Thursday, April 21, 2016

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.  

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