Purgatory and the Third World – Lanka

It is hard to forget the boys with the bloody eyes and the beggars. Your heart has to break regularly in order to take in the contrast, you cannot drown out the misery with the raging music of eros. I understand now, that that breed of loneliness is a resistance to the natural way of life — man must be sad, it is when we resist that we feel lonely, because we falsely put stock in false remedies we think will cure us. We refuse to let ourselves get accustomed to this eternal, persistent, pervasive sadness. What Joe was talking about was not getting used to the feeling of continued resistance. If you allow yourself to triumph against the great noise it is no longer a weight on your head but a catalyst for sacrifice in a multitude of forms. But this is daunting in itself.

India as purgatory, the corroded gold in the purifying fire.

In the morning we worked for the impoverished on the fringes of the country; and in the nighttime we threw our heads back for absinthe shots and danced in the courtyard of an old dutch hospital that had been converted into a bar. The duality, the dichotomy.

The men who were standing on the back of the garbage truck, and when he flew off the back of the truck and had to gather his trash amidst the trucks passing while his friends snickered. This has got to be the collective sadness of the whole world.

The beggar sitting outside food world, and the poor boy with Down’s syndrome who was constantly shooed day. Places of eating.

“Our aim is the acquisition of knowledge,” states Stephen Dedalus in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

entry 3 – on identity. on performance. on posterity. on writing.

Writing can be a dangerous thing. It has a habit of feeding our revisionist-history-fantasies: we write what we remember, and conversely, we remember what we write. In retrospect, life is so much tidier; we view our loved ones and our enemies with the blurry lens of nostalgia for the past. Looking back, I have felt affectionately towards enough people to make a few generalizations. People I thought were extraordinary, people who moved me, people I could stare at for hours in a state of unadulterated adulation — all I have now are little scraps I’ve written about them, the soft skin of eyelids and the curvature of cheekbones, wrinkled furrows between brows, how they said the word “sure,” while barely moving their lips apart..

Writing presupposes a well-examined life. Yet sometimes, the impulse for well-being, the impulse for honesty supersedes the sense of duty towards the Other. “I despise the trafficking of intimacy,” Leon Kass once told me emphatically.

These three elements — identity, performance and posterity — are interconnected, and their intimate relationship astounds me every day. When you write about someone, especially in the wake of a decisive event, your feelings are so colored by emotion. You think mostly of their beauty and grace; their good qualities rise to the surface like floating debris.

Byron, when reflecting upon the Second Punic war, recalled the incident of two men named Nero – one became one of the most infamous and despised profligates of history, and the other was indispensable in ending a war that would have wiped out the western world. Thousands of years later, it is the former that is remembered.  “Such are human things,” resigns Byron.

I once had a conversation with a boy who wanted to be a movie producer. Although the creation of film was the driving impulse of his life, he discounted his dream profession saying it wasn’t “noble.” Not as noble as becoming an ER surgeon, or a human rights lawyer, conspicuously saving lives. Yet, arguably one of the greatest figures in American literary history, the Nobel Prize Winner Saul Bellow’s recipe for a life well lived was a “strong sense of nobility,” coupled with the “fierce accumulation of knowledge.” Bellow also believed that the writer is always a moralist, no matter whether they ascribed to a particular creed or not. Albert Camus similarly spoke of the communion with the other, and the enormous responsibility an author has towards posterity and his contemporaries, to tell the truth. George Orwell believed that no matter what, a writer always had political motive, and if he did not then he was not serious about his craft. These people were not

Writing must come a place of honesty. It must come from deep inside the self, from a feeling of unity with what is ambient; one must be moved. Everything else is sophistry, complete artifice. My thoughts are so raw sometimes I feel like I ought to cloak them in sterile intellectualism for fear that they might appear offensive naked. It is inevitable that we want what we create to be beautiful, but I believe originality comes unsought when the creative impulse is pure. The pain of love becomes very familiar; its very much like the pain of loss — almost a fear. A fear of obscurity coupled with a desire to preserve the significance of our experience. I was told by a friend that the way in which I interact with the world is very experiential. The word for “crisis” in Chinese is the same word for “opportunity,” in particular, “dangerous opportunity.” And I suppose that is true in a sense. Every crisis has the capacity to be redeemed as an opportunity for discovery. *

As for performance and its implications, I believe it relies heavily on pride. In the Catholic faith, pride is seen as the greatest vice. “Pride cometh before a fall,” has been my mother’s, my grandmother’s and my great-grandmother’s perennial precaution. The strength of the ego and its reflection in matters of duty and love is enough to poison them. Yet, some performance sometimes is inevitable. Complete sincerity is impossible.

As I have grown older, I have done things I never imagined I would. Sometimes unfortunate, foolish things. Yet the growth that follows them, the ensuing period of self-reflection and recalibration allows me to view others with a closer, more intimate eye.  Not that one should go around seeking vice for the sake of personal growth or ‘enlightenment,’ but I believe compassion can be born from one’s faults and flaws.

Almost always, curiosity — another vice in the Church — spills over into other areas. I have always wondered whether people who are born to write have to sin — how else are they to create their villains? If the best writing is based on deeply-felt personal experience, how do you imitate complexity in your work without having lived it? How can you write about envy, sloth, lust, violence, deception, infidelity, etc., without having had some personal dialogue with them? To understand a human being is to understand and acknowledge all of these things. In the Bible it is written that “understanding will never bring you peace.”

Perhaps it is all an attempt to stave off, to repudiate obscurity. To gather up fodder, material to resist the pain later on. There are few clear moments; life is sadness. When I think of my Papa’s few, thin wispy strands of hair and his neatly filed fingernails, his grey chest hair peeking out of his shirt, his organs slowing down in contrast to that great brain.. it is the performance that kills me. Having to prove yourself, justify yourself more and more. There is inherent hypocrisy in old age, because in old age it is harder to keep up your postures and even harder to defend them. The one thing that prevents life from coming full circle is memory. Life is sadness, yes, but people are too weak to be our vessels from which we can seek truth — where is this all going? It is all too complicated to sum up neatly. The righteous struggle of every man cannot be reduced to platitudes.

The world is so tumultuous; Man needs order. Aging, death is not the destruction of order, because that would presuppose that human life by virtue of existing represented order. I do not believe this is true, for so much of life involves grappling with unseen forces. The Law is given to us, and we aspire towards it in this life. Death is not the destruction of order but a means towards its ultimate consummation.

 

Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Barely two days after alighting on Sri Lankan soil for the first time, I attended a camp for young people promoting religious and ethnic reconciliation after the war. “You’re going right in the deep end,” I was told with a laugh. The camp involved a group of about fifty young people ages eighteen to twenty-eight, who had come from all over the tear-drop shaped island, including metropolitan areas like Kandy and Colombo, to Jaffna and Batticaloa, home to farmers and fishermen. It was structured around various seminars relating to how to react in the aftermath of the war — the importance of perspective, the root of fighting, how to build trust.

Questions were asked such as “What is a fight?” “What is a disagreement?” “What are the reasons behind bloodshed?” These discussions were lead in part by victims of the war, from both the Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese sides. You cannot move on and forget the past; the wounds that have developed within people don’t just vanish, especially if they are not addressed or legitimized, they insisted. The only way to move on is for people to obtain justice. Fighting can be a way for society to move forward. It is a person’s human right to speak out against whatever oppresses them, to react. But the way in which this reaction manifests itself is of the utmost importance. An older Tamil woman in a striped shirt and skirt stood up and told the audience that these young people were the future — this was the generation that would help restore Sri Lanka.

What struck me most after hearing that, is how much affirmation I have taken for granted. I have heard the phrase “Youth are the Future” declared with brazen self-assurance countless times, in auditoriums, classrooms and playing fields since I was a child. But I have never heard it while sitting among young people who have had the burden of witnessing their families and their country ravaged by war and racial violence. The Sri Lankan civil war lasted nearly thirty years. To many, the years up until thirty are considered the prime of one’s youth. Thirty is the age my mother was when she gave birth to me. She had lived an entire life before then, and she would recount the stories of her past with gratitude and tenderness. Many Sri Lankans, however, particularly in the rural areas in the North and East, experienced their childhood, their youth, their old age, alongside the jarring sound of detonating bombs and gunfire.

The speaker who most captivated me was a man who had joined the LTTE as a youth, the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, a militant organization based in the North and the East that fought for Tamil rights. After the war severed him from his family, he was completely bereft of any comfort or love in a country tearing itself to pieces. His story was not what struck me, but the fact that he was unable to finish it, breaking down in tears and retreating back into the group. He bent over the chair with his face in the palm of one of his hands, the other hand clutching a paper airplane. His, expertly folded, had flown the farthest out of the entire group.

The discussions to follow throughout the next couple days involved spreading the messages of Truth, Reconciliation, Mercy, Peace and Justice. Some examples brought forward, involving the detrimental nature of violence on the part of the LTTE, made him visibly uncomfortable, almost defensive. He still harbored a strong sense of filial piety for the organization, that resonated with some sense of belonging. The motivation for such camps, such exercises, is partly a reaction to that phenomenon. What makes a man, abandoned as a child, decide he wants to join a guerrilla group that repays blood with blood? And even more remarkably, what makes that man later turn to religious freedom reconciliation efforts?

Some would say that there is a yearning in all of us for the divine, a hole, a sort of pocket tailored into us by our Omnipotent God that can only be filled with worship. In countries like Sri Lanka and India, rife with scenes of devotion — temple offerings, masses, the call to namaz — this is easy to believe. The Romanian sociologist Mircea Eliade and his contemporaries believed that once a man discovered religion, once he became a Homo Religiosus, he was forever changed — he could never go back to a life separate from the metaphysical. There seems to be great evidence for this In Sri Lanka, a country where there is still great reverence for the sacred despite the opposing efforts of modernity.

At lunch one day, the question was brought up of whether violence against another is every truly justified, in response to the former LTTE member’s decision to join their forces years ago. We decided that that was not the most pressing question, rather, to what extent is a person, having suffered to such a degree, deserving of compassion?

As I observed the young people, I saw that they were genuinely invested in peacebuilding. The second day, a puppeteer came to lend a visual perspective to the issue of religious freedom. He split up the campers into groups of four, instructing us to put on a play relating to violence in Sri Lanka. I watched as twenty-eight year old men and women painstakingly glued yarn onto wooden ladles, and cut dresses out of cardboard as if clothing their children. Their performances were thought-provoking, often a combination of Tamil, Sinhala and occasionally, English. They touched upon the difficulty of harboring so many different creeds underneath one flag, political violence and corruption. One particularly memorable play discussed Buddhists who were disturbed by music from the mosque, and Muslims who were disturbed by music from the Buddhist temple —  sounds of the sacred clashing.

As a lover of words, someone who experiences life largely through conversation, it was difficult to relinquish control and attempt, with clumsy hand-motions, to begin a friendship without them. I found however, that this was not so bad, as sometimes, when there is no common language, you relinquish your pretensions. It is a sacrifice for both parties, a challenge. You communicate instead in smiles and nods —  the face is the canvas, the channel of expression. Human emotion and the way it is manifested through gestures is a universal language in itself.

To establish a real, authentic human connection with someone whom you disagree with or cannot comprehend is no trivial thing. Such things require time, emotional investment. “People want to mind their own business while others are fighting,” said one of the speakers. Biology can identify organs, psychology can diagnose trauma, Medicine can cure illness — this has been established. But unless there is a sense of communion unhindered by prejudice, no true healing can occur.  “Results are the fruit that tumbles on the ground,” was one of the most significant messages of the camp. The analogy suggests that things that have fallen for a while have the capacity to rise up again; the fruit sprouts and grows, just as the future redeems the past.

 

belonging

I am coming home soon. Even though I am supposed to be home here in India, I am anticipating my return to Rockville. As a person who, now more than ever, lives in limbo between two cultures, I ascribe no concrete sense of belonging or comfort to either of the two countries between which I vacillate. In fact, although I’ve lived there my entire life, the overwhelming majority of the United States is as foreign to me as the subcontinent.

When I think of America and the sense of “home” it evokes, naturally I think of my neighborhood. Completely unremarkable, ensconced on the fringes of D.C., its more refined and worldly cousin, Rockville can boast of nothing besides the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife are buried in St. Mary’s cemetery up the road.

But I have grown up there. I am acquainted with the streets, the street corners, the landmarks, the parks, the park benches. I have spoken with the Albanian barista in the town center about his favorite black and white films, and the neighborhood drunkard, a native Aborigine, about his long-lost wife in France.

Perhaps I have such an affinity for the place because it is the one place I’ve truly explored firsthand. Of course, one could say there’s hardly much to explore, and they would be right. By “Rockville,” a city of about thirty-five kilometers squared, I mean the Town Center, the Metro, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Glenview Mansion, and the handful of streets that make up my neighborhood.

My grandmother sometimes sees me sitting quietly, deep in thought, and comes up to reassure me: “Don’t worry,” she says, “You’ll be back in America soon. I know you miss home.” But she’s mistaken. It’s not America I miss. Even “missing” it seems like a stretch, an indulgence. I try to tell her, to explain my relationship with my hometown, but to no avail. “No, no, don’t worry,” she insists, “ I understand. I had to leave India for three years once to live in England. It was miserable.” She can’t grasp what I feel, perhaps because her sentimental notions and reflections have so long been shunted aside in favor of real, practical concerns; “the meat and potatoes of life.”

I am a little galled. I’m not pining for America, as a whole, and all that it represents: its almost offensive cleanliness, its insularity disguised under the names of “independence” and “privacy.” No. Of course it is a human thing to yearn for the opposite of something when that something can become overwhelming, like how I do sometimes yearn for the clean marble of the twin sinks in our upstairs bathroom, when I stumble into the bathroom here and see streaks of mud on the tiles and a cockroach darting from wall to wall. Yet, there are times when I wish for the eclectic noise of the unwashed, unnamed masses on the streets to fill our Rockville house when it is sunk in silence during the winters.

But I am not an All-American woman. America, unadulterated, amorphous, isn’t what makes my heart tick.

A sense of belonging, particularly to a place, I believe is overrated. One never truly belongs anywhere; indeed we do not even belong on earth for longer than a few decades, until we return to the dust. If everybody truly belonged where they ought to, wholly and without anguish, the world would be organized like a filing cabinet. What’s more, is that we probably would not have art, as the best art, the creative impulse is largely born out of a sense of displacement and dissatisfaction with the state of the world as it is; there is a desire for more. That is why I no longer cleave to either India or America, in their vast, individual sense. I love them for what they’ve taught me, for the light they cast on each other. Bangalore is mine, India is not. I do not mean to limit myself; I am sure that as I grow I will become better acquainted with both of these countries, but it is unlikely that any place be ever be so close to my heart as these two cities.

Rockville has held my family in its hand for nearly twenty years. Bangalore for fifty. That is no small thing.