Sunday, March 6, 2016

Widening the road

In this excerpt from my Sri Lankan novel, "The Longest Tweet," I muddle through a stretch of road that goes through the center of the county through Matale. Matale and other small cities bore the aftermath of riots that began in Colombo in July, 1983 when "spontaneous mobs" of the Sinhalese majority, unchecked and possibly goaded on by the government, carried out devastating pogroms against the ethnic Tamil minority. Today "Black July," especially as it was carried out in Colombo, is remembered, albeit with a certain scarcity of detail. But the pogroms of Badulla, Matale, Vavuniya, and other small towns go unspoken or to my horror, denied. 

A major infrastructure project by the federal government widening the road in the corridor that runs through Matale is in implementation. The road construction has slowed travel to a near standstill. The scale of construction obstructs and will soon erase the devastation done in this region as swift, sleek travel brings the inter urban landscape to a state of "normalcy."


Widening the road 

The widening road went through precincts massive in their dust and ruin. It was the ugliest place he'd seen. Scary in the dark gray of blackening night and nearly invisible. But there were places. The places re-placed by the construction were gone. Not places anymore. Depopulated. Depeopled. Disbanded. Abandoned. Deserted by the people who had peopled them for a long time, but not deserted willingly. The Non-places produced nothing no more. No more music. No more commerce. No more smoke and shit. They were there but not there. They were burnt. Bone dry. Unburdened of the past when they were storefronts, peopled places, homes or stores where people did their people things. 

Now the road was being widened. My! What an inconvenience! Travel was slowed. So slow, they said, it wasn't worth the trip.

But the parts of the road completed now, they were a masterpiece. This showed what engineers and planners and designers and construction crews could do. And it showed what they could do with a national government behind them. A national government willing to do what it had to do. Reapportion these non-places and make them shine with power!

Sleek and sound and smooth and supple you drove through quietly, quickly, without looking on either side, just forward. Forward is how it has to be! Don't hold onto that past. Anyway here where the road was good, no, excellent, there was no past. Only a future. A future of hope. A future of promise. A distant past barely worth a mention except that it was or had been a past where promises were made, "we'll build you that new road and you'll love it!" And love it you did and we all did. A new black road. A new road with signage. A new road with entry ramps. What's not to love?

Where the road gets tricky, gravelly, rutted, one lane or less, ugly, scary, packed with non-moving vehicles or empty and still you're going one mile per hour because of the drop offs, the unexpected, the density of danger, you also don't look to either side. Only in front. Knuckles white and eyes bright. Keep that eye on the road! Not the devastation on either side. Keep looking forward. Look down! Whoa you circumvented a pothole the size of your car good work! Keep it up! Good that they're widening the road here. Good for commerce, good for trade, good for getting back and forth. Good for getting in and out. Into what? Out of what? Don't make a big deal of it. Just be thankful for this road. 

The road as erasure. The road as immeasurable measurement. The road as a ribbon but wider. The road as a convenience. The road as civilization. The road as Civilization Itself. We clock miles here but not memories. Get real. Those memories ain't there if no one wants to talk about them! What's a dream? What's a nightmare? When you get right down to it what's a memory? Who cares who cares? I've lectured you on this before. Can't you read? A road. Now that's something we can measure. 

Measure rates and distances and benefits in dollars or rupees a road brings in. Mark speeds and number of vehicles that pass and are passed.  Measure wealth and among those rates measure how it erases poverty. Not the poverty of the ones who were kicked out. Fuck. They were kicked out because they were so rich. That's why we had to get rid of them in the first place. We hated them and their richness. They did too well. They weren't supposed to. Theirs wasn't even the language of this country. How did they learn our language so well? What gave them the right to our language? They stole our language and made us poor. Is there any other explanation? It's the poor they left behind when they fled. Things didn't get any better for them cuz they burnt down the rich ones' houses. That was stupid wasn't it? But "rioters" or "communal rioters" or "spontaneous rioters" or "mobs." They aren't the smartest ones are they? Not the brightest bulbs. But now. A road to call their own. That's pride of place. 

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