Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Information and learning

This is an excerpt from my novel of Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet." I explore some random questions of response and responsibility in the context of learning, a problem I'm always thinking about as a professor (in "real life").


How do you wiggle your way through the day and its fabric to find the things to write down? Even in a day spent hanging around the grounds so much happens that it's not just a matter of picking out what to report. There's so much to choose from. It's a matter of being able to pluck it from the denseness and make it distinct. Or must you pluck and distinguish? Why or is that even your responsibility or your intent? This may not be the way you want to do things or the way things are done. This may not be necessary. This may not be desirable. This may not be the human way, consciously plucking and making distinguishable. The human way may be more submerged, not just more submerged but well submerged, deeply submerged in unconscious rattle and rub. Then what? Then how do we parse human "activity," "striving," "learning," "cognition," or any of the ways and byways and highways along which we think humans function or think?There's a chance that no intent is better or at least more "human" than intent. And then, you can ask, is intent, whatever that is, different in different countries, cultures? Like asking, what is "merit" in the different religions? A point not of contention but not exactly discussion either I enjoyed with my host in Kattankudy on the verge, the border of disputation. An attempt in avoidance of religious contestation. 

You are swimming in information. It's not that information is all around you. Literally you are breathing and eating it. It is in your ears and eyes and at your fingertips always. It is cloaked in signal and your job, if you can call it a "job" is to remove that husk or cloak to "find" what is not just signal but interpretable. Perhaps. And perhaps not. Perhaps it's not interpretation but only the knowing that the husks and cloaks surround everything. But then what? Then maybe you look past the cloaks and husks and find that a "satisfactory job" is just swimming among them. And if swimming among them is too much to ask or to pretend then perhaps it is enough just not to lose your way as you are among them, swimming or treading husk-water. But what is the way? So that you may say and contemplate on the idea that perhaps your only "job" goal is not to sink among the husks. But why not? Why not? Why not sink and become lost and tire and lose focus and dissolve among the hidings and filings and openings of official drawers and doors and the closings of them again in government offices and university hallways, "nothing accomplished" except making it or not even "making it" but suspending yourself toward the afternoon lime juice? Because maybe or more likely probably you present as a cipher to the ciphers around you. You are incomprehensible, comprehensively strange, unreadable, opaque, impossible, impassive, gentle, cloaked and fully husked in your hush, your porings over and inadvertent frowns, your odd requests and your strange topics. Matale? Really?

The timbre of kovil music, its instrumentals rising among the vocals of waking birds in the early morning, the sounds of sweepers gathering the dry leaves that fall each night, a distant bus horn on the Kallady Bridge, the reverberation of a fish that's singing somewhere or so they say. The workings of the water pump, the sifting dust, the gathering humidity, the soft whir of the fan which becomes too much, too overpowering, the two percent of sounds it claims in the morning is two percent too much. You must hear every morning sound and imagined sound and that means one hundred, not ninety eight percent so you make a colossal decision and the fan is turned off. You have had to move your body to do this. 

It was a day of facing torpor and incompetence, supposedly the torpor and incompetence of others though for a truth you were torpid and incompetent yourself. Maybe the torpor was appropriate since it was the day after the Hindu holiday of no sleep the night before. So there was low staff turnout, maybe announced and agreed upon or maybe not. Some of them who came to work might have been the Hindu staff but I assume the ones who showed up were mostly the Christians trying to make up for everyone who was missing. The boys weren't particularly slow or particularly attentive. It was a hot morning. It was getting hotter. In a temperate place this beginning and crescendoing would promise a rollicking thunderstorm later but nothing. A closing of the day was all that came. And that was much later. Tall Prince Anthony's voice was rapid and staccato, growling orders inside and all smiles and practiced phrases and positive attitude and adages of kindness or mildness or platitudinous statements about self care or positive attitude when he came out of the building to where the guests congregated. Why did I have to be one of the guests? Why couldn't language penetrate my ears and why was my speech only the speech of a foreigner with its odd off requests and cloak of impassive opacity? Only yesterday he'd complained about his relation Kiru, the tallest and darkest server, who he said was hiding from him, hiding from responsibilities. Three of the boys had come up to complain to him in the past week, he urged. He was angry to have been taken as a fool. He was too easy with the boys and they'd taken advantage of him. Kiru especially, his relation (the net of relations the wide net of relations the fine net of relations the loose net of relations the deep net of relations the shallow net of relations the tenuous pull of relations the strong demands of relations the land implications of relations the borderlines of relations and the borderlands of relations the sense of relations and the sensitive nature of relations and the sensation of relations and the sensuousness of relations and the nonsense of relations and the terror of relations). Well no more, he'd told me the day before. And so yesterday he was all business in a most unpleasant way. Insistent, angry, shouting rapid-fire orders. Kiru was in a sweat. The other boys kept their distance. It seemed to me nothing had changed, service was the same, but there was an angry man inside the mild mannered father of twins, the car-owning, careful, hair combing, looking in the mirror several times a day, pious, lime juice drinking Prince A. I wondered how long Prince could keep this up. Doesn't seem like it's his personality any more than it's mine. Can't make people work. But in his case as a manager and supervisor I guess he has to try. At home I'm only a professor able to smile wide or wanly and present my students, as a cipher with another cipher, a useless cipher, the husk of a cipher, somewhat in their way as they glide along through their day in their flipflops or their uggs up and down Commonwealth Avenue.  

Later on the back porch, the staff and "locals" porch that happens to have the better breeze if a bit more glare, a view of the loos and the lotus tree blooming yellow outside, and giant bumblebees floating randomly or non-randomly to different flower bunches and stopping or deciding not to stop and buzzing halfway around the globe of the tree full of inflorescences, the side where scooters and bicycles zip and make a dustup and the kitchen women drag along from the back buildings to the main house and to Uncle and Auntie's quarters with containers of food and drink, back there on the back porch, a little more open and a lot less smelly of "guesthouse" smell of some endless crore of buttocks, a long catch up discussion with Darshan. Him reflecting on how he came to learn work ethic, how he was inspired by one manager at Keeel's who taught him responsibility, preparedness, maybe critical thinking. How he's been disappointed with certain people, a certain person from the university (Eastern) where he studied (maths) who came from their new tourism program and who he interviewed and asked where are you going with this education and who answered him I don't much care. Just want the degree and to get some kind of government job. Repand on their desks I remember the graduate students at Moratuwa University, what a waste, why did I even put on shoes and socks, there for who knows what but maybe a graduate certificate to send them on their way and trajectorize an arc of a career. Probably a stupid career that's as stupid and lazy as they are. 

Still later a car ride with Thavaraja (car ride! I thought he'd given up on me. Every ride was a police encounter for him. You don't take foreigners in your non-tourist vehicle unless the foreigner is a spy and you are up to seditious behavior as is natural to your wretched Tamil creed. You get a ticket! You pay Rs 500 to a rotten cop or to a rotten government. Pay the cop "little something?" and encourage graft. Pay the government and graft a long list of moving violations onto your license. Your choice. Your non-choice. Your way not to make a difference and not to make a fuss and just add to the hatefulness of living in the East). Our car ride was partly in response to my quip, "why so many Buddhas in train stations?" So to show me it's a way of life here, a miniaturized, pitiful way of exercising the edifice complex, he showed me roadside Hindu shrines that had been enlarged illegally or at least sub rosa because no one will hold them accountable, and Roman Catholic shrines the same ("we're Methodists and we don't approach things that way), and inside the Fort another enlarged and enlarging kovillette (new not ancient, what's it doing there?) and outside the City Hall a kovil that used stones appropriated from the old historic harbor by the fort. Other historical objects: first ever tractor to be used by the municipality, an "International Harvester" on display (circa 1970)  in pride of place outside the building. Someone was sold a bill of goods cuz in 1970 we were producing combines that small farmers mortgaged their land for and subsequently merged with bigger farmers as they submerged their family interest in a larger production unit and anyway children left the farm for solid university educations and jobs and careers and families in Des Moines, Ames, even the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis (not necessarily in that order). What does this have to do with Sri Lanka or Matale for that matter? Only another form of globalism or lies or submerging of culture or disappearance or doing away with smaller cultures. Or maybe other things.

So so on, a visit to the government offices in the Fort to find the municipal museum and a sari'd work lady, an office lady plump and sari'd on her mobile and rudely interrupted(!) by Thavaraja asking for the museum. 

She with her packet: "it's lunchtime sir, that's why it's closed."

He with his insistence: "where is it though?"

She: "one of those doors there."

And the inevitable slow movement toward an office where air conditioning belies the big hole in a wall but the shining portrait of the president blandly benignly but powerfully looks down on the office workers, "a posh office," Thavaraja offers. 

I've seen posher. But enjoyed the banter between Thava and another sari'd Mrs. Who might have been a relation. I was hearing relation banter I thought. Long story short: There's no museum any more. They dismantled it and no one even knows where it is. Later he: I give that lady a bad mark. Do you know why?

And the story of a guest who enters the school and wants to meet the principal. 

Student one says "the office is over there," and points. 

The second student takes the visitor by the hand or wrist and leads him to the office. "Here you are sir."

Student three takes the visitor and opens the door, asks the visitor do be seated and requests entry to the principal's office. "Mr. So-and-so is here and would like to meet with you. Shall I show him in?"

Thava: "That lady was like the first student. Very unusual when this kind of thing happens in the East."

Really? I wonder. 

We are after a frame for something of sentimental value that broke. A platitude copied by Darshan when he was younger (but not that young, but before he had an aneurism four years ago) about "he who achieves." Odd that it comes on this day. Thava: Darshan can't write like this anymore. That's why it's of sentimental value to me. I have a child with brain damage too. The last twenty years have been unspeakable in their "sentimental value" or "sentiment" or sadness. The well of sadness never runs dry. It never never stops. Talk about "immeasurable loss." Let's not. 

In the afternoon another car ride! ("I thought you might be bored"). Why? Just because I sat in torpor all day? What's boredom to me in this glorious air? In this glorious magnified world of torpidness? Don't feel sorry for me but yes! Please! Car ride! I like!

"We're going to my friend's farm. Get in back. He's sitting in front. Behind me. He uses space." Thava points to his son, Darshan. 

We drive a longish sandy distance out of town. I've gone here before. I talk about my child's brain damage (she's 25 now). I ask Darshan if he gets tired. "Only if I use my brain. Or if I try too hard to use my arm. And they say too much trying to move paralyzed parts leads to heart problems." Darshan. You lived in England. I wonder. 

The farm is also Darshan's father in law's. It is in wrack and ruin. Some months before there was another caretaker. He we given a bicycle. This is a remote spot. He sold the bike. He drank it down. There is a tube well. New looking. There is a place to live and cook and sleep. There is a woman with a child. There is a new caretaker. He is thin and wearing a sarong and with seriously splayed toes. He's not much good at keeping up the farm. I ask Darshan. Is he a cultivator? He's from Jaffna Darshan says. He married here. There's a good answer! How big is this plot? About eight hundred perch? I ask. Darshan calculates the acres. That's exactly the size! How did you know! You're a professor! That's how you knew! Darshan is funny. The farm is a mess. 

Maybe there are 200 cashew trees planted here. They at least are not a mess. The rest of the place is choked with weeds. The weeds look well watered. The cashew trees are in good tick and they are flowering. Thavaraja undertakes an explanation. It's pained. The trees shed their leaves and insulate the ground under them. So they don't need too much water. 

But we can't harvest the cadju. 


The problem is snakes. 

The problem is snakes. The problem is no rest. The problem is the police. The problem is harassment from the military. The problem is harassment from the LTTE. The problem is a changing climate. The problem is cash flow. The problem is the Sinhalese. The problem is the buses. The problem is the Muslims. The problem is the cost of onions. 

We stay, self-selected, unprotected. We go through our days. The days are not the same. We get on a bike. We get on a scooter. We make arrangements to work abroad. We buy the ticket. We have a drink on our last day before we say goodbye. We take a slip. We break our collar bone. We forfeit. We are asked not to come back to work. Our work suffered over the past month. We skipped our duties. We overstepped our bounds. We used the scooter rights but didn't do the hard work part. We were too excited about leaving. We were bored with work. We had one foot out the door. We forgot our responsibilities. We didn't improve our English. We've been disinvited from work. We have to lie still for a few weeks. We have to lie still for a few months. No children. No responsibilities. No happy life. 

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