Saturday, August 27, 2016

Slow motion in Eastern Province

It's not the remembering now as much as it was the living then. Every moment was lived. Even the slow motion mid morning lie down under the fan, when it was too hot to think of anything, when the pool was over and anyway, heating up. That pool. It was new, only built a few years ago. One of the only ones in Eastern Province. A phenomenon. Also a focus of disagreement between father and son, Thava and Darshan. Darshan wanted it near the lagoon, where it was finally built. Dad wanted it farther in, away from the lagoon, closer to Thiruchendur village. Darshan won that one, and his instincts were right. Looking like an infinity pool. Coconut palms swaying above. Brahminy kites riding the thermals above for hours. The clouds gathering, piling up in the west, collapsing in on themselves. It was an incredible spot. 

For hours I was exposed to the sun. Open, every surface of my skin and every pore, to the hot light. It poured on me like it poured on everyone and everything, bleaching and nourishing by turns. The heat was more uncomfortable than the light. Sometimes a merciful cloud would develop, or a phalanx of clouds would block the direct sun for minutes or hours. Otherwise it broadcast what seemed endless radiation. Maybe I was mistaken to let it at my skin the way I did. I won't know until we see what develops of small brown spots Janet found. Maybe I let myself in for a slow motion train wreck with cancer. My skin back there was the least of my worries. Most of the time I gulped down that sun. But mostly not the Sri Lankans. Yes, at the pool they stripped to their trunks but on land they were never without long sleeves. Long sleeves and long pants, long sleeves and sarongs. Sometimes they'd pull the sarong up, fold it to nearly the top of their thighs or fan it straight out for air and refold, but never shorts. Ever. 

The large Muslim men kept their well-ironed sarongs down, draped across generous legs and buttocks and never in public higher than the ankle. But everyone or almost everyone when they got on their motorcycles, covered up with a jacket. Sometimes a heavy one. I'll never forget seeing a father lovingly zipping up his children's black jackets before driving them off to school on his scooter one hot morning. The boys at the guesthouse would do the same before they left for the day, pack themselves carefully into a black jacket before taking off into the 90 degree heat of afternoon. Clinton, compact as he was, always wore this outer layer on his (brother's) motorcycle. And when you passed the men's clothing stores, Gent's Corner, Gent's Choice, or the smaller shops, all of them displayed the black jackets, hanging on hooks against the wall of a shop. Sometimes black windbreaker pants too, like we'd wear on a cold icy day for riding a bicycle to work in the city. The black outer garments. Jackets, pants. They were de rigeur for driving or riding a motorcycle in the tropical sun . 

The dress for women of course was different and as I think back, at least among the non-Muslim women, it seemed always to be a sari or a some variant of the shalwar. This is whether they were the driver or passenger, and always as the latter they sat sideways. Women and men wore helmets. Children almost never. A family might sit on a scooter, parents sandwiching a couple of I helmeted children on their was to school. 

The motorcycle as vehicle was endemic and peculiar. They could be as steady as a stream or as daring, zipping in and out of traffic, as a flock of crows. The passenger almost never held to anything. I would grab drivers' waists who offered me a ride but I was kindly introduced to the back bar, which I took to grabbing instead. Always riding on a motorcycle was pretty much a paralyzing experience for me except for when drivers took it very easy, maybe in respect for my age, and went agonizingly slow. How could that back bar offer you any protection anyway? Would you flip backwards over yourself? But I guess if you were going to go flying that would apply to holding on to the driver too. Couldn't exactly use them as a landing pad. 

One of my last days I had just crossed the Kallady Bridge townward and decided to use the crosswalk some meters down the main road instead of taking my chances at the foot of the bridge to cross. This was almost fatal. Not for me but for an unlucky motorbike driver who stopped for me. Unusual as it was to stop for anyone maybe he did it because of my white skin or maybe, possibly more likely he stopped because this corner was particularly rife with police. This was just around the corner from police headquarters. And never when I passed were the police not stopping someone. "A little something," I heard them demanding (or I guess I could say strongly suggesting) from every driver who they stopped. 

Anyway this poor motorbike driver stopped for me but the guy driving a van in back of him didn't stop. It was all in slow motion because full stops were uncommon or rare. The goal was just to keep moving. The van tapped him, slowly but relatively huge. This sent the motorcycle guy flying backwards. I'll never forget the look on his face, utter surprise as he was back ended and went flying. Arms up! Legs just managing to hug the bike. He arched all the way backwards. Must have played hell on his shoulders and neck for weeks, for which he probably spent time at the hospital, probably cursing me. He looked like a baby starting. And the scream he gave sounded like. Well, it sounded like someone who's just had the shit scared out of him, same as I felt the other day here in Cambridge when a huge SUV from Tennessee did a sharp right at the corner I was just getting ready to cross on my bike (in the bike lane thank you). 

The whole thing was in slow motion so the guy actually stayed on his cycle. There was some traffic stopped and some yelling but I decided the best thing to do was slip away. 

Next day, my very last day before we took the train out of Batticaloa at 6:10 AM, I was on the main Kallady road headed south. Just this side of the roundabout, where road and village converge to give so much promise. Maybe something is there! Something worth seeing, exploring. There never was, really. Nor was there anything really worth eating. The bhavans and smaller shops dished up the same rice or fast eats. Fried things, baked things, things with fish or onion or egg. There was plenty of beauty around but nothing much to "see" "do" or "taste" in a tourist sense. 

Anyway there I was on the main road where it's wide and there are potentially four lanes of traffic, two on either side of the median strip where there was always a cow or two, sometimes more, grazing leisurely. This particular morning one of the white cows had ventured onto the road. She was on the west side where town-bound traffic was coming. Not that busy that morning. Along lumbered one of those all-purpose painted trucks you see all the time. Nothing fancy or ostentatious but not poor either. Solid and built for business. Slow motion again. The driver I'm sure reckoned that the cow would get out of his way in time. Part of the general scheme of movement the same as planets revolve around the sun. This cow wasn't into that. She stood stock still in the Kallady road and the truck, which slowed imperceptibly by the second but never stopped, finally got her. It's the only time I've seen a vehicle hit a cow. It happened in slow motion but the cow went down. A serious offense in a place where cows have the same road rights, maybe more than people. The truck went along. The cow got up, maybe unfazed. I couldn't know. It sauntered. I memorized the license plate of the truck and remembered that it had a name "Muhammad" written on it. And I thought to report it to my hosts. Who knows where they would have gone with the information? Maybe they wouldn't care. Maybe it would add to their overflowing store of anxiety. Maybe it would make them hate or fear their Muslim neighbors more. I couldn't calculate the outcome of my reporting this thing so I decided to keep it quiet until now. I pretty much kept everything under wraps in Sri Lanka. Partly because of language. Partly because of lack of interested audience. Mostly because I sensed that any statement I made would have unintended consequences. I saw this happening so many times. Better just to listen and to be, to make myself small. 

That may be why these slow motion memories count for something. Even though they're not lived anymore. 

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