Monday, May 30, 2016

Jaffna redux: You tell me

You tell me
Everybody tells me
It's not safe anymore 

Then, young girls could walk down the middle of the street at midnight. 

No one would touch them!
Now. Anything could happen. 
You tell me this. Everyone tells me this. 

Janet tells me that "then" there was curfew.
No one could go out at midnight. 
What's the story?

Postscript Jaffna: A Tactic

War zone. 
A tactic. 
They suspect 
You may
Be working
For the
Other side. 

Their tactic. 
They surround 
Your house. 

If you run
You are guilty. 

Then they
Can shoot
You wherever
And whenever
They see you. 

You didn't run
The first time
You didn't run
The second time

You think
Like you thought 
They've closed 
My file. 

But you
Mention there
Were plenty 
Of people
Who weren't 
Guilty of
Working for 
Either side
Who ran
Because they
Were scared. 

They were
Fair game. 

Also you
Tell that
Both sides
Used this
Same tactic
And since 
You could
Be under
Suspicion from
Either side
Your running
Or not
Running made
No difference 
You could 
Still be
Shot anywhere
And anytime. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Just remembered. Firebombing. Bandarawela. Tamils. 1981.

Just remembered how you told me, as a matter of conversation and kind of boring conversation at that, after looking at the inane pages of a children's book your daughter had wroiten and had vanity published, you talking a little too slow and a little too low for me to be comfortable so I had to lean in and watch you carefully, in the context of how innovative your kids were (like this book Bobbie wrote) when they were young. Innovative for making mischief, how you told me that Darshan was scared and how he innovated an approach to being scared.

Oh friend I thought I had finished mining our conversations for remembrance of the horrors you faced as a Tamil person in 1981 in Bandarawela, when your house was firebombed. Because we've moved on from the subject. Waived the subject. Waved the subject goodbye. Because I've gotten it finally gotten it, yes, that you are living your life, going on living your life, going on with your life, just like all the normal scarred moribund permanently angry screaming inside people around you. Remembrance isn't what you're after. Forgetting isn't exactly what you're after either. Maybe it's just losing yourself. Don't we all want that? To get lost in our daily routines of walking around or gliding on a bike or hearing music or watching the sun rise or going to the gym or smelling beautiful flowers or feeling the balm of the morning breeze before the sun gets too high or hearing crows and thinking how annoying. Losing ourselves in the gentle sounds and easy experience and everyday feelings of clipping shears and gardening implements and the breeze in the trees and the lapping of waves and watching ants make their nests and walk in files and piles of leaves smoking in the morning must and dogs lying by the road and the cash register registering the cash and the sound of the phone and maybe a TV in the background and village mothers yelling at their kids or women screaming at each other like animals behind the corrugated tin fences of their homes that face the beach and the eastern sun, hearing people in their outdoor showers behind the corregated fences or hearing the kovils close or far, the Murugan kovil, the Shiva kovil, the church bells and the kovil bells and the bread truck and the blasts of trucks on the main road and the bleeps of buses on the main road and the horns of motorbikes warning on the main road. Let's be normal and hear sounds and denote smells and enjoy sights large and small even if we're encased in a leathern casing thicker and harder than sense because after all we've experienced....leather looks like skin anyway. 

Oh Darshan and his mischief. Darshan little scared kid. Darshan Darshan doing the scared thing for his family. Weren't all of you petrified? Your story: you wanted Darshan to deliver a note to a doctor down the road. What day was this on the countdown to the firebombing? The morning of? The afternoon of? Firebombing wasn't mentioned at all in your story about the impish seven year old Darshan. Only that he was scared to go down the road. 

Scared to go down the road? What had he heard in school that day? What did he hear his siblings whispering about? Can I ask, what were the vibes like at home? Did you have vibes in that place and time, hushed vibes, out in the open vibes, misfiring vibes, transient vibes, a permanent vibe like a purple syrup covering the lot of you in those days and hours and minutes of expectation, when you knew something pretty awful was coming out of the woodwork. Something maybe you hoped would be stopped by someone's intervention? Something you were preparing for at the same time as you were refusing to believe it? You knew what was coming. Is it exaggerating to say you were expecting an aktion, Nazi style, or were you in the middle of one? You told me once other Tamil homes were firebombed or were being firebombed. So was this the first day of the firebombings or were you in the middle of a series of firebombings. How not nice to be a Tamil family in distant Uva Province in awful Bandarawela in these days. My peeps were the Tamils of Europe. So I kind of know. So is it a surprise little Darshan with his baby face picked up a healthy dose of fear somewhere along the way?

I wonder why you were sending your youngest down the road with a note for the doctor. Why didn't you go yourself? Why couldn't you go yourself? Was there something much worse a grown up had to fear about going down the road in bristling Bandarawela than for a child? Could a child be invisible as a Tamil but an adult couldn't?  Could a child hide but an adult couldn't? Could a child duck into the ditch or into the shrubbery or outrun some hooligans that were chasing him or was it that you strategized it was best for you to stay put at home and take care of the others there or were they out doing something else anyway but you thought best to stay home and fill those water buckets you were laying out to put out the fire of the firebombing, just in case, just have Darshan, cute and kind of nimble, just get a simple piece of paper to the doctor down the road. 

How far down the road? How far did he have to run? Was it downhill, closer into town, farther from the center? Which houses were in between? Were there more Tamil houses? Were there fat betel spitting men between your house and the doctor's? What could Darshan expect from the Darshan point of view? Did he have something specific to be afraid of, something concrete as they say? Something beyond whispering in his house or among his siblings or spoken by a kid at school? Something stressing the lad? Something stressful about being in an aktion? Something stressful about being a Tamil person in Bandarawela in August, 1981, when Tamil homes are being firebombed? Something concrete for a seven year old? Something real?

You said, he was scared to go down the road but he couldn't say no to me. That is, you were his father and he had to obey. Could a father's orders or even gentle request betray? Could there have been something his brain told him to fear that day? Was this a time for Darshan to skip play? Would he rather have stayed close to his big sister? Was mom in bed scared? Were there phone calls? I think maybe not. Because you had to get a note delivered to that doctor. You had to get a message down to him. Should I have asked you if he was Tamil like you? Or am I correct in assuming he was? Did he have something to fear? Was he a Sinhalese doctor who might have been prepared to shelter your family if worse came to worst? What do you suppose it was that was scaring Darshan of all people, seven year olds are supposed to be plucky and fearless and fun and small enough to duck in the bushes and disappear.  

Your story: since he couldn't deny your request, certainly not argue with you (what were the vibes those days for strict obedience? This was life or death. You had to obey your parents, whose best guess it was to take this step or that step to save their lives and to save your life. This wasn't easy). So Darshan couldn't disobey. This you told me. Only because you are his father or because stringent times call for stringent measures? And he could you tell you why he was scared. How can you be scared of whispering? How can you be scared of the looks in people's eyes? How can you be scared of scared? You're seven! So Darshan couldn't tell you he was scared of the vibes in your house or the vibes in awful Bandarawela where people's houses were being firebombed just because they were Tamil people. What is a Tamil person? Could a seven year old Darshan know? Sure, yes, a kid could pick up on vibes of fear and horror. Darshan was a smart seven year old, the youngest kid in a smart family. Too smart for Bandarawela. Way too smart. But not smart enough to get out while the going was good. What could a seven year old brain think? Any of this? Or did he have to manufacture something to be scared of because you told him and Prakash and Bobbie don't be scared there's nothing to be frightened of and maybe you held them close. Nothing to be frightened of. No reason to be afraid. What's to be afraid? A few houses with bombs lobbed into them? Some crazy people setting houses on fire? I wonder, were people being beaten up those days? In preparation for 1983? Only 23 months to go until black July when things got really hot. Might as well not be scared in the meantime. Or tell your kids not to be. Tell them. Tell them. Don't be scared kids. There's nothing to be afraid of. See? It's morning. We're all here. It's afternoon. Wasn't that a nice lunch? See how quiet it is? Nothing to be afraid of. The danger is past. It's peaceful again. Nothing will happen. Daddy just has to fill up these buckets with water in the house. And Darshan, will you be a big big boy and take this little little note down the road to Dr. ________? That's a good boy. Scared?! What are you scared of? Can't you obey your father? Can't you see how (scared) he is? What? Scared of a dog on the way? That dog can't hurt you. She only barks. That's only barking now don't be silly and get going. Fast fast before it's too late. The doctor will give you something for us. You bring it to daddy. 

Darshan goes, takes the note. Stays away the right amount of time. Comes back with the note with his teeth marks in it. See daddy? The dog tried to bite the note. That's your story. I think it was three sentences. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Too much of everything?

So at this late date in my nine month stay in Sri Lanka still more new insights are taking hold. Lately the insight has been spangled with light, seeing things in almost a scattered glare of peaceful wonderment. What do I mean? I mean to say that Sri Lanka has taken on a new character I couldn't have understood before, a complex and multifaceted character that can't be explained away by a single viewpoint or framework. There is just too much of everything. 

For months after I left irrigation tank research I focused on inequalities and racism in this society. There is plenty of evidence for it, combined with the human devastation of thirty years of "low-intensity" warfare. The consequence for people here was high-intensity anxiety and what I see as a general retreat from civil society. Especially in Batticaloa in Sri Lanka's Tamil east, the world may have functioned more or less normally in a physical sense. But people were under intense pressure, with enormous feelings of vulnerability and danger. And plenty of brutality to make these feelings a "healthy" response to their world. These feelings, like the violence, may have subsided, especially among young people, but they persist in ways that are hard to trace. Behaviors, feelings, perceptions by people here are hard to understand. And I didn't set out, like some people do, to interview folks about this, only to feel them out and to observe as best as I could. The issues are there but they are deeply hidden and unlikely to emerge, let alone for a foreigner. 

I've become marginally involved in observing people's everyday life. The barber, a store, the cinema, the gym. The daily activities at our guesthouse. The action of war is seven years past, even if signs of oppression still remain. But seeing things only through the lens of the war and its aftermath somehow is not enough. The tsunami devastated this community. People I know were deeply affected. But they go on, and it's not the sort of plodding, brooding going on you might expect. People are creative, funny, ambitious, farsighted. 

Many years ago when I did a sabbatical in New Zealand I wondered if people there were cognizant of how far from the rest of "civilization" they were, how much at the edge they lived, in relative isolation. It was a naive thought. People there, like people everywhere, tend to think that their lives are the center of the universe. Living in suburban Christchurch is something like living in suburban Boston. You lead your life. Kids, lawn cars. 

Here in Sri Lanka of course things are different. Physically for sure, I ride through our village with its early morning kovil music ringing out and the sun rising close in the east. There are no sidewalks or cars, at least hardly any of the latter. Parents load their uniformed kids onto bicycles (called "push bikes" here) and ride them to school. There are cows on the road and at the sides of the road, and fishermen squat in the sand assessing the sea and sky or push their boats to sea or pull in their extensive nets. There is constant activity from them, even if they're sitting still. Some deeply silent, bitter looking gents ride by me on their bikes. But I can't read their unsmiling minds. All around me is a world not unraveling but in action. Active and busy. 

So this busyness, this life all around, this preoccupation with the present, this human "normalcy" dominates what I observe. There's nothing to say but that it constitutes a normalcy. Normal rhythms, normal sounds, normal activities. How amazing is it to be in this profoundly exotic place and have the exoticism drained out of it. All of the low-hanging fruit of exoticism, strange sounds, sights, aromas, all are normal to me. 

Also the low-hanging issues, war, ethnic tensions, inter-communal fears and hatreds seem to evaporate. Vesak, the major poya holiday that was celebrated over three days turned out not to be an exercise in Buddhist dominance and hegemony and instead, took one the characteristics of a secular celebration, much like Christmas in Colombo. Families of every religion and ethnicity strolled among the lamps and floats, bought their kids ice cream, and just spent time in the open or on the streets. Firecrackers were blown all over the city, decorations stayed up for days, and life went on as usual. The kinds of tensions I expected didn't materialize from what I could see, and peace and harmony appeared anyway to rule the day. So, just like the New Zealanders I was curious about, if I could ask them "do you feel like you're living at the edge of civilization," it would have been just as ridiculous this weekend to ask the Sri Lankans in my midst, "do you feel like you're sitting on a tinderbox?"

Is it that there's just too much of everything for me to be able to make a critical judgement of this place? Is it the Gordian knot of "everything" that keeps me from understanding some "principle" that holds the whole thing together or threatens to blow it apart? Good questions I suppose, and tied I think to the non-exoticness I perceive. Maybe also a part of the human impulse to live life in the present. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Playing around with thinking about disengaging

We took a mutual friend to the cinema last night. It was more than just going to the movies. It was her second to last night in Batticaloa and since she'd never been to see a Tamil film in all her months here (!) this is what she'd asked to do. 

You guys came up on your motorbikes looking pretty happy, waving. Excitement. In general you look like a pretty normal person, the half dozen times I've met you. You have affect and you talk and exchange. You care about our friend I know from what she has told me. You have a lot of interesting things to say. You're engaged. So I was surprised during the movie that the whole time you were on your cell phone. You almost never looked up at the screen, something I admit I have to do to see the subtitles. Only down at the screen of your device. 

I wanted to ask you a foolish question. Could you understand every word of the movie, even though it was in Indian Tamil? I know there are differences. But it was too loud to engage. Then I got to thinking. Are you disengaged because you're one of those young people here who can't stand the loud noise of these violent movies because you were traumatized by noise in the war? Vidushun, a little younger than you, told me he can't go to movies because of the noise. I filled in the blanks with the "war" part but maybe I was reading too much into it. 

What about you last night? I've never seen you act so perfunctorily. Is it that your duty to our friend is over so you're just going through the motions at this point? Hard to believe. I know you're fond of her. Is it that you feel a loss with her going? Is it that you don't like to watch violence because you did see so much violence, your scars, your father hacked to death? Do you not appreciate the fantasy of these movies? The silliness of these movies? Were you just busy on your phone with other things?

At intermission our friend complained loudly, the way she always does, about how hot it was and proclaimed she didn't understand a thing that was going on in the movie. I told you I thought she was ready to leave. No way you said. It was like you wanted to stay. You assumed she did because after these months I suspect you know her nature very well. She is like a child anyway. And we did stay. And you kept looking at Facebook and other stuff on your phone. Maybe you were just multitasking. Maybe you're one of those people who like the noise and mayhem in the background so you can retreat into your world and think. Get some thinking done. Disengage and get some thinking done. Space out. We all like that. 

This was a small, very small thing. How someone acts in the movies? What's the difference? It's not even my job to figure people out here. Never was. Now less even because I'm leaving, just like our friend, three weeks from now. Maybe I felt your disengagement because I'm coming detached, disengaged from this. Just saying. Because it's not in my nature to detach, just playing around with the idea. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Matter's immutability. A meditation.

Immutable nature
Unchanging elements
Immovable water
Unerring metal

Immeasurable constellations
Uncounted gases
Shine from within
Shine from without

The bright shiny eye
The white foamy lens of 
Boiling milk overflows
Reflects the shine of the sky

Reflective properties 
The proof of nobility
Shower of light
Matter's immutability 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

In the toddy tavern just outside of Jaffna

We sat at the toddy tavern outside of Jaffna, low on a concrete berm, carefully, (unconsciously?) designed as part of a square structure with a smaller square, the vendors' space, inside and to one side. A simple roof, pillars for support and no walls, a parking space in the sand. 

One dose was enough we agreed so for your sixty rupees you were given an orange plastic measuring cup, no handle, just a pourable vessel to be rinsed in a barrel of water out front. The cleaned cup was proffered back to the vendor and toddy was meted out to the appropriate measure. Maybe it was half a liter. 

We drank the toddy like you drink everything here, not touching rim to lips. It went down as smooth as it smelled bad. Fresh toddy at the end of a long work day. We talked about architecture and space, vernacular spaces and vernacular buildings. The chatter and echo of other men was all around us. 

What are they talking about? I asked. Some are talking about politics, some are talking about philosophy, and some are talking about nothing you said. We listened to the music of the voices, in between you explaining who I was and me taking gram that was offered from a tiny packet from a gent to my left and passing it to you. 

In the space the voices were not quiet. They were loud and they were unharnessed and they were the voices of men inebriated or slightly inebriated but free to talk and argue. A men's space, a space with air, a place of repose and relaxation. I noted, these sounds are part of the space too, aren't they? Part of the character of the place. And you took down a note. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Beauty, buildings, bodies

I'm writing this with my friend Kim in mind. Kind of dedicating it to her and her research here in Sri Lanka. Kim is doing a great project embedding herself in a traditional community in transition just down the road from us. Her Tamil is fluid and she is deeply popular with people in her community. She has done an amazing job of "getting out there" and learning what there is to learn. It's taken determination, self-sacrifice, and a huge amount of focus. Not something everyone, especially a 23 year old, a young woman working solo in a men's world, can accomplish. When I met Kim in June, in Washington, D.C. She described her research project as an inquiry into standards and attitudes about beauty in her community. We jabbered away about intangibles and aesthetics, which both of us planned to study in Sri Lanka. As luck would have it Janet and I ended up just a few miles from where Kim has been doing her work. So we've had ample opportunity to continue the discussion all these months. 

Something we've come aware of is that there are "truths" lurking below the surface of what passes for truth here. People tell you something. It becomes second nature to know you must read between the lines. That in a way sums up our study of intangibles. But it only just occurred to me the other day that there are intangibles below the intangibles! A system of being and doing that goes along in very much a different dimension than we are aware of. I'll try to give you an example and follow up on it. 

A couple of weeks ago I was in Jaffna  with my student Pathytharan. It was such a great visit because Pathy wanted to show me everything as much as I wanted to see everything. It was two or three days of intense show and tell and conversation about the built environment of Jaffna, and in particular his ancestral village Inuvil. Just at the outskirts of Jaffna town, not a large place physically, Pathy stopped his motorbike outside a municipal market. We got down and had a look inside. Pathy's a trained architect and is working on his masters in urban design. Besides for all these qualifications he's a mature observer with a critical eye for what he sees. 

As we slogged through the leafy rows of vegetable vendors, the globular rows of root vendors, and the sweet smelling rows of fruit vendors Pathy pointed out his major critiques of the market. Bad layout, bad lighting, bad circulation. But he added, you build a bad building. People come in and make it theirs and change it over time. Not change it physically necessarily. But sort of bend it to their needs. A kind of workaround I guess that we use with bad computer platforms. And that, he concluded, is the way it should be. It's in line with the fact that the planets move the way they do, there's nothing we can do about it, and we arrange our world around these facts of nature. Pathy has arrived at this attitude through decades of soul searching, risk taking during war times in Jaffna, and his abiding belief in traditional Hindu philosophy. 

My soul searching in life has been a bit different. And the risks I've taken are much different. I appreciate but don't share his religious convictions and as his mentor I felt obligated to ask, "but Pathy, can't we build young architects' capacity to observe market settings like this and build better environments for people?" "Wouldn't make a difference," was his bland, blanket reply, and we roared off on his motorbike for more observing and discussion. Challenged by that thought, which incidentally closed the conversation, I've been pondering it ever since. 

I'm uncomfortable with it but I think it tells us something about underlying attitudes here, intangible attitudes that underlie the intangibles we are here to observe and analyze. This brings me to the question of "bodies," especially women's bodies, which loops back to Kim's pursuit of female beauty.

So there in Jaffna at the end of the day Pathy took me to the village market in Chulakam, the next largish village outside of Jaffna. Night had fallen. We were getting together some snacks for a bottle of something we planned to work on later. The shops were full and particularly packed were the jewelry stores. Pathy provided the explanation. This was an auspicious day when buying gold assured you a significant increase in the value of whatever you bought. He had hedged his bets by ordering gold a few weeks before and paying the old price on this night. Hm. A workaround to get the most out of the alignment of the stars I suppose. Having no such previous knowledge I perhaps foolishly mentioned I wanted to buy a pair of earrings for Janet. I knew I'd pay a premium but the spark of the moment was moving and subtle. More than getting better value down the road for my gold I just wanted to participate in the stream of consciousness, the root of activity that was all around me. 

We stopped into a shop and looked at a couple of earrings that the vendor threw perfunctorily on a scale. I'd seen this done before here in Batticaloa and I'm deeply dissatisfied with the usual outcome. Rs 7000 he said, just like we'd been told a few months ago here on our visit to Modern Jewelers in Batticaloa town. Seems that approximately $50 dollar price point is a kind of jumping off place for further negotiations. Pathy thought and I agreed. Why not have his personal jeweler, the fellow who'd just this afternoon delivered a couple of gold necklaces for his daughters, stop by and show me his wares. 

Having a personal jeweler who comes to your house is so cool. The earrings he showed me looked just right. In the semi dark of Pathy's house I was reassured by his insistence that the price was right, his trust over the years that he had with this jeweler, and most of all how nice the earrings looked against his wife's earlobes. Sold. At a price considerably higher than Rs 7000 but very much in line with the market price of gold that day, as if it were something I cared about. 

Janet seemed pleased with the earrings I thought, even more than pleased. A nice traditional Tamil design and a nice look for her. One problem. The well-crafted posts were much too thick for her piercings. What to do? After some days of talking about solutions back and forth she asked Jainthi which shop we could go to in Batticaloa to address the problem. She told us the shop and said she would call ahead for us, and talk to them while we were there. But I was on the trail of a different solution. I thought that just asking "which shop" would have us sitting in the middle of a store, unable to effectively communicate what we wanted. I took a different tack. "Jiit," I asked one of the managers here, "what do you do if you buy your wife earrings but they don't fit her?" "Don't worry sir," he told me, "I have the solution. My neighbor across the lane is a jeweler and we buy from him always. When he's home from work tonight I'll ask him to stop by here and have a look." I should have known better and stayed with plan A. 

When the young man arrived we showed him the earrings and the piercings. He knew exactly what to do. Within seconds he had requested a large pair of pliers. With them he removed the sharp tip from a safety pin. He grabbed the side of Janet's head and proceeded to push the sharp object into her ear. "Stop!!" She finally had to yell. With some force. Not the way she wanted to get this job done. In fact, she'd hoped the jeweler could make some adjustments to the earrings, not widen her piercings! Much the same as we might wish architects could adjust their poor designs. 

He considered his plan still the way we would go and he volunteered to come back tonight with a lime thorn. It's how it's done here. It's safe and naturally antiseptic. But Janet doesn't want to get her earlobe piercings enlarged. That good a Tamil woman she isn't. These earrings, like her other pairs, are meant to come in and out, be interchangeable with her outfits, which she doesn't suspect will be a never ending lineup of saris. So. Rather than permanently alter her body she'd like to explore altering the earrings. 

Yes. We had to put an end to the well-meaning scheme. No thorns tonight. And maybe these earrings won't be wearable. But it taught us something. You don't change the stars or alignment. You adjust your life accordingly. You don't change the market. You put people there and have them change their behavior. You don't change the earrings. You change the way the woman's earlobes are pierced. This rendering of reality, the physical, aesthetic, and spiritual, is a kind of intangible that lies below the surface of our perceptions. Facing the immutability of the physical world that surrounds us is different from the way we approach beauty, buildings, and bodies in the west. We are into change. We want to bend the world our way. We want to believe that in a given situation we have the answer, or the power to mold things our way. 

I can't put my finger on the outlook we've been exposed to here. But I sense it's very different from our practices. And knowing it's out there, and grasping some of its parameters may help us understand this cultural constellation to a better extent. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

New dimensions of dementia or: what was this monk thinking?

My friend told me that in a super holy spot in Sri Lanka there's a monk who people go to. I can't say his name or the name of the super holy spot or the name of the monk because that would betray his confidence. You my friend were kind and considerate to send me some of your field notes and I want to respect your privacy. There are a lot of super holy places in Sri Lanka and many of them, like this place, attract large numbers of tourists as well as pilgrims. So maybe a perceptive reader will figure out where in this Sri Lankan landscape of amplified holiness I am referring to. Anyway maybe this monk is already famous enough for the wonders he works that I don't have to give away the name. Sinhalese patriots must know about him already because you found out from your Sinhalese friends  who he is and what he does. How he works his magic of memory swipe. 

I don't know what monks do in Sri Lanka. I mean I've been around a decent number of monks and I've seen them lead religious events, seen and heard them chanting and blessing and giving and taking offerings and eating and riding buses and all that. But I'm not sure what they do. I know that they are highly political and that they are sometimes violent in their political involvement. Is that an unfair assessment? A Tamil friend of mine told me, very charitably I think, that monks absorb the pain of their parishioners. He told me that this is a beautiful thing about Buddhism and I believe he meant it. The one monk I know of here in Batticaloa may absorb his congregants' pain. I don't know. I do know that he's done a lot to increase the measure of pain experienced by the local people here. That is, Tamil people.  

But his is a kind of patriotic work isn't it? He's making this part of the world, that is the Eastern Province, specifically lovely Batticaloa, better for Buddhism. A place where more Sinhalese people can come to live. A way of diluting the unhealthy Tamil influence. And if he has to make it worse for some Christian Tamils and some Hindu Tamils (who knows how he interacts with Muslim Tamils here) well, that's a question of collateral damage. When you're changing a Tamil place into a Sinhalese place it's gotta be take no prisoners, no? Let's not call it ethnic cleansing. Too many bad connotations. Let's just call it ethnic "replacement." Is lebensraum too severe a term? Colonizing? Settling?

But you got me off track in my discussion of a new dimension of dementia. I'm deeply disappointed by what I've seen in Sri Lanka and highly critical. But I'm not embittered. It's not my country to be bitter about. Just to write about the way I see it. But by getting me off track you'd like to suggest that I'm the demented one. No way. Not yet. It's what's going on here in Sri Lanka that's demented, derailed, way off track. Lost in the woods. 

It has to do with what you might call a moral compass. This is something we talk about in the West (decadent isn't it?) and I guess we assume that it's something all enlightened peoples share at some level or another. But as it turns out, one man's moral compass is another guy's depravity. And "enlightenment" is relative isn't it? I mean. Think 18th century Europe. Think Theravada Buddhism. Two different things altogether. So where's the enlightenment compass? Maybe leads to the same place anyway, if you consider how the Nazi phenomenon sprang from the forehead of the Enlightenment. So let's get to it why don't we. 

Here's what my friend wrote based on his conversation with Ven. ____, who discusses people "forgetting past traumas."

"if you make a wish, or if there’s some sort of problem, it’s resolved by that. [nature] When a period has gone by indeed it is resolved by that. Now, look, before, we asked a great multitude to kill, asked them to kill people. After that the people who carried it out were asked to have it removed from their memory. Now the people who asked don’t have a single memory that there was the war. That they asked to kill so many people."

So those few people who remember those days are only us. Afterward, the people who asked don’t have a single memory....Without a memory of that they go on. The time came when the memory disappeared and they went on"

Moving on is what a lot of people in Sri Lanka do. It's I guess, a kind of "reconciliation," reconciliation with one's past? Resignation that that's how things are? But reconciliation and resignation are different things, as different as the two kinds of enlightenment. But what about this memory swipe?

This isn't confession. This isn't absolution. And it's not atonement--farthest thing from it. It's more like exorcism. Abracadabra and all that, you're freed of your memories! A great multitude of you are. Couldn't live with your actions? Ask for them to be erased. And get "nature" to do it for you. See why I was talking about dementia? And like dementia this is seen by the monk as a "natural" process. So people seek forgetfulness, seek to lose memory of the killing they've done, and poof they are free of it! And when the monk says "we asked a great multitude to kill" he's not talking about the lonely individual who has killed. He's referring to a national movement, something like Nazi Europe. We asked a great multitude to kill. It's a national program. Killing. And forgetting. And erasing memory as if by magic. 

To the monk's credit he goes on to hint that the killers may still wake up in the next life as dogs, that they'd better get busy "making merit" if they  are interested in the good life next time around. But how can they do their "merit" if they've forgotten the root of their evil? The firebomb they lobbed into a home with sleeping children, the corpse they raped, the burnt body parts they threw across the fence? Are you kidding Mr. Monk, venerable monk, or are you that depraved?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Arc and ark in the human landscape of Batticaloa

You pulled up a chair and invited us to look at a bunch of pictures in your Facebook page. You weren't comfortable manipulating the page on your Samsung device but I wasn't particularly comfortable myself. I don't do Facebook or Samsung but I know enough that you have to "like" pictures your daughter is in. Janet knows enough to tell you not to comment, not that you would have anyway, because parents who comment are going overboard, no matter what their kids' age. So much to learn. 

The pictures, shown from the crumbling pad holder that was once red faux leather, (Janet suggests as a joke that it was pre-tsunami but the technology is too new to be anything but post) are all of a party, a fundraising event your daughter was in charge of. Over 400 people attended. I was involved because I had to draft the welcome letter from the Board of Directors, of which Anne is a member. Darshan was involved because he had to get the commemorative pins made here. Can you imagine commemorative pins? Where will they be in the detritus of fifty years from now? Rusted, corroded, tarnished, faded, lost? Or treasured, stored, polished. You tell me. I can only guess (the first). 

This was the first annual event on behalf of the Batticaloa St. Cecilia's College Alumni Association of North America. From the looks of it it was a huge success. I wonder how much money they made and how many new members they attracted. 

I wonder how many of the young-soon-to-be middle aged wives had to drag their husbands to the event. I wonder how many moms and dads had to drag their kids. Or did everyone want to go?! The men all in prosperous looking suits and ties, the women dressed variably in saris and in western garb. I think though I can't be sure I saw Anne in three different outfits. 

There were almost 400 photos and we went through each one. Some of the people you knew and some of the people were so young when they left you didn't know them. All of them, or at least 200 (probably more if you include spouses) left Batticaloa some time in the past decade or two. They are drifting through time like my predecessors did in North America-your people in Canada, Toronto and environs to be inexact, my people in the United States. What did they leave? What did they flee? What do they experience in Canada? Great open wilds? Cold wind? A warm welcome? Untold challenges and loneliness? New friendships? Suburban banality?

All of them, all of them making their way through a new life. Imagine submersing yourself in Canada after the black magic, the swaying palms, the quiet and noise, the mortal danger of Batticaloa. You who were school kids, what did you perceive? Did you know the dangers or were you cosseted by parents and family and sent abroad like a precious bundle to keep the people alive?

Your group now, a snapshot in time. What will the kids remember? How will they look in ten or twenty years? What will be the pressures to marry a Tamil girl or boy? What difference will it make to them? As they shed their language and take on the goofy sophistication of urban North Americans, who are they becoming? Whatever, they're doing it day by day. It's an accelerated trajectory of becoming, of assimilating, of losing and of taking on. The kids already look so distant, so distantly distant distant from their first cousins back here. How long will your association hold? How long will that boat hold water? Will that boat sink with time and be washed over by the cold water of the Great Lakes? By the great masses of American people and American privilege and American prerogative? Will the ties with here be thinned, broken, lost? Can you see it any other way because I can't. 

What are the pressures and pleasures you experience now? What does your prudence and hard work buy? What longings do you have? Are there any that you have for this place? This place from which I view snapshots of you in your new place, the place you escaped from or were sent from or moved from and in which I am moored for these months? Looking back at your backness? How do we reckon this strangeness? How do we calculate what I see in your pictures-something I'm sure that's totally different from what you see. 

And your father who pulled up a chair to share. He who sees these pictures and gingerly likes them (should you ever "touch" a "screen?"). He sees them differently still. You're his little girl just like I have little girls, grown and well on their way. There's your husband who went to Canada before you on assignment. An achiever. A corporate professional. There's the widow of a politician who was incarcerated here unjustly and who died in ignominy. There are more faces your father recognizes maybe but he doesn't tell me. I think of him looking at a boat sailing into an indefinite horizon, always farther than he can see. 

He sent his three packets of hope abroad after giving them his very best. You and your brothers were well educated, you were brought up hard-wired to work, to strive, to accomplish, to take care of your own young. 

Birdie the eagle, which your father had been taking care of died yesterday. He found it, wings outstretched, facing downward, dead in the bunny pen where he'd been keeping it during the wet days. Why did it die? How did it come under his protection?

These weeks we've been attributing personality to the eaglet. I should say eaglet is an importune name. This bird was huge. Its wingspan a good five feet. Birdie was curious we thought. Birdie had a gentle personality we projected. Birdie was adventurous, patient, interested or not interested in eating by the day. Birdie liked people, Birdie was trilingual (Tamil, English, and Bird). Birdie was communicative, wanted to get back to the nest, determined to fly, trying to cope, hopeful for its future. Every human label we could pin on Birdie we did. But she or he must have been kicked out of the nest. Simple and final. That's how it works in nature isn't it? One or both of Birdie's parents knew or better I should say sensed something was wrong. A disease or parasites? Some defect? Some "knowledge" that this offspring wouldn't survive? That it might outcompete or been outcompeted by its sibling? We can't know. 

But we can know that Birdie was kicked out of the nest, not that it tumbled out of curiosity or clumsiness or the need to explore or the need to "spread its wings" because when Birdie did make it back up to the top of that hundred foot tree (the happy moment of celebration!) Birdie was shoved back out to the ground. No knowing what it was all about but I'd like to talk to you as a scientist to an animal husbandry expert. What do you think happened? 

Birdie tossed from its ark. Your children launched from their ark. Your family and lots of your world adrift or aground but in surety and safety. Away from here where it's hard to not acknowledge there's not much of a future. This place was eviscerated. Two hundred or more middle class achievers, creative, hard-working, well connected excised from this human landscape. And this group from only one of your schools. What was lost here? More than a generation. How will it proceed to develop here? Is there really no hope or do you perceive there might be some hope? Who's to know? What to do? A snapshot of a moment in a human maelstrom, a vortex that keeps shifting, that moves from its center and establishes a new axis, a moving target, an evolutionary trajectory. 

Please don't take me for a fool

I hope you don't take me for an utter fool when I say my questions have been answered, that I don't necessarily want to come back, that I've seen more than I want to see. You see, that's the way it feels to me. I know that to be "healthy" we have to look to the future, think about what we'll do next, build on what we've done as we go through life accomplishing. To do otherwise is to be dodgy and old, to give up. To not have "hope" for the future. But I'm satisfied with what I've accomplished here. I don't really care what people think about that. I'm happy with the state of my knowledge. Not curious for more. Not making plans. 

The place makes me as unhappy as it does happy. It's been demystified, de-exotified. Getting a membership to the gym was, in part, responsible. People see you. You see them. You park your bike outside, enter the noisy hot place. You are a stranger, sure. But you have a membership. You "belong" as much as anybody else. That is, besides for your white skin and the fact that you're thirty years older than the oldest person there. But it would be the same anywhere, at least the age part. 

Maybe it's all the growing seasons we've gone through. We've seen almost a year's cycle. Could see more. But most outsiders see a lot less. Maybe it's our lowered expectations. Not expecting a word or a gesture of truth out of anyone. Not expecting we can "make a difference" or find anything out. Maybe having seen enough is having seen the remains of violence and tsunami, the remains of rampant growth and consumerism, the many signs of hate and the small signs of love. Finito. Basta. Enough already. 

Kim keeps asking when we'll be back, how we'll stay in touch with people when we're gone. I think when and if we come back we'll walk up to the front door and let ourselves in. Time will pass and we'll remember and we'll be remembered. Harley is eager to return as a "visiting expert." He will have only been here a bit under four months when he leaves in exactly three weeks, the weeks he is counting. A different quality from our nine months here. Also, Harley is an expert. He's a dramaturgist and a play-write. It's what he does and what he teaches. I'm a botanist without a portfolio. A lapsed lichenologist. I don't teach in my field. Im interdisciplinary in my practice, which has its ups and downs. I'm a landscape expert who's never published on landscape because the landscape can be as big as a postage stamp or as small as a large island. Like Sri Lanka. That's what I came here for. And I couldn't have picked a better project than I concocted: cultural landscape ecology. Landscapes in transition. There's a lot to be seen and as I say, I've seen too much. 

My initial questions were answered. I saw and unlocked the irrigation tanks, the tank "cascade" phenomenon, the way people use and look at the tanks. I learned about simple people and I learned about the "greatest" academics and politicians in this regard. I did it without ever making an interview. I only needed to observe and have time to build the pieces of the puzzle and put them together. That's my expertise.

My initial questions about teaching and learning in this university culture were answered as well. Dismal depths is a nice way to describe what I found. The challenges I laid out for myself in teaching the way I teach in the United States were predicated on partnerships I thought I had or thought I could develop. I had been in touch with potential collaborators for several years. People said "you are starting your Fulbright running, with your feet well on the ground." I knew better but not as well as I know now. The best of my partnerships didn't materialize or evaporated when I got here. There were lots worse experiences. So my initial assumptions, ambitious, energetic, generous and proactive were not met or worse, rejected. Fine. I learned. 

I learned to make a whole second set of questions. My questions were about conflict and cruelty, about remembrance, testimony, "truth-telling." You can get remembrance and truth-telling if the rememberers want to talk. Or tell the truth. Your goals and your questions may not be part of their vocabulary. "Truth" and "reconciliation" let alone "truth and reconciliation" may or may not be part of their vocabulary. But I think they're not. Why makes no difference. You are not in the West. Your questions may be culturally irrelevant. Go ahead and think them, ask them, refine them. Learn of their inappropriateness and you will, perhaps, have learned a thing or two about this culture. These cultures. 

Having gone through two or three sets of healthily defined, robustly built questions, I see that further questions may not be necessary or desirable. Perhaps more desireable is the wave of a hand on a familiar face of someone you've conversed with at the cinema. Perhaps more desireable is the young man on a bicycle who asks why you weren't at the gym last week, someone you never talked to but who knew you were there. Perhaps more desireable is the word to a friend or acquaintance who spills out his story with no questions attached. No questions = no strings. Like a Jaffna mango round, ripe, tender and sweet. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Black magic in Batticaloa

So there are some interesting dimensions to the question (and the telling) of "black magic" in Batticaloa. Turns out, no surprise I suppose, that it depends who you ask. My first interlocutor told me:

1) it's about "sending your boys" to Batticaloa from Jaffna. 

2) it's about them "not being able to get off their mat" I guess this could be figurative or literal but 

3) it's interpreted as meaning (at least on the surface) that they'll fall in love with the girls here and stay

But this brings a lot of questions doesn't it? What does it mean not getting off your mat? I guess it can just mean not being able to leave. Or maybe that the boy will be subsumed into this culture. But it can also mean a kind of paralysis or even killing. Or impotence or lack of strength or kind of how a wasp stings its prey and lays eggs in it. 

So maybe it's about fertility? Or being absorbed? Or both? There seem to be simple explanations and "deeper" explanations. 

And then with a wry smile the most tightly wound person in Sri Lanka smiles a wry smile and says: we're much more relaxed here in the east, you see. And same person, highly caste-conscious tells me: we're not as serious about caste here as they are up north. 

So there you have the accounting of black magic, some conjectures about what it could mean, and "explanations" from the teller about how to interpret it. 

What do you think??? 

My second interlocutor told me, "it's not really something that happens in Batticaloa. It happens south of here in Kaluthavalai and some of the villages around there. People don't really do it that much any more but there are still some people who practice it. It's done when a young man wants to attract a young woman, prayers and incantations and offerings are made to particular gods, and sometimes a potion can be put in the girl's coffee. 

These same gods are thought to produce wealth and some people may bathe then in coins every morning.

There's also a "magic ring" that looks like the rosary. If you want a person to come to you you can gently twirl it on your finger. If you want a person to come around to seeing things your way, for example if you've had a business disagreement, a twirl of the ring will bring them around. 

Back to the gods, the stones, and the offerings, I asked whether black magic is a practice of Hindus only and he told me no, it is very much a Christian practice. "But not Muslims I suppose," I added. No! He said. The Muslims are the best at using the black magic!

The person who told me this, Jiit, ended by stressing that he believes in Jesus only, but finished off his monologue in a kind of grand question about how the war or tsunami could have occurred with the deity looking on. A big old question that kind of ends nowhere but does encapsulate the human condition in a real way. 

Interesting that in this case "black magic" is "used" in the opposite way--to attract females. 

Maybe it will be interesting to ask around some more and see what people concoct for me. 

So much rain

The hint came earlier in the week on my bus trip north from Vavunia to Jaffna. It was a sudden blinding rain, with thunder, that shook the bus and had every passenger, even me, sliding closed their windows. Well, as usual I kept my window open a few inches but I was asked by neighbors, a tiny young man and his tiny young wife with a tiny newborn sitting a few seats away, to shut my window. Jaffna was rain-free but muggy. Hard to distinguish cloudy hot and muggy from sunny hot and muggy, but there you go. One thing leads to the next and the weather progresses. Maybe the people here know how to read it better. 

The rain and cloudy muggy came after so many weeks, months actually of drought, just cloudless searing sun one day after the next, that we stopped expecting precipitation. I had stopped looking longingly at morning clouds, afternoon clouds, evening clouds that I hoped would materialize into storms. Maybe somewhere else. Maybe the huge clouds would drop something but not here in Batticaloa. Then, here it was. 

An evening's soft rain, gentle and tame, and a damp but warm morning. The plants perked up and we welcomed the new softer atmosphere. Still hot but not as hot as it had been. Then two days later hours of deluge. No black clouds that we could see. No "approach" of the storm. Only an opaque white-gray sky that dumped pouring rain continuously for hours at a time. Just like when we were here for the monsoon in November. Rain that started by nourishing and then in turn flooded the paths and finally turned them into raging torrents. And the air turned cooler. Cool enough to wish I had a long sleeve shirt handy. 

Once or twice in the heaviest rain I grabbed an umbrella and walked, barefoot, through the grounds, making the acquaintance of new streams and feeling a little out there, just this side of vulnerable. Culverts started to back up. Sheets of water turned to restive bodies of water, looking like they'd get up and go given a few more minutes of downpour. The rain was so hard that the little bit of wind, sometimes stronger gusts that came with it loosened coconut fronds and sent them crashing to the ground. All was wet. There was no escaping it. And a new feeling came over the place as we found ourselves on a kind of island. No one really wanted to leave and no one seemed to come on. But at intervals guests pulled up in tuktuks or, with their enormous silly backpacks under waterproof material, left in a tuktuk that would pull up, sides down to whisk them to their next destination. What can people hope to see? Why do they run all over this country as if there were something more than another poorly developed setting of ugliness, commodification, greed, and swarms of tourists?

The rain went on and the lagoon, which has been low for months, started to rise. Twice I got out for a walk and a short bike ride with Harley, our visiting Fulbrighter. Too short a visit because it's nice to hang out with him and hear what he thinks of his adventures here. The walk and ride were a chance for him to see some of our world and I was happy he perceived and noted so much of what he saw. Great to be with a colleague who's in the here and now and to see how well he appreciates the slightly exotic "black magic" of the East. Part of the magic was slogging through huge puddles the width of the lane in the village. Poor Harley had to pull off his sandals each time we got to one. I walked barefoot slipping off my flipflops. All a bit of an act of faith. The puddles were new, the village is a clean place, so, we had to take the chance. Harley's staying in Kandy where things are a lot more urban. Out here in the wild east things are a bit rougher. But it always seems safe. 

By today the lagoon was a foot, then eight inches, and finally just six inches from the surface of the embankment. From a short distance I saw something brownish, long and reptilian next to the water. It was our resident crocodile (or one of them), which usually stays offshore. Seeing it in its cold glory right among the shrubs and seats was shocking. Maybe seeing me was shocking too because it slipped, silently and gracefully, right back into the speeding lagoon. 

The storm pulled off shore earlier today but then tripped northward to soak Jaffna. Now as I write it's rushing down the coast to Mannar and Puttalam, sending strong winds and maybe downpours into the interior. It may hug the coast or it may hook in over land. Strong westerlies could push it inland and back our way, unless it breaks up over the mountains. Thunder now and a darkening sky. Thavaraja suggested it might "shower" again this evening. It's starting to feel that way so good thing I got out for a couple of hours this morning. 5:30 I went to the gym and then a long ride beachside in Kallady and Tiruchendur. A stop at my favorite part of the beach, severely eroded after a couple of days of high seas, a long look at the gray horizon and the wild clouds all around, and then back home to the cheerful tones of sweeping and scraping, and that first wonderful taste of morning's black coffee. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Sri Lankan universities commit suicide

You told me how 25 of the 29 people in your important government office, provincial level, do no work at all. Is it any surprise? They all got their diplomas from __ University. I've been there and I've seen how things work. I should say I've been there numerous times over a three year period in various teaching and jurying capacities. And I see how things work. How teachers teach. How students are taught. How students are assessed. For someone from outside it is appalling to observe this. Maybe your professor sensed how deeply appalled I was by the work he was doing with students. Maybe that's why he forgot to get in touch with me when the term began again. 

How do things work at __ University? And I wonder, am I doing them a favor to not disclose who they are or am I perpetuating the sad waste of resources, human and otherwise that they practice through, can I say it?--their worst-practice practices? Well practice makes perfect and there at __ University they have developed a perfect practice for lies, deceit, unaccountability, and not getting anything done. By the way it's not just your office where people don't work. There's not a sector of Sri Lankan society I've encountered where people work. So you're right there with the norm. Sri Lankan students are taught to not work in the universities they strive so hard to get into. 

Not only that. Students are ragged when they enter university. All of them. Not just a few wild fraternity boys. Everyone who enters university in every faculty, girls and boys, are ragged. What is ragging? It's a kind of communal, quite brutal hazing experience. You've conveniently pinned the blame for ragging on the British oppressors. But you love it. Quite like the tea plantation slavery they introduced and which you, with such gusto, have finessed into a product for tourism and export. Ragging. It's a form of slavery that it brutalizes and oppresses. And it goes on for weeks. It's meant to forge relationships and make everybody "equal." Somehow you don't see it but ragging rips at the fabric of your society. Undermines education. Destroys inquiry. Forbids questioning. Ragging inculcates bullying and submissiveness as strategies for "success." 

Ragging results in suicide. And truly. Ragging is one of those things you do so well in your society. It is not just individual suicides you cause. Ragging kills your learning culture at just the point in a young person's life when learning should mean everything. Strange thing. Some few people who stand up against ragging are ostracized at your universities. Rules made to curtail ragging or at least to attenuate it are protested by students! People here want ragging. It's your culture of bullying and submissiveness. Your culture of slavery. Ragging perpetuates these fine cultural features of yours. And it feeds into more of the same behaviors. Not just in government offices. In the government itself. How do you expect ever to reach the goal of "good governance" when you literally teach bad governance at your institutions of higher learning?

How does it happen, this doing nothing, once the weeks or months of ragging are finished for the year? Your university system is permeated through and through by a system of carelessness, as in not caring. Who cares if a student has put a few hours' work into an eight week project. Pass them! Who cares if a student didn't show up to class half the time? Pass them. What if the quality of work is so poor, so passionately poor, that it fails to make a passing standard by any university-level standard? Pass them!

So they are passed like a batch, which they are called, like so many biscuits, and they get their certificates. With a certificate you can get a job. You've passed. Once you get a government job, which everybody covets, whether the pay is good or not, you are in forever. And with your outstanding training you know just what to do. Nothing. That's the way to succeed, indeed survive. Plus the lessons you learned from ragging and being ragged. When you are in the position of bullying, be a bully. And when you are meant to be submissive, submit. Because that's what you were taught to do. 

By doing nothing, which you were taught so well to do at your institutions of higher learning you really are perpetuating a system where nothing gets done, and where people are rewarded for doing nothing. This rot from within carries the sad appellation of a "university education." It's the key to success here. It's simple. It's University 101 in Sri Lanka. 

Another look at Jaffna

The village is an island among cultivated fields. Or it was. Jaffna is encroaching from the south along the  KKS Road and people have begun building at the edges of the fields on the other three sides. New land is in demand as there is so little of it. Old land uses give way to new land uses. You ask. Is it good? Is it bad? The people do it with no guidance, no limits from the government. It must be going the way it's meant to go. Words and thoughts you struggled to find. 

Ironically the village population shrank during the conflict. Maybe by one third? My guess. You can't say. It looks like that many houses may be abandoned. But you say no, not abandoned. Only less population. I don't know the population. Three thousand? Ten thousand? You think 30,000?

There are something like 20 temples in the village. There are three or four major ones and many smaller ones. You explained that the village grew outward from these kovils but some are at the edges too. Kovils at the edges of a village might have been built for protection. Also to demarcate boundaries. Boundaries were also demarcated by wells and markets. The large market in Chunnakam, just to the north, is an example. A well stood at the juncture of four village boundaries. A market too. A shrine, large from cut stones was built by a local person with a European wife. The place was controversial. But people use it now. Not as many people as use the "real" shrines. The well? The well was paved over just a few years ago you explain, when the road was widened and the market moved behind, away from the traffic. There was an old woman who tended the well and also looked after the temple, which was seen as a public space. 

The well behind your compound reaches 30 feet before water seeps in. This is the state of the water table on the Jaffna Peninsula. A "bubble" of freshwater rides on top of the denser sea water but that bubble, or more appropriately lens, is growing thinner as water is more scarce. 

You took me to a small region of paddy fields where there are kovils next to well developed tanks. The tanks flow from one to the next along the bed of a submerged river that sometimes flows aboveground in the wet season. Every word I've ever read about Jaffna is that there are no rivers, not even intermittent ones. Another lie blown away. And yet another: as I've long suspected, the much-touted "tank cascade system," said to be an indigenous socio-geographical feature of the Sinhalese "dry zone" of Sri Lanka is found in the Tamil East and North as well. I've seen and noted a similar system just outside Batticaloa town in the ancient Arasady District, a place-name that coincides with the name of the most ancient district in Jaffna. 

You explained to me that old Jaffna town, which is actually a group of now-amalgamated villages, lies north of the British precinct, which ran along the major east-west  Kandy Road up to Hospital Road. Kandy Road was heavily disrupted and damaged during the war when the Indian "peacekeeping" force was here. Major commerce moved north to Hospital and Stanley Roads. Ancient Jaffna lies north of there, about a mile north of the sea. I noted this when we were here last time and I walked through and throughout the city. Maybe this was far enough away from where the Portuguese landed to maintain some religious and cultural autonomy. Maybe not. 

You told me your village, Inuvil, is a new one. It lies 7 km north of Jaffna and people came here from coastal zones to escape the Portuguese. So it's only about 500 years old. Not old enough to pass as "ancient." The temples also count as "new," as most of them date from that time. The landscape here is a palimpsest in its truest sense. So much has been erased, partially or completely, that tracing a linear history of this place is impossible. But you know more than any person from a landscape perspective. And you have professional training in urban landscape. With some documentation, some photos, some interviews, and some careful bike rides around the village you should be able to reconstruct a lot. When I suggested this to you you wrinkled your nose thinking I meant literally rebuild the village the way it was. No. I want you to give the village built environment your best shot to reconstruct what was here. In words, on a map, in diagrams--conjecture is OK because you're basing it on good evidence--and I want you to develop a predictive eye. That's why you're getting your degree in urban design. 

By predictive I mean, what do you see happening here in the next five years? The next twenty years? You are in a prime position to trace the development of this peri-urban space and to foresee where it's going. For example, in our discussions of the cultivated belt around the village, you said these were a sort of open space where whoever was working the fields could keep an eye out for whoever entered the village. Portuguese or internal enemies. The open space made your village a sort of fortress without ramparts. You didn't need to build a physical fortress because you could repel enemies from your warrens of lanes. Or just hide from them. Make yourselves invisible behind your fences. Nowadays you don't need to do that. So land use is changing. People are land hungry and there's not much of that in Jaffna. That cultivated space. Will it be here in 20 years?

You mentioned internal enemies. People from rival villages. So I wonder, were other villages built this way? You claim Inuvil to be unique. Were no other villages in the interior of the Jaffna Peninsula modeled in this way? What about "island" villages like Sammanthurai, far to the south and east near Kalmunai? Might this be a Tamil village form? Or is Inuvil, as you claim, unique?

The interior of the village is amazing. Paved and unpaved roads, wide and narrow roads, narrower pathways, crooked roads and straight roads, all the way I've observed them in my "home" villages of Kallady and Tiruchendur. So much variation in width, angle, materials allocated and realized in each road. Maybe there ten kinds of roads. Maybe there are more. Maybe a typology of roadways in your village is unimportant. Maybe it would give is information about the origins and uses of particular roads. For example, you mention that these roads grew from footpaths. How did this change occur? Why? Where? Why in certain roads and not others? This landscape grew as you say, "without people's knowledge" of what they were doing. The landscape is changing now just as it has always  changed. 

I've noted before the variation in fences, ranging from coconut thatch to palmyra leaf to living fences of coppiced shrubs, then on to beaten oil cans, corrugated metal materials and pressed cement bricks. Finally the bricks are covered over, painted, decorated, "completed." It's a process of closing in, making semi-private places private. What are the motivations behind this? You mention money as a driving force. What else makes people close themselves in this way?

You mention that the closing in changes the environment of the village. It changes air circulation, the visual environment, and the way sound travels. It also changed social interactions. You notice materials in a creative and analytic way, also with an historic eye, so that you noted the solid walls and interpreted them as a recent phenomenon. Part of a recent availability (and in many cases influx from abroad) of money. So with more money formerly open spaces are closing. Semi-private becomes super private. Bicycles are replaced by motorbikes. Relationships and their dynamics are changing. You noted that you are related to almost everyone in the village. You greet everyone and everyone greets you. How will that be for your four children if they stay in this village?

You note that your extended family compound does not have fences or barriers. You chat with an auntie. She tends to a family shrine. The shrine, you tell me, is typical from the Portuguese times when traditional rituals were forbidden in public by the Catholic conquerers, when kovils were destroyed by the conquerers. Maybe these home shrines reach further back in time to older traditions?

You show me different temples and you explain, if I understand correctly, that the kovil style of building is not the original style. That older shrines were supplanted by kovils. That kovils have become wildly decorative only recently. That even the red and white striped walls you see everywhere are a recent phenomenon. I observe the scalloped  ceilings under eaves. No you tell me. They're not traditional. They derive from some workmen and suppliers who knew how to make these shapes and could make a profit by selling them to people. Your viewpoint is a lot like mine. I wonder how much your interpretations are influenced by your own slightly ascetic lifestyle? You make the daily curd for your family just like I used to bake my family's daily bread. 

Like we did, you raise your kids without TV. You don't pay for tuition classes the same way as we didn't send our children to private school or pay for extra SAT "tutorials." The stakes are about the same. You trust that your kids will turn out alright. A little bit you are swimming against the tide. But you are gaining confidence in yourself and you are taking a vitally important stand, given the trends in your world that you see. 

We visit your relations, your mother and sister, your auntie and uncle out on the island, your bachelor uncle and your bachelor secular guru who lives with his two sisters. You are everyone's pet. You stayed. You are making a life. Building a new community. That's why. 

At the same time as you live like an optimist you are deeply philosophically pessimistic about your society and about your physical space. We share this too. And we share it with my guesthouse manager, Mr. Gregory, with whom I got to have some long conversations between times seeing you. Gregory worries over his kids. Changing values, changing mores, a changing economic environment. In a twist, he tells me that the really good people in this country are the Sinhalese, gentle, generous, good hearted people. The worst people, he tells me are his own Tamil people. Selfish. Mean. Backbiting. The worst of all are those from Tamil Nadu, the worst place he's ever been, "cities on fire," he describes them, a thinly veiled reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. Children these days he says, are unfaithful to parents, indifferent or hostile to religion, tempted by smartphones and drugs. Unsafe to go in the streets day or night. They sit on the chairs in back of church and fiddle around instead of sitting on mats on the floor for two or three hours at a time. The girls would never consider marring a local boy. There are no high caste families left in Jaffna. Everyone's gone. Diaspora people bring in money and ideas that are unsuitable. They stay for a day or two and complain about the climate, the noise, the dirt. They bring fashions and gadgets that are unsuitable. 

You, like Gregory, have a lot to say about money flowing in and money being used to renovate or erect religious centers people barely use. You have a lot to say about the way people use, abandon, and sell their property. The money from outside builds buildings but how and if it builds community is a different question. You, like Gregory, remind me that Jaffna is an old rich place and a lot of people have a lot of wealth. In land, in gold. There is pent up demand here for consumer items, wide screen TVs, large vehicles. Will Jaffna become Nugegoda? 

In a surprise discussion you ask me what the true capital of Sri Lanka is. It only takes a split second for us both to agree, Jaffna. You feel it here. And you can attribute it to vasthu shastra. The "head" is on top. Bad things, effluents, move through and out of the southwest, where Colombo is. No one disagrees that Colombo is a cesspit. Kandy is quick on its heels. How will, how can Jaffna avoid this? 

You spoke of awnings. Old buildings had them, deep and long like Sri Lankan eyelashes. They protected the buildings and the people inside and blocked the light and lessened the heat. Now they've "forgotten" how to build them and soon enough AC will come to be the necessity and not the exception. Your critical eye misses little and your judgement lies sharp on the world you see. I count this as good, very good, exceptionally good in a country blind to past or future and only feeding on the present. You will have to guide in frustration and struggle but you will guide and you will set an example and you will build.