Eating my words in the form of a Maliban Biscuits Gift Pack
the need for community, and how I’m going to make one using wine women and song
Jeremy has come down from Nuwara Eliya for a Vesak visit. This of course means good times: a Royal Mall hopper feast, banana french toast for brunch, long conversations about books music and politics. He arrived at the end of my long hard hot day, during which I barely went out but nonetheless managed (through work and contemplation, etc.) to arrive at a state of exhaustion. At such a time, it’s a pleasure to have company!
Whilst consuming light refreshments and observing the lovely sunset (and swatting the ravening mosquitoes) we bitched about the manifold deficits of life in Sri Lanka: political, artistic, social, meteorological. It was pleasantly cleansing to have a good long joint rant. We settled for a while on the subject of community and civil society, how void these are in providing (to us) enjoyable experiences of public solidarity and simple co-presence.
At this point what I miss about life in the States is things like picnics in parks: casual opportunities to see lots of other people enjoying themselves in their various ways (with Frisbees, dogs, babies, books, sunbathing, junk food) or to loosely share artistic or cultural experiences, like free concerts and bad movies. Sure, there are opportunities here to be out in public and around other people, but there’s a distinct sense that the public sphere is not properly a recreational or social one. Even public spaces are controlled or socially ‘owned’ by distinct groups in a way that suggests insularity and mild aggression towards outsiders.
For example, there are basically three open spaces in Kandy town where one might pause and chill: a sort of plaza above the clothing/goods market, the wide pavement by the lakeside, and the Dalada Maligawa grounds. Of these three, the first is controlled by beggars and street people, and someone like me would immediately get hassled if I hung around. (I get stared at just walking through.) The lakeside is thronged with touts waving coconut-shell monkeys and ugly necklaces, and otherwise peopled by groups of leering young men. The temple grounds are a better option—actually a nice place to sit and eat lunch or whatever, provided the cops will let you. The Peradeniya Gardens, way out of town, are a happy exception to this paradigm, with families, friend-posses, and lovers doing their various thangs. However the Gardens are a destination and not a casual dropping-by spot.
Central Colombo has three public spaces as such; the Beira Lake park, the Galle Face Green, and Viharamahadevi Park. Of these, the first two are dominated by the aforementioned leering-guy-posses, and the last by beggars and drug dealers. (Some families with kids in the kids’ section, and some kissin’ couples, and sometimes big scary political rallies.) Of course Colombo is beastly hot and no one wants to hang around outside, but even indoor spaces are minimal and unwelcoming: MC’s population of bad-attitude teenagers, coupled with no decent places to sit, makes it a bad candidate. All the cafés and bars and shops are scenester-filled and/or expensive.
I realize, of course of course, that being white and foreign makes it impossible for me to feel anonymous. I’m acutely aware of being watched, my actions noted and my affect judged. I hate that. It’s something I love about Boston and New York (more even than other US cities): people ignore each other, which to me feels safe and respectful. You could have green skin and two heads and cartwheel in a sequin tutu through Union Square and no one would notice. New Yorkers are rude, but at least they let you go about your business!
So, Jeremy and I fantasized our way to, through, and from dinner on this subject—the market for and usefulness of some kind of establishment as antidote to the above. I would love to start a bar or a club or a restaurant, one that would be unpretentious and unhip, just a nice place to chat or eat or dance. Jeremy argued for the inclusion of good breakfast foods, Western and Sri Lankan both—why can’t they serve a decent pittu in a restaurant? And what’s with the awful pastry in hotel breakfast buffets? I imagine a sort of Beach Wadiya meets The Commons (unpretentious but expensive beachfront seafood joint and calm but slightly posh café) with cheap decent beer and good vegetarian food. Lebanese. A wood dancefloor and a sand overflow dancefloor, and a projection screen for movies, and a stage for live jazz and chamber music, preferably rigged with a light-grid setup and a good backstage space for my inevitable theatre biz. DJ Ross on the speakers and Koluu not in the kitchen (but who?) and banana kithul french toast and definitely no “Chinese food.”
Of course the problem would be making it not-too-posh. Therein lies the problem: I can’t force Lankan society into being more publically-social, thus inevitably such a space would probably just end up a Barefoot clone. The desi elite and the expats and the tourists are the people who people these places, because these places and the ways of being in them are foreign to the social culture. Ordinary people of non-elite classes socialize in gender-segregated groups and ways: women at home, doing domestic and personal things like cooking or beauty stuff; men out in dive-y bar-cum-‘Chinese’-restaurant joints. Who’s going to come to Sri Becca’s Lebanese Dance Theatre Beachfront Jam? The same elite and expat folks that make me feel creepy, rich, grungy, fat, and uncool when I see them at Delifrance and Odel and The Gallery and Glow. I mean, I loves yall, but I want not to constantly recognize you. I am tired of these categories, and of being in one of them.
Right. So: around 10pm, Jeremy and I approached the bo tree junction on the way back from dinner, stuffed with egg hoppers but eternally hungry for some casual community. We came upon a strange spectacle: what appeared to be a Dadaist performance piece was being enacted in front of the little temple by the grassed-over former garbage heap. A crowd of about 150 of all ages sitting in metal chairs and standing in bunches, silently watching as a small man in national dress chants amounts of money (Rrrrrrupiyal haetay! RupiYAL haetay! Rupiyal haetaaaaaay!), bangs a giant tambourine, and randomly bursts into incomprehensible Sinhala songs. He stood under a makeshift plastic awning, in front of a series of benches holding a great jumble of various bagged and tagged items: a set of flowerprinted glasses, a pineapple, a brass tray in the shape of a sun, five kilos of rice, a scary pink hard-plastic baby doll. Several other men sat behind a desk arrayed with ledgers and notebooks, busily noting the proceedings, and one guy walked the open space before the audience showing off lumpy bags of indistinct stuff.
Aha, it was an auction. We determined to hang around a bit, and attached ourselves to Nilantha, my doofy trishaw-junction pal who is in love with my mother. (“I can tell from how she talked that she has a beautiful soul. Has she called you recently? Tell her I say hi.”) He had already purchased two pineapples, twelve bars of laundry soap, and an ugly ceramic vase. He offered that he might start a little shop with this booty; I suggested he start a laundry business. Jeremy and I were near-hysterical with the surreality of it all—almost no one was bidding on anything, the merch was cheap and tacky, and the crowd looked grimly bored. Some fantastic deals were going down, though, like 10 coconuts for Rs170 (market rate: Rs250ish).
The money raised, Nilantha said, would go to build a bigger temple at the junction and a local preschool. We thus concluded it was for a good cause. Jeremy was taken with desire for a large festive box of biscuits on offer and quickly got into a bidding war with a genially smiling shill, who was clearly bidding up everything he could, and paying for his wins with bills peeled from an enormous wad. The crowd was thrilled at Jeremy’s valiant and generous efforts and the air became electric. Finally Jeremy gave out at Rs150. Now Jer says “I could just tell he wanted it more than I did” but I disagree, because the man, upon receiving the prized box, immediately opened it up and grinningly handed it around. Delicious chocolate cream biscuits ensued.
Then, lo! another identical box came onto the block and Jeremy nabbed it at the much more reasonable price of Rs100, discovered upon later inspection to be the item’s actual retail value. We hung around a bit more, chatted with some other neighborhood figures, and left—seemingly to the disappointment of the assembly. I felt the happy glow of a genuine, if surreal, community event. Arriving home, we discussed the obvious irony of our earlier plaints, and then moved on to more fascinating topics. I talked briefly with my beautiful-souled (and how!) mother, then fell deeply and instantly asleep without even getting under my sheets. The auction, audible over ratty PA, lasted well into the night and was apparently still going strong at 1:45am when Jer went to bed.
Today it’s Vesak and we’ve celebrated by staying in and reading, and trying to take care of illin’ Jill. Poor girl. Soon we will go to the temple, and see the lanterns, and get some free food. (Vesak, for the not-in-Sri-Lanka-ers out there, is the poya day on which the Buddha was born, attained nirvana, and died—not the same year, duh.) Tomorrow I’m off to Jaffna, unless there’s a bombing or a hartal. I can’t decide whether this trip is research-oriented, a vacation, dangerous, an educationally important moment, or what. Some of all, maybe. I hear it’s very hot up there.