Observations from Overseas: Sri Lanka
[I spent six months of a sabbatical in Sri Lanka, from October 2002 until
April 2003. While I was there, I wrote a series of short essays recording
my observations about Sri Lanka and the life that my family and I were
leading there. (Well, really, they weren't essays exactly; they were
email messages that I mailed to friends to let them know what I was up
to while I was overseas). Here are six of them.]
The Neighborhood Dogs
[Early December, 2002]
It's remarkable how quickly a person can adjust to the rhythms of life in a new
place. Quincy and I now pretty much take for granted those things that seemed
novel when we first got here: buffalo curd in the fridge (Jasper and I both
gobble it down), parasites in the tap water (we boil three big tubs of it per
day on the stove to make it drinkable), the smell of smoke in the air (that's
where the garbage goes). I'm reminded of it all over again as we watch Claudia-
who just arrived two weeks ago-adapt so quickly to Sri Lankan life. She's
hopping buses to rural villages. She's whacking coconuts in half with our big
rusty coconut knife. She's already made more acquaintances than Quincy and I
put together. Hell, she hadn't even been here two full days before Anil came
knocking at the door, looking for his new friend Claudia.
Anil is this tiny little guy who lives down the road with his great big wife.
He's a dapper dresser, and he knows everything and everybody in the
neighborhood. It's his job: He's a connector. He connects employers and
employee, he connects people with places to live, and he gets a commission.
It's through Anil that we found our house, and it's through Anil that we were
found by the woman who cooks for us twice a week-although in both cases, it was
only much later that we discovered that Anil was involved because we hadn't even
met him yet.
Anyway, it really doesn't take long to adapt to new circumstances.
I've even adapted to the ants. Maybe it's because of the constant presence of
all those happy monks with their ruby robes and black umbrellas. Or maybe it's
the soothing view from our rooftop, out over the morning mists rising from the
river and the flocks of parakeets that skim the canopy of coconut palms and
jackfruit trees. Or maybe it's just a sort of surrender. In any case, just as
I've come to reach a weird sort of serenity about the lengthy trials and random
tribulations of trying to get our visas extended, so too I've come to accept
ants as a normal and benign part of our household. The never-ending highways of
little critters that grace our baseboards and run in ragged lines up and down
the wall behind the sink used to sizzle my scheming thoughts whenever I was in
the kitchen (which, of course, is almost always; I love that buffalo curd) but
not anymore. Now I hardly even notice them. Sure, I'll brush them aside when
they get into the garbage, or when I need the cutting board on which they are so
keen to gather and swarm. But they don't bother me so much. They were here in
this house before us, and they'll be here after we leave, and we may succeed in
subtly re-routing them from time to time, but they're not going anywhere; so I
might as well welcome them into our lives with a shrugging sort of grace. And
so I have. I've decided that they're our pets.
And not just the ants. All the insect and arachnid life that creeps in through
the hundreds of slits and cracks and drainholes in this house: they're all our
pets. I mean, they're pretty benign. The ants don't seem to sting. The
spiders don't seem to bite. Even the wasps seem content just to buzz blindly
around the windowpanes without expressing any interest in the rest of us. Okay,
so they're maybe not the most affectionate of pets. They don't purr in our
arms, or drape adoring jowls across our thighs, or nuzzle our crotches with
relentless enchantment. But, hey, what they lack in companionable quality, they
more than make up for in quantity.
The neighborhood dogs, however, are another matter entirely. Oh there's plenty
of dogs in this town, plenty of strays. It was one of the first things I
noticed when we arrived: All these scrawny dusty-looking mongrels on the
streets. At first it alarmed me a bit, since we spend a lot of time walking on
those streets, and Jasper is such a curious wee thing-always eager to stretch
out her tiny hand to meet the muzzle of a drooling mutt. But then I realized
that the dogs around here don't have the energy for giving chase or hassling us
in any way as we go about our day. They spend their days lying languidly in the
dirt at the edge of the road, just barely outside the range of the grinding
wheels of trucks and buses, barely even looking up. But that's the daytime. As
soon as the sun sets, it seems, the dogs start roaming-and barking. All of
them, and all at once, and they don't stop until the roosters start crowing.
Our first few nights here I kept waking up to the grating chorus of yips and
yowls rising from the hillside below-sometimes far off but still penetrating,
and sometimes very close by. I got used to it though, and it stopped bugging
me. But then Claudia arrived and the shrill barking of the local strays has
become our new household obsession. Every morning we assess the damage to
Claudia's sleep cycle, and throughout the day we plot new methods trying to keep
those roving packs of boisterous mutts from climbing our hill and yapping into
At first we tried explosives. We know that folks fling firecrackers at monkeys
to clear them off their roofs and out of their mango trees, so we figured it
might work for dogs as well. So Claudia bought a package of locally-
manufactured firecrackers. These aren't the skinny little red things that
highschool boys fling laughingly out of car windows on Halloween night. These
are some serious bombs. And crudely-made. Hell, they look like something I
might've assembled myself, if all I had on hand was string, newspaper,
gunpowder, and enough liquor to dull my better judgment. We tested one, one
afternoon, while we were all hanging out in the yard. Me and Claudia plotted
strategy on the driveway, while Quincy kept an eye on Jasper who was flapping
her hands in a garden tub where we grow water lilies and mosquito larvae. I lit
the fuse, tossed it toward the gate, and...
The explosion was deafening, echoing off the walls and across the valley to the
hills beyond. (Jasper didn't seem to mind; while the rest of us were still
peeling our shell-shocked expressions off of our faces, she just glanced around
placidly and went back to her pet larvae.) And so, every night for the last
week or so, the chorus of barks that starts up after dark has been punctuated by
the sounds of mortar shells exploding in our yard.
But the dogs keep coming back, and so we keep plotting. An attempt to call the
city didn't go far. There seems to be some sort of animal control unit-we've
heard tales of municipal trucks working their way up and down the roads, with
men jumping off to jab at strays with sharp sticks dosed in strychnine, and
flinging the twitching poisoned bodies up into the truck for disposal-but
they're always out to tea. Inevitably, and especially at 2 in the morning, I've
considered various ways in which I myself might violently convince those dogs to
stop their yapping forever. But, while I've clubbed a couple of scorpions to
death (it turns out things with six-inch-long poisonous tails don't quite
qualify as household pets), I'm less keen to try taking such drastic measures
with a dog-especially if those measures involve me sleepily feeling my way half-
naked through wet brush bristling with broken bottles and long snakes and, well,
So we called Anil. We figured that if there's something to be done about the
dogs, Anil would know. Quincy told him about the problem, and then hesitated, a
little unsure of exactly what question we wanted to ask. But Anil cut right to
the chase: "You want someone to kill the dogs for you," he said. And before
Quincy could even respond, Anil once again filled the gap. "I will look into it
tomorrow," he said, "I will arrange a solution."
So what's going to happen now? We don't know. I have the slightly
uncomfortable feeling that, without directly intending to, we have just stepped
into some sort of shadowy canine-catching underworld populated by lean men with
darting eyes and steady hands, where words are whispered and rupees are passed
invisibly across tarnished tabletops, and the next thing you know there's two
guys with rusty coconut knives setting off at night after our local strays.
Yes, I worry that we might've just taken out a contract hit on a dog.
Meanwhile, we're taking language lessons from a private Sinhala tutor. We've
had two lessons so far, and they tend to be thematic. The first day we learned
pronouns. On the second day, we learned words and phrases to use when traveling
by bus and train. For the next lesson, I think I'll ask our tutor to teach us
how to talk about mutts and mobsters and misunderstandings. (I looked in our
Lonely Planet phrasebook and, although it provided perfectly phonetic Sinhalese
translations of such seemingly superfluous phrases as "No, I don't want it
extracted" and "What am I accused of," it fails entirely to tell me how to say
"No no, I don't actually require you to kill anything after all; but I'll be
happy to pay you and your squinting associate anyway, if that's what this
unexpected visit is all about.") It doesn't hurt to be prepared. Even though
most folks around here do speak a little English, they really appreciate it when
we try to adopt the local language.
Rajar and the "Love Me Tender" Van
[Early January, 2003]
I'm not actually wearing a skirt, it just looks like it. It's a sarong, and
it's very comfortable. I bought it from this shop by the railroad station in
the little beach town of Weligama. It's a beautiful green batik, and it only
cost about 3 bucks U.S., plus another 50 cents for the tailor to hem it while I
sat sweating next to his sewing machine, and I'm told I paid him way too much.
Anyway, that's what I'm wearing right now. It's a very common form of mensware
around here. And it's not a skirt.
Yes, the sarong is just an ordinary part of life around here. Like the ants on
our walls and banana blossoms in our curries. Now that we're deep in our third
month in Sri Lanka, it's great fun to be reminded of the many things that once
were remarkable, but now seem so ordinary as to barely merit notice. Like the
sounds that we hear. The way that the air is saturated with sounds of the life
in the trees: the whine of crickets and the sudden chirps of lizards, and the
constantly-changing mix of birdcalls from the parakeets and the crows, the mynas
and bulbuls and minivets and kingfishers. Of course, just as commonplace are
the inevitable midnight yowls from dozens of dogs, and window-rattling
explosions from the firecracker bombs that Claudia occasionally heaves off the
balcony to try to shut them up. Another common sound, which I still get a kick
out of, is the random musical sounds emitted by cars backing-up. It's the
equivalent of the familiar beep-beep-beeping that kicks in on delivery trucks
when they shift into reverse. Except here, it's not just big trucks that are
outfitted with that warning signal; here, it seems, just about every other car
or van or three-wheeler has some sort of backing-up sound. And they aren't just
beep-beeps either; they tend to be more melodic-cavalry music and pop songs --
and very very loud. It's handy in more ways than one. For instance, when our
friend Sheila arrived from the airport last month at 3 a.m. with the driver we
sent to get her, I was conveniently jolted awake by the sound of "Love Me
Tender" blaring out of the rear of the van as it backed up in our driveway.
Sheila arrived in early December and was here through Christmas. Christmas
itself passed quietly enough. In keeping with family tradition, we didn't do
much. Chistmas is, in its own weird way, a pretty salient holiday to Sri
Lankans, even though very few of them are Christians. But Sri Lankans love
holidays in general -- there seem to be at least four or five of them per month,
covering all the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim bases -- and find ways
of celebrating all of them. The main way Sri Lankans celebrate Christmas, it
seems, is to stay up until midnight on Christmas eve, and then light off
hundreds and hundreds of firecrackers. Woke us all up; and Sheila -- seeking a
plausible explanation for all those explosions -- thought that Claudia had
finally cracked and was tossing every weapon from her bedside artillery in the
direction of the dogs.
Jasper is still too young to require any sort of extravagant Christmas. She
doesn't demand new toys. We've bought her a few, though. Quincy just bought
her a baby doll ("Enjoy Milk Bottle For Endless Fun Sucking Pacifier For Stop
Crying" says the label on the box) and she took to it immediately. But it's
hasn't quite yet dislodged the various pieces of trash -- an empty bottle, a
broken broomstick -- on the depth chart of favorite playthings. And as far as I
can tell, nothing makes Jasper happier than finding something that she can sit
on. She's been a very enthusiastic sitter ever since she learned how, and she
tries out this talent on anything lower than her butt -- boxes, balls,
stretched-out legs, sleeping dogs. Very cute. Although sometimes, of course,
it ends in tears. Balls roll away, dogs wake up.
We took advantage of Sheila's visit to explore the island a bit. We hired Rajar
and his "Love Me Tender" van to drive us around. There are lots of things to
notice on the Sri Lankan roadways. Like the tiny roadside shops -- the sort
that sell coconuts and crackers and have about as much floorspace as a yoga mat
-- with homemade hand-painted signs saying things like "K-Mart" and "IKEA." I
also get a kick out the random mix of English-language watchwords and slogans
plastered to the backs of vehicles. Things like "No Hand Signal," "No Fear,"
"Super Benz," and "Backstreet Boys." Spending hours amid the vehicular chaos of
the road also made me realize just how keenly skilled Sri Lankan drivers are at
sensing when there is just barely enough room to pass another vehicle. I mean,
there are lots of different sized things on the roads, going lots of different
speeds. But drivers seem instantly to sift everything into highly sophisticated
decision-rules that govern whether they jam on the accelerator or the brake.
Like, "It's a narrow one-lane bridge but I ought to be able to squeeze between
the overloaded motorcycle and the oncoming bus." Or "That three-wheeler is
nimble enough to avoid me, so surely there's enough room for me alongside the
truck, the tractor, and the ox-cart hauling sticks." Or "If that bus slows down
to let people off, I may not find space to pass those two adjacent vans without
hitting the family on the bicycle. But what's that behind the on-coming truck?
An elephant? I'd better go for it while I can."
We spent a day up in the high hills, in tea country. Cold rain and brisk wind;
the children of tea-pluckers playing cricket beside the Tamil temple in the late
afternoon light. We rented a tea estate "bungalow" for the night -- which is to
say we spent 50 bucks collectively to live briefly in the sort of grand style
that folks like Sir Thomas Lipton lived a hundred years ago, with a staff of
servants and a big dining room and a fire in the fireplace and a never-ending
view. This bungalow also came stocked, bizarrely enough, with bookcases full of
old issues of Readers' Digest. The dusty magazines came in handy when we were
trying to resuscitate the sputtering fire in the fireplace. No newspaper handy,
so I grabbed a 1975 issue of Readers' Digest, and tried to get that wet wood
going with "Humor in Uniform" and "Drama in Real Life: Attacked by Sharks!"
Spent a few days staying at a cheap guesthouse on the south coast. Right on the
Indian Ocean. It's where I converted to sarongs, Quincy stepped on a bee, and
Jasper befriended (and tried to sit on, of course) a couple of dogs that we
nicknamed "Trouble" and "Bulge-Eye." There's a heavy concentration of
foreigners at the guesthouse, like some sort of parody of White People on
Holiday. A French couple on a romantic get-away. Four old Germans who spent
their evenings playing "Yahtzee" in the restaurant. And a young New Zealander
with a zen-slacker haircut who did very slow yoga on the beach every sunrise.
We overheard him one night in the restaurant, leaning into a Czech couple who'd
just arrived, telling them excitedly about the virtues of hemp fiber and the
government conspiracy that keeps it from becoming commercially viable.
Although must of our time at the beach was devoted to laziness, we did go visit
a famous temple one day. The Weherahena temple, celebrated for its Buddha
statue the size of 7-story building, and for its comic-book art. Yes, whole
walls of the temple covered with step-by-step pictorial depictions of the
Buddha's life. Panel after numbered panel illustrating important scenes of
contemplation, enlightenment, and serenity. You know: (1) old man; (2) old man
with lotus blossom; (3) old man with lotus blossom meets fetching young woman;
and so on. To my ignorant eyes it looked like storyboards from some recent
Woody Allen effort, but apparently it's deeply spiritual stuff. There were even
more comic-book scenes in an underground chamber, but Quincy and I didn't see
all that. We were hanging out with Jasper by the sacred Bodhi tree where she'd
discovered a temple dog and a litter of temple puppies, and she wanted to sit on
each and every one.
We also visited some of the famous sites in Sri Lanka's "cultural triangle"
north of Kandy:
We saw the ruins of the extraordinary palatial fortress of Sigiriya, perched on
a massive rock jutting out of the plains. It was like climbing to the top of
the Houston Astrodome and finding the Playboy Mansion perched on top -- except,
you know, the dome is a single solid rock, and the mansion has fallen into
serious disrepair. No more bunnies, no more bathrobes, no more plumbing.
We saw the ruined city of Polonnoruwa, where we practically had to physically
subdue our over-generous driver Rajar, because we wanted to walk the site, while
he felt certain that he should drive us around. "But it's almost half a mile!"
he asserted, finding it inconceivable that we should want to use our legs when
we'd already paid him to provide us with wheels. We didn't exactly want to
mention that the cultural experience might be diluted by the sudden sound of
Elvis Presley songs bouncing around the crumbling temple walls and echoing
loudly off the big stone Buddhas.
We saw the famous cave temples of Dambulla, and their amazing profusion of
Buddha statues. Dozens of dozens of dozens of statues, indicating apparently
that these caves were a place of extraordinary monastic devotion. Or perhaps -
and this is just my goofball theory -- that the caves were something equivalent
to a warehouse or book depository or that bizarre classroom at the University of
Peradeniya that is jammed floor-to-ceiling with broken chairs and wooden desks:
Some sort of dumping grounds for unnecessary surplus Buddhas. Of course, most
folks prefer Theory #1.
One afternoon, while relaxing at rural guesthouse, Rajar drove us into a nearby
town to get something to eat. Along the way, Claudia looked for a particular
side-road that she'd been told about, that would take her to a nearby lake where
she could relax in the peace and quiet. We spotted the road: A thin mud track
through a paddy field. "It's probably not far," said Claudia, "I can walk from
here." Rajar stared at her. "We'll drive," he said. He turned the van onto
the narrow track, and slowly navigated that narrow strip of dry land between the
paddies. I kept thinking: How are we going to get out of here? It's not even
wide enough to turn around! I imagined, with dismay, that eventually we'd be
forced to inch our way backwards toward the main road with "Love Me Tender"
blaring out the back of the van, resonating off the water beside us, and
carrying on and on across the paddyfields beyond, where the bent brown backs of
the rice-planters would straighten to stand up and stare in irritation and
wonder, and the egrets would spread their white wings to fly for cover. And
even after the planters eventually tired of their curiosity and returned to
work, and the egrets finally resumed their muddy vigil somewhere else, we would
continue to creep endlessly backwards in our piercing single-song jukebox of a
van. Anyway, after about a quarter of mile of very slow going, we were forced
to a stop; the narrow lane was washed out and impassable. Claudia hopped out
and started walking. "Where is she going?" asked Rajar. I told him that the
man in the guesthouse had said it was a nice walk to the lake. Rajar looked at
me. "He's a madman," he said, and shifted into reverse.
The Local News
[Early February, 2003]
Well, the war is still on hiatus. Representatives of the government and the
LTTE (those are the Tamil Tigers-the "Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam")
continue to trot off to Oslo and places like that to hammer out agreements,
while all sorts of others folks continue to raise objections to the nature of
the negotiations and worry about what the eventual outcomes might be.
I must admit, though, that stuff seems awfully abstract here in Kandyland.
Never was much war here. (Except for that bomb that exploded in the Temple of
the Tooth a few years back, the main consequence of which is that tourists now
have to walk past men with guns before proceeding inside to see the container
that holds the container that holds the container that allegedly holds one of
the Buddha's teeth). So, around here, the hopeful peace is evident mostly in
symbolic forms, like the schoolkid's drawing that adorns the cover of the new
phone books: blue skies, white doves, and a set of children holding tight to a
single rainbow-colored parachute.
But one would be wise not to trust my impressions. I'm still a rube, after all,
peering into Sri Lankan life through perceptual pores that are more likely to
spot Bart Simpson on some Muslim kid's T-shirt than to actually pick up an
accurate socio-political vibe. And I don't read the news regularly either. I
mean, yes, we have internet access-our balky little dial-up connection-and so,
in theory, we could be in touch with all the news in the world. In fact,
though, I find myself logging on mostly just to check out hockey scores from
time to time.
Of course, there's no shortage of daily newspapers to look at. Colombo has more
English-language dailies than Vancouver does-or Los Angeles or Chicago for that
matter-and I'll pick one up every once in a while.
I like the occasional enthusiastic headlines. "Rubber Corp on the Mat!"
"Women-only Buses to Keep Perverts at Bay!" Of course, most of the headlines
are a bit more sober: "LTTE Assures Commitment to Peace Talks." "Govt, LTTE
Discuss Child Soldiers, Ceasefire Violations." Things like that.
Beyond those headlines, it's not so easy to figure out what the news is all
about. Compared to the spoon-fed stuff I'm used to in North American papers,
these stories tend to be a bit underwritten, and I always feel I'm lacking the
necessary background knowledge to decode the prose. (Even the sports pages are
indecipherable, given that they're devoted entirely to the results of
international cricket matches: "Hussain on seven survived a desperately close
stumping chance of MacGill, which went to the third umpire for adjudication two
overs from stumps...")
What's always interesting are the unsolicited, unfiltered, and apparently
unedited opinion pieces that show up all over the paper. I once read an alleged
news story that turned out to be a puff piece for the coconut industry. Except
it was an unreadably dense piece of puffery, going on and on in excruciating
detail on the biochemisty of coconut oil. More common are long pieces like the
one I read the other day, which explored the complex mosaic of Sri Lankan ethnic
politics within the framework of old-fashioned Marxism. It was fun, in a
nostalgic sort of way, to read prose peppered regularly with words like
"oligarchic," "proletariat," "Fourth Internationale," and "blind obeisance."
For a real glimpse into the life of ordinary Sri Lankans-a life that's mostly
hidden from temporary rubes like me-nothing beats paid advertising. Like the
Govi Buddhist 39 trained English Teacher (pleasant young looking) owns
a car, a house, a coconut plantation, a tea plantation, and etc.
Retired parents seek a partner.
G/B well connected parents (professionals) seek for their son 26 tall
handsome teetotaler nonsmoker undergraduate in a foreign university
suitable pretty decent girl for prior association till marriage 1-2
years hence. Apply immediately with family details, Horoscope.
Govi Buddhist parents seek partner for pleasant daughter, Executive in
private sector 5'4", 32. Suwana Mars Saturn Eight House.
A Christian Tamil family is looking for a fair beautiful bride. The groom
is a Manager in a well-reputed BOI company in Kandy. He is 34 years old,
graduate, educated at a leading school in Kandy, and a teetotaler.
Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus also may reply. We don't treat any
differences, but the bride must accompany him to the church where
he attends after the marriage.
D/B parents seek professional partner for daughter English teacher, fair
5' 26 dowry 800000/=. Horoscope essential. Caste immaterial.
And then there's the death anniversary notices: Big ads with smart-looking
borders and smiling old photographs, fondly remembering a family member on the
anniversary of his or her death. And not just the first anniversary; there's
sometimes notices remembering someone who died three or nine or twentysomething
Some of these ads are simple and straightforward:
1st Death Anniversary
In loving memory of Ernest Nanayakkara
Born 18.05.1921 - Died 31.01.2002
A year has passed / Since you are gone / A voice we heard is stilled /
A place is vacant in your home / A place which cannot be filled
Others just seem simple and straightforward at first glance:
7th Year Anniversary / 31.01.2003
Miss K V S F De Soysa
Chief Librarian / Central Bank of Sri Lanka
In treasured and undying memory of our precious Srima
Sadly missed by your father sister brother niece nephews
But deeper textures emerge in the context of other notices, more detailed and
7th Year Remembrance / 31st January 2003
Late Mrs Violet Ranasinghe
A series of Pinkamas have been arranged for the 30th & 31st January, 2003
including restoration of an abandoned tank in Tanamalwila, which will be
handed over to the landless peasantry of the area to confer merit on you
and 40 others who lost their lives in the bombing of the Central Bank
on 31st January, 1996 and several others who have been disabled.
May you attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana
Seventh Year Death Anniversary
To the treasured memory of my darling daughter
Enoka Vinodini Gunaratna
I only look at the traitors with sympathy when they shake hands with your
murderers. The guiding light of my life was dimmed seven years ago.
Time can never heal my sorrowing heart. May you be our daughter
Meanwhile, back in my little world, I recently gave a talk at Peradeniya
University, in a surprisingly fancy room that had microphones embedded in the
tables in front of every audience member. I felt like I was talking at the
United Nations or something. Afterwards, I got to chatting with a couple of
University folks, and I asked what their predictions were for a lasting peace.
They seemed encouraged. One of them is a Sinhalese political scientist who is
trying to promote ethnic harmony through the establishment of Buddhist
meditation centers, which seems wildly idealistic. But he's cynical as well.
He suggested that as long as George W. Bush pursues his crowd-pleasing anti-
terrorism agenda, then the LTTE leaders will play nice and give peace a chance.
"September 11," he said, "was a godsend."
Not everyone feels that way. I picked up the paper the other day and, in
addition to the usual kinds of local stories ("Rice Fraud in Jaffna," "India
Kept Informed on Progress of Peace Process"), the news was all about the
impending U.S. attack on Iraq. And the considerable local economic impact:
Record Tea Crop Sales Threatened By Gulf War
Gathering war clouds in the Middle East is about to deal a body blow to Sri
Lanka's tea economy with an all time record production of 310 million
kilograms last year destined to go without buyers who have already ceased
to actively participate at the Colombo tea auctions...
I can't help but to think about the "butterfly effect" that folks were always
yammering about in the 1980s when chaos theory was all the rage-you know, that
phenomenon in which some tiny little local event has big consequences far far
away. Like how a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere in Brazil leads to a
massive hurricane that slams into Cuba. Or how a random bad decision in ballot
design in Palm Beach Country Florida can have a causal influence on a cascade of
events that, eventually, three years later, affects the lives and livelihoods of
Tamil tea pluckers in the high hills of Sri Lanka.
A Failure to Learn the Language
[Late February, 2003]
As a written language, Sinhala is really beautiful and - to my hopelessly
Eurocentric eyes - absolutely opaque. Now, bear in mind that I'm not totally
unfamiliar with unfamiliar lettering. I learned to recognize two or three
characters when I was in China many years ago. And when I took that silly stab
at Russian as an undergraduate, I mastered the Cyrillic alphabet within a week
(and muddled on to maintain a consistent B average in that class for 4 straight
semesters). Okay, so that doesn't exactly earn me an Endowed Chair in
Semiotics (although it apparently does over-qualify me to be President of the
United States, at least in this post-Clinton era where, it seems, intellectual
achievement is presumed to be a symptom of sexual irresponsibility and moral
relativism), but I'm not a total lexicographic dunce. Still, Sinhala defies
me. Half the characters look like some variation on the "@" symbol, as though
the language was invented one wet weekend by half-drunk internet nerds. All the
characters have a whimsical curly quality. There's one that looks like an
earlobe, another like an apple, another like a Mickey Mouse hat, and another
like a shapely pair of buttocks. The other day I spied a little tag on Jasper's
pants, and it looked like it was labeled in Sinhala - which was weird, because I
was sure we'd brought those pants with us from Vancouver. I looked closer and
saw that it wasn't Sinhala after all; it was a row of teddy bears.
Well, as these illiterate little remarks plainly reveal, I haven't learned to
read or write in the local lingo. I haven't even tried.
But Quincy and I have made a few stabs at learning the verbal version of the
language. For a while we were taking weekly tutorials from a woman named Anula.
Anula's teaching style was a curious mixture of authoritarian and digression.
She liked to tell us exactly how to take notes. "Draw a picture of the body,"
she'd say, "and label each part. The head, the neck...This is how you learn.
Have you drawn the body? Let me see." And then she'd tell us what brand of
rice we should buy. Every lesson was punctuated periodically by Anula's telling
and retelling of a favorite anecdote about a man on a bus. Seems there was a
man once, a foreigner, who was on a bus and wanted to get off. But instead of
telling the driver, "buhhinowah ("I get down"), he errantly said "nuhginowah"
("I climb up"). That's it. That's the whole anecdote. Seems a simple enough
story (and an uneventful one too because, after some prodding, Anula admitted
that the bus driver slowed and let him off anyway), but Anula treated it as some
sort of highly-nuanced pedagogic fable, some sort of instructional haiku layered
with subtle complex meanings. At least, that's what I assume, because she told
us over and over and over again about the man on the bus who wanted to get down.
No lesson was complete without at least one mention of the man on the bus. And
sometimes, she bring it up 2 or 3 times in an hour, as a sort of all-purpose
cautionary tale, illustrating for us what might happen if we didn't study, if we
didn't enunciate, if we didn't learn our tenses, if we didn't do exactly as she
instructed. "You must learn in context," she'd say, "otherwise you'll be like
the man on the bus who wanted to get down." Or "That's a body? That's not a
body. Where are the elbows. You must re-draw the body. Otherwise you'll be
like the man on the bus. Have I told you about the man on the bus who wanted to
get down? Yes? You know the story? I'll tell you: There was a man..."
There are, of course, risks associated with knowing a tiny bit of any language.
I know enough to ask a few simple questions, but not enough to understand any
answers. One or two over-rehearsed and poorly-pronounced words in Sinhala from
me can elicit a torrent of complicated Sinhala in return, and I don't understand
a word of it. This happens regularly with the plumber who comes around every
week or two, to help us with whatever our latest water-supply problem might be.
A toothless old guy with a big smile and wide feet, who scrambles around
shirtless and shoeless on the rooftop, or down hill in the bushes where the
flimsy water main meets our overworked rusty pump, wearing nothing but a plain
white sarong. His visits often end with water once again flowing temporarily
through our taps. And they always end with him standing in the kitchen rattling
on at me in elaborate detailed Sinhala. I nod along dumbly, watching his gums
move up and down, and his big-knuckled hands gesture here and there. But I
understand none of it, and I know that he knows that I understand none of it,
and I know that it doesn't really matter because he'll be coming again next week
or the week after that to once again work his magic on our balky pipes, and
surely he knows that too.
What often happens, especially with strangers - a three-wheeler driver, say, or
some random guy outside a bakery - is that whenever I utter a single word in
Sinhala, they are amazed and impressed, and they'll say "Oh, you speak Sinhala?"
And then I'll have to tell them that I don't, that I only speak a tiny bit.
"Tikahk" (little), I'll say, or sometimes "poonchi" (tiny). Of course, I'm not
even sure about this. I mean, I think they're saying "Oh, you speak Sinhala"
but I could be wrong. All I hear is "something something something Sinhala," or
sometimes "Sinhala something something." For all I really know, they might be
saying "Oh, where'd you learn to speak Sinhala?" (And I say "Little.") Or "How
much money would you pay me to teach you some real Sinhala?" ("Little.") Or "If
you speak Sinhala like that, your head must be really small." ("Tiny.")
Meanwhile, while Quincy and I struggle with Sinhala, Jasper keeps on acquiring
English. She doesn't speak it, of course. Hell, she oughta be a spy because,
no matter how much we prompt her and prod her and torture her with our hopeful
little parental urgings, she refuses to talk. Oh, she makes sounds, plenty of
them, and loudly too, and they reverberate throughout our echo-chamber house;
but not many of them are yet recognizable words. She makes a lot of animal
noises: Anytime you ask, she'll be happy to "boooooooo" like a cow and
"ssssssh" like a snake. She also does a lot of animal mime. No, not the kind
of mime with the whiteface makeup and stupid pants and merciless facial
gyrations; not that kind of mime. More like this: "Jasper, what's a buffalo
do?" And she'll hunch her shoulders up to her ears. "What's a giraffe do?"
And she bends her neck so far she practically tips herself over. And so on.
Last week, while she sat on the rooftop with me, eating her bananas and filling
her diapers and watching the parakeets and the crows, she learned to flap her
arms like a bird. (Well, actually, it looks more like some sort of slow-mo
swimming stroke.) But as far as reproducing actual words, she's thus far
mastered just one. Her first word: "buckle."
So, while Jasper's not spitting a whole lot of words out just yet, she sure
takes a lot of words in. She is more than happy to point, upon request, to a
bird or a tree or a belly button or a knee. And she is really keen to learn
more: Endlessly pointing to something and asking "What's that?" in her
idiosyncratic way, which is really not so much an enunciated question as it is
an insistent semi-melodic yammering - the sort of sound that, if she was older
and darker, and if she was dressed in some sort of colorfully-fringed frock and
hat with tassels and standing on stage at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, she
might be able to convince gullible liberals like me that she's producing some
authentic form of indigenous ethnic throat yodeling.
To help quench Jasper's thirst for silent vocabulary, we've bought her a few
picture books from local booksellers. We bought her a book of fruits. One
fruit per page. She gets not just boring old banana and pear and grapes, but
also guava, pomegranate, chickoo, papaya, fig, jackfruit, and custard apple. We
also bought her a picture dictionary that she really likes, part of some "My
First Book of..." series that a publishing house in Delhi puts out. (This one's
actually titled "My First Book of Picture Dictionary.") It's great stuff.
Aeroplane, ant, auto rickshaw. Boy, ball, bat (a cricket bat, that is; not an
Indian flying fox), bone, bus, bullock cart. And so on. It's got entries for
'kingfisher' and 'lotus'; it's got an 'umpire' standing behind a set of wickets;
it's got a 'radish' that looks like a carrot. What really kills me are the X's:
There's six entries total and three of them - xebee, xeme, and xiphias - I've
never heard of before in my life. Apparently, these Indian English-education
kids are expected to have a remarkably advanced vocabulary by the time they
cruise through the end of their first book of picture dictionary. Next time I'm
playing Scrabble, I want a Tamil toddler on my team.
Snorkelling With Monks
Around here, monks are a dime a dozen. Back in North America, it's a pretty
striking sight to see Buddhist bald guys walking around with orange robes draped
across their shoulders and flowing to their feet. At a purely visual level,
it's still a pretty nifty sight around here too. (Those robes do dazzle the
eye, and -- as anyone who watches NBA basketball can attest -- there's also
something aesthetically pleasing about a dark bald head.) But it's also very
common. Monks are everywhere. Walking down the street. Hopping on buses.
Taking classes at the university. Teaching classes at the university.
And they're big healthy guys too, many of them. From a culinary point of view,
monks are treated very well. Folks getting up early to bring them alms in the
form of breakfast, that sort of thing. I've seen hundreds and hundreds of monks
and I've yet to see one who looked unhealthy. And there are some malnourished
folk around. I regularly walk by a log-splitting operation staffed by half a
dozen wraith-like men -- guys with blunt axes and bare feet who look like they
last had a decent meal a decade ago. But monks eat well, I think, and
nutritiously (plenty of Pringles in the markets here, but none in the temple
kitchen I'll bet), and they take good care of their bodies too. Underneath
those robes, I'm thinking that most of them probably look like world-class
cricket players or Sri Lanka's equivalent of the Chippendale dancers.
In the last few weeks, I've been seeing a lot of the monks at a temple not too
far from our house. It's a nice destination for a walk. And because the temple
is undergoing some renovations, there's a big pile of gravel that Jasper likes
to play in. Sometimes, on windy days, the monks fly kites. A few weeks ago I
took my camera with me. No kite flying that day, but two of the novice monks -
each about 11 years old -- were outside taking a break from their studies. As
always, they looked terrific in their saffron robes, and I asked them if I could
take their picture. They bobbled their heads "yes." I took a photo and then
one of them stuck his tongue out at me while the other looked and giggled. I
took a picture of that too. A week or so later, I wandered over to give them
the photo (not the tongue-sticking-out one; I kept that for myself). They liked
it a lot and asked for more. So I came back the next day with my camera again,
and I shot up a whole roll of film. Different poses, different positions,
different props: In front of the dagoba, overlooking the river, cuddled around
a cow. There was even a costume-change: They suddenly all disappeared in a
flash of orange into the temple and re-emerged moments later in dark red robes
instead. It cracked me up. It was like a fashion photo-shoot or something.
Only without the bright lights and the cigarettes and me saying stuff like
"That's it baby! Yeah! Yeah! Work it, baby! Work it, work it!" Actually,
come to think of it, despite the many poses and the costume change, it really
was exactly unlike a fashion photo-shoot. These are monks after all; they eat
better than any anorexic model.
A couple of weeks ago we spent four days in the little beach town of Mirissa,
way down at the southern tip of the island. There was a temple somewhere in the
trees around the bay from where we were staying. One day around midday I saw a
bunch of monks emerge from those distant trees and carefully pick their way out
to the end of a long rocky spit that protects the bay from the big waves beyond.
After hanging out there in the sun for a while, they worked their way back and
disappeared once more into the trees. The next day I went walking down toward
that end of the beach myself. Not a lot of folks on that end of the beach -
just me and a couple of goofy English tourists (she with spiky short Laurie
Anderson hair and he with a shaved head that reminded me again that dark bald
heads look much more pleasing that stubbly pink bald heads). I hurried past the
Brits and then saw three Sri Lankan guys in the ocean waving to me, beckoning me
to join them. So I waded in and swam over. They were in their late teens,
probably. They asked the usual questions ("Where from?" "How long?" "Your
name?"), and then one of them produced a snorkel mask and shoved it at me.
"Fish. Very Beautiful." Actually, it turned out the fish was sort of dull.
What caught my eye, though, were the flashes of orange swirling around the legs
of the three Sri Lankan guys. Hey, these guys were monks! They still had the
lower half of their robes on under there. And they may be monks, but they're
also 19-year old guys, who do the sorts of things guys do: They have fun, they
horse around, they skin their knees; and when they get a break from their
studies at the temple, they grab their snorkel mask, strip to their waists, and
go for a larkish swim. I swam with them for a while, working our way up and
down both sides of the rocky spit, trading that snorkel mask back and forth.
They kept pointing out schools for fish for me to look at. I kept being
distracted by the sight of their robes catching the sunlight through the water,
swirling and folding in slow motion around their gently kicking legs.
And I got such a kick out of the whole thing. I mean, you know how it is: One
minute you're on the beach trying to hustle past a couple of pasty tourists, and
the next minute you're in the Indian Ocean snorkeling with wet-robed Buddhist
monks. It was like one of those random Sri Lanka moments that Claudia always
seemed to be stumbling into during the three months she was living with us. She
was always coming home telling us about some crazy thing that happened -- like
hitching a ride for miles on some stranger's brutally uncomfortable bicycle, or
hopping off a train in some town she wasn't even planning on being in and
spending the night at the house of the sister of some random three-wheeler
driver. Quincy and I never seemed to have those kinds of Claudia moments (we
have Jasper moments instead). Except suddenly I was. This was like some sort
of ultra-Claudia moment, and I was getting a big big kick out of it.
And naturally, I couldn't just get a kick out of the moment. Not being
particularly monkish myself, I'm not particularly practiced at being in the
moment. For me, it seems, everything is part of some sort of self-styled
narrative. So, just as I was swimming with the monks and getting a kick out of
it, I also sort of had to swim alongside myself, watching myself getting a kick
out of it, and getting such a kick out of that I kept thinking about how fun it
was going to be to tell Quincy about it. After a little while, I couldn't take
it any more; I was afraid I was going break out into socially inexplicable,
post-modern meta-experiential giggles. (Nothing like a little post-modern
thought to take the experiential oomph out of the moment.) I said goodbye to
the monks and clamored out of the ocean and onto the rocks and hustled on back
down the beach to our guesthouse, smirking and smiling to myself, already
rehearsing my loopy little self-satisfied narrative about snorkeling with monks.
[Late March, 2003]
After three days in Jaffna, the rest of Sri Lanka is a serious shock. Semi-
squalid Colombo suddenly seemed like Singapore or New York City. So many
people. So many things. Office buildings and appliance dealerships and
ceramics showrooms, furniture stores and fashion outlets, fast-food franchises
and billboards and cars. After Jaffna, it all made me want to cry.
Jaffna was so quiet. That's the first thing I noticed when we got there.
Actually no, it wasn't the first thing. The first thing I noticed was all the
soldiers and all the guns. Anti-aircraft at the airport. A half-dozen men with
AK-47s at the open-air shed near the runway where we waited while our bags were
searched. An armed escort on the airline bus that traveled the recently re-
opened road into Jaffna town, past concertina wire and military checkpoints,
past bombed-out temples and deserted roofless houses with crumbling walls. And
in Jaffna, soldiers in sandbagged bunkers on street corners, or riding in twos
or threes through the streets on bicycles with their guns across their
There are almost no cars at all in Jaffna. Some buses. A few transport trucks.
The occasional brand-new Mitsubishi pick-up truck roaring by with a don't-bomb-
me flag flying and the insignia of the UN or MSF or GTZ or some Danish de-mining
group. But almost no private cars at all. And when you do see a car,
unbelievably enough it's some old British model from the 1940s or 50s which has
somehow remained in running condition since the colonial days and has survived
the war. There are a lot of plain black bicycles. And collapsed buildings and
vacant lots and barbed wire. It's very very quiet.
And yet, it wasn't a depressing place to be. Not at all. Or rather, yes it was
- it was grim and sad -- but it was so much more. In some weird way, Jaffna was
also one of the most uplifting experiences I've ever had. It's hard to explain.
It's mostly because of the people there, I think, and the nature of our
interactions with them.
It's the only place I've been in Sri Lanka where I was never once treated like a
tourist. No hawkers hawking. No loud touts sidling up with gratuitous offers
to show me the sights. No kids thrusting out their hands and shouting
"Chocolate!? Bon-bon!? School pen!?" Maybe I should give a little bit more
background on this. Throughout the rest of the island, you see, white folks
like us are always getting this same extraordinarily-specific request from Sri
Lankan kids. It gets a little old after a while, because I always feel like I'm
disappointing them by not coming through. And it's weird because I don't know
anyone who carries a stash of candy and pens on their person. I keep wondering
how this odd expectation arose in the first place. Is there some sort of
misinformed old-style Margaret-Meadish kind of cultural anthropology of White
People that indicates that along with our many other peculiar traits - our big
noses and thick shoes and curious custom of wiping our butts with wads of paper
- that we also have deep pockets bulging with sweets and school supplies? Or
was there some specific incident that set this myth into motion? Was there once
some sort of colonial-era self-styled Johnny Appleseed, who traveled the rural
island roads on a wacky mission to promote penmanship and tooth decay? I don't
know. In any case, the legend of the bon-bons and school pens doesn't penetrate
the Jaffna peninsula. Or, if it once did, it too seems to have been shelled into
Folks also seemed so open and matter-of-fact about their circumstances, so
persistent in the face of the devastation that has been part of their lives for
20 years, and continues to be part of their lives during the current ceasefire
and the slow uncertain progress of peace talks. People bear their scars and
Like this guy Shankar who showed us a copy of his torture report. His torture
report. It came up in the most mundane and casual way: He just happened to be
driving us to the University, and someone else just happened to idly tell me
that Shankar had been in jail. And one thing led to another and soon enough,
I'm holding this Xeroxed portfolio in my hands, with Red Cross documents and
medical examination diagrams with terse notes like "Contusion 6 X 7 cm lower end
in the 10th inter costal space" and "Silencer burns 2 x 2 cm 1 Yr back." And an
extensive police report typed on a blurry typewriter with sticking keys: "... I
said that I do not know & all the things belongs to me. They kicked me on the
face & put a polythene bag over my face. I felt irritates around the back of
neck, felt a smell like turpentine or tinner ... I was taken to the room next to
it and was asked to put on the jeans. They wrote 3 foolscap sheet and asked to
sign, I signed..." It went on like this. " ... One person struck me with a
heavy wooden rod on the spine. I could not bear the pain & said I will come
with you... I was taken to another room and asked to remove the cloth and
assaulted telling that you have given everything now give me the parcel the size
of lemon box ... I don't know about this assaulted with hands, boots, pole, etc.
Burnt with [illegible] on left leg. I fainted..." And on and on. "...In the
evening he took me to a room by the side of temple & put into a dark room. He
assault me on the joints with wooden pole... Was taken back to K.K.S. was
assaulted by S.I.Navaratnarajah by tying around the [illegible] & assaulted with
wire & pole to all parts of body by two people ... On the 3rd of August, Nine
pages were produced in Sinhalese, & asked to sign. I refused and I was taken to
the same tree & assaulted with wire ... I aggreed to sign." I read this while
Shankar was serving us coffee at his house where he brought us to meet his wife
and daughter (his daughter's Jasper's age and was born while he was in jail).
And when I asked if I could have a copy of it all, he was happy to send his
brother by bicycle to the copy shop to make the copies, and refused to let me
pay for it.
In general, people in Jaffna seemed so guileless and generous and giving.
Especially when Jasper was in evidence. Smiles and waves from the soldiers
sitting bored in their bunkers. People running out of the shadows of their
homes and shops, wanting to touch Jasper's skin and hair, to pick her up and
carry her, and to give her stuff. A banana, an apple, a couple of chocolate
bars. (Hey, if anything, I was the one who could've been scoring bon-bons and
For reasons I can't quite explain, my favorite encounter occurred one morning
while Quincy was giving a talk at a local hospital, and I was out exploring the
streets with Jasper in my arms. We came across a deserted bombed-out roofless
church, with weeds growing up through the cracks in the floor and, in a still-
standing vestibule, a crumbling statue of Christ flanked by jars of brand-new
orange plastic flowers. There are (there were) a lot of churches in Jaffna
town. Turns out it was a hotbed of missionary work back in colonial days. Some
are still going strong, and some aren't. Graveyards with bullet-ridden
tombstones. Free-standing Anglican arches where walls and roofs used to be,
and people used to come. This one, I found out later, was destroyed in an air
attack in 1996. I walked toward the main entrance where once there must've
swung one of those big wooden arch-shaped doors, but now there was just empty
space and sunlight flooding out. And I suddenly saw a woman step out of the
shadows near where the pulpit would've been; and then a little boy and girl
beside her. For a second I had the terrible thrilling thought that they lived
in this desperate husk of a church, that its crumbling walls and archways
provided them their only thin shelter against the rain and the sun, like some
fantastic survivors in a "Mad Max" movie or something. Well, happily, they
didn't. They lived in a crude little house just behind it, with laundry strung
on a line above the dusty yard. Evidently, the vacant church with its broken
walls was now just part of their path to the street. The kids - who were maybe
six and seven years old - were spectacular. The boy with bright eyes and
flashing smile. The girl with beautiful thoughtful face and fancy flowered
dress and earrings and silver bracelets dangling from her bare ankles. I
prowled around the ruins, where old memorial plaques were still embedded in its
pitted wall. Plaques saying things like this: "In Loving Memory of Eliza
Gertrude Speldewinde / Born 20th September 1835 / Died 11th August 1913 / Peace
Perfect Peace" - weird names, weird words, to encounter in the tenuous imperfect
peace of Jaffna today. Meanwhile, the kids played with Jasper among the
crumbled concrete and discarded shoes and flowering vines. A bony dog wandered
up and fell asleep in the shade beside them. A goat ambled over and rubbed its
horns against an arched doorway, and then lay down beside them too. It was all
very quiet. The kids picked pink flowers and handed them to Jasper, and Jasper
plucked the petals and dropped them to the ground.
That's it. I don't know why it seems so beautiful to me now, but it does. I
think of being there - and I look at the photos I took of those kids - and it
brings tears to my eyes and makes me smile. It's hard to explain. The weight
of tragedy and terror for twenty years. The simple pleasures of children
playing. Desolation. Perseverance. It's complicated. And there was something
about that little Tamil girl, so pretty and self-possessed, sitting in her
spotless dress and short smart haircut and dirty feet on a chunk of fallen
church-wall, silently fiddling with the unsolicited pen I gave her with a
faraway look in her eyes. I can't imagine what she thinks about, what things
she's seen in her few years; and it's scary to think too hard about what the
next six or seven years might bring her way. I want to be hopeful, and even
with the ruined buildings and the automatic weapons all around, there are some
signs of hope. The ceasefire, such as it is, has held for more than a year.
Some roads are re-opened. There's a renovated water-system with public faucets
on practically every block. And there's that gleaming clean fresh flowered
dress she's wearing. The town's in tatters, but the kids look good.