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. 

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