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. 

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