Monday, March 21, 2016

Time and space in the Wild East of Sri Lanka

When we first came to Sri Lanka I wondered, since the weather is so much the same from day to day, since changes in light are not extreme the way we experience them at home, how do people here really perceive time? More to the point, do they perceive times of year? It was a naive question, maybe even a stupid one, but it got me searching for clues about time and the way people treat it. Of course, the quick answer is that time is deeply perceived in Sri Lanka. Especially here in the rural East we have come into contact with lots of examples of how people mark time. 

We got to Batticaloa just before Thai Pongol, the mid-January Tamil holiday that celebrates the strength of the sun. Immediately after the holiday the garden here was planted. Tomatoes seedlings no bigger than your pinkie, protected under leafy branches, are three-foot high plants now, bearing fruit. Same for the bitter gourd and pumpkin. The first few days their leaves burst out succulent and simple, beautifully defined, but who could have imagined how fast they'd vine up along their stick fence and bear fruit? 

It was naive to assume that in this close-knit, conservative society, so deeply embedded in soil and sea, so strongly aligned with moon and stars above, that time would be irrelevant. To the contrary I think now time is tightly metered. One week fishermen crowd lagoon by the northwest side of the bridge. The prawns are in full burst. Another week they are gone. These are seasonal events and they play out in the mosaic of the water-and sand landscape of Batticaloa. Yesterday was the first cloudy day we've experienced in months. This morning the ground was wet with dew, another first. The forecast says rain next week. 

Yesterday as I floated on my bicycle down the lagoon road strangely labeled "Munich-Vittoria Road," cows grazing at the side, fishermen up to their chests in the lagoon water, I saw one gent pulling wet brown coconut fronds out of the water. They were bigger than him and heavy, stained with tannins and slightly floppy. The question of why or what for barely entered my head. We take for granted so many sights that would seem profoundly exotic had we not been here six months. Later in the afternoon I was wandering around the grounds at my guesthouse. The farmer and his wife (responsible for the post-Thai Pongol plantings) were busying themselves with the same kind of wet fronds over here on this side of the lagoon. More accurately, he was sitting on his haunches watching her do a magnificent job of weaving. Her work was so efficient that by this morning several mats had been created. But the thing that amazed me was that somehow, this seemed to be the appointed day for pulling those fronds out of the water and working with them. If this is true it suggests there was also an appointed time for harvesting the fronds and for starting the soaking process. A tight schedule indeed! 

Today is the full moon, Poya, which is marked by the Buddhist community in celebration, parades, chanting, and no alcohol. Here in Tamil Batticaloa the main ponsala is in town, right next to the police station. A strange outpost of the majority Buddhist regime "over there" and just maybe a symbol of oppression. Or maybe I'm reading into things. Janet was there yesterday with Kim when a bus load of people, all Buddhists from Gampaha, came in. They told Janet and Kim that they were there to make sure Poya was celebrated correctly. How much merit they must have garnered for the long trip to the Wild East. How much might they have accomplished if this were a visit to build friendship and understanding between the people of these disparate communities?

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