Thursday, September 1, 2016

Another corner of Sri Lanka. Why talk to a stranger?

Another corner of Batticaloa

I rode to so many small corners in my Sri Lankan village when I was there. Almost always just at dawn. Moments come where I remember those corners almost just the way they were. They composed the atmosphere of a fairly remote spot of a remote spot of Sri Lanka, already a "corner" on its own.

The corner I recalled today was in Kallady village, not far from the main road, somewhere behind the Shanthi Theater where I came to spend time in a darkened hall, sometimes with lots of other bodies and sometimes almost all by myself, watching recent movies from Tamil Nadu, none of them that good but so much fun to catch the energy and the cadence and make out some words in Tamil with the help of subtitles. 

Not that the main road was that much, but it was lively and wide and crowded. People were rushing both ways, north and south, buying and selling, stopping, picking up fish at the fish market below the road or bananas or pineapples from the back of trucks. Buses plied noisily and dangerously fast. Fast eats places on both sides of the road. A coconut juice place, an employment office, a clinic, a well constructed median strip and a new HNB Bank branch. These elements combined to make it seem almost prosperous. 

As if peace were attainable or maybe even there already, having arrived stealthily, miraculously after war and communal violence and threat and loss and disappearance rained down, gritty, miserable, acid, gray, burning and strafing for the past thirty years. But in the back, the pokey back roads, some paved, some unpaved, some with speed bumps in front of schools and others with sharp blind turns behind walls, nothing looked prosperous. It looked very poor and bare. 

This corner was a bare spot. Maybe not the poorest in Sri Lanka. After all the lady kept cows on this muddy, scraped-away lot. And I saw her on her stool, sqatting, milking at the corner on many mornings. I wonder. Did she see me? Her lot was across from a small shop. Maybe her family owned it. Maybe they were rich. They could have been, with a shop and cows and property. Never mind the appearance. And someone, a son or nephew or son in law, seemed always to be close by in the morning in his sarong and bare torso. Pretty fat, at least broad, maybe another sign of prosperity. No vehicles nearby though. Maybe they were still locked inside the gates this time of morning. Because if this was indeed a family, and if they had cows, a shop, property, and more than one mature generation in proximity, then they must have had a vehicle. And not just a scooter. It has to have been a small or large sedan or even, though I doubt it--these were more Western Province vehicles, an SUV. No. SUVs were rare still in the East. Cars too. But not if you were wealthy. 

This place looked so poor. A lady in her 60s or 70s out early in the morning milking her cows. Maybe she'd done it for decades. Maybe it was a real source of wealth. A reliable source. But the scene didn't emit the glow of wealth or comfort. So not bucolic. No trees around. Only mud it seemed, even in the dry season when the unpaved roads turned to dust. And the cows. What could they have been eating? There was no grass to be seen. The lot was lower than the road. Maybe it had been a home. Maybe it had been lost during the war. Maybe it was wiped clean by the tsunami. Was this neighborhood in the zone of devastation? Might have been. Must have been. I think the wave went all the way to the main road. So maybe here like in Thiruchendur, everything you saw, no matter how dirty or worn was new. Built after the tsunami. 

I could pass by the spot once a day. One time each morning (way too hot the rest of the day), but I didn't feel I could stop. The tableau of the village street, the lady and her cow, the man in the sarong. These seemed private. A place I might pass through but not a place to stop. Not a place to gawk, let alone take a picture. A place to pass, silently, slowly, floatingly, straining to look without turning my head. Not making eye contact because it was none of my business. 

Others did it differently. Smiled. Said hello. I tried it sometimes. Not at this corner. But often the looks I got back in return said "this is not your place. This is not your business. This is not for you to separate apart into a domain of your own by saying hello. Why should we say hello to you? You are a stranger and you are strange in your age, your dress, your posture, your facial expression, your eyes. What are your intents? Why are you here in this private place, a foreigner, a European, an interloper. A troublemaker? Another sociologist come to 'study' us? Another interviewer? Go in peace but go. Go through this place and don't take the liberty of assuming it is 'yours' in any way. And don't bother us. We've had decades of bother. Just let us get on with the milking, the driving, brushing our teeth, packing our children off to school, finding time for our meals."

The feeling wasn't hostile. It was just there. It wasn't respectful either. It was just leave us alone. And maybe I wanted to be left alone myself. Left alone to engage or disengage or float or imagine or gain impressions as I wanted them. Maybe it was enough to see and breathe the dust, to smell and breathe the smoke, to take in the sounds as they were offered or as I perceived them. To feel the roughness of the road or see a cow, a large one, unexpected around the corner. To feel the dips in the unpaved road and go into and through them like a joyride or to circumnavigate around the side of them when it rained great huge storms. 

The place was a place of cows. It felt like every place with cows radiated their gentleness, passivity. I don't know if you could call the people passive. Their struggles had been huge, ongoing, stuck into decades like a knife. The struggles came from all sides, politically. There could be no trust. I don't know the suffering of people in Batticaloa. I didn't know them personally enough to understand how they suffered. Do all people suffer alike? Does "accepting" suffering happen differently? Not being allowed into their suffering is part of what I wasn't allowed into. The "mind our own business. What are you doing here anyway?" But suffering is personal even if shared. And the way you suffer, the "approach" to suffering. Who can tell? How is that suffering different or dissipated ten or twenty years out? I more than touched upon this in my writings there. It's a black box, a complete mystery to me. Yet. Suffering was on the agenda. It was on the menu in appetizers, mains, and desserts. There for you to sense but not understand. 

So I couldn't be like my acquaintance,  a graduate student in sociology, who went into people's houses and started her interviews with, "so take me to the worst day of your life, the day of the tsunami." The cheek, ignorance, disbalance and disrespect that question showed explains how this person was so unhappy where we were. How she sought solace in a local, newly built Hari Krishna center. 

What was the mission of a place like that? Who's agenda was it there to serve? Agendas and intrusions, misbehavior of every sort is what we witnessed there in the East. All ages, genders, nationalities. Of course even Sri Lankans were in on it. A great feeding frenzy of misery. And the sufferers of misery, or their children, escaping the vortex of unhappiness and deprivation at dizzying speeds, or maybe more like swimming and slashing their way out of a pool full of sharks. It wasn't a happy place. 

The corner in the morning could provide what you might call a "happy" place. When you are gliding past you are savoring the minute or seconds that it takes. You know you are alive, but in the strangest way because there's no place you have to be at any particular time. You may not be of the people there but you are seeing their lives and passing through, even if just for a moment a day. The lives build a landscape. They are not the backdrop because they are all there is. So the suffering or the sounds of gossip, all of these are there front row center, a drama of each day reckoned in its moments. 

That's the corner for today there are many more to explore.