This weekend Taryn and Jonathan and I traveled to Batticaloa, a town on the East Coast of Sri Lanka, almost directly on the opposite side of the country. Though it is less than 200 miles away as the crow flies, it is a journey of 10 hours by train, and when you step off dusty and sweat stained, you are in another world. In Batticaloa there is a different language, Tamil, and different faiths - Hinduism and Islam dominate here.There is little in Batti to attract the casual tourist, but we went to visit friends who have lived there as part of their research. Seeing the East through their eyes, mediated by their connections and observations, we saw into a part of Sri Lanka that is hidden from the cluttered streets and shining buildings of Colombo.
After seeing a Tamil action movie with our friends Kim and Sam, and several of Kim's friends.
Colombo is a place of new chances, a place where the enthusiastic proclamations from politicians carry weight, where optimism cautiously circulates around the tongues of an English speaking elite, who watch eagerly for reform, and the flood of Western dollars this will bring. In the East, difficulty crashes back around you – the reality that even when rhetoric changes, this country has lived 12 years under routine torture, kleptocracy, disappearances in the night, bombings. In this world life hovers hesitant, the boundaries between life and death are thin, easy to fall from one side to another by some twist of chance, the whim of some soldier. Even when inflammatory rhetoric cools, the bureaucrats, the police, the soldiers, the monsters these angry words created, still inhabit their positions of power. They will not change overnight at the visit of a United National Commissioner for Human Rights. For Easterners, change is not miraculous with the switch of a president. They see their land, their culture, their language still chipped away at by powerful people imported from the West. Kim tells us how the local Buddhist temple is almost always empty, but for Buddhist holidays buses of Sinhalese from the West are shipped in to worship there, while the Hindu temple next door blasts music in not exactly silent protest. Sam tells us about the bad old days when his Tamil friend's house was firebombed by a 'patriot', and white vans circled the town catching young men and boys, who never reappeared. New buildings are built, new stories are told, but these memories simmer under the surface of the town. The war lingers far closer than in Colombo.
Damage from the 2004 Tsunami
In Colombo, Taryn and I often talk about how we sometimes feel we are not in Sri Lanka. My life is nestled in the crux of globalized anonymity of Sri Lanka – I live in the wealthiest area of Colombo, next to several embassies. You can go your whole day without hearing a word of Sinhala or Tamil: even in grocery stores people speak English to one another. Our own limited language skills mean we can't make very meaningful relationships outside the English speaking elite, with whom we converse about American politics and TV shows. When I first arrived in Sri Lanka I was primed for intense poverty by my recent experiences in Cambodia and Rwanda, and it took me several weeks to recognize that the facelessly globalized places around Colombo, the business hotels, restaurants serving imitation European food, and Starbucks clone cafes, are primarily inhabited and own by Sri Lankans. They are a part of Sri Lanka too. It might be satisfying to a Westerner to go abroad and find something different and exotic, but who am I to admonish Sri Lankans for not being Sri Lankan enough, to be disappointed in their love of McDonald’s and Pizza hut? This, too, is Sri Lanka.
So I learn to recognize the many worlds contained in this small island, none more 'legitimate' than any other. Is Shakespeare in the Park in Colombo any less 'Sri Lankan' than helping Kim's host sister cook Dhal? Is the hope in Colombo any more 'real' than the fear and resentment in the East? I have to say no, but the danger comes in believing Sri Lanka is limited to one sphere or another. Dangerous to forget that the experience I have had, while it may be a Sri Lankan one, is limited to a tiny minority of the Sri Lankan population. One of the great challenges Sri Lanka faces is the reconciliation of these worlds. And what deserves more priority: the hope for a new future or the need to recognize a horrific past? How can memory be honored without dredging up old fears and hatred? How can you move forward without erasure?
No easy solutions to these questions – they have circled through my mind without settling since leaving the East . One method of reconciling these worlds is addressing the economic disparities between the Western Province and... well, anywhere else in Sri Lanka. It is letting people return to the lands and lives they inhabited before the war. It is improving and investing in rural schools. It is judicious development based on maximizing impact for the people, not the poorly placed and badly designed ego projects of the previous regime. I see these changes moving slowly forward, but I am stumped by the question of memory. How do you memorialize without triumphalism or sensationalizing? I have traveled in the wake of genocide enough to know that the traditional approach – gather bones and stack them high, might impress some NGOs into shelling out some dollars, but the unceremonious and anonymous display of the bits of their loved ones is only hurtful to the survivors. How can you honor the dead and respect the living?
A Batticaloa Sunset