Friday, April 8, 2016

Bringing ideas about "branding" and "value added" to a place where human life itself was not valued.

Just when you think you're getting a handle on things, starting to get the lay of the land, a new, deeper problem arises. The problem and conceptualizing it seems as deep as a crater. Jagged lava and volcanic  ash walls all around it or a smooth drop into the still water that fills it to the brim. Next to the lagoon the boys set up plastic chairs and plastic tables in the shade. There will be a birthday party here this afternoon. Isn't that sweet? It is just the best to have kids running around here. 

This isn't about the kids and the kid birthday party but a problem that arises in contrast to it. Two or three days ago Pat was here talking about distributing cows to villages around the district. The villages she talked about are villages of women-as-heads-of-household villages. The women who were heads of household didn't get that way because their men abandoned them, at least I don't think so. The women might have been widowed by warfare and its violence or they might have been unmarried. Or it might be because of the pervasive cultural pattern of matrilineal matrilocal household that Pat referred to many times during our talks. I don't know and I didn't ask. One of the women, Pat mentioned, had a club foot. I've seen lots of that here so at some level I guess, I could conceptualize what she was talking about. I thought. She also mentioned that some women had been injured in the war. That statement was vague and I didn't ask for clarification. We had spent a day and a night talking about the tragedy here, or listening to Thavaraja talking about. No need to go into more detail. 

So the next day, I think it was already the day before yesterday, appears in the pool Mr. Ezekiel, a gent I met in the Mumbai airport. To be honest I singled him out on the bus headed from the terminal to the plane, something I might not have done if it weren't 2AM and better judgement was upon me. I singled him out because, sorry, he looked Tamil to me, maybe it was his mustache? And I was hoping against hope I might hitch a ride to the East instead of landing at 5AM in Colombo, dealing with a taxi, getting to Gampaha, buying the train ticket, waiting on an unmarked platform for an unmarked train with no way to know if I was headed to Batticaloa. Also I was sick. Lungs still full of Rajasthan dust and smoke (which I guess they call "air") and exhausted from coughing and in between, trying to breathe. 

So maybe you can forgive me or I can forgive myself the temporary racism I experienced. I did have my "Tamil-dar" on pretty heavily just then and ironically, the other day when Ezekiel and his kids came into the dining area  at our guesthouse (they live and dress and look like Colombo people) I bothered Janet by asking her, "are those the dead-eyed ones?" (The other ones, the ones who live in that other Sri Lanka, the ones whose eyes are dead to their own crimes and karma). Forgive me. Janet scolded, "I will NOT talk about kids that way!" but it is Janet, in her supposed equanimity who a few weeks ago, while she was in Nepal and needed space in her phone for new photos, found portraits of almost all the people she had photographed in the other part of the island and deleted them because (her words not mine) their eyes looked dead. This was scary from a lot of perspectives. The worst was that in the moments she was doing this, which were close to or probably the very moments I was on the train back to Batticaloa, I was composing a piece about "eyes like raisins stuck in buns," that is, dead eyes, what my late mother would have characterized in another context, in ripe improper Yiddish, as "a schtick fleish mit zvei eigen, that is, (the owner of those eyes) is "a piece of meat with two eyes." Did I make my point? Janet was overwhelmed with this sentiment at the same moment I was, thousands of miles away, in regard to an ethic-national problem that is not ours! Not ours!

Anyway my taxi driver to ugly Gampaha was the foulest piece of slime I could have dug up from a sewer anywhere in Nugegoda, Borella, or for that matter, Wattawa. He was a big man and when he heard this foreigner was going to Batticaloa his sticky greed got the worst of him. Our agreed upon price for the ride from the airport to Gampaha, Rs 1600, about 600 too high, kept creeping up as he tried to wheedle his way into driving me all the way to the East. My god I couldn't imagine going to Kelaniya with him! Let me out of this vehicle I wanted to say in those pitch black roadways just before he stopped, chatted up a policeman in Sinhala, and then opened the back door to give him a ride, all the while poking the bottle of Johnny Walker Red I had bought at duty free on my way out of the airport saying, "Mine! "Mine!" "I want." I couldn't get him to shut up which I guess is a good thing. As Kim says when she talks about "peace" and "war," peace may be characterized by negative exchanges but at least there are those exchanges. In a state of war (or to project onto my situation) violence, the parties stop caring about any kind of give and take, positive or negative. So maybe it was better that this idiot didn't shut up even after he dropped the cop ("my cousin") (sure!) off near Gampaha. He kept insisting until I threw his rupees onto my seat and with pretty much the last of my strength smiled, "nice man! Goodbye," and disappeared into the ugly dark of the ugly Gampaha railway. So I felt a little vulnerable. And I was sick most of the ride back. Coughing alternating with sleeping, shallow awakeness changing to more desperate coughing. First world problems. 

Ezekiel was here with his family in Batticaloa meeting with village cooperatives who are funded by a German NGO. The focus of the NGO is counseling, and they've embedded their representative in the villages for years, including introducing what Ezekiel called "barefoot counselors," which I guess are informal counselors who are unpaid, hyper local, and I'll bet you anything, women. How many questions can you ask without chopping the story and the answers into a too-finely mixed salad with no composition at all? 

So, big surprise to me given the conversations of the past couple of days with Pat, Ezekiel is in the field in villages that are also women-as-head-of-household villages. And Ezekiel adds these women were former LTTE cadres. And Ezekiel adds these women were inducted when they were 12 or 13. Is that enough story? Nope not yet. The women were injured, severely, during the war? Injured? Some lost an arm. Some lost both arms. Some lost a leg. Some lost both legs. Some had spinal injuries that force them to sit in a wheelchair. Where do they live? They are in villages around Kokkodachcholai. That is to say, because I've been to Kokkodachcholai and beyond myself, and I've seen how "quiet" these corners are. They are so far off the beaten path as to be, well, invisible. These are villages of mortally injured female pariahs of society who now, at 30 or 35 or 40 are running households and trying to run their own livelihoods. They are growing a crop of manioc (the rice was flooded out this fall when we first came East), or tending goats or chickens or, more challenging, cows. Cows are the hardest, he tells me, because it takes over a year before they produce milk. A year plus where you have to look after them, water them, feed them. Remember. You are a lady without a leg. Then there's the getting milk to market. If you can. It's Rs 40 a liter. Water is Rs 60 or 70. Petrol more. So how do you make a go of it? Curd is not the value added target. Curd is cheaper at the corner market where it's ready to go. Ezekiel thinks ice cream machines. We don't even talk pasteurization. These are bigger problems than a sleazy taxi driver or an uncomfortable train ride.

So, branding and adding value. People were and I suspect still are branded here. By others and by themselves. The cataclysm these girls-now-women faced. Something we can't imagine from our comfortable haze. Human life was devalued. It sounds flaccid in the face of today's global tragedies. But it happened here and it continues to play out. The crisis that defines these women's lives just keeps on. It's not the "sexy" crisis of the tsunami. It's mostly buried and lost. I'm not keen to "go see it" for myself. I'm stunned and humbled by it. 

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