clearly, the best two weeks of my life so far
Coming off the high of the Festival I was sure that the whole birthday/perahera experience would be a let-down. I was completely wrong.
Though the birthday was low-key, festive specialness has been going strong for two weeks plus, with no signs of fading. Six birthday parcels helps that (among many many other things, my mother sent me a multi-pack of shiny steel wool scrubbers, definitely the most bizarre gift I’ve ever received) so thanks to those who sent them. Finished some good books, with notably weird parallels between them: Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Mitchell’s first novel Ghostwritten (which shares a lot with his brilliant Cloud Atlas) are both intense and pointedly non-linear, concerning Japan China Manchuria Mongolia The Search for Truth in Self And Place and The End of the World. Also hot on the reading list: A Happy Married Life (a Buddhist Perspective) and Women in the
The perahera, though, was unbelievable. Tomorrow is the last night and while I have decent seats (in front of a friend’s friend’s tailoring shop) booked for then with Lisa and Haakon I couldn’t wait. I decided to brave the sidewalk masses alone. The jammed bus ride into town was worse than the crowds. I don’t really mind the seething-mass-of-humanity aspect of festival events so it wasn’t at all unpleasant to be jostling and craning. Except for sore, tired-of-standing legs. Ended up on the Soya Centre balcony, my old haunt, with ice cream and samosas and covertly whispered offers from the staff to use the toilet. I imagine they don’t let just anyone pee there during perahera!
Parades, processions, fanfare and ritual convince me of the existence of a god. How else would puny humans have the capacity to create stunning spectacles of coordination and cooperation (think of the social contract that makes the spectator/street/participant arena work!) other than that we all have within us a fragmented spark of the uniting divine One?
I am not being flip. I feel a supernatural presence in the life of the crowd; we move, think, talk, breathe, and wait as one. People start snacking at the same time. People pause and gasp (even at nothing) at the same time. People get tired and fall asleep on each other at the same time. I’m sure that behavioural science has a social-presence explanation for all of this, but to me it will remain mystical and wonderful.
One of my favourite moments of tonight was when, cutting through the cacophony of the spectators’ various noisemakery whistles, buzzes, squeaks, and and tootles, we began to hear the distant whipcracks of the perahera leaders, whose job it is to scare away any evil spirits so as to clear a path for the dancers and drummers and elephants. You could hear the tootles twitter down by degrees as thousands of minds awakened from bored self-amusement to eager, searching anticipation. People were also excited about the mini street-cleaning machine, which was obviously not part of the parade but as it was the size of a small elephant it clearly should have been dressed like one.
And o! the elephants! Endless elephants, all costumed in sequined and light-bulb-speckled velvet, satin, and lamé. Some were dancing, no joke, along with the drumming. I made friends with a family smashed lovingly together alongside me and, having told them positively everything about myself (“What’s your boyfriend’s nickname, again? Will you marry him in September before you go?”), and been plied with their giant thermos of blessed tea, was thrilled to hear the littlest girl counting elephants and announcing the numbers with growing shock every ten or so. There were a hundred. A hundred!
I haven’t really described the whole shebang, because I don’t feel like it, so nyah. Maybe tomorrow, after I process some more. I was crying with joy, seriously, for a while tonight; if that happens again you may all write me off as irredeemably soft in the head. I want to do a devotional dance in jangly jewelry. I want to learn to walk on stilts and spin wheels of fire on my head. I want to play outrageously discordant saxophone in a Kataragama band. I want to remember to eat dinner tomorrow night.
The first time is always the best, but then the second time is even better: anticipation.