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. 

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