Saturday, April 30, 2016

I ate two bananas this morning

I ate two bananas this morning. They'd been in their plastic bag wrapped loosely in newspaper for a few days. When my friend first gave them to me he told me they're not ripe so I didn't open the bag for a couple of days. After two days one banana was kind of ripe. It was good, slightly mineraly the way some bananas are here. He had told me when I asked after the name of this strain, "these bananas don't give you any health problems." Well and good. I separated some stringy parts from the fruit like my young Fulbright friends Anna and Taryn tried to do last night when we were admonished by our host, "that's the best part. It helps with ulcers." OK. But I peeled and separated mine in secret because. I don't know. Who likes the stringy parts of a banana?

Back to my own bagful. I ate two a day for two or three days and dang if they weren't hard to separate the stringiness off of. But very good tasting and very nice texture. We don't have taste or texture like this in our bananas at home and we overlook here the humble treat of these or the kindness meant by giving a bag of them to a friend. 

Today had to be the last day. You can imagine how much I hate to throw these bananas out after they've been lovingly given. From trees right here in my friend's garden. And so not-health-problem inducing. So I steeled myself and took the last two bananas, slightly bruised, from the bottom of the bag. I was a little scared because already yesterday and the day before the bananas were breaking off from the stem. I didn't know what shape they'd be in today. 

One was kind of normal and one was soft to the touch. But there weren't fruit flies or anything around so I declared to self I will eat these. Strange surprise. Something I've never seen in a banana. Peeling them there was still the sticking-on stringiness, something I still tried to remove. But as I did that I realized the bananas were coming loose from the peel. There was no biting into these, only sticking the whole thing into your mouth. The strangest part is that these bananas had begun to deliquesce, melt in a way, and they turned out to be the most watery, juicy bananas I ever ate. The taste was utterly different today but the minerality remained, mixed now with the honey-moist sweetness of a fruit I never tasted before. 

I'm not into numbers. But what's in the human heart?

I'm not into numbers of dead or wounded or maimed or disappeared or repatriated or lost. I'm not into "sides" or who planted which bombs or booby trapped which bus. I'm not into Colombo and I'm not into what somebody out there calls "peace and reconciliation." I'm sure these are terms that are alien to ninety percent of your people because they don't have the vocabulary or the cognitive capacity. Shoveling rice into their faces using their hands as a sort of paddle is the main occupation. I'm not really interested in dates and I couldn't be less interested in politics or political maneuvering. The politicians, the "journalists," and the academics are locked into mind-bogglingly evil vortices of self deception that spreads to the rest of this country on evil tentacles that inject poison slow or fast or numbing or paining depending on what the Big Men want at a given time. Monks too I suppose although that's hearsay. I don't understand Sinhala so I don't know which poison they're spreading. 

It's like lying is the way people communicate and the only goal is to pour on more lies, make the lies thick, mulch the old lies and transmogrify them into new "truths" which nobody cares about anyway as long as mountains of rice are being transformed into mountainous bellies to be nurtured under gigantic knots of the national costume, the male sarong. What is that bulge supposed to portray? Command? Envision? Oh by the way I'm not into so-called peace process because there isn't any. How could there be any hint of process like that when it's the last thing your Big Men want?

I feel bad to write such mean sounding things. But there's some truth in it. Maybe a lot of truth? It's the truth I hear. It's the way interpret what I read and hear. Or. Just my impression. Maybe based on my friend's growing pessimism and disappointment, his saying the other day this country will never heal. My conjecture. But with some truth. If you can say there's truth. Because what is truth? The truth in truth-telling and reconciliation? We're very far from that. The "truth" that people in the "south" are stirred up? Maybe. Or maybe it's their politicians and their "journalists" and their academics who are stirring them up. Because if you keep the pot boiling there is no way anyone inside the pot will look out and say hey we don't need to live this way in the pot. Then there might be change. Or political change that's not based on violence and intimidation and submissiveness, the triplets that are built into the foundations, I hate to say, the very culture of this society. Better to keep them, the people in those sarongs and saris, stirred up like a massive immune system on the lookout, an immune system on the defensive, an immune system convinced of its enemy. Chemically convinced, genetically convinced. Ready to make war. Ready to do anything at any cost because its been convinced. The switches have been turned on one by one by one until the whole complex evil monster is ready to rock. How did you turn on the switches? Easily. By telling lies: The enemy is implacable and the enemy is at hand. The enemy is preparing and the enemy is rattling its swords. The enemy is sworn to crush you so you must crush it. 

But my interest is not in crushing. My interest is in pumping. Of the human heart in the human breast. Let's say for the moment that even politicians and "journalists" and vice chancellors have these pumps called hearts and even use them not only for pumping red blood but to make feelings about their world and the other heart-owners, people that is, in their world. I'm including these people, the Big Men, only to be fair. After all they are part of the human species, capable of what other humans are capable of and of course therefore capable of love and fear and all the rest. But I'm including them here only philosophically, to include rather than exclude them. To admit them to the human species though of course mine is not to admit. They are already card-carrying members of the human race by means of their lineage and DNA. But moving along, what is it in people's hearts?

What is in the heart of a victim? What is in the heart of a perpetrator? What are the feelings and motivations that lead to acts of violence and it seems it's acts of violence more than acts of love our people are prone to, our species that is. But what is in the heart? How is that heart pumping the creative juices that add up to feelings and perceptions and moments and hatreds and loves and protectiveness and longing and missing and hunger for another person or for freedom or for dignity, this hunger aside from the daily hunger of three-times-a-day rice?

What are the motivations for spells of crazy violence or finger pointing or bomb throwing? What's going on in the young man's heart when he's firebombing a house with children asleep in it? Are there hesitations or is his heart just pounding and pumping the poison he's had injected into him like so much synthol and steroids? And his head? Maybe he's too young to really know how to use it. Or maybe it is just directing the muscles of his body to throw the bomb and destroy lives. Or maybe his head and heart are in the same place, the same swimming lane so to speak, and that is the lane of Fear. The lane in which he's convinced, like so many other young men are, that these enemies are potentially much greater than his "group" and need to be vanquished before they bud or burst out into their own violence. So maybe it's this fear thing that unites heads and hearts and brains and muscles and blood and adds up to an inexorable babble of do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. And so. He throws the bomb. 

But maybe did he hear a voice? Was there any hesitation, even a second? A nanosecond? One switch out of a hundred or a hundred and fifty or the thousand switches of hate and illogic and fear and desparateness that got turned off and so set the machinery of throwing just ever so slightly askew? Even for a second? Was there a moment of compassion, the tiniest moment, preached by his religion, the religion he is out to defend by throwing a firebomb and destroying a family or rounding up another youngster he knows is innocent and more a scared than him? I don't know. I'm only guessing. I'm only a foreigner who came here many years, many decades after the pot boiled over. 

But why keep it boiling like a pot that is about to have its milk boiled over in a celebratory time-marking family-oriented way? What does it serve other than those Big Men. But what other way do you have to go? It's the culture and the way things are done and it's what you've been taught. So the lies they tell you, and the lies they teach you how to recite and make communicated to others, these are the milk of human kindness. These are the milk boiling over in the holiday pot. These are the lines of power, the channels of communication. These bits of hate, these drips of poison and fear, are the way you grow and develop as a person, as a man. 

So the illogic of firebombing a young family's house is cut somehow with what you perceive to be a truth. That these people are the poison, the thorn in your side, in your society's side. In your sui-side. They need to be destroyed so society can go forward, so you can keep drinking or absorbing that poison that you think is the milk of life. But. Who told you to do this? Who triggered this or what triggered this? Your heart is a kind heart. Or it may be a kind heart. It is a heart that loves its mother heart and grandmother heart and maybe loved teachers and pets. So there is room in your heart, capacity in your heart, for love, gentle love. But something triggers, something convinces, something prompts, something overwhelms, something unstoppers your own violence, violence that I'm told we all are capable of, and stoppers your also-innate gentleness. Something pushes you over the top. 

Look. Sometimes you want to key a car. You don't like the people in the car. You don't like the car. You're angry about something else. But then. Maybe you think. I've had my car keyed. It is so not nice. So uncool. It makes the person sad when they go to the car to open the door and take their kids to school and they see those mean key scratches. So when you want to do it yourself some brakes come on. Come on! There are consequences to this action. You will make someone else sad, angry, incensed, revengeful. You will create badness by this simple act of badness, and it's not that bad. Only scratching the paint on someone's car door. But it is a small act that carries big meaning, something that sets in motion badness, depression, discomfiture, a feeling of gloom and doom. Don't do it. Keep your hands and your keys in your pocket. Skip it. Go do something else. Look the other way. OK you almost did it but it doesn't make you less of a man so to speak not to carry through. Just give it a miss will you?

Truly it's that moment I'm after. Not the millions of moments of mechanical mass murder, mayhem, massacre. It's the moment of faltering or manning up of a heart. A heartbeat really isn't it? The moment or you could call it turning point when mayhem is averted or imposed, full scale. I think it's more psychological than political. It's more philosophical than physical. It's a moment in the heart, a construct, a crawl space, a cone that leads to a different world, a different fate, a change of time and opinion. So, what is it? Can it be? Or are we helplessly attached brain to heart to act on our fears and mutually destroy? Or unilaterally destroy? Or exhort to destroy?

By the way that's a good question. If you didn't come up with this idea to firebomb a Tamil family's home in Bandarawela in 1981, and I doubt you did. You just weren't that smart. Who gave you the idea? Who planted it? Who exhorted you, pulled you from the garden so to speak? Who extorted you? Who put the fear into you that without you doing this exact thing disaster would surely be meted out? Who did you go into a covenant with, a co-going that by its unity gave you the "strength" to throw that bomb? Who prepared your not-that-smart mind of yours to do this deed? What was their problem? Were they preaching compassion on Poya day and throwing fire and brimstone the other 29 days of the month because those Tamils simply deserved it? Was it a monk? Was it monks? Were they in temple or on tv? Am I too far off in my guess?

Was it the principal of your school? Black hair dyed, strict with the rod, with the ringing of bells, stiff with the rod and the bingeing of bells? Was it your parents, your hardworking father or your hard drinking father or your missing father and your hard working mother? Was it a cousin or a brother like the Boston bomber? The Belgian bomber? The Bandarawela bomber? Who taught you these nasty manners? 

Did you eat that night? Did you eat heartily? Did you wait until you did the deed and then reward yourself with dinner? Did you drink that night? Did you drink enough so that your heart was silenced and for that matter a good part of your not-so-smart brain so that what you did was almost automatic? But just gotta ask, what about that single lonely part that wasn't set on automatic? That hesitated? That posed a question? 

Can you tell this story from your perspective? I'll pretend, even imagine you're still alive. You're probably here in Sri Lanka, I bet you're still out there in Uva Province, because I just don't imagine you were smart enough to go to Colombo and join in the mind boggling making of money and "wealth" in a poor society sucked dry by its politicians and leaders. If there was "something for you" in the firebombing I'm pretty sure it was smallish and temporary. So I'm guessing you're a little younger than me, meaning that you were between 19 and 29 when you threw the firebomb. I'm pretty sure you are Sinhalese because I think it would be pretty rare for one Tamil family to firebomb another in 1981 in Bandarawela. And chances are pretty remote that you'd be a foreigner. Let's rule that one out? So I imagine you're still "out there," probably eating lots of rice, probably too much because now you have "sugar." Probably close to Bandarawela, probably a parent of grown children, probably an uncle or an "uncle." Probably you don't speak English so you won't read this but if any of your Sinhalese nephews is into it he can translate for you or probably one of your nieces. They're a little more studious. 

Then you could find me. You could contact me through my blog. Or your niece or nephew could do that. They're pretty good with Facebook and all that stuff. Then we could have a nice sit down. You could tell me what was in your heart when you threw the firebomb, the Molotov cocktail. You could tell me what's in your heart now, as your life (this one at least) is coming to the short end of the fuse. What would you like to happen when you get ready to enter the next life? Would you like to repent? Would you like to talk to the people you tried to kill? I betcha they'd forgive. Would you like to gain a bit of "merit" before you go? Up to you. I'm just wondering. I'm just a foreigner. I'm into finding some true stories and letting you run with them any way you like. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

You are too much into your ancientness

You are way too much into your ancientness. It's not a good thing. I'll cut to the chase. If you're the ancientest one in town or the most ancient one on the island there's no room for anyone else's ancientness. It's as though ancientness gives some kind of permission to be the "owner" and this at the expense of everyone who's less ancient. Or at least who you can yell at louder, "we're the ancient people! Not you!!!" It's part of the sick myth of nation and blood. "Origins." As if. All I see is a bunch of people fighting over who's more ancient just like they fight over every street and every piece of land and every province. It's silly and it's stupid. Don't get me wrong. It's cool to be ancient. Just not to have that be your only thing. Maybe it's your inferiority complex after half a millennium of colonial invaders? Maybe it's because you're afraid of being stepped on by the tens of millions of people on the mainland who are of a different ancientness? The ancientness of your supposed enemies? Get over your inferiority complex and your fear. I know. I truly know your religion says something about "no fear." Why do you suppose it dies? Because like the Fassbinder movie's title: Fear eats the soul. Whatever. If you can't get over your fear please don't take it out on the other people in your country who are also vying for the status "most ancient." Let it go. 

In the meantime you've commodified your ancientness in a peculiar and most un-tasteful way. I'm not saying you shouldn't have giant plastic statues of your most important religious figure all over the country. I am saying it's an eyesore for travelers who have seen a lot, and I mean a lot of other beautiful places. What does this say about your country? Also. Not that you shouldn't charge foreigners the big bucks to see your ancient sites, all of which brim, by the way with bad energy. The worst energy I've ever seen. So much worse than the Mayan sites or the Aztec sites where human sacrifice was celebrated. We look at that practice as abominable. But they didn't. And the "energy," if you can visualize such a thing--maybe you can't or don't want to--in those places is remarkable. Positive. Spiritual, even with the lines of hawkers at a place like Chichen Itsa in the Yucatan. It was a market place then, as people bought statues and stuff for offerings, and it is now. Just the statues are being used for something else. There's something beautifully congruent about it. About the space being used in this way and the millions of tourist steps taken on a sort of pilgrimage. Here?  A patricidal king builds a rock fortress and zillions of tourists come there? He controlled water? First king to ever do that? And had gorgeous murals painted there? Yes. They are gorgeous and that's why they're a world heritage piece. But the rest of that rock. What's the message? It comes a little bit too close to what your country is about. Violence, treachery, submissiveness, ultimately stupidity by selling itself out and other chicanery. And I don't like it. Sorry. It may not be mine to like or not. I don't have to visit there ever again do I? But I'm just opining. You don't like? You can stop reading. 

It's just that your sites are so full of ancientness mixed with the way contemporary people use and abuse them. It's a huge parade of contradictory behaviors. Imagine how stupid it is that you don't want a foreigner wearing his short pants to some site but for sure if he throws a woman's beach sarong around him that's appropriate. It happened to me when I mixed up sightseeing and religion and truthfully I could have done without either. I like to discover on my own and conform because I sense it's right, not because a man in brown demands it of me as part of the pleasure I get for that extra 200, 300, 500 rupees. Take it down a notch, would you? It's bad enough to have to sense so much police and military presence everywhere. Can we keep them out of the holy sites, now that the evil thirty years' war is over? You condemn Israel in the UN over the very things you do in broad daylight. Why not take a look in the mirror and consider at least some of that compassion your religion's so famous for. 

The truly old sites in your country, the irrigation lakes, the backbone of your civilization, lie ignored and despoiled. You wash your tuktuks and your tractors in them. I saw it with my own eyes. You dredge them to remove silt and make room for water, so you can grow more rice for your ever more sedentary people to grow thicker and huger and more sedentary and more metabolically challenged. You kill your ancient sites with agrochemicals so you can kill your people. Your government contractors don't do the job right so repairs will have to be undertaken again in another couple of years. You abuse the environment for the stupidest, most short-sighted reasons. Hey. I'm not claiming that the same thing doesn't happen all over the world. But these are YOUR ancient sites. 

Not just your village tanks are neglected and misused. Your massive tanks are too. They're beautiful and impressive and significant and ancient. But the cool thing is not the kings who built them, which is the thing you go on about nonstop. It's their ingenious incorporation of nature and water and human enterprise. Or it was anyway. I noticed them when I visited the heartland of your country and I detected so many of them had the Tamil word for lake, "kulam" attached to them. There in the very heartland of Sri Lankan Buddhism. You could capitalize on this, use it as a national brand, to focus on how your history is a diverse set of cultures that goes way back. Way way back. Everyone's ancient here. You should face it. Use it. You could capitalize on the coolness of Ganesha rocks at every tank, still in use, still venerated, even though though they're outside the "official" bounds of Theravada Buddhism. Why not face up to and embrace the syncretic nature of your religions and folkways? Rather than making one the "majority" culture and one the "minority." And then beating it and beating it like a dead horse. One is the victor and one is the loser. Really? Could it be you learned this from the Christian missionaries who overran your country, destroyed your places of worship, forbade your practices, forced their "dominance" on you? I don't know. I'm not from a missionizing religion. I just don't know where you picked up your bad habits. You should take a look at your bad habits and think about where they may have come from. A little truth-telling after you meditate--I know your religion looks kindly on meditation--would be a great thing. 

We're all one aren't we? Or is that just another crude joke, more oil thrown on the fire? Can't someone give me a cogent answer?

Why do you have to be so old and ancient, to the exclusion of your neighbors? Is it because you're a relatively new civilization, only 2500 or 2600 years old, while India to your north is so much more ancient? Is it because you're a country of migrants, pretty much the same as every country and every culture on Earth with its own myths of migration? Could your needing to be "old" have anything to do with the native people here who you displaced? The "yakkas" your Buddha "tamed?" Is there no other way you can make peace with this story, this reality?

What does being ancient do for you? How do you get off on it to such an extent? Isn't there anything better you can do with your national identity or your ethnic identity? Wouldn't it be great if people could just feel proud of who they were instead of having to back it up with spurious evidence of purity and essence of ancientness? Take a look at Mexico my friends. They've struck a balance. And their colonial history and their recent history haven't been that kind to them. Ancientness is good but it shouldn't be the end all and be all that it seems to be for you. It shouldn't exclude and splinter when it could embrace and strengthen. Re-evaluating your "ancientness" and your relationship to it might be a good step toward rebuilding your civilization. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lost in thought

Lost in thought

Light sparkling off the lagoon and flooding the afternoon spaces with its invasive qualities. The shade is precious and shade with a fan is twice precious. Discussions of the local and the hyper local. Of dress and of observance of deals and of meals. The breath of conversation when my friend slows, slurs, holds his breath, "They put so many resources into those roundups." A conversation killer? No he has lots to go. It's the proverbial mighty stream. The head monk of the police ponsala here screaming obscenities. The government supporting him. He is a Buddhist missionary in the filthy Tamil east, an araliya flower smelling sweetly next to the dung heap and dogshit of the terrorists' realm. There's plenty to talk about and go over and remember and recollect and mourn. 

Those moments of holding your breath when the moments stop and stretch. Silence as an exertion of power, negotiating with the Kattankudy merchant for ten minutes barely a word spoken while you sit in the driver's seat blocking his anyway unused driveway and he stands to you. I am not questioned. I am not a point of conversation. But I am there. I have been brought for some kind of presence. And I add to silence because I can't talk. Maybe I'm a part of the power. 

Lost in thought with so many observations going around and begging to get discussed or analyzed or a anyway to get recorded. Observations to discuss over and over. Observations to ponder. Observations to put aside for next time. Observations to bury. Observations to find things by. To find new ideas. To store new ideas. To generate new ideas. To ponder with your head and heart. To make real or to keep in the abstract. 

Lost in thought with depth of feelings depth of wondering depth of transmitting. What transmits? A breath of a held breath. What breathes? A person, a snake, a leaf, the light. 

The coconut flowers as graceful as can be. Utterly woody and inedible. Is it true they have no enemies? No parasites? Nowhere to go but to larger woodiness? How did this woodiness evolve and why this conservatism, this embeddedness with lignin, this lignification, this growth toward heaviness, this persistence in heat and breeze and drought and wind? Where is that thought and how can't you get lost in it?

What about that sunrise today? From the panic of waking at 4:20, an irrelevant starry hour, sometimes C an hour of roosters and forest birds and sometimes not, the moments ticking by as you lie on the wet pillow on the two towels put there to absorb the night sweat, this with the door open and fan revolving so you lose yourself in thought and you lose yourself in sound. What about that purposeful moving down the stairs with bike lock in hand with room lock in pocket with purpose to leave the premises and glide into that still darkish light and hear that kovil music streaming, seaming, stentorian and braided like so many galaxies of tunefulness and not-tunefulness and chords and words and rhythms and twangs of sounds alien to you but not to the people who have listened to them for centuries and in this village the karnatic sounds multiply and jump off of metal fencing such neat metal fencing such sincere metal fencing hiding hiding hiding like everything is hidden, only reaching through the sense of sound a hose or water flowing or pans clattering or voices or the tick click of a motorbike backing out of the gate to ride through the cow lanes in the red reddening light. 

What about that sunrise over towering clouds clouds that burst clouds that build clouds that go loose and rain juice clouds that pop and clouds that collapse and clouds that fluctuate and grow and dim and fan out and become dusky in their own shadow, that red sun behind them and the idea: how many resources are put into a sunrise. 

How the waves of the ocean must power to the shore or among themselves farther out just so, just so. How the cows must find their path and a motorbike must cut that path, how the breeze must not be in the morning as it is in the afternoon how the fishermen must assemble and get in their boats and make the same movements of their bodies each boat with men doing the same movement as it was wrought in time immeasurably long ago and taught father to son and father to son and father to son for how many centuries? Or longer? This also is part of the mobilization of the morning. The resources becoming enlivened by a light at once gentle and caressing and suddenly when it is upon you as hot and direct as any afternoon sun storm. How the chlorophyll in every quivering leaf is activated to absorb light and pass it on to the next chlorophyll molecule and set the wave of photosynthesis in action. How the dogs must lie and then stop lying as they wander the still not hot surfaces of the roads how the fruit must ripen and the storefronts open and the walkers walk and the bicycle riders bicycle and motorbikes beep and the tuktuk drivers pick up their first ride of the day. This is done village wide. This is the mobilization. Of resources to make a morning as women and men pick flowers for offerings and verges are swept and the temple areas are swept and set and the music is reverberated off the metal speakers and the lights are switched off and fires are built and smoke is sent sailing and spiraling. These are the mobilizations. These are the pre sunrise moments. These are the thoughts that make you lost in thought. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bad governance breaks people

Bad governance breaks people

I stepped into the main room yesterday where my friend was reading the paper. His head was bowed, but not the way a person looks when he's reading the paper. It's the way a man looks when he's deeply disappointed, worn, weathered, humbled, humiliated, scared, trampled. I don't like seeing my friend that way. He's an accomplished person and a proud one. He's made a lot of his life, a life that was led through horrendous adversity. More than thirty years of criminal war and terror, personal affront, humiliation, wanton destruction of his property, threats to his family, the tsunami. He managed to bring up a fine family, educate his children, be a true leader in his community, to build a beautiful oasis in a stricken part of Sri Lanka, to support causes charitable and spiritual. But he has seen more than enough of this country, Sri Lanka,  and its horrible contemporary history. He's lived it firsthand. On a normal day you don't read this on his face or in his body language. But last night it was there, right at the surface. 

By the way his newspaper time in the main room is kind of a personal time. He's in the middle of the action near the front desk but no one disturbs him and he doesn't look up from the paper. Last night with his head bowed he put his hand up on a chair next to him and motioned for me to sit down. Picture for yourself this dramatically laden moment. 

He asked if I'd seen the gentleman in the dining room earlier who were carrying on business. Actually I'd seen a lot of gentleman carrying on business and only noticed "his" gentlemen out of the corner of my eye. They were busy drinking beer, and also whisky and wine, a strange combination for lunch and one I almost never see here. He told me bitterly, hotly, they ate, drank, ran up a bill of Rs 8000, and left without paying. Now I'd heard of armed forces people doing this here during the war but yesterday? What was he talking about?

These were the excise people he explained. And the lavish lunch on him was one of their unwarranted, illegal perks, taken, grabbed with arrogance and impunity. If he were to say something about it he could have a fine of Rs 10,000 levied against him. A confrontation or formal complaint could easily cost him Rs 60,000. He was beat up and broken last night. Not, I think, over the Rs 8000. He runs a good business though with rooms here averaging Rs 3000 or so, that's a real chunk of money. It was the brutality of it. The cruelty. The randomness. His powerlessness. 

Kim happened by after what I know was an intense evening of interviews. I think she stopped by for a drink so I ordered us a couple of beers and three glasses. My friend joined us in a glass. I've never seen him drink before. Later, he ordered a third bottle and put it on his tab. Very unusual behavior by a person who's mostly abstinent. And a careful businessman. After all he'd just lost a thousands of rupees on an unfair government sponsored bullying ripoff. He told us more about the excise racket here in what he calls the "third world." The price of doing business is incredibly high. The opposite I think of our country where business is encouraged and you are freer to build your enterprise. 

"I can remember" came to his lips many times last night. From the time the head monk of the police station ponsala here in Batticaloa ran amok right here on the grounds, shouting obscenities and insults. He's supported, encouraged by the government. And why not? He stakes a Sinhalese claim in this Tamil corner of Sri Lanka. My friend described also  the riots of local Muslims against the rest of the Tamil community, fueled and encouraged by the Sri Lankan government. His young son looked up to him, he remembers, and asked "when will our house get burnt Dad?" My question is how do you bring children up in an atmosphere of hatred and violence, one that cuts so close, in a society like this. Is it any wonder that so many Sri Lankan Tamils have made their homes overseas?

Kim kept good questions going, something I'm not good at. Like Janet, she works on aiming the conversation. I listen to whatever comes. Anyway so much pours out during these times you can't take it in. I asked my friend about roundups. He made the worst face you can imagine. The cruelty of those times. Eastern University was, I guess, a kind of "camp," his words. I think not a refugee camp. I think it was an internment camp, a camp where "selections" were made, a camp where people disappeared and suffered. A place of impunity. Not exactly the place of impunity Sri Lanka is now. But a place of evil and suffering. 

How long did this camp last? What were its conditions? How did people end up here and where did they go from here?

My friend (I'm afraid for him to identify who he is. The arm of the "law" is long and he is vulnerable) said that to know Singhala in those times gave you an advantage. Like knowing German in those unmentionable times and places in Europe not so long ago. The abject cruelty is evidenced only by his slight smile. By the fixed expression on his face. By the way he rattles the paper closed.  

He comes back today buoyant, back in one piece. Where is the breakage? In newly erupting tides of hate? In cruelties to self and family unspoken and unmeasured? In the smile itself, cultivated, half felt, a protective shield?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Drink lime juice. It's good for you.

You told me an interesting story about someone in the village giving you lime juice and you not being able to choke it down. Come on! I'm the first to admit lime juice is an acquired taste, like lots of things we experience in Sri Lanka. It tastes a little bit like salty sewage water, dank, cranky, sour. But it is deeply refreshing and deeply appropriate to the place where we are. The day is pretty much over for all intents and purposes at ten, more like nine actually, because the sun is hot and it just gets hotter. That hotness is something that grows and grows. But some people have to keep working through the day. I've watched them carefully. Once when the day got demanding and the heat seemed to be hours from breaking I observed as Prince had a glass next to him at the desk. It was a lime juice. No ice, no sugar is the way you drink it. You need to use control and sip it slowly, offering it to your body slowly, to restore yourself. Lime juice is a kind of healthy Gatorade, not "cooling" like a king coconut, but strengthening. The salt replaces electrolytes you've been shedding since dawn, or maybe that you already shed overnight as you were sweating into your pillow. It's not yummy delicious or sweet fizzy like the lime soda you say is your fallback drink. But I take my clue for the people here. 

The myth of nation and blood. Part 3.

You had two dreams that night. Late in the night before morning. Late in the clear night before the smoky dawn of day. Late in the recesses of dark, deep in the recesses of velvet sleep. Deep in the heart of a purring wetness a pulsing aura a pulse a pulse a pulse a pulse a drift, a dive, a submergence. Late so late so still so dead were you with your first dream you suffered you sank you struggled you bobbed downward into dark waters darkened by the emanations of your own troubled brain, sickened by a night chill or poisonous bite or thirst of the hot fields where water you sweated out was not replaced and water you put in your mouth was sloshed then spit out, spit out in the mightiest stream you could make, like the betel. It hurt your back, your kidneys. A mild poison. A drying poison. Poison in the dark. Your first dream. A melting wall. A beating. A dire welcome of your impending death your days lying numbered by the side of the dry jungle path in the mulchy undergrowth. You. Under the shedding trees. Under dropping leaves. Under dying fruit. You. And the bad dream you had. So bad you could not consult. Could not consult for fear. Could not consult for fear of consequences beyond your power to control, beyond your power to correct or interpret or change to song as so many dreams were and had been changed to songs, to poetry, to incantation, to ceremony, to the beating of sticks, to the wearing of masks, to the donning of anklets and bells by your ancestors. These songs and poetry and incantation and ceremony and beating of sticks and wearing of masks and the donning of anklets and bells and even dancing. These things were still done. They had always been done. They would always be done. But not of this dream. Not of this first dream you had on your last night. This first dream all by itself could have killed you, torn you apart as a lion would tear, greedy, ravenous, nonchalant. The dream came up on you like a bear, starving, lousy with bugs, its eyes dripping an unholy wetness the smell of spoiled food. Your dream: what was it? Can you share it now over the space of time and demons? Can you find it in your wet sticks, your wet fronds of palm, fashioned into fences, the woven mats drying in the sun, drying, piled together, fortified with sun. Like the piles of rice spread and drying on the road as the fat merchants eye them and calculate their worth and their price? Like the spices you dry by the sunny spot, were peppers and cloves and saffron enliven the nose. This dream.  Can the sun dispel, enlighten, lighten it? All dreams but this, your dream tonight? You can't build from this the way you can build from coconut frond curtains. There is no wholesome drying like the rices or the spices. There is nothing but ill in this dream. No containment. No directing. No interpreting. No consulting. No valuing. No evaluation. No price and no payment. No absolution. Only pure damage. Damage to yourself and maybe to others. Maybe to your family. Maybe to the soothsayer. Maybe to the village. Maybe to the countryside. Like a plague. Poison and penetrating. Contagious and mysterious. Fearful and raging and lackadaisical. Horrible and silent. This dream you could not share then but can share now. Whisper it. This dream. This dream on the far shore of flight like so many insect eating birds or the bats of night like waters broken uncontrolled. Like flipping clouds. Disease, this dream. Not to be shared. Not to be shared for the horror it will cause and maybe spread. Not for the demons it will take out of lurking and come flying across the water's surface. This dream. Simple. Here it is. 

You bit your teeth off one by one. No pain in this, just a removal. Some you swallowed. Most you spit out. Spit out like so many dry seeds. You spit them, your teeth, painlessly, just like you removed them from your own gums not fitfully not with any feeling at all. Only just the feeling of each tooth. Its identity known by your tongue after so many years of knowing these teeth. You relished the feel of each tooth as it went down your throat or you spit it out of your mouth. This removing and swallowing and spitting and relishing of your own teeth. That was the dream. Short as it was.

You were heaving when you woke up fighting for air, the air filling your lungs with infinitesimal slowness as you lay there between dead and alive on your mat. The pulse of insects and the trickle of water livening the night. You fell back asleep before you could sit up, before you could remember this dream. 

The second dream. A dream of glory. A deep dream of glory, of saving, of song, of salvation. A dream of future, of the strength you would shed to your descendants, of the powerful unsheathing of your towering trembling stupendous journeying sapling. Planted and established. Permanent and rooted, strengthened by its filling the world with light. Its filling the world with message. Its message of goodness. Its leaves shimmering, swaying, scintillating in the sun like a million meditative lights. Its bringing of feasts and lifting of first fruits. Its terrible squeezing as it empowers, devours, penetrates, draws and gives light. This dream like a pillar, billowing, growing, enchanting, filling, pouring, streaming its innate goodness. A goodness as innate as the badness of your first dream. This good dream. What was it? Can you share it? Can you find it? Can you lug it out with you, out of the night shadows, out of your soaking sleeping mat, out of your fever into daytime? Can you bring it, this dream of yours, out into the shining brass daylight? Can you position it so it is visible from all sides, simple enough for the simplest of us to comprehend, to worship? Can you use this dream? Can we use this dream? Can we find a place of good for this dream, place it in a house of dreams, an image house, a place where we can envision it collectively, as a group? Worship this dream? Interpret this dream? Scatter this dream like so much seed up in the high places and the low places, unfurl this dream like a flag? Make this dream a story? Make it our story? Find its valor, its lusty truth, brand ourselves with it? Can this story be our brand? Can this story brand itself upon us and our land? Can this story fold into and enfold upon the stories we carry? Can we cart this story as a third visit after two have been completed? A completion? A wholeness? A design for our future and our past? A design for our present? Our presence? What is the power of this dream and what do you attribute its power to? Or is it powerful enough to provide an empowerment, a branding, an identity, a oneness, an indivisibility, a quickening, a strengthening, a stiffening, a message? 

This dream of yours. Make it ours. Put it in a picture before you die. Put it in words before you are taken with fever. Put it in our hearts as you draw us closer to you in your last breaths. Put your sweet smelling dream in the stench of your dying so you may live through it and we can die through it. Make this story, your dream, the conduit for us, the explanation for us, the story of our people and our land, the explanation for us on this land, the story of our power, the explanation of our power on this land. Our ownership. Our wresting from devils and demons, our planting ourselves in the high places, our putting our priests in the high places, in the cool high places, in the cool caves of the high places, and our putting ourselves in the low places, the rich low places, the watered low places, the fertile low places, the irrigated low places, the desireable low places, the places we cut from jungle, the places we took from savages, the savages we cut out of these lands, the lakes we built to repel the savages, to protect ourselves from the savages, to garner our food from, our fish, our tubers, our green and flowering things. Tell us in your dream. How did this golden thing become our landscape, fall into our hands, utterly destroy the demons, build our fate and faith. Tell us in your dream. How did this golden thing brand itself to is, enliven us, elevate us, enlighten us, make our hands and feet work willingly? Tell us in your dream. How did this golden thing become our picture, our story, our place and our place names? How did we come to own this story and how did this story come to own us so that we were one? How was this story approved by our elders and our priests and our castes and our womenfolk? How did this golden thing become our cooking pot and our offering stone? Tell us in your dream. How did this golden thing become adopted and ferreted out and meted into our blood? Melded into our blood, into a oneness, a flowing oneness, a solid oneness, a shining oneness, an intractable oneness? How did we eat the lion and become of its blood? How did this dream become our conquest? Here was the dream. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Through the village and along the ocean

Coming off a morning bike ride through the village and along the ocean there is no describing the dusky fragrant scooping dirt roads and concrete block pathways, the soft or loud blare of kovils the ringing and winking of cows. 

The smell of outdoor showers and morning soap. The grayness of the ocean and sky. The redness of the sun a burning ball rising through the casuarina. 

The crows and swallows. The rushing of the fishermen in motorboats out on the ocean headed south. The assembling of fishermen in their dugouts on the lagoon. 

The clatter and click of phone wires. The cow dung on the road. The dogs playing and biting each other's legs. The word "nallum" (good) that I can make out in the karnatic kovil songs. The freshness of a breeze on my face and in my sleeves, a freshness that evaporates in seconds after the movement stops. The motorbikes pressing by. The old guys on old bikes. The impassive stares. The stores still closed, shuttered. One string hopper shop open. The men carrying small plastic bags with breakfast. The crushed crabs along the road. The potholes and kerbs, the jumps up or down as dirt changes to concrete or concrete lets on to dirt. The faint smell of dogshit. The sweeping of the verges. The fences of rust or of fiber. The signs fading away away in salt village air. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Seasons change

The afternoon wind, which just started up a week or two ago, is twice welcome. It cleans the air and brings in a breeze if not cooling, at least fresher than the hot still sun dust- and smoke-clogged atmosphere. White melon vines dry and sink and are fed to the rabbits and on the back of a truck are sold jungle berries, oval and yellow-green. Their taste is rich, almost fatty, and the large smooth black seed has a lipid attachment that will attract ants who bury it down in the jungle mulch. This is a once a year treat and Thavarajah pays Rs 300 for a bag. He distributes berries to me and to the staff, so when I go to give people a handful they've already been munching all afternoon. The skins are thick and stick to the roof of your mouth. You can't eat that many and on the third day the ones I've been given that I didn't eat turn. 

A quieter day than usual, waiting for news from home. A family member is in trouble and I'm unable to concentrate. That's the way it is. After lying on my bed under the fan for hours I head for the pool. The serving boys are there and just today I don't feel like keeping them company and giving a swimming lesson. Anyway they're happy as can be to chat among themselves and laugh and race across the hot hot pool that is so grossly chemical-laden and I leave them be. Clinton goes to Qatar now in a week to work. He'll be there for two years, supposedly making Rs 55,000 monthly compared to his Rs 15,000 (plus tips) here. It's his decision and he must make peace with himself and his mother. He's the baby of his family. I want to stay out of the discussion. 

So instead of the pool I head for a hammock. The luxurious one made out of recycled woven fertilizer bags. The one that Julia saw the red ants on and that Thavarajah sprayed. I look up at the wood apple tree. My favorite. It is in the Rutaceae, same family as oranges. Its leaves, cute and compact, are just like the Ruta we grow in our garden to honor Janet's Sephardic grandparents. The story is her great grandparents brought Ruta from Turkey to New York and planted it there. It is medicinal and poisonous. Sprigs around the delivery bed promise a safe birth. Or is it that the Ruta was brought from Spain to Turkey?

I've told people here that wood apple is in the orange family and they deny. Vehemently. Until they think for a moment and recall. The fruit is segmented. That fruit, the least attractive. Scabrous and brown-gray, woody. You smash the outside and you can eat the viscous odorous gooey brown pulp with your fingers or make a juice drink. But where are the flowers?

I expected small flowers but even so never saw them. I love the unkempt form of this tree. All of the wood oranges. They are like Chinese scholars' rocks in their asymmetry and lack of pomp. Their jagged profiles. Their scraggly certainty. Never trimmed or hedged. Always wild. I look up from the hammock. It's not a profusion of fruit but a progression. Like ovaries were fertilized successively over weeks. Fruits of every size from fingernail small to almost ripe and baseball bunched. Several to a branch. I hadn't seen them. Hadn't lain in this hammock. Here they are, another sign of the season. They look like they're raining down, smaller ones higher up. But it's an illusion. 

Three or four days ago the coconut climber came by the pool, very early. He desexed the coconut just above the water. Down came the staminate flowers! Down came the females! All woody and sculptural. All very heavy. All with the accompaniment of mighty sheaves of fabric and lignaceous fiber. The pool was full of coconut. But the coconut tree would not fruit this year. Saving us from the possibility of falling.  

But falling is what one tree did today, right in the middle of the grounds. Just a few sandy feet from a family walking to the pool. Its roots weak and severed right at the surface of the sand. The crown heavy with fruit and flowers, about three seasons' worth, surprisingly heavy, gently waving until one gentle breeze, gently insistent, brought it crashing down. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

A laser cut plastic box

A laser cut plastic box 

This is a proposal for a project about a war carried out against civilians. The object to be made is a plastic box, actually a series of them, each one about an inch high, and hinged so you can open them like pages of a book. The pages will be about 12 inches square. Each "page" the same, village streets and homes mapped in 3-D, cut by the laser printer. Each page mapping the events of a given date. It can be hypothetical because there are no records. The book is clean and neat looking, not like the real village byways with sand and dust and dung. But this is an abstraction of the truth, as every map or art project is. Blue and red lines on the roads and streets and lanes showing the routes boys took on their bikes or on foot when the warning shouts came. "It's a roundup!" They were hanging out with friends or in front of the shops, gossiping. The blue lines are the routes taken by the boys who got home. The red ones got caught. 

The difference a few years makes

They swagger in, looking around 
Can the East really be this beautiful?

Stay off the main road, it's too wide
Two or even three vehicles may block it off

They eat their sandwiches and their rice
You speak their language. It's a miracle. Such nice service. 

Get your bike out quick and make a run for it 
But don't get stuck in a dead end

Their children spoiled and whiney, a new place after all
Born after the conflict and used to air conditioning

If you're stuck bang on the gate
Or better to climb over and hide. But your bike!

They order politely and smile at foreign guests
Supposing we, who are strangers too, can't see the difference

If you're caught you won't get home
Not tonight and maybe never

The roads were packed and Kurenagala to Dambulla was all construction 
It will be worse inbound at the end of the holiday weekend 

You struggled as they grabbed you, arms and legs
Your mother never found out where you went that night. 

So many holidays

So many holidays

So for me tonight is Passover and here I am in pretty much the farthest corner of Sri Lanka. Janet had the sense at least to go home for ten days so she'll be with the kids for the duration of the holiday. I hadn't thought I'd feel sad or homesick about it but I kind of do. That's the price of doing business I suppose. Of course Passover is an ancient pilgrimage holiday that lasts eight days, something of a rarity in our world, while extended holidays and pilgrimage events are common over here in South Asia. 

Only last week was Sinhala-Tamil New Year, part of a three week school holiday that the kids are just coming down from. Then today is Hanuman Jayanthi, an important Hindu holiday for devotees of the monkey god Hanuman. Kim was down in Ollikulam at an all-night kovil celebration that ended this morning at seven with fire-walking. I am amazed at her devotion to every kind of religious rite she can get her hands on. I'm less comfortable with experiencing other peoples' rites--we've got plenty of our own, but it's great to see Kim out there always, and it seems going out on a limb to observe something new. 

My 5:30 AM bike ride this morning took me to a small kovil just around the corner from our guesthouse, a place that could be in the most rural area if it weren't just minutes from Batticaloa. It's right in the village of Tiruchendur just a block or two down from the Tiruchendur Murugan Kovil. The two roads on its front and side edges are sandy and unpaved and it's just a few steps from the lagoon. I was drawn to it by very loud music this morning, maybe in honor of Hanuman's day. There were only two worshippers I could see. What held my interest was an enormous tree with beautiful semi-succulent leaves and reddish berries in distinctive clumps, around which the leaves seem to radiate symmetrically. I should have known it wasn't a rubber tree when I described it to Thavarajah. He knew right away that this was a banyan tree, the genus Ficus. I should have known too. What a botanist. Anyway he told me several people saved their lives during the tsunami by hanging onto the thick branches of this huge tree. 

Other than my bike ride, where every day I seem to pick up a little more data on the built environment of the village, I treated myself to the early showing (10:30 AM) of "Theri" at the local Shanthi Cimema. Normally I would have gone for the 2:30 show, which gets you out of the heat at the worst time of day. Anyway at 10:30 there's still a chance to get some writing and thinking done. But I went to the early show to meet Ravi, his wife, and her sisters, who were coming up from their villagevfor a special outing. 

I got to the Shanti at about 10:15, and was greeted right away by the manager's son, or maybe he's the manager himself. There's a new show coming on May 7 and they want to give Janet and me free tickets since I started tweeting about the theater and the movies. Kind of fun being a VIP but really, I can afford the Rs 250. Ravi wasn't around when I entered so I kind of thought what a waste. Same old movie a second time and no jollies with Ravi and Jainthi. 

As it turned out the movie was better the second time, I "got" a lot more of the depth and pathos (really!) so I was happy to be there. At intermission one of Jainthi's sisters spotted me up in front of them (they had come in just at the beginning of the movie) and it caused a minor uproar. Ravi, Jainthi, and the sisters were relatively dressed up and he was so happy he bought me an orange soda and sat with me for the whole dramatic second half of the movie. 

All part of a great secular event during this holiday-laden season and then, as I was leaving, I was invited to a "fan-party" for the movie at 5:30 this evening. Cake cutting was promised and who knows what else. We'll see if I can fit in the time but meanwhile, it's all part of feeling more or less "in place" in a place where I don't share any of the holidays people are celebrating. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The conquerers come back

The conquerers come back

They grunt and drag their shoes
And don't know how to order food
Or know too well how to order you around
You send the younger boys who speak their tongue
Who didn't know them then when they were around,
About and bearing down
You stay behind the wooden slats of your office 
They will sit on stools to order you
But as is your wont you will not bow
Leave that to them. 
They use unintelligible syllables to bark their desires, their orders, their room changes, their discussions, their phone calls. 
Or they ask for this or that, a soap or toilet paper or batteries for the remote or where to park their cars meekly apologetically delicately probingly in preliminary fashion trying not to be peremptory 
They run the AC all day, never mind that they're away. 
They order and they eat, their eating is like pigs as they go to their troughs of rice. Through their troughs of rice. 
Shameful. In some ways they are so much like your people guzzling snorting the eating dead serious out of bucket-like feeders
Their hands like paddles
The drink they drink the spring water they gulp and rummage through their mouths gargling the juices endless they desire 
Fruits of the East, you must admire. 
They bring in packets from outside, 
Stuff them in waste baskets but don't close the pails
Crows fly and congregate around the spilled rice and parched diced vegetable bits burning in the morning sun, harsh and ugly beneath the mango tree you planted here those twenty, thirty years ago an inheritance for some future children or grandchildren you hoped to nurture in a world free of barbaric violence and endless hate and barbaric hatred and endless violence because
You held the hope
They complain your prices are too high for their SUV gas guzzling families so food from outside is a must
Some of them,
They dress so nicely and children speak English and shower before they jump in the pool, so civilized, better than the sunswoped Europeans with their grease and perfumed poofy thighs
Maybe they stopped in the ponsala before in the center of town next to the police station "Law and Order: the Breath of our Nation," spoken tongue in cheek, with impunity as they say, this police station that sent charred or burning body parts across the fence not so long ago. Yes. Law and order we drink it like the clearest dearest liquid. 
You can tell who they are by the incipient developing bellies, or not so incipient, well developed, very well developed, not through the knot of an enormous sarong inflated bulging busting brutal like in the village but through a tshirt and a pair of vacation shorts, suburban, suave, sleek, yes yes well fed, as well fed and as well developed as any SUV driving American cozying up to their drive-thru Starbucks or McDonald's as they lift their voices to the microphone and slip slap their plastic through the window
Bulletproof and only slightly screened with ketchup and with grease
the smooth caramel skin, their smooth caramel skin the way they use their cell phones to do business while they're on holiday, or the way a Big Man sits at table with his malli or assistant smaller, delicate-er, quieter until enwrapped in his own hierarchical journey of ayya and malli and makes his orders heard, the way their wives dress, the delicateness of their tread here as they open their car doors with the Western Province license and step across vanquished land
This is your property but it is theirs

Our different worlds

Janet bought a pair of shoes before she left, shoes she thought she'd wear in Colombo. Nothing super fancy, but decorative and fun. She spent a good amount of time thinking about, fantasizing how they'd look with different outfits, if there was ever a dry afternoon or evening in Colombo and the occasion called for their slight dressiness. She bought them in Boston. Maybe they were $30 or $50. Maybe they were closer to $100. But whatever they cost they were "on sale" and not a huge amount of money. By our standards. 

Turns out we got away from that cesspit they call Colombo. We had expected university functions, embassy functions, State Department engagements. They never materialized or maybe they would have, if we chose to stay in that environment. Instead we moved to the East. Arguably heaven on Earth. The most beautiful place you can imagine. No embassy here. Only thirty years of war to show for itself. 

But it turns out the shoes were too "snug." They pinched. They impinged in the wrong places. At the wrong angles. What a shame. They were cute. Not Boston cute. Not Batticaloa cute. But cute for an imagined Colombo. A place less dusty, muddy, shitstrewn. What to do?

You have a lovely wife. You live in the cottage that was her dowry amid her family, her female relations. They are so charming. We visited one time and were served like monarchs. Treated like royalty. We sat. We reclined. The womenfolk assembled on the floor in a group as we watched your wedding video. The first hour of it, that is. Our visit that afternoon knocked you out. Couldn't show for work the next morning. 

Our visit knocked you for a loop. You were too done in to show for work the  next day. Who were we? What were these pale personas you brought to your abode, the sun blazing outside in sparse bushes. You fed and pampered us. Finger bowls and serviettes and rare dishes with veggies you'd bought that morning. An afternoon that stretched on. A motorbike visit to the beach, to drink king coconut juice. Your niece carried the knife in the front of your motorbike. I was in back as you drove, carefully, down pitted unpaved lanes with barbed wire on either side. This was the second or third time you were ever on a motorbike! The next week you crashed and had to stay in bed (!) sleeping for a week. You guys look at your bodies and their strengths and weaknesses so differently from us. Or we look at our bodies and their strengths and weaknesses so differently from you. 

You are not paid that much and your wife stays at home. Not a lot to spare. Both of you praying for her to become pregnant. For her to be a mother. The rare wonderfulness of a husband from Colombo, Wattala, with your several words of English and not able to write Tamil but/and some money from a job overseas for several years but enough! You had to come home. Even in the hinterlands, even off the paved roadways, even in fields of ladies fingers (okra) and chiles your wife's biological clock ticks. And you question me (!) sir, how many times does it take until I can make a baby? How many days after "clean clean" can I plant the seed that will turn into a baby?

So the shoes. What is Jainthi's size? Would they fit her? Would they become not a shoe to "wear to temple" as we might, but a 
Kind of Dorothy's ruby slippers at the Smithsonian? The thrall of the village? Not something to wear but to venerate?

Janet thought of giving you the shoes for Jainthi before she left. But would it leave her, Jainthi, feeling beholden? There's little you can give, besides your lush hospitality. That knocks you out. Who knows what happened to Jainthi over these weeks after this effort, this unleashing of hospitality, as you lay in bed recovering? Why and how is it that the poor know to give, how to give? We were never invited among the rich and rampant elite of Colombo! Here where there's so little to give you give. And how can we give in return? How can we offer an incredible pair of pumps to a girl who goes barefoot almost all the time? By choice?

You are going to the Shanthi Cinema tomorrow to see "Theri," with the Tamil actor Vijay. We saw it last week. But how much fun would it be to see it again, not necessarily with you but knowing you are in the crowded audience with extended family and their children, still on New Years school recess. Maybe we'd meet by chance and decide to have lunch together. Maybe I could bring Jainthi the shoes. 

Complexity and isolation in two Sri Lankan villages

The village is a complex place. Here I'm talking about its physical makeup. Google map doesn't do this landscape justice, imposing straight roads where there are curves and ignoring tiny lanes that connect with larger roads or more rarely, end in dead ends. The "blocks" are small. Smaller it turns out, than what I've observed when I've ridden through the streets. Five, six, rarely ten houses occupy the area between roads or lanes. The roads look well-established, like they were here before the conflict and not crowded together haphazardly as refugees filled this space. It doesn't seem to be like this elsewhere, especially along the railway just outside of town where much smaller houses, many with makeshift materials, are crowded together. 

Here many of the homes are large, nearly all are comfortable looking, and even small houses are set well in gardens. There are occasional parked cars, small ones, and motorbikes. Trees are abundant. Fences are well kept. Verges are swept or more frequently, as I notice in my very early morning bicycle rides, they are raked. Houses are built carefully from concrete or pressed bricks and they are covered with stucco. Roofs are tile or composite sheets. At least as far as I've noticed. I'll have to check more closely. 

Most of the roadways, even those that are unpaved, are relatively wide, probably 11 or 12 feet across. Fences and gates are well placed back from the road and houses further still. If these houses were rebuilt after the tsunami they seem to have been built carefully, like there was good documentation of properties that was called upon for the rebuilding. 

Why is it the curve of the roadways that impresses me most? Perhaps it's the common name "Cross Street" that makes me assume they should go in arrow straight lines. 

Many of the roads (the Cross Streets for instance) terminate at the beach road. As it is the Tiruchendur Murugan Temple, which was built on the sand and toppled in the tsunami, and its very loud morning music dominate the precincts close by. There are also some shops there along the beach road but they're not uncommon either on the interior roads of the village. There are two or three main streets in either direction (roughy N-S or E-W) and these are regularly configured like the letter "Z" but with the central access more at 90 degree angles from the top and bottom of the letter. The sharp curves of these Z-shaped roads cut onto minor roadways. 

The unpaved roads are relatively even but when there are rains they fill with water and large puddles may persist for days with only a few inches of dry passage on either side of the red mud. The paved roads are either standard-issue concrete or blacktop, relatively new and so I assume post-tsunami. The two or three major roads are asphalted. They lead past the large school and terminate at the junction with the main road (Batticaloa-Kalmunai Road) where my barber (saloon), a tea house, and several tuktuks stand. Conceivably a person could alight from the bus and take a tuktuk to her lane in the village. It's never been necessary for us because our guesthouse is so close to the main road, less than 100 meters. 

At "our" corner there is a kovil and beyond that 20 meters or so into the village another, smaller one with a cobra in front. The cobra is always dressed in a piece of cloth and usually adorned with one or more hibiscus flowers. I saw the person decorating it the other day, a dwarf. I wonder if it's always his job to do so. In the village (here I'm actually talking about the two adjacent villages Kallady and Tiruchendur) there are also churches. One or two Roman Catholic churches and also a Foursquare Gospel church. I haven't noticed Methodist churches, which are situated on Batticaloa Island and out along the Trinco Road. But that is another world. 

When I get out on the bicycle at about 5:40, just before sunrise when there's plenty of light, there are always people on the road or by their houses. First a bicycle, then another, then a motorbike, usually driving carefully and not beeping at corners, which is the way it's done. Is there an unspoken rule not to disturb the village quiet before a certain time? Roosters don't follow that rule. Neither does the kovil with its music. Minute by minute more people appear either on vehicles or by their front gates. Rarely someone is walking. In the earliest minutes it seems appropriate to say "good morning" to people and they always respond with "good morning, good morning." As the minutes pass and people look more businesslike I don't say anything. Maybe I should. But when I pass someone on a bike because I'm going marginally faster I usually say good morning. 

As you pass the Kallady police station  on the beach road, the canned music of the Tiruchendur Managam Temple still dominating all sound, you get a brilliant wide view of the Indian Ocean, the sun bright red behind towering clouds to the east. The ocean looks like a lake with the darkness of the clouds acting like a not-so-distant shore. Cows appear, not a small herd of about 20, many of them yearling calves. One day a motorcycle drove through the herd. It left a more or less clear line for me to follow. Today, since it was a little earlier, I was forced to make my way through the herd myself. A little scary after my encounter with a large head and horns back on the streets of Jaipur. Past the cows, two and then three more kovils. One set far back from the beach, another nearing completion with gleaming gold pillars just across the road from the beach, and further out on the island in Navalady another, smaller one, also tsunami damaged. 

Out in Navalady, just 5 or 6 km from the guest house and nearing the end of the island, things quiet down. The road goes on unpaved past "Lion of the Forest" resort with its meticulous front gate and palmyra fence. What gives me the feeling that this is owned by somebody important in the armed forces? The road is too quiet. There's what looks like an abandoned church on the lagoon side, and blocks of casuarina trees to the right, fronting the ocean. 

I have long passed the lagoon side fishing area, just across from the hideous East Lagoon Hotel, swallows diving all around in the insect-heavy air. Long past are the largish hotels, very recently built, featuring diving lessons and mostly looking very empty. I've passed by structures toppled by the wave, houses destroyed, roads and lives obliterated. And I've passed by infrastructure projects like a large tube well and a passive water filtration plant with its ponds (dry) and concrete digester dome. Phone lines, cracking with message, have stopped by now. But communication goes on. The isolation is cut with a man outside his front door in morning sarong, fiddling with an iPad. 

I've been thinking, not for the first time, about isolation. When I see the fishermen at work I wonder if they've ever left the island or the village. I wonder what reason they would have to do so. Prince told me the other day how even close-by villages have slightly different dialects and that you can tell which village a person is from by their choice and pronunciation of words. Further he told me, you can tell village people from town people by their vocabulary. The same goes for educated vs uneducated people, people of different occupations, and people of different castes. It all makes a kind of sense I suppose, as it might in our society even with our media saturation. But what interests me is that he mentioned it at all. 

The conversation with Prince followed hot on a discussion with Darshan in which he told me much the same story. The cars people drive, the way they're dressed, the way they walk and speak, the way they eat ("high class people only touch the food up to their knuckles, the house polloi use their entire fingers) all point to minute but important differences in identity. Darshan said you can tell everything about a person as he's getting out of his car. He told me this in a light vein, almost as if he was doing standup comedy. I think his sense of humor is held in check lots of the time but I know he has one. But both Prince's and Darshan's statements point to a kind of social isolation, at least a social situation in which people are kept separate by what appear to be very small differences. I wonder if this doesn't play out on the national scene with the toxic ethnic divide that was fought over during the war.  

I wonder how this plays out in village geography, which blocks are occupied by which castes, how the physical space is meted out to reflect social constructs. And as I think of this I wonder if the villages are not even more complex than I've started to contemplate.