18 November 2008

Letter 4.24

Udamadura, '84

I'm not surprised you couldn't find Udamadura on your National Geographic map -- it's just a farming village. It's unknown to Sinhalese except those who are locals -- most Sri Lankans don't even know where Nilandahenna is, which is also not surprising, since it's just a fork in the road. Udamadura is on my one inch map (i.e. one inch to one mile scale) -- it takes several dozen maps to cover all of Sri Lanka, but I have just a few sections that cover part of Upcountry, and which cover half of one of my walls). But since Badulla is on your map, Udamadura is exactly 12 miles northwest of Badulla in a straight line (but about 50 miles by road!), and Ella, where I used to stay, is 8 miles south and very slightly west of Badulla.

Tonight I hear the villagers drumming and singing for the future tobacco crop. It's quite beautifully abloom. The flowers are rather like morning glory, only a third that size, and grow in clusters at the top of the stalk, which is usually about 3 feet tall, though some giants get up to 6 feet.

The villagers sound inspired by another flower as well. The flower of the kitul tree is pressed for its sap (one flower stalk can produce a few quarts of sap), which is fermented to make toddy. Fresh the sap is sweet and tastey, boiled down it makes jaggary, a fudge-like confection. Fermented, because of its high sugar content, it's a potent punch. There are many kitul trees here as well as eucalyptus forest which is owned by the Ceylon Tobacco Corp. The eucalyptus wood is apparently used as fuel to cure tobacco leaves. The government has been trying to discourage tobacco growing; not from any consideration of public health, but because tobacco growing causes heavy soil loss, which runs down and silts up the reservoirs, which have been redredged. On the other hand, it may have nothing to do with this either, merely another of the interminable intrigues between the Government Agent, the Forest Service, and the Ceylon Tobacco Corp.

While in Colombo last week to get some much-needed dental work done (two root canals -- without proper equipment -- though he seemed to know what he was doing; in any case, the choice was between his treatment and having the teeth out at once -- I once read an interview with Joseph Heller in which he was asked if he believed in an 'afterlife', to which he replied 'no', though imagined if there was it was something like 'root-canal therapy'), the news came that Tamil terrorists had blown up a police station in Jaffna killing 25 people. In the following days there were several 'bomb scares' in Colombo, and one that went off harmlessly. One Tamil shop was burnt, but things didn't get out of control. Nonetheless, many Jaffna Tamils have gone back to Jaffna, though from all reports things are less safe there than in Colombo (at least for as long as there is no outbreak of violence in Colombo and there continue to be killings by the army in Jaffna, as well as the inconveniences of curfews, etc.), but perhaps they just prefer to be among familiar surroundings, ways, and peoples regardless of the actual danger -- or rather that they perceive greater safety surrounded by what is familiar even when that perception may be false.

More troops were evident around town; some road barriers were set up with armed soldiers checking ID, etc., but they seemed cheerful and relaxed, not the nervy sullenness of imminent danger. The press, of course, blasted away at its usual bugaboo 'anti-social elements' (lead? manganese? fluoride?) and the papers had half-page ads placed by the army advising what to do if 'unattended parcels' were discovered (unattended how long?). What I liked best about my time in town was reading the comics in the papers. The comics in Sri Lanka papers -- atleast the imports -- exist in the 1950's exclusively. Mutt & Jeff, the Phantom, Blondie, Bringing Up Father, etc; that's the current crop.

Not able to resist the real low-brow stuff, I noted in Time that the U.S. has constructed a 'fallback' position in the Philippines on the island of Saipan. This answered my own question as to exactly where Saipan was, for, on occasion, I've caught a SW broadcast on KJOI, an all-rock station with no commercials or identification of proprietorship, and they sometimes announce that their transmitter is in Saipan. It also made me wonder whether their failure to identify their ownership might not indicate that they were not simply a group of philanthropic rock-lovers determined to bring rock-music to a hungry world, but might not be, instead, a CIA front. They seem to have their main offices or studios in Canoga Park. So I wonder if you would be interested in phoning them and mentioning that your son reports that he's heard their broadcasts round about 0700-1000 GMT (which is early afternoon here) usually a bit faint but usually clear (fading in the early afternoon and being lost in atmospherics by mid-late afternoon), in Sri Lanka, and that they might be interested in a reception report, and that by the way he was wondering how the station manages to support itself, since they have no commercial content and seem to have no religious affiliation (the Jesus stations are obviously supported by the faithful) nor government affiliation. I'd be interested to know what they say. Sometimes there are peculiar blips and beeps which previously I ascribed to the normal dirty atmospherics that creep into some broadcasts, but now I wonder if these might not be code signals to operatives. (They always come between songs.) By why rock? Is that supposed to be a good cover these days?

Maybe I've been reading too much Le Carré. I just finished his latest novel (at least the latest I know of): The Little Drummer Girl. I've admired much of what he's done in the past, particularly the Smiley trilogy -- but The Little Drummer Girl is the best of all. It concerns Israeli Intelligence's plans to neutralize (I believe that is the correct phrase these days, sort of like a stomach that is slightly acidic and needs to be set aright) -- to neutralize an Arab terrorist/freedom fighter (choose one). Astounding powers of characterization and a story that pulls no punches in its ethical viewpoint. For a view of the Israeli/Arab situation that you wouldn't get from any journalistic matter, I can certainly recommend it.

I spent a few days in Kandy before coming back here, and while there visited a friend who has a TV and we watched Mrs. Gandhi's funeral (I'd heard the BBC bulletins when she was shot, and managed to pick up an All-India Radio broadcast to follow developments on the day of the assassination, just before I left Colombo). What a wretched affair. Poorly organized, 3rd class all the way. Nobody knew what to do next. When the murners poured ghee on the pyre they poured it from a 4-gallon metal drum in which it is shipped, instead of having one of India's elegant brass urns filled. The army trucks had a few wreaths on the hood but otherwise were undistinguished. Even the TV camera work was atrocious. Instead of focussing (at least at some point) on the various dignitaries present and identifying them, a few quick pans without commentary was all we got, together with meaningless shots of soldiers' berets, of other unidentified goings-on, etc. Rajiv seemed to stand aloof from all the confusion, which is better than being involved in it but not as good as ending it -- I predict such will be the nature of his leadership -- and he was trying, I suppose, to look Prime Ministerial. He looks like a nice fellow, but Indian politics is vicious.

In Colombo I also heard the debate between Reagan and Hondale from Kansas City, about our foreign policy you know (if Rodgers and Hammerstein will forgive me). Reagan seemed to have trouble even remembering names like Beirut. His stumbling was made all the more apparent by his 'set pieces'. Well, Mondale won't get my vote either. The ballot I'd like to see would read:
□  yes or no
□ yes and no
(check one). I expect we'll be saddled with another 4 years of Reagan and Bush (As H.L., Mencken said: 'Democracy is the theory that the people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.')

After sunset, in fact through the night here, there's a rather curious twilight, though not in the west: our very own 'northern' lights. 15 miles north of Udamadura is the Victoria Dam on the Mahaweli, the biggest river in Sri Lanka, and the glow in the northern sky is from arc lights at the project.

Infinitely more impressive, however, was a sunrise I saw about 3 weeks ago. The most amazing I've ever seen. The sun rose into a long black cloud which hung a few degrees above the eastern horizon, and was hidden. But to the south a large fluffy cloud hung alone in an intense pale sky, like one usually sees only in high mountains in winter. And on this cloud was a patch of intense brightness as brilliant as if the sun was rising there instead of about 20 degrees to the north, and on the left-hand edge of this brilliant patch were bands of intense orange, red, brown, green, deep blue, which shimmered as if they were a light source rather than reflected light, absolutely brilliant. Meanwhile below the black cloud, between it and the mountain, the sky remained a deep and fiery orange for an amazingly long time. What I theorize is that although it was a normal morning at my altitude it may have been unusually cold in the high air (as the intense pale color suggests) and the cloud my have contained frozen ice crystals which caught the sun -- and could stand out so brilliantly because of the dark cloud hiding the sun. The green color was especially remarkable.

As I blow out the lamp, listening to distant drums and trills of flutes, it occurs to me that a local money-lender, one of the honest ones, who charges merely 10% interest a month (which, you can figure, in a year makes a peasant farmer into an indentured servant for life), has been very ill. Perhaps the celebration is for it -- or against it'?

Did you know George Bizet wrote an opera set in Sri Lanka called the Pearl Fisher?



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