing do you understand? It was firebombing. It was firebombing a family home. It was firebombing a room that was assumed to be occupied because the light had been left on there. It was firebombing of a home that a family was living in. It was firebombing aimed at children and your wife. It was firebombing done at night. It was firebombing aimed at you and your children and your wife, your wife and children. Who were they to be firebombed? Who were they to deserve the "wrath of a mob" or the anger of even one person? What? Your family was firebombed? You are smiling slightly and sweating slightly as you tell me this and I am thankful for your lovely long gray hair not dyed ugly black on your brown skin so I don't have to see black streaks falling from your sweat as the words grow hot. I can just shrink down and listen. 

It was this firebombing, the telling of it, that opened the clamped shut maws of silence and hiddenness and it was this firebombing, the actuality, the time, the night, the fuel that furled on the floor in flame ("gasoline?" "No. Diesel.") that clamped shut your soul that was full of laughter, healthy laughter before. The firebombing done at night by unknowns "you see," you tell me, "You know. I was (unspoken: "young" "foolish" "brave" "quick to respond" "angry" "out for justice" "terrified" "defending my family" "stronger" "faster" "more sure of myself" "appalled" "focused") in those days and I just ran after them, for awhile, in the dark that night." So. Facts I know: there was a "them" and it was "night." Early morning actually. You told me it was three AM. 

More facts you let go:

"We knew it was coming."

"This was August 13, 1981." This was fully two years before the pogroms came. 

"This was my place in Bandarawela."

"We knew it was coming so we had buckets of water standing around the house."

We knew it was coming. In Bandarawela. In 1981. "Next door lived an MP." It was coming in 1981. We knew already then. I can remember. 

"After this, Grace said, 'we can't bring up children here.'"

This was 1981. The three children were very young.

Let's count. Darshan is, like, 42 now. I think. It's 2016. How do you like that? Year seven since the "war ended." Year thirty-three since the pogroms happened. Year thirty-five since 1981. Would have made Darshan seven! What did this seven year old experience that night? What purchase did that night make on his young life's progress, process, proceedence? You, Silence, well former silence, you've kicked up the kickstand, revved the engine, started "remembering," started telling, started narrating, started recalling, started retelling, started recollecting, started your descent into memory fasten your seatbelt! And please remember to smile! Us grayhairs look so much nicer when we smile and we use nice words and we say whole sentences and we try to communicate sanely and not with spit and spittle and spite and lectures and tears and terror. Stay nice please as you smile and you tell us. Because let's say you're 75 now, I could have sworn you told me 73 but that was months of silence ago so who can remember but if Darshan is 42 now and you're let's say thirty one years older than him then maybe in 1981 you were seven plus thirty one equals 38 or if you're 75 now let's say you were just 40 or just shy of it or just older than it. Thirty eight or forty was old enough to feel your beans and be braver, swifter, more after justice, more focused, a lot more pissed off as you ran into the night after them. But Grace said, "we cannot bring children up here." Here in this climate, this climate of hate? Here in Bandarawela in this enclave of hate? Here in Sri Lanka in this society of hate? Where did this bristling hate come from? If this wasn't the government sponsored hatepogroms of 1983 but a whole twenty three months before who set off this hate button? Who came in the dark and aimed for the room you weren't in but had left the light on in because they were sure you were in there and tell me tell me please tell me if you would and forgive my dead heat of inquisitiveness emboldened by your beginning to remember and embedded in delusional run on sentences, why did you leave that light on?

What did you know?

How did you know?

Who let you know?

Really? You got up at three to do some work? 

Really? You couldn't sleep because you had some work to do?

Work on your mind?

The putting of Darshan and the other two kids into bed in another room, the unlit room? The usually uninhabited room where now the lights were off? And your vigil? Nightly or just this night? How long had you had the buckets out? What did you suppose buckets of water might accomplish? How many buckets and yes they did, as you recount, push back the diesel that spilled out of the bottle that flew in the window of the unlit unlighted room that was thrown by a hand attached to an arm the brain of which had instructed in the throwing, this firebombing. Sorry I can't remember if Darshan is the oldest or the youngest or the one in the middle I think you've told me twice or maybe between you and Darshan I've heard it twelve times but the detail I'm after is how you knew this was coming. 

Oh yes and who knew which rooms of yours were used for sleeping. Like. Was this someone you knew? Someone who had been to your house?

The detail I'm after is how you knew this would be a firebombing I think but I'm not certain I'm not an arms specialist we might call that crude device a "Molotov cocktail," but I can't be sure and I'm sure well fairly sure you yourself didn't take time to take it apart later and decide its source and its most likely trajectory because there was Grace all grave I'm sure and probably you too were thinking even if you didn't say it out loud because truly I think in all our cultures and silences and cultures of silence and quivering tension we leave it to the women to state the obvious "we can't be bringing up children here."

You told me something about your next door neighbor the MP. What did he do again? Did he put an end to something? Did he run down the terrorists? Did he hide your family? Did he arrange for you to get out safely? The MP. How could they firebomb so close to his house? What cheek was that? What gall was that? What tude was that? That was an MP how dare they? You, or you alone, or your family alone I guess would have been OK. You were a family of Tamils. Isn't that a sort of rodent? So maybe this was a kind of attempt to exterminate? To get rid of a family of pests. After all, you were working for the milk board. You were helping to build the rural economy. You were helping to feed people. You were making commerce possible and you were making living in the countryside possible instead of promoting rural flight and setting up a world where people were just too poor to stay in the country and had to get to the cities to starve. And this was in 1981 when this wasn't even the "developing world" this was truly and solidly the, you know, "third world" and your world had just come out of a long drought of five years or more where rice was unhaveable, coconut sambol a rarity (the coconuts had stopped producing) and people were subsisting on manioc tubers starchy and slightly poisonous, so milk! You were helping to realize the dream of independence and self-determination. You were making the country run, not being a parasite, not amassing millions, and not for heaven's sake plying a trade in young women going abroad to work for the oil rich satraps and bring back their horrid hate. As if there wasn't hate enough already. Or am I being romantic?

Were you stronger and faster in those days but not as imbued with idealism about country and countryside but just doing your day to day job? Don't know. But I know you now and it doesn't seem just doing your day to day job was ever something you just "did."

I don't know. These things you did not attest. 

You did not attest or even report, which day did Grace say this? That night? The next day? Which day did you leave? How much did you pack to bring back to Batticaloa? How fast did you get out of town and on which conveyance? How many friends did you (or more probably Grace) hug and cry with and say we will come back or how many people did you skip saying goodbye to because what had these folks delivered to you in words in previous days? In previous weeks?  How. Did. You. Know. What. Was. Coming?  

Did Grace know? 

Had someone looked at her strange-like a day or two before? Had the children heard something in school or on the main road or on the bus?

Did the children wake up that night, the night of the, you know, firebombing? Was there crying? Was there a smell? How did the crying mix with the smell and the uncanny uncomfortable light? Can I call it uncomfortable? Was more glass broken than just the window the firebomb flew through?

Did the MP wake up or did you have to call to him? To pound on his door? Was a light on in his house too? Was he wearing his sarama when he came to his door or did his wife come to the door or did a servant, the houseboy say, come to the door? What were the words he said to you and in which language? In which language did Grace express her anguish and in any more words than just, "we can't bring children up here."? What else did she say, clear-eyed or crying? Whispering or screaming? Horrified or knowing?

Did you know you were marked. Had you felt you were marked? Did you feel you were marked or did you feel this was something random? Just some random hate done to you? 

What did you talk about in the following days? What had you talked about in the days leading up to this? Did Grace think your buckets idea was stupid or did she come up with it? How many buckets? Buckets? The best choice? Had she said some days before let's get outta here? Had you been working on a plan? Plan B for Batticaloa? 

Had she fed the kids that night or was there tension? Did the kids pick up on the tension? Were the kids obedient when you said let's get out? Where did they spend the rest of that night? Who said what to you after it happened and how hollow did their words ring? How hollow did the words ring to Grace? How much did you hope you'd be able to stay or was it you too who wanted to leave?

What did this spell for you? The end of anything? The beginning of anything? A wildness you never really expected even though you knew it was coming? A betrayal you never really expected even though you already knew you'd been betrayed? What did you vow that night? Only to go forward? Never to speak of this again? Just to lock this up like you locked up the door (was there a door left?) and kind of throw away the key?

Why did you come to my table, open your mouth and say, "I can remember." Was it that you couldn't remember before? Was it the 41st day feast commemorating a Hindu funeral you had attended that afternoon? Was it the presence of yet another Fulbrighter the Sri Lankan American Ken, another Sinhalese (kind of, I mean he is American and was born in America) person hot on the heels of Sukhee and her mother just last week? Something Grace told you? Something Darshan said? Something you thought of in the car? A promise you felt you had to keep? My meeting your months of silence with a frenzy of patience? What could I be doing here now that I finished studying tanks, now that the study of tanks of all things had taken me right to your doorstep in Bandarawela like a bad dream or Molotov cocktail?  

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Silence was my enemy

Silence was my enemy. Day by day, hour by hour I had to figure out how to fight it. All around the silence was sound. Roosters, dogs, horns, kovil music, the thrashing of huge palm fronds as they crashed to the ground, the whine of eagles and the smaller whine of mosquitos. Dishes crashing in the kitchen, a clap of thunder, coffee being poured, the sound of water gulping out of the plastic bottle while it filled glasses with potable substance. All the sounds of a day and night, all the sounds of a season, monsoonal or intermonsoonal surrounded the Silence. There were crows and other birds singing high and low, coloring the air with their experience. There was the ringing phone, the scraping of plastic chairs on the concrete floor, the crackle of bicycle tires moving through sand, a sigh, a yawn, the garble of Tamil language bubbling lusty and laughing. In the middle of it all was the Silence. Silence was seated on high. Silence permeated a landscape in dense quivering tendrils. Silence was dressed as normalcy. It was the accepted raiment, the everyday mode of transaction. Silence was clothed in the everyday. Its disguise was sound. Silence was my enemy. How could I fight it?

I could meet silence with silence, unaccountable but far better than chattering around its edges. You can look the fool if you talk too much. Questions I gave up on long before. Silence was intolerant of disturbance, groggy or alert, inert or active, carrying clipping shears for the garden. Silence could smell a question miles away and thicken, darken, harden, and trap shut. Silence: intelligent, wary, prepared, perceptive, ready. Meeting silence with smiles would work only so far. Smiles were interpreted as frowns and brought to a predictable conclusion, "you look unhappy," or "you must really be thinking hard." Silence could be fought on a distant battleground, for instance swimming. Falling into water to be embraced by another silence hid the insult of the big silence. Or dreaming away a day on a bicycle, gently dipping into a countryside shimmering with its own silence and hiddenness. These were the weak battle strategies with silence. They took place on a kind of auxiliary field never confronting, never approaching, never encountering the Silence. Always examining it from a distance just far enough away to avoid setting the trigger, snapping shut the spring, killing the mouse. 

Silence was cut to fit the hiddenness. Silence was a leather binding around the hiddenness. Silence was immovable around the hiddenness, the thick three layer protein surrounding a grain of pollen. Silence had its own characteristics and could change on a given occasion to camouflage or contrast or blend or oppose. Silence covered the hiddenness like a glove, a thick glove, a layer of steaming asphalt on a macadam road surface. You could ride the silence and never touch its buried gravel surface, never find or even perceive the core you were traveling over, the molten core of what was hidden so dense that it was a solid. 

The hiddenness was in every breath of the day. It was around every corner, on every corner, affecting every waft of floral aroma or soggy wave of the lagoon. Silence covered the hiddenness. The hiddenness was held into itself so tightly that it was a rock. Like the marble lingams of Jaipur, religious. The hiddenness was a sacred bundle irrelevant, random, collected over time for its relevance, its dead hard logic, its immediacy. The hiddenness was a holy scroll locked in a velvet casing, surrounded by lions, lit eternally with a single light, unscrolled by prescription and in an incomprehensible tongue. Silence was the unwrapping the scroll, the skin tightly bound across an unreadable visage, the protection at once cottony and crystalline that prevented encounters with the hiddenness. The hiddenness was a core, not a fear. Itself it was unencounterable. There was only the Silence to do useless battle with. 

One day the Silence came over to the table and sat down without being asked. It said the words "I can remember" and cracked open to reveal the hiddenness. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Fulbright moment in Batticaloa and the countryside

A second day of the so-called "interminsoonal rains." The excitement of seeing clouds in all sorts of formations, and the excitement of moisture in the air and the enervation of slightly cooler temperatures, at least for part of the day. 

The moment was an hour spent at the Batticaloa railroad station waiting for Ken Gunasekera, another Fulbrighter, who was coming in from Colombo. Kim came too, but later. I had spent all day waiting for her response to an email where I said I'd pick up Ken. Kim has been busy so I wanted to give her space but she has an electric motorbike so it was better that she came. She could give Ken a ride. But the hour before she and Ken got there...

The nearly empty tiled waiting area, a large cube of a room, a couple of old guys in sarongs hanging out who knew why. A van load of people stopping, parking, and coming into the station, passing into the track, taking a series of photos and then leaving again. The random people coming in to buy tickets. A couple of younger guys pulling in and carrying with them their motorcycle helmets. One sits next to one of the old guys, whose somber face breaks into the widest grin, a grin he doesn't let go of for quite awhile. The young man recognizes me and I half recognize him. He looks like the pool coach. But could he be? He looks so much smaller. Maybe it's just a relation. But he throws me a hello grin and I grin back. I am not connected to anyone here but I'm not not connected. It's a nice thought and a nice feeling. Belonging in Batticaloa is something I like a lot. Being in the train station is not impersonal. It feels like a deeply personal act, a moment of intimacy with this adopted place. 

Outside in the sun a non-functioning fountain of mermaids and singing fish. Gaudily painted in pinks and bright tones of green and red and gold. How fanciful is this? Was it concocted in 1979, same time the train station was built? Who takes the trouble to paint and maintain it? Who designed it and who cares for it? Do people here notice it? Is it, was it, a respite from war-some fantastic piece of dreamery and fluff in the sad hard reality of conflict? Or do people not notice it, not think of it except as an impediment to parking? Or as an eyesore, which in our world, a different world, it would be. How to reconcile these thousands of impressions gleaned in a moment at the railroad station? How to look into the minds, the motivations, the moments of these few people assembled here, not a crowd, not even barely more than a few. But their workings hidden from view. Hidden from any perception I can dredge up. They are here. Are they as unaware of one another's awareness as I am? Or do they know, at least a little better than me, who's who and why they are here and where they came from and where they're going?

The wait is not short. I came at 3:25 because someone said the train would come between 3:30 and 4. An earlier report by Prince was that the train would come at 4:30. That was a new time for me. I knew it had to be earlier. But the train did finally pull in at about 4:25. First a hand bell was rung. This gave us something like a ten minute warning. Because by this time Kim had arrived and we stood chattering. Kim will go to Berkeley. Ken is waiting to hear from them. So much great movement and moving forward and commitment and drive and good ambition in these young people. And in their research here in Sri Lanka, whether here in the east or in the Sinhalese west, so many of the same conditions I've encountered. Who will talk and what will they talk about? Who can you ask questions of and can you even ask questions? What is the murk and dust and belocked refuge we all face in our researches, no matter how focused, no matter how vague? What is the story line? Is there a story line? Always: does it matter? Less I think than the giant towering clouds out over the ocean that signal these off season rains. Less I think than the smell of burning that goes on day and night. Why is there a plastic smell there? Is it the "recycled" water bottles settling in our lungs like a distant cancer? Less important are the answers than the moments of sitting, taking in, experiencing, feeling the quality of place and space, the people filling it fully or partially, the sounds that waft, the architectural curiosities like the strange looking, ATM-looking booths that have been added across from the ticket seller's window. The brown and beige tiles. The clean or at least dry, very dry concrete floor of the station, the tuktuks lined up for alighting passengers, the bus that starts up to carry euro travelers and their huge rucksacks, one in back and one in front, incongruous, unlovely, distinctly out of place, down to Arugam Bay that dreamed-of ugly place, another beach irrelevantly laid down on an irrelevant island?


Yesterday, a second bicycle ride out to the Unnichchai Tank, about 26 km west of Batticaloa. I took the same road straight west past the air force base, a road that I was told later by Darshan was completely closed off during the conflict. This makes sense I suppose or might have, when the military held Batticaloa in a tight grip. The base is on an island just across from Batticaloa. There's a village on this island, Veechukalmunai, and one just west of it across a causeway, Vavunathivu, and then you're in a vast flatland, slowly losing sight of the lagoon to your east. This landscape was a kind of no-mans-land with LTTE control in the hills just west, including Unnichchai. Unnichchai, dirt poor, depopulated, ragged and rangy, mangy and dusty, new road construction in readiness having torn up the sides or dumped there tons of rock and concrete shapes. What is this road becoming? Where is this road going? Who stayed? Who stayed through the conflict or who was allowed to stay? Why did they stay or why were they allowed to stay? Lone homesteads and tiny stores. Who do they, who did they, who will they serve? The hills above the watered plain, some paddy flooded, causeways with allees of kumbuk or kitthul, mountains far in the distance. Who owned these no man's lands and who coveted them? Who farmed them and who was afraid of them? Were these mined or were these free of mines or did they become freed of mines? Who owns them now and who covets them? What will be with real estate here in unconquered lonely territories of displacement and fear? But wait. Round one corner sitting in the shade almost silent against the click of the bicycle twenty women partly invisible staring at me until I wave. Then like so many birds the laughter and shouting and waving and the smiles. Which not everybody does. A young man on a scooter with a young woman behind will wave or honk merrily. Two young men on scooters will do the same, with smiles. Men my age, older than me by a decade or two, usually in a sarong, usually carrying a box or a load of some sort on the bike. They will not smile and they will not make eye contact. They will not turn and they will not waver. No slice of their story will they offer and no slice however thin will they share. Are there stories? Are there, are these, stories of loss? Stories of hardship? Forgotten stories? Forlorn stories? Stories that are not to be shared? Not to be shared by any means or just not to be shared with strangers? Stories you and your wife whisper or did you give up on speech and mutual speech sharing many years ago already? Do you live in the silent vacuum that surrounds you as you ride in this heat?

Darshan tells me, perking up to high perk when I tell him I rode to Unnichchai, that he went there on an outing once during his university times. Yes it's a real destination Kim knows and tells me knowingly. But I had no idea she says, that people used to do it during the conflict. So listen to his story, Janet tells her. It's different. But what is it?  

Five boys and three girls set out, he tells me, it was kind of foolish and they should have known. But they were young kids. They wanted a breath of air. They wanted some freedom. They took the bus from Chenkalady Junction, do I know that bus? No. But do I know the Chenkalady Junction? Yes? Well do I know the junction where they turned to go to Unnichchai? No. I haven't been that far north. My junction is south of there on a road he doesn't know at all. Why? Because it was closed off at the time. Though my landscape reality if you can call it that is that that is the only road west out of Batticaloa. Isn't it strange to hold onto a different mental map, a completely different mental map with its pipes and causeways and dogs and goats and fields and rice mills and hillocks and tea shops and birds and cultivators than a person who's from here? They went on the early bus, a bus that goes back to Batticaloa and comes out again later in the afternoon. This way they could take a picnic, hang out at the rank, and get back well before dark when, well, everything was closed off. Have you ever lived in a place where there was a curfew? What does curfew impose on you and your friends and your actions and your society and your civil landscape and your civil rights and your right to free movement and your right to live without fear and your right to congregate? Does it matter if you have a tv going and you can watch canned laughter western comedy shows? What is a porous border?

The time for the second bus passed and they had to walk. It was all they could do. And they walked. They walked a good ten km. Couldn't have walked 8 km because that road, the road I take, was blocked. So the junctions and the stores and the church in Darshan's narrative are all unknown to me. I have been here twice on a bicycle and I've noticed quite a lot of details. Like the pump outside the shops at my junction that I pumped lightly, gently, to get water to wet my face and arms from the sun, or the pumps or faucets in front of houses along the road, so down from the houses really, where people have built small open room like barriers surrounded by cloth or tarp or kitthul fronds where they can bathe or wash clothing. These small details, passed by over and over and seen like so many small nothings of details, would stand out to a person seeing them or seeing Sri Lanka for the first time. To me now they are as beige as the tiles of the railway station. 

So the kids walked and walked and interpreted what had to be profound thirst as hunger. Or maybe it was hunger because maybe, just maybe people don't get so thirsty here. They don't seem to consume liquids. Certainly not the way we do, the way I do, in great gulps and volumes of intake lusty with emptiness that needs to be filled. They came to a small store, more like "the" small store in Darshan's parlance do I know it? No! Because my cut off (the one that was closed to you not so many but enough many years ago) was closer to the tank. So I never saw this place that is etched on your memory. I can't share this inch of space no matter how hard I try to imagine it. Because when I get to the (my) junction I'm always too hot and tired and lustily thirsty to do anything but make the correct turn, either to head for the Unnichchai tank or to head back to Batticaloa, where succor lies. 

But so your succor lie another 2 km north. There wasn't much to be had at the store. Just bread and sugar. Bread and sugar you did buy and ate in spades. Like I would drink water. But I bet in these days "bottled water" the scourge, still had not come to poor Sri Lanka. So there you are eating heartily and this was still also the days before selfies (can you imagine!?) so you set up your camera to take a timed portrait, this detail you share. And you took a bunch of pictures of your group and these were shared among you and among friends and later were published maybe in some kind of yearbook (can you show me? Can you please please show me?) and this series of bread and sugar-eating Eastern University students in LTTE-held Unnichchai (or 10 km front there) became famous with your batch and beyond.

So a motorcycle came up and you asked what happened with the bus and they told you it had broken down so you knew you had to sleep up there that night. Sam do you know the church? No Darshan I don't know that place at all its 2 km past my junction sorry mate I'm clueless! And the girls slept in the chapel and the boys slept in the manse and the pastor cooked them a good meal and there was satisfaction and satiety. And in the morning they arose. 

They started to continue their walk. A truck with armed soldiers approached. What was the army doing here? It wasn't the army. It was the LTTE. Their defenders? Don't ask me I don't understand a thing. I'm a foreigner and I can't pretend to know a thing. Never could. Never will. And the LTTE kids waved to the Uni kids and both went on their way and then. And then. And then. The truck came back. We will need to get all your names and all your addresses. "Just in case." And one of the girls started to cry uncontrollably. She cried and wouldn't stop crying. They couldn't quieten her and they couldn't stop her from crying. She just cried and cried and cried. They said. It's OK. But it wasn't OK to her and she wouldn't stop crying.

That's the story Darshan told me and that's my Fulbright moment in the Batticaloa railroad station and in the hinterlands near Unnichchai, hinterlands like the ones I know but not precisely so. 

How nice words are when there's a shortage of words

Words to open up secret chests and words to tell truth. Words to tell lies or half truths but words still and all. Written words and spoken words and sung words and strung words and stinging words and stinking words and too many words but at least enough words. Words where there are no words. Words where no words have been used. Words where no words have been tried. Words where silence is like a closed trap and they open the trap. Little by little. Words that verify. Words that insist. Words that place themselves inside. Embedded words. Intermonsoonal rains. Fighting words. Soft words. Words that cover and uncover at the same time uncovering layer after thin layer after thin layer, gently, and covering with cotton soft fluff words, covering words cornering words like deeds and words like objects. Singular objects you want to touch you want to feel you look and look and look and look and look and listen and words appear distinct and palpable. Palabras. Palavers. Placeholders words words words revealing unloosing setting aflight setting alight kindling growing roaring whispering crying sadness words of sad places words of consolation. Are there such words? Has a word the power to console? To repose? To protect? To project? Words of revealing, revelatory, relevant, revenant retrorse backbiting or gentle. Words that admit. Words that deny. Words that hint. Words that suggest. Words, suggested words suffused words infused words inserted words blurted words retorted words intoned and moaned. Words suggesting words requesting words attempting words pronouncing. Where are honest words? Where are trembling words? Where are honest words? Where are trembling words? Which words uplift?  Which words are a gift? Which words lay cover? Which words lay covered? Which words emerge? Which words refuse? Which words bow? Which words refuse to bow? Which words have immediacy? Which words wait and waffle? Which words produce and which words produce pain and which words release pain and which words reveal pain and which words resort to pain and which words skim pain and which words ride pain  fitfully? Which words storytell and which words quell and which words open and open further and open further and keep opening and enlarging and gaping and hollowing and scraping out the hollow until new words must be found and repeated or try to be repeated or formed or budded or hidden? Which words are an exercise and which words are a repetition? Which words are concise and which words pour and pour and pour and pour? Which words sprinkle and which words focus and which words strengthen? Which words bend and which words are bent? Are words a strategy? An abbreviation? A colon? A full stop? Or are they a continuation, a linking, an open pathway, a random walk, a touching? 

Precious words to recall to recollect to remember to pretend to remember to spark to tread to explore to ignore to hasten to glisten to frustrate and foment and attend. 

Precious words to being forward and try to tell and testify and promise and retell and form the formless by formalized sound. 

Precious words that nudge and joyify and sigh stringing cadence like lights. 

Precious words that multiply in the telling and take wing and spill and spew? 

Precious words that shape and sound and sculpt and measure and round. 

Precious words that mete precious words that cheat precious words that press precious fleet words that annoy and annul and prepare and encourage. 

Precious words of a moment. Precious words from a dream. Precious words on a song. Precious words on a page on the lips in the teeth on a tongue. How nice words can be when they come from a dark place into the light. How precious words can be when they change a dark place into light. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Positive things

The day brought positive things along with maybe some reason or even reasons for hope. Or maybe it's all an illusion. Well hoped-for dreams and nice thoughts that don't have much of a connection with reality. Or a reality that doesn't have anything to do with niceness. But why not dream? And why not have an evening where we sink into bed thinking about hope and niceness and nice hopes? 

First, reading in today's "Mirror" about the project "Write to Reconcile." Led by the world famous author Shyam Selvadurai. The project aims to bring voices of Sri Lankans and Sri Lankans of the diaspora to the fore, in the form of fiction, memoir, and poetry. It's set up as a forum for communicating the experiences of conflict and especially post-conflict here. It opens the stage for non-professional writers to open their hearts through writing to bring to the light of day experiences of this stricken country. Idealistic. Stark. And I'm proud to say sponsored in part by the United StatesEmbassy and the American Center in Sri Lanka. 

Then, today at Eastern University we heard a keynote talk by an Australian lawyer who's staying at our guesthouse. She spoke of the great possibilities of the stage for exploring, airing, and discussing issues of war and reconciliation. She focused, admirably I think, especially for a lawyer, on the space that exists for ambiguity, non-resolution, and "gray areas." Yet her message was that theater can go places that the Court or Truth Commissions can never hope to tread. 

These two issues, Write to Reconcile and the theater as a unique space for reconciliation, got me to thinking. Will  Tamil voices, which were undeniably the most tortured during the Sri Lankan civil war and the decades leading up to it, be the voices that lead this country in peace and reconciliation? Is the Sri Lankan world ready for this? Will the world forgive them for their intervention? "Blessed is the peacemaker" Not. 

The last nice thing that happened today was far more personal and perhaps trivial. But it meant something in its own way. I strolled over to the pool this afternoon to see what was going on. Two of our servers were in there during their off time. "Please sir! Come! Come with us!" So I ran to the room to get on my bathing suit and jumped into the hot afternoon pool with them. Krishan was swimming like a fish. But Niloshin, who had been the more vocal asking me to come in, told me he couldn't swim. He was super nervous to be in the water so we just practiced some kicking and some breathing exercises. Then I set him up with a board and he made great progress. Krishan helped him practice and I think it was a little more relaxed than just having me coax him along. 

It was one of those moments where again, we broke through barriers of class, nationality, and language and just enjoyed some moments of good fun and relaxation. Nice that we can pick up on these egalitarian moments and enjoy our experiences together. Thanks to our guesthouse owners who allow staff to use the pool on off time and also built the pool in the first place. What a great opportunity for socializing not just for us, but the whole community. 

How about...

How about deep knowing?
How about a deep breath?
How about hearing language and its tunes? The flutter of a butterfly? The canned church music of a Tamil Easter?
How about the cool hours of the day?
Or a cooling pumpkin juice or a cooling king coconut in the hot hours of the day?
How about the morning haze from leftover burning or the evening smoke from controlled burning?
How about the sound of kids in the pool or the looks on their mothers' faces?
How about the delicate Areca palms and their huge sheathed fronds, how they fall when they finally die? Or the young cashews shaped like mittens, same as the young mangos? 
How about the way it went from wasp season to beetle season? Though the butterflies never forgot. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

A breakthrough in cultural exchange

Yesterday I rode about 20km south on the Old Kalmunai Road and then west to the isolated village of Kokkodachcholai, a place Thavarajah  told me suffered horribly during the war. I went out there because Google map shows hundreds of what appear to be abandoned homesteads. I asked the manager, Prince, what these were and he said, "I think they are paddy fields that are unirrigated." I doubted his word but my ride proved him correct. They weren't pretty but at least they weren't ruined homes. How did I find out about Kokkodachcholai in the first place? It happens to be the home village of one of the servers here. He showed it to me on the satellite map a few days ago. So yesterday when I got back, as sweaty as could be, I shouted jokingly, "I was looking for Selva!"

When the boys saw me ride up on Darshan's bike just before noon it caused a kind of celebrity scene. "How young and active you look sir!" (I looked like a used dishrag). "We must congratulate your wife on such strong and active husband!" (I felt like kidney failure was just around the corner). "You rode so far sir! More than 40km! You must be very fit for a man your age!" (I must have reminded him of the walking dead). 

It was a sudden moment where people saw me in a different light. They've known me for months. They see I talk and go places with the owner. They know I've ridden a bike to Unnichai Tank, even farther away than Kokkodachcholai. But I felt like yesterday I became somehow human to them.   

The wonderment over this bike ride continued for some minutes as one person told the next where I had been and in Tamil each wondered, "On bicycle?!" "Yes, on bicycle!" in a sort of game of telephone. Finally Ravi spurted, "You go Kokkodachcholai you come my village same far! You go straight on Kalmunai Road you see my village!" A moment later we were invited to Ravi's place for lunch the next day, a complicated arrangement including phone calls ("When you go after Kattankudy make drop call. I will come to place bus step you down"), written instructions (it turns out Ravi can't write in Tamil--Selva had to do it for him), and a kind of mass hysteria over this plan. From late yesterday afternoon through sundown and well into the evening it was, "You go to Ravi's tomorrow." This morning the phrase was repeated again as each server went over my day's plan. "Maybe my home next week."

The whole hullabaloo brings to mind, what is this Fulbright experience? From five months of intense travel, work, teaching, experiencing, and writing we have settled into a fairly sedentary, definitely very quiet (one might say "retired") life here in Batticaloa. It's an environment where the daily rhythm is modulated by large stretches of intense heat. Social  contact is limited to a small community of the owners, managers, workers, and the occasional guest. For entertainment there's the daily or twice-daily walk around the grounds (Very pretty. Look out for falling coconuts), viewing the gardens, rabbits, turtles, ducks, and quails, the pool, the cinema just down the road, and now and then a bike ride. You can also catch a cooling breeze off the lagoon, watch the bananas ripen, or enjoy canned music from one of the nearby kovils. Sounds like a lot as I write it down but from an activity standpoint it feels very limited. It is very limited. We draw what we can from it. 

Where did the grand plans for teaching and research go? My teaching experience, I've learned, is congruent with the experience of Fulbrighters elsewhere in Sri Lanka and also in India. We came with ambitious proposals, programs we wanted to initiate, ideas for sharing and engaging. In general we were met with indifference (or worse). Higher education in Sri Lanka at least is much weaker than I ever expected. It's a terrible waste. As for research, almost everyone discovers somewhere along the line that the nature of research here, and hoped-for outcomes of research, are somehow incongruent with our expectations as professionals in the world we've come from. Our research goals and activities transform, if not necessarily shrinking, from our expectations. Bottom line, we washed up on a distant shore and there are major adjustments to be made. 

So, to get back to the nature of the Fulbright. The goal? Cultural exchange. An outcome? Impact. How and whom do we impact? Logically, it's the people we're close to physically. People we see every day. How do we impact? It's about the people who watch us, who see the way we behave, who reach out to us from behind the screen of cultural differences. I worked with academic colleagues for months and was never approached socially. Yesterday a simple person who serves me coffee each morning jumped out of his social status and made a new kind of contact, one that influenced our time here but also the way his fellow workers look at themselves. It opened a new door in that it expanded social horizons. Not just the workers'. Mine too. 

I told Ravi, I want to bring something to your house. Something for your wife. "No sir! This friensip! Only for friendsip!"

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Six refrigerators for Kokkodachcholai

Six refrigerators on back of a truck bound for Kokkodachcholai. 
Two large, two medium, two small

I meet them on the causeway coming from the bridge
I just came from the bridge and I'm going back across it
A new bridge, a very new bridge, a very new and beautiful bridge, a very new and very beautiful bridge, there, I've said it, lovely in its curves, its proportions, its prospects. It is one of the loveliest built things I've seen in Sri Lanka, maybe the loveliest.  
Headed for the Old Kalmunai Road, another lovely thing, curving, proportional, crowded or uncrowded, walled, treed, peopled in a most delightful way. Even in this serious heat of late late morning. 

The mangroves and giant saltwater ferns
The Serendip Seafood prawn ponds
The landscape of kitthul palms 
The sun and lagoon straiten and steam
The thin man chasing two cows branded in Tamil 
Yelling at them all the way
Running one mile almost to the bridge, just stopping at the side by barrels of steaming pitch,
Covering for the new road,
Running in flipflops 
Legs shaped thin and strong like the cows

These flat miles of riding 
You could do them forever
Except for having to come back
Each bend beneficent 
Horizons watery and gentle-fierce

Electricity came long ago to this place and in this place piles of cooking wood go for Rs 40 flat 
There are two worlds here, probably more
So refrigerators count as new, a
Song of Samsung. 

Is this world surging forth
In search of itself
Or is this world mired in filth
Forged from war and hate?

Is this world aware of itself
Or only of its gods and gates?

Is this world sunk in plastic litter 
Or is this world finding a so-called "better tomorrow?"

Is this world at odds with itself 
Or does this world feel comfortable to its inhabitants? Are they comfortable in their own skins or do they itch with desire to get out? Do any of us know there's and outside of our own skin?

When they go on motorcycles do they feel freedom
Or do they feel slowed by their desire to have a car?

Can this world look backwards upon itself 
Or is it equipped only to look ahead into an indiscernible daylight brown with smudge?

This world can sculpt and weave
This world can fish and wave
This world can repair and stitch
This world can open cages and it can close cages

This world parks and conducts and pays and crumples
I've heard yelling in this world, screaming even, in the cinema where the boys go wild for handsome stars and their girls 

This world can selfie and it does 
This world can congregate and wait and it does
This world can serve and eat and it does
The hands of this world are not idle no they are not

This world can stare and smile 
It mixes up hello and goodbye and he and she and how and where
Because this world is a Tamil-speaking world where I don't know the verbal vocabulary and sometimes don't know the vocab of facial expressions either 

I've seen people in this world eat candy
I've seen people in this world eat sweets 
I've seen people in this world eat ice cream
I've seen people in this world eat popsicles
I've seen people in this world drink  soda
I've seen them drink it with a straw
For an update turn to the small roads, the buses and baskets and spicy hotness and new stores shoes off please with snack mixtures only in Tamil "Yes, Please! It's Local we want!"

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Incomprehensible words about an "unparalleled colossus"

The first prime minister of Sri Lanka, D. S. Senanayake's 64th death anniversary commemoration was marked the other day in the English-language Daily Mirror. He was called "The Nation's Father and Undisputed Leader of All Time." Lovely words and fine sentiments about a man who did horrible things. Maybe less important than the man and what he did is the way he is celebrated in hindsight. The words that are chosen to describe his actions and their consequences. 

I don't know anything about politics and I don't care about them but my time in Sri Lanka has exposed a world of human political evil that I can't ignore. It's a world where a blind eye is turned to self-inflicted human tragedy, where responsibility is directed outward from the perpetrators, excuses made, lies constructed and promulgated, cultural genocide accepted and even celebrated. It's a bitter pill to swallow. And it's all in the words people use. 

I'm reading the article on Senanayake and I'm reminded that it was he who stripped upcountry Tamils of citizenship in the 1950s. What sort of leader is that? Who divides the population of a struggling country  for the sake of political expediency? How does this craven act catapult your desperately poor country into the 20th century? Is there any precedent for this, any other country whose "leader" rips part of its population out of the social fabric and "legally" strips it of its rights? The only example I can think of is Hitler driving his country into the "thousand years" of the Third Reich. Disaster. 

Whatever made the Senanayake debacle possible the real horror to me is the way it's recalled today in the "liberal" press. Here are the few words the Mirror had to offer:

 "...there was resentment among the Tamil community due to his citizenship laws, which disenfranchised virtually all Tamils of Indian origin living in the central highlands." 

Let's take a closer look. This was a first move by the newly independent Sri Lanka toward dividing and destroying the ages-old Tamil community in Sri Lanka. The goal has to have been to excise them from the rest of the population, to somehow conveniently get rid of them. Resentment? Is that all? Is this the one word to describe the anguish people must have felt at this time? Does this single word encompass the lasting consequences of Senanayake's action? 

What else could these "citizenship laws" have been meant to accomplish? Anything less than dominance of the Buddhist majority over the rest of the island? An end to legal rights of other communities in Sri Lanka? Closing the door on the possibility of a pluralistic society?

"Indian origin?" From what I've read the upcountry Tamils, most of them living in virtual slavery as workers on tea plantations, had been brought by the British up to 100 years before. That's several generations. Their "origin" was Indian but they were Sri Lankans. This language of origins and "the other," used right now, today, in the Sri Lankan press, recalls Hitler's labels of "Asiatics" or "Aryans." You're a newspaper. Wake up and use your words. Unless, as I imagine, the author and editor of this article have chosen their word carefully. "Origins" in Sri Lanka mean everything. Almost as much as one's horoscope. 

Arguably the upcountry Tamils were "disenfranchised" already by dint of their "employment." But to be stripped of citizenship?

I've heard over and over the tale that the British left Sri Lanka with Tamils better educated than the rest of the country, holding positions of power and wealth incongruent with their numbers, and with better access to government jobs than their Sinhalese neighbors. Not, by the way, the plantation Tamils. These kinds of excuses were used by Hitler to rationalize his atrocities. Before him, Ataturk. In subsequent generations and in different places, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin. Instead of weaving tales about "incongruent with their numbers" why not build a society where the "limited good" of a stifled economy and burgeoning government sector is replaced with a mindset and social structures to complement growth and a more equable distribution of wealth and human rights, in which individuals have greater access to education and opportunity? 

The medieval mindset of limited good persists here in Sri Lanka, especially in the horrible politics of land and the built environment. Yes it's an island. But a large, rich one that's mostly underpopulated!

Stripping part of the population of its rights, the atrocity Senanayake committed during his reign, set the stage for decades of conflict based on continuing misapprehension, distrust, and hatred. It's still with us and no one will talk about it. 

The Mirror article finished up by labeling Senanayake as an "unparalleled colossus!" It's like calling the Brussels terrorists freedom fighters. Where a society turns away from history, as I've seen here, where the continuing social narrative ignores atrocity, there can be no hope for reconciliation and moving forward toward a peaceful society. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Four things happen in one afternoon

1. I am asking Ravi about his family's flight from Jaffna. Did you come with your mother and your father? No sir my father already (and he pantomimes a person sleeping with their hands joined under the cheek, like the reposing Buddha. After all this is a Buddhist country even though Ravi is a Hindu person). Was he sick or was he killed in the war? No sir he had an operation in one eye. Then the other eye got sick. Then he went to the toilet one day. You know how are toilets are? Not with seat. Yes I pantomime squatting. This is almost too awful for him to look at. Worse than it is for him to tell me about his father. He go for water (the squat toilets need you to do this). He trying to get water. He slip and fall in. One hour. Two hour. My mother find him. I come home from school she tell me Ravi your father already dead now. Then we go away from Jaffna. Did Ravi's father slip into the latrine or was he stuffed in there?

2.  My ex-student Ex sends me a tweet. Can you help me think of a masters project? I tweet back I just sent you an email. Here's what I sent in the email. Hello Ex. This is why I'm not connected with your university any more. Your professor arranged to come to this city in Sri Lanka to meet another American professor and her students. We arranged this many weeks in advance. When the time came he did not come. His students did not come. He never wrote to me. I don't need to have that connection. Now I have a huge question about Sri Lanka. What happened in the 1983 riots against Tamil people? Colombo (Wellawatta, etc) is fairly well known although I have seen absolutely NO MEMORIAL there. But what about Matale, Badulla, and smaller places where the riots devastated the communities? 

No one in Sri Lanka will speak about this. Most people, even "educated" people in the Sinhalese area deny that this happened. 

At your university in 2013 I heard lies about Matale, comparing it to rust-belt cities like Detroit. More accurately the graduate student should have compared it to German cities in 1938 where government-sponsored riots against Jews started the holocaust. 

If you want a meaningful project I think you might want to follow up on this problem (black July riots in small towns in Sri Lanka). There is almost nothing published about it in English. If reconciliation can ever begin in this country there must be truth-telling about these days and nights in 1983. 

He writes back that he can't do a project like this. He submitted a paper on this topic in 20-- and his degree was postponed for two years. Also he writes:
writing truth in Sri Lanka is not possible because the people who in the system both Tamil and Sinhalese not ready to accept their fault.   

the rulers need to travel for long to the reconciliation. 
I don't won't write any thing touching the politics or ethnic   
3.  Two very young Muslim couples come to the grounds of this guesthouse. It is an oasis with trees and water and natural beauty, the opposite of what they've built themselves in Kattankudy and Kalmunai. (Before you think about those poor Arabs in Gaza take a look at what newly self-proclaimed "Arabs" here in Sri Lanka-- they speak Tamil but they must distinguish themselves from ethnic Tamils at any expense--hence they are "Arabs"--ask them yourself! built for themselves here in the most beautiful country on earth. Their built environment is a living hell of ugliness and congestion. In the beginning of the 20th century Kattankudy was already known as the densest place in this country. Nothing to do with "refugees," poverty, or oppression, any of the awful things that supposedly mark Gaza. Here in paradise they built themselves a Gaza. In Kattankudy, in Kalmunai. Come and have a look while you are on holiday from Europe! Come and have a look at the beauty and the glory of Muslim architecture. Beauty that springs from unhinhibited communities building the world they want. Not the world they are forced into by evil zionists. You will not be disappointed. You will be able to see with your own eyes despoliation and base ugliness in what are reported--at the Muslim Heritage Museum in Kattankudy--to be over 99% Muslim. Drink it in with your eyes!). 

What are the young couples doing here? Taking in the beauty? First they stroll. Then they stroll over to the pool. Then they start making out. Haram! Also. Unacceptable. This is not a park or public space. Across the river is Gandhi Park. You can hang out there. But you don't like Gandhi. You don't respect him. These are the grounds of a guesthouse. You play you pay sort of thing. 

Things heat up and they ask for a room for the afternoon. We don't sell rooms by the afternoon this is not that kind of guesthouse they are told. If you want to stay here you must order food at least. Reluctantly they sit down to lunch. 

Are these young people (choose all that apply)

a) so hot to trot they lose control?
b) hiding from the prying eyes of their strict community?
c) so lacking in judgement?
d) setting up the guesthouse for retribution?
e) looking for the Mossad agent they know is embedded here?

4.  The manager Jainthi tells me the boys talk back to her when she asks them to do something. The fact that these boys wear a uniform and serve food and are paid Rs 25,000 a month for their lackadaisical "work" is astounding. How dare they talk back? Do they talk back to the (male manager) Prince? No I'm told. But only yesterday Prince told me the cleaning crew ignores him and makes the same mistakes over and over. According to Prince the girls do this to defy him. To get him angry. I can't talk for the girls. They must be very local. They are very humble. They wear thin cotton dresses and thin shoes and only after many months here make eye contact or smile. The boys I know also come from very humble backgrounds. Now that I started my map work with them I see how isolated and poor their communities are. I also see their phones and their hundreds of selfies on their phones and their poses and preens in the mirror in back of the house and them seating themselves on the motorcycle like they are something or someone and their love of Facebook. Janet doesn't like me to say these boys grew up among chickens but sometimes I can say something she doesn't like or which she calls a "bad description." But can twenty year olds who grew up with chickens who are just barely performing in their first job really talk back to their manager? What's happening here?

More things happened here yesterday. Thavaraja had a friend! They talked quickly and animatedly in Tamil for a good half hour! A book was delivered to me. I was walking toward the room when someone found me, breathlessly, "Someone's looking for you!" The book was one  that an expat Tamil lady from London had told me would give me the WHOLE STORY of what happened here during the conflict. She promised to deliver this book the day before she left two months ago. I think she was mental. Turns out the book was written by a Roman Catholic priest born in Chicago in 1909 and covers the period up to 1967. Well. We'll see. The lady weaving palm fronds yesterday did a beautiful job. Her hands worked gracefully and steadily and without apparent effort. The thatch she wove is even and symmetric and tight. She looked out of herself while she worked. While I was on the back porch I found out about the terrorist bombings in Brussels. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Connecting with place

My research focus in Sri Lanka during this Fulbright is cultural landscape ecology. Part of that is looking at the way people perceive their landscape. What are the boundaries and landmarks, the stories and narratives they derive from and assign to their physical space? How do they perform in their space and how do they use their space? 

In a setting where I don't speak the language I have had to build modalities of communication that are at once innovative and productive, even as they appear to be less than optimal. What can substitute for fluency? Yet around me I see people communicating like this all the time. Boys who are deaf and mute are given orders by their masters and they do the work. They in turn communicate with their superiors to clarify, ask questions, and report. Here the servers and others who are involved in hospitality take broken English for granted among the European guests. And they communicate as best they can making contact and fulfilling requests. 

"Broken" language, a misnomer, is better than no language. But language and its usage, as valuable as they are, are not the only way to communicate. Words can deliver lies with great accuracy, as I've learned here in Sri Lanka. It's also a fact that my questions to someone may lead their narrative in particular direction. I may get what I want but it's at the expense of the truth they want to tell. It's their story I'm after--to see things somehow through their eyes. I have to adjust my search to accommodate what my informants provide. This is a bitter pill to swallow in our "search" era. But I think it's the best way to get the story. And while it's not any single "truth" I'm after I can find many streams of storytelling worth listening to. Given that I am immersed in this world there's no source of information more valuable than the next. The goal is to be receptive to as many of them as possible. And to do with them what you can. 

So I began a little experiment. I had wanted to do map work with people, to have them show me their perceived landscape with its borders, boundaries, and zones of safety, zones of danger, zones of permeability and impermeability. For this project I had hoped to use 1:20,000 topo maps recently published by the Sri Lankan government. Since there's a large surveyor's office here in Batticaloa, and since surveyor's' offices are authorized outlets for government-printed map sales this should have been possible to accomplish. If you've been to Sri Lanka you know that things that "should" be doable often are impossible to do. This is especially true I've found with government and universities. And this phenomenon of withholding, hiding, obfuscating, and refusing is in itself information. 

With the impossibility of getting maps in front of me I needed to rethink my problem. Then it occurred to me to open my laptop and look with informants at the google map for target regions. This posed a problem that quickly obviates my need for topo maps. They would have been useless. People can't read maps. They can, however read Google satellite maps because they are essentially pictures. And these became our focus. 

"Where do you live?"

"In Sammanthurai, Sir." As if that were a place. But this teaches me this is a place. It's not Batticaloa. It's not Kalmunai. It's a distinct place and it's perceived as one. It carries identity and it confers identity on the people who live there. 

"Show me your house." Five minutes of searching, finding landmarks, going "up" on the map and "down" on the map. Focusing and refocusing, taking a wider view and a closer view. Finding landmarks and putting them in a spatial perspective with the informant. Giving the informant minutes to develop a vocabulary of place. This is a time that requires patience and silence and a bit of active participation on my part. I point out landmarks I think might be valuable, gas stations, churches, and schools. It may be helpful that I can read the English letters the maps are labeled in. Hadn't thought to change to Tamil!

Always with the young men (servers at my guesthouse) I talk to, home is oriented by finding the nearest playing field, called "grounds."

"Here. Beside the grounds, Sir." 

"You live there with your mother and sister?"


"This is close to Kalmunai." 


"In the war, was this place controlled by the government forces?" It may be unfair to bring in this question at this point. It introduces my intent. Who controlled this? Who did it belong to? This is a directed question but it's still open ended. 

"No Sir. The LTTE. Many Tamils used to live here. Many of them were killed. Many went away. Now Tamils (Christians) live in two parts of my village. 

"Show me."

"Here, (points to the southeast corner of town where he lives and here, in Weeramunai (northwest corner). I wonder where the dead or missing people lived and whether their community was contiguous in the past. 

"Can you go anywhere in town?"

"Of course sir. And here is the road we take to go to church." (In the next, much smaller town, Sorikalmunai). That church is very old. More than 2000, I mean 200 years old. We walk there on this road (points to zzz Road) for big holy days. Like Pascha."

We sit in silence for a few minutes. 

He volunteers, "Most of my town is Muslim now."

"Who owns these fields?" I ask, pointing to rice fields just to the east. The town is a sort of island in the middle of paddy. The statement that the fields are owned by Muslims contrasts with what Muslim informants have been telling Kim, that they are traders, not farmers. The narrative they report to Kim is heavily supported in the Kattankudy Heritage Museum I saw today. In the narrative of "traders" they count themselves as deeply embedded in Sri Lankan society and providers of invaluable service to the ancient rulers of the Island. A simple look at a map suggests another reality that could potentially be corroborated by looking at government records or such. But if you can't buy a simple map...

"Muslim people own those fields, Sir." I am silent. Waiting for what else he may offer. "Muslim people opening new private hospital in my village."

"All people can use the Muslim hospital?" I ask, thinking of the teaching hospital in Batticaloa with so many Muslim patients and their visiting families and the buses idling outside just before one, when visiting hours are over, to take people back to their villages.

"Yes, Sir. All people can use the Muslim hospital. But they don't need it. The Muslim people are sick more, Sir. They are less healthy and they need the hospital."

"Why are they less healthy?"

"Diabetes Sir. And other illnesses."

"Why these diseases?"

"I think diet sir. I think they eat beef."

"Do you have Muslim neighbors?"

"Yes. We are brothers there."

The informant has revealed perceptions of his neighbors and place with the help of a concrete picture of the physical place. He revealed the perceived importance here of ethnicity and religion  and he went further than my question, "who controlled this area?" by making an accounting of changes in the population. People moved away or were killed. Potentially these could provide me with many more lines of questioning. How? Where? By whom? But my informant is in his early twenties. How does he know how the dynamics here played out? I could ask anyway. I could ask what his mother told him. I've been trying to ask questions not about "what did you think" but "what did your parents say?" Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn't. 

In this exercise I'm trying to connect people and their words to the physical map of their place. By feeling connected, by understanding the context of a problem or a space, and by participating in analysis of the problem, we come to understand the process of our understanding. This, I think, is the essence of metacognition. We apply metacognition to knowledge of place by understanding the context of where we live. The roads in a map become living places with a present, a past, and a future. They are routes for movement and they are static places for being. We find things along them. They act as connectors or barriers. The person showing them to me or better, finding his way down and along them, is participating in personal archeology of his place. He is building the place for me, his listener, by drawing information from and about it, communicating that information to me. He is connecting to his place and he is connecting me to it.