Thursday, March 10, 2016

Mapping (childhood memories and craven acts)

This excerpt from my novel on Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet," uses maps and mapping as a fulcrum for moving through a world of emotion and incompetence in impotence and incomprehensibility. 

To report in the form of a map is to cool it down. Drawing or filling in a map disembodies an event from the words that are attached to it. Mapping abstracts, makes linear. Maps, unlike words, plot, design and verify. But a map may add a dimension or many dimensions of communication. A map colors the events and phenomena and feelings and occurrences and accidents and failsafes and hidings and boundaries real or imagined or both or imagined to be real or really imagined. It's a map. Which most people can't read it turns out or at least feel intensely uncomfortable with. Road maps, simple maps, that is. Maps that map tangibles like pavement and schools and roundabouts. I haven't met a person in Sri Lanka who could read a map especially drivers but the small cross section of people in America who I know I've never tested on map reading so maybe it's even steven. But a map may empower discussion if you don't need it to "find directions." I'd like to find out. 

I'm so weak with dispower at this moment I've never been so strengthless in all my time in Sri Lanka. It's scary. Is it because of that lung thing I brought back from India, from the foulest air I ever breathed, but which has been resolving day by day in an encouraging way, that is, getting better? But should I not have gone in the pool today, even for the ten minutes I did? Is it because I haven't been eating right, or enough, the way the servers have been so unhappy with me. Three roti and a hard boiled egg is not enough for a breakfast! Don't you want gravy sir? No I don't want gravy. Soup only for dinner is not enough. You must eat that with bread. But I don't want bread. I don't like bread. No one complained this afternoon when I ordered a cheese omelette and fries and went wild and partied with a whole lion lager. But maybe all that made me weak. Plus the heat. Plus taking in a few gentle laps at the pool late in the afternoon. The lungs maybe aren't ready. Stamina is missing somehow from the equation. But speaking of eating stamina was there last night to push away a plate of food that had been prepared obviously hours before and served to me cold. It's a problem when certain things like soya meat curry come to you cold and you're supposed to mix it in with cold and lumpy rice that's dried out. I'm not a connoisseur but I've had a lot of Sri Lankan food now and that was not working and I told my server so and said don't bill me because I won't pay for this and such ripples of trouble were felt and conveyed and dramatized and brought to attention among servers and managers and helpers high and low and I was begged, begged not to go to bed hungry but I tried to smile they must have felt my dismay and I felt theirs but I didn't want fruit I didn't want curd I didn't want the dinner reheated I didn't want to entertain people's worry about me I just was ready now for bed if you would please let me head in that direction I would be grateful we can start again in the morning but by the time this morning rolled around even Mrs. Thavaraja had heard and made apologies and wouldn't let me shrug it off. No. This is not the kind of mistake we let our kitchen make and they will not do it again because I have instructed them. But instructions may not mean that much here and now as I noted yesterday at the pool where the new pool man (Darshan had said its not that complicated to keep a pool running clean Sam but I thought him wrong that moment without saying a word) but there I was at the pool and the lovely small pool you dip your feet in on the way to the big pool was green with algae just a kind of incubating tank for the algae that will explode in the big pool now that poor Shadeesh broke his leg in two places quite randomly just pulling his scooter out into the road. I've been too sick to visit him but when we get back from Colombo in a couple of days (his belated surgery is today) I'll find a way to get to him and I'll find out what's appropriate to bring. But what is causing the weakness? This weakness I feel?

Can you believe me when I tell you it's a picking up on energies? Maybe picking up on energies and not discussing them out? Maybe this is why I need a map. Energies? Shadeesh's and Darshan's and poor Clinton's who was worried sick over me last night and Ravi's who wants a child and isn't quite sure how to do it and feels that one time per cycle of "happy happy" may be all he can handle physically and so can he get my permission (!) for only doing it once. I feel for Thavaraja's feelings as he looks at the ruined useless farm of his friend's his son's father in law far off in England and I feel for this community whatever it is. Is it living? Is it dying? Is it on the edge? Is it more on the edge than it was ten years ago? Less? What kind of community sends its young away to start new lives? That's a sending away forever. And what kind of community sends its less young away to work so families are not knit with presence but shorn by absence? I can't help what I feel and I can't help the energy I pick up on and I can't be a cheerleader but I also don't want to be a lightning rod for these masses of feelings not all the time every minute at least. Such volume of feeling and I'm only skimming the top topmost foam. An ocean that I spend five minutes sitting next to. 

But all the same today quite unsolicited and in a quiet, very quiet moment after I'd refused the offering a second beer and Ravi and I consulted the google map to see where in Wattala his family lives and asking him, were you born in Colombo and "No sir!" He exclaims, almost jumps. "I am from Jaffna and my family from Jaffna!" Ensued the story of flight from Jaffna, exodus from Jaffna when he was maybe ten. A family of nine people with mostly older brothers and sisters. A five or six day flight on buses with hiding and strafing and fear and pretending to sleep or protect your head. Ravi acts it out. Ravi acts it out over and over. The strafing and the pretending to be asleep. Is it really strafing? Does it really matter? This acting out is what matters. This dance map Ravi creates with his expressive movements. Ravi uses his ten or twenty words in English creatively and flexibly and how can I not fill up on that feeling he is sending when he tells this story. It is about 25 years old, it happened in about 1990. But it is unrehearsed and immediate and falling so fast from his mouth and eyes and arms and hands and torso as he talks and acts out the hiding so that the feeling in my stomach is queasy and full I just ate that omelette and every last French fry with ketchup but I feel empty and weak at the same time. 

Just saying, so the map reading opened doors, many during our short discussion even though it wasn't a reading of Jaffna. It was just lets see where you live in Wattala and it went far beyond any previous talk we've had where frankly I did not ask for personal history I never do. Well. Hardly ever. But the maps.

So I decided to stop at the Survey Department today in Batticaloa why not? Hard to describe that place set back from the main road, a stable of scooters parked under a shady tall loggia and windows open whimsically, almost welcomingly. I had done my research on the website before I went in and listed out the maps I need (supposedly available now for and in the East) in numerical order with the names so confusion would be capped for the poor admin person who would be stuck helping me, having to get up from his or her desk to serve for no reason at all a foreigner, not any kind of dignitary or higher up or big man of any sort least of all in stature. Work is hard. Life is hard. 

I stand just inside the entrance where there is a slight breeze and a sign that says "inquiries" on an empty wooden desk with fake blue flowers, and behind on the wall large maps of the world, of the Batticaloa District 1:50,000, what looks like a very large very information-poor map of geological resources(?) in Tamil. These are all attractively priced and I can foresee what I will be tried to be sold these and I know what I want will not be there no matter what the website says and no matter those ten or twenty people working there at desks. They will not be able to produce the maps I need. What do they, what can they produce? They produce a day where you move like clockwork toward the lunch packet, afternoon tea, and a shutting off of the fans and lights. A locking if the door. 

Between the desk and the wall with these large format maps there's a couch and two easy chairs. A wooden table with more fake flowers. Ugly worn blue upholstery and I know I will end up sitting there, will be commanded to sit there, am fated to sit on that nasty furniture with its seats worn blackish from butts against the synthetic upholstery. What will I do there? Wait? Wait longer? Be interrogated? Lectured? Left to rot?

There are maybe twenty people in this spacious office producing carbon dioxide. The ceiling is high so the air is not oppressive. No one gets near me. I see people leaving offices, important people, who make their arc of leaving narrower, closer to the door and the wall of the office they just left, so as not to encounter my space and have to encounter me. I know it's only wished collectively, it's almost breathed as a communal sigh, this wish that I wandered into the wrong place maybe I'm just a foreigner looking for a toilet and that maybe I'll turn around and leave so no one has to approach. As a matter of fact the people at their desks shrink slightly back into the room and no one makes eye contact and I don't seek it because that will not get me my eight maps any sooner. Those eight maps are: four maps from Batticaloa and its immediate surroundings, two maps from Dehiattakandia, where Sinhalese settlers were put into a wedge of former rainforest to form a bulwark against Tamils, a map of Mandur, which I'll discuss in a moment, and Matale. 

The Batticaloa maps are all places I've gone on my bike. This is where I want to do my primary mapping. Here are some of the maps I want to produce. This isn't the whole exhaustive exhausting list but lots of it is still in my brain:

Things that have to be mapped.

Parents under suspicion
Parents killed
Women abandoned
Children abandoned
Children sent overseas
Fathers working abroad
Mothers working abroad
Meals per day
Years of school completed
Income disparity
Mental illness
Perches owned per family
Military installations 
How many stopped drivers 
Lanes of traffic per lane
Borders you didn't cross 
The discussions that ensue from sitting in front of an open map. 

I also want to get two maps of Dehiattkandia, one of the town and one of the neighborhood just north of town where I rode my bike extensively. I want to see how the craven designers of this place of the damned designed this map-wise. I've seen working papers that mention the need to make Dehiattkandia "pretty" and they made my stomach do flipflops. I need to delve into this place and into these peoples' minds and into the way they could make fake tanks that schoolchildren like Ramya learned, "they act just like real tanks," no Ramya. Sorry Ramya. No. No. No. They do not and they are not. I am ashamed to know more about your country than you on this matter and that makes it bad. Very bad. Because no one likes to be corrected. No one likes. No, everybody hates. The outsider who knows better than the insider. Why why why why did I ever correct my stupid and she was stupid and imperious and impertinent dean about the word "concomitantly" in front of her faculty, most of them precious English literature people. I must still be being punished for that. Roasted on some kind of administrative spit back in the hell of administration and ministrations of Boston University whence I sprang here to Sri Lanka like a bad pimple. 

One map: of sad pathetic Mandur where my host took me one day for a relation's (on his mothers's side) funeral. A Hindu funeral. Then we looked around the churchyard of his childhood Methodist church. Kind of sad and neglected. I had no words and no questions. Only felt the metal gate he felt. Only walked up onto the concrete platform he walked up onto. Mostly looked down. Watched him kick a few stones forlornly. Heard him, I think, meekly and weakly sighing, "this was my childhood." Read some signs. Drove slowly with him on the rutted roads to the no longer running ferry along the breathtaking piece of lagoon landscape. The Mandur map is supposed to be a gift to him. But I wanted two copies, like the Batticaloa maps because I thought we could look at the map together and I could perceive some narrative and get get get get absorb and get like I'm always trying to do. Am I cheap and venal and opportunistic to want to set out a map in front of him and hear his thoughts as he pores over it? Greedy me. The Batticaloa and immediate area maps were also hoped to be bought in duplicate because he asked, "oh if they have those maps will you please buy a copy for me." I can tell you and I'm sure you understand we both knew this to be a huge joke but between us we did t blink an eye. That's how we do it. 

For the eighth map well did you have to guess it? I am to drive today through Matale on my way to Colombo to pick up Janet and fete an important State Department figure who's to be feted tonight (better bring my passport). Wouldn't it be nice to see Matale in 1:10,000 on a map and see this place of the past being catapulted into the future on its digitally prepared map derived from satellite images. Oh joy what fun. And if I have a map of Matale. What can't I produce?!

So I stood near the inquiries desk some good five or ten minutes and someone at a fairly distal desk made eye contact and with her eyes said "go to the desk next to me," and I thanked her with my eyes and went to the desk next to her. The man in a long sleeve shirt and one sleeve too long much too long empty you see from an arm that had gone missing. No hand there either but the other hand worked as he took my piece of paper and I said tentatively, "I don't know if these maps are available," available and especially "not available" are big vocabulary words here. Better to learn to use them properly in English than to get their Sinhala or Tamil counterparts under your belt.    

He shook his head and maybe said not available and then said wait and then stood up and all eyes followed this unrolling unfolding drama and another person appeared and pointed to the couch and ugly easy chairs and commanded sit and I stood and there was rummaging and the opening of drawers in some near distance. I was alone for awhile but now half the eyes were on me and half reluctantly going back to the work they were supposed to be doing if not doing but my aloneness wasn't too long and I was brought a print brochure, positively worthless, with a shallow summary of the information on the website, along with the website URL. "These available," I was told, this third stranger pointing to the paper. "And these available," he pointed to the wall with the oversize useless maps (or can I put them to use somehow?) "1:50,000 maps available. But these! 1:10,000 not available." Again, "Sit!." I stand and I keep standing. Not impatient. Impassive, blank, bland. I make signs that 1:50,000 "no want," and smile blandly like stupid foreigner. 

Another gent comes up. Shorter and with a beard indicative of Muslim Kattankudy but dressed not so nicely for this office but perhaps pressed into duty with me because he has the Gift of Language and maybe he will be able to make me see the situation. Rapid fire this gent a good head or two shorter than me and his pepper gray beard waggles as he says shouts whispers insists, we don't have the maps you want but we do have the 1:50,000 series and we have these maps on the wall for sale. Why don't you buy one and leave? He is sort of smiling with the mischief of it all and I am sort of smiling with the mischief of it all and he is speaking by the way in Sinhala since I'm a foreigner and Sinhalese are foreigners in these parts maybe I should understand and speak that particular foreign language. From the barrage of his insistence and insistence (to me) words I hear emerging, "Do you speak Sinhalese? Do you speak Sinhalese? Can you speak Sinhalese?" What is this? A dream where waking in being shaken and asked if I speak Sinhalese? The way he pronounces "Sinhalese" sounds so much like "English" that I ponder, quickly I suppose, whether he hasn't been speaking all this time to me in English. Hopeful, like I've just gotten my head above water I say, "English, yes, English," and he clicks his tongue and shakes his head in a definite "no" and commands me to sit which I don't while he goes into the same near distance corridor where drawers had opened and closed. 

Most of the eyes in the office are off me at this point, my position in the digestive process far beyond their ken or ability to do anything about because shortly I am led to the Head Commissioner's office by this servile graybeard who slips off his slippers before he enters and I do the same. 

But in the office, air conditioned, spacious and wide, bedecked and bedesked, I encounter two large men, pale, with black hair. I am in the precincts of the skin-lightened and hair-dyed. The omnipotent. The commanders. Anything could happen to me here. Refusals from this level of command will be permanent refusals. But a nod may bring the endless possibilities I seek, the opportunity to purchase government-issued topographic maps, available of and in the east!

I am commanded "Sit!" by he who speaks gibberish and one of the Men removes Himself, with effort, from in front of the desk. I sit and I'm commanded, "Who are you and what do you want!?" A short sentence as an answer and I am motioned "too fast" and the servile gibberish speaker and the broad black haired one converse in Sinhala, one sniveling and one grunting "oh," and they share a laugh and again I am asked what I'm doing. And what I will be using these maps for. "Research only!?" I'm prodded. Yes research, only research. Is this (still) such a sensitive place that a potential reader or user of maps must be vetted before a sale can happen. Might I be a gun runner? A treasure hunter? A spy? A real estate developer? Is whatever I'm endeavorung something the Big Man should get his finger into or maybe a whole hand? If I start using these maps now where will it end? Maps contain so much power for those who can read them. Don't let this opportunity go by putting the power into someone's hands, even a non-language-owning foreigner, without getting a piece of the power yourself!! Who am I and what am I doing here and what do I want? I want some maps. 

The sniveler shows the Man, twice his size and twice as glorious in his black (not gray) hair that he's given me the paper brochure. "Give!" He commands me and I hand him the useless full color rag. He hands it to the Man who pushes away from his desk and tries to type in the website for the Survey Department. Could I be making this up? You know I'm not. I sat there with my own tush and watched this with my own eyes. He struggles with his computer and can't find the sales page but finally finds a page worthy of reporting to me. The Batticaloa Office will be participating in an unmanned reconnaissance mapping exercise with Moratuwa University and other partners in a couple of weeks. This exercise will bring more of the desired Glory to this Office. More Prestige to the Man & his minions. How impressed am I? How impressed should I be? What can I offer as comment, as encouragement, as courtesy, as caring? What is there to say but to nod and say very nice. Very nice. How proud I am to be associated with this office, to have tiptoed into its precincts, how lucky I am for this encounter pregnant with potential and portent and meaning and significance and treasure and outlook and promise! 

The Man returns to his desk and then tells me again of this visitation in two weeks with the unmanned project. And then smiling meekly because he has carried Honor in and into his life, because he has touched Glory in his days, because he has approached the unapproachable, he's experienced this with his own being in some distant but dreadfully Important moment that now, he must open his mouth and Report to me. Because I am, he senses, of that Outside. I have accomplished this status by my white pale skin and my small stature and my tender impassive Buddhist mien. I must hear. I must record his Experience for eternity for it was Etched In His Being. "I visited the Ordnance Office in London," he whispers, quavers. With reverence and slightly brightened eyes lifted toward mine, "I stood at the Prime Meridian." My wonderment is matched by his pride as we bask for a moment in the Light of Mother England and we bow slightly, silently, the the Wonder of Maps. 

And yes! Lo! The maps I'm after, published by this government for purchase and use, can't be had! I am shown back on the form, because he never was able to open the website, that I can buy digitized copies, very expensive. One "layer" Rs 3000. All layers to Rs 8000 whatever layers, rasterization, or powers of envisionment may be meant by this. Layers, digits, rasters, grids, it's all the techno talk a person could want but. The printed maps. Impossible. 

"Take his contact details!" He yells to the graybeard. "Take down his name!! His email address!! His local phone number!!" "We will inform you, Sir," I am told with the slightest bow. "Maps may not be available print form. No. Not available order from Colombo. Digitized maybe available, I find out." A quick call to Colombo followed by the litany "right, right, right, right, right, right, right." You hear this every day and the more "rights" the more the men are buddies. So this call to Colombo is Important. 

"Take his details," he screams. "Find paper and pen," he as much as boxes the ears of the dumbkof. I have taken a pen from my pocket and write the details on back of my list that I prepared hours ago and hand it to the servile one and we all share a laugh. The task has been accomplished! Had I only brought my visiting card! How grand to present this card with its seal of Boston University would have been! The grandest thing I'm sure since the Prime Meridian. "We will contact you in about a week," I receive the promise like a basket of flowers from this Sinhalese Priest of Cartography sitting here in the wilds of Batticaloa, a hardship job for which he has been promised he will be rewarded in the future. 

I am ushered past the useless computer, past the repulsive cheap Arpico door that leads to the Man's private can, his "privies" as it were. He must deserve this perk badly in a posting in the Wild East. The door opens and I am spit out. But not quite. 

"Sit!" Shrieks the graybeard. "We must talk!" "Do you speak Spanish? Do you speak French?" I am asked. Incredulous I answer, "No. Do you?" "No." But languages are interesting to me. I want to learn language! "But you speak Sinhala," I suggest. "Yes. But that not my language. My language Tamil. My religion Arab. My work Sinhalese," I am informed. He has mapped it out perfectly for me and now I may leave. Next day I receive a very important message, expedited I'm sure by the servile one, viz.,

Professor / Dr.Sam Hummer

Dear Sir ,


With reference of yesterday (09.03.2016) discussion with you on above matter.

02)      After discussion with Snr. Supdt. of Surveys (Mapping), I understood Hard Copy maps of your requirements could not be full fill in short time period.
03)      But digital (data) format of above maps are available in G.I.S. Branch at Surveyor General`s Office , 150 Kirulla Road , Narahenoita , Colombo – 05.

I give the contact details about Snr,Supdt. Of Surveys ( GIS ) 

Name: - Mr. K.W.A. Wijayawardana 
Hand Phone Numbers              : 071-8685323
Office Phone Numbers             :  011-2587957
Email address                           :
Our Survey Department Website    :

Snr.Supdt, of Surveys

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