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. 

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