My Fulbright project is cultural landscape ecology, a broadly interdisciplinary exercise that combines nature, the built environment, and human response. As I hoped it would, the project has taken me in unexpected directions, demonstrating for me the heuristic value of such an undertaking. New questions and a changing focus are vital components of a critical analysis, more important I think than "answers" that can be achieved in the framework of a Fulbright.
After months of studying ancient irrigation systems in Sri Lanka I came across modern "copies" of the venerable human-built lakes that are so abundant in the countryside. It wasn't long before I came to see these "new" irrigation systems, epitomized in the Mahaweli hydro project, from the standpoint of a national effort, one with deep and ongoing political ramifications. What a surprise for me, a botanist who doesn't pay attention to politics, to be drawn into an examination of political cultural ecology in a strongly contested region of Sri Lanka, the Eastern Province.
By a series of events I found myself permanently in the East. The experience has been as unexpected as it is challenging and if you've read my recent posts over the past couple of months you can get an idea of the questions I've developed around this problem. The fact that my questions may never be answered is less important to me than the fact that they have emerged. They are out in the open and they may some day provide a framework for substantiating memory and in a broader sense elucidating history in this tortured part of the world.
Recently my host brought into the open some of the travails he and his family experienced before and during the civil war. It was a complete surprise because while he had hinted very strongly that he wanted to explore these things with me there were literally months of silence around the subject. All I could do was wait.
His testimony started with the 1981 firebombing of his home, a crime that took place in the wee hours of the morning while his family was asleep inside. Though he reports that it was anticipated it was certainly unprovoked. This in contrast with the 1983 pogroms against Tamils that occurred country-wide, ostensibly in response to the ambush of a convoy of Sinhalese soldiers in the North. Whatever the pretext, it's known that the "spontaneous" riots that ensued during Black July were ignored and likely incited by the government. But what about 1981? What caused perpetrators to lob Molotov cocktails into several Tamil homes in far-off Bandarawela? We may never know the answer to this mystery.
But for some reason, at least to me, it's most valuable to learn the victims' response to this crime. What were they thinking? How did they experience this series of brutal acts? How did they make decisions in their wake? I've been writing down dozens of questions about this in my past few posts. They may never make their way to an answer. I'm sure I couldn't present them directly to my interlocutor because, if you read them you will see they are deeply personal. I think they provide a key to understanding how people behave in times of grave stress, the kind of stress that threatens so much of the world today.
The night my host spilled the beans about Bandarawela he went forward to describe some of the events that took place subsequently, here in Batticaloa. Some of these events happened right here in Kallady, in the immediate neighborhood where we're staying. Places I walk through, ride my bike among, get a haircut at. It's a cruel reality to imagine shootings, bombings, landmines, human burnings, kidnappings. Right in your back yard. But the reality is that my host, his family, and his neighbors experienced all of this, right here in this edenic village where we've planted ourselves for these months.
Also remarkable is that, at least for an outsider, there are no visible traces of conflict here. No bombed out shells of buildings or other obvious clues around. Maybe this is different for someone who lives here. "Show me," I could demand.
As preoccupied as I became in relation to my friend's early (1981) troubles, I found that there was nothing I could "do" with the long list of local events that he described. The thirty years' war was cruel, evil, brutal. It was carried on many fronts by multiple forces. It was all "part of war" and therefore to me, more abstract and less amenable to the kind of analysis I'm doing. One of my friend's last recollections focused on being kidnapped for ransom by the LTTE. His measured conclusion: he performed a complicated balancing act all these protracted years of war. "Balancing act" provides a handy umbrella to describe decades of horror. But the depths of these accumulated horrors are more difficult to plumb, harder to tease apart.
Maybe as I continue to mull these events over I will be moved to work with them further. My goal is not to amass or report injustices to Tamil people in Sri Lanka, though I've written a lot about these issues and they are very much a part of the landscape here. In fact they are built into the landscape in places that were deliberately made Sinhalese as an ethic bulwark against the Tamil-majority East. An example right here in Batticaloa is the Jayanthepuram Buddhist Center, built over a Hindu shrine on land that was previously a playing field. That Jayanthepurai (the Tamil place name) became Jayanthepuram (a Sinhalese moniker) and a Hindu shrine was changed to a Buddhist site may not seem that significant. In fact "over there" in Sinhalese Sri Lanka I've heard dozens of comments to the effect "Hinduism and Buddhism? One and the same." This comment that rings broad minded and tolerant takes on a different tenor here in the East where land is expropriated. You might say this is no big deal but imagine the global repercussions of a similar phenomenon on the West Bank.
In my microcosm of a landscape, the guesthouse I'm staying at and its beautifully planted grounds, there is one area I'd like to focus on. It's a micro landscape of regeneration and resilience. My guesthouse hosts built a swimming pool, one of the nicest in Sri Lanka. It lies adjacent to the lagoon, is shaded by generous coconut palms, and visited by sea eagles soaring high above. It's perfect in so many ways, which reminds me of the dozens of village tanks I studied for this project. Similar to the tanks it also performs numerous social functions. In a place where 99% of the people don't know how to swim, local children receive professional instruction from an expert local swim coach. Certain holidays see orphan boys in the pool. Local families gather in the cabana, chat, gossip, and watch their kids splashing and yelling. It's a scene of domesticity, normalcy, and peace in a place that's seen more than its share of disaster. Is it too idealistic to propose that this is a place where civil society is knitting itself back together?
Maybe as my friend Thavaraja says the only thing is to move forward. Our pool with its attendant joys and carefree atmosphere is the perfect place to start.