If you would like to view just the workshop report, click here.
I was right. At what felt like the crack of dawn, I heard Munch on the phone, and I mentally commended Reza for his ability to wake up early to go for a walk, wished him photographic luck, and went back to sleep.
I woke at 7.30am, and began to potter around. After mandatory teeth-cleaning and clothes-changing activities, I ventured downstairs to ask about breakfast. We wanted fried eggs, with bread and pol sambol and parippu – Reza arrived and it turned out he’d already whacked a plate of string-hoppers on his sojourn. While I waited for breakfast, I made a first attempt at blogging, although since I’d already mentally pegged this weekend as Fun Time Sans Work I didn’t manage to type more than a couple of hundred words.
We had breakfast, and Munch and I went for a short walk, taking pictures of the random things that ticked our fancy (the PLOTE office fascinated me, since PLOTE used to be a Tamil militant group in the 80’s and the road is named after its founder, Uma Maheshwaran, and we both chuckled at the New Welldone School). We made it past the space-efficient communication centre, and turned right. Just in front of a building that turned out to be a church, I stumbled a little and ‘broke’ my rubber slipper. It was easily fixed, but for some reason I couldn’t do it. We were contemplating sticking our heads in the church, it being a Sunday, when a gentleman on his way inside stopped and spoke to us. Were we Christians? Yes, but we didn’t understand Tamil. Were we from Vavuniya? Colombo, but in Vavuniya for a couple of days. Anyhow, we found ourselves walking inside, leaving our footwear at the door, and sitting on a clean floor, listening to the preacher speak convincingly of things I know not. It was one of those newer churches, the ones where there’s a lot of audience involvement and affirmation. Munch is more used this cheerful give-and-take, but I admit I am more used to the solemn, ritualistic mutterings of more traditional churches.
This is a bit of a digression, but my love of ritual has always puzzled me. I clearly have a Puritanical attitude to religion, even though I also firmly believe that God gave us the ability to laugh for a very good reason. My favourite services ever are the High Anglican ones at the imposing S. Thomas’ College chapel, with its sombre sing-song recital of the Eucharist and old-English hymns. I am mildly envious of my brother for having a school that has a Sunday service – I love the Ladies’ College chapel, but its polished yellow granite floors and columns are distinctly more airy, light and feminine than the uncut stone blocks of the S. Thomas’ chapel, imposing and dignified. The chapels somehow exemplify the ethos of both schools, funnily enough – Ladies’ College, with its Anglican foundations, true enough, but determined to send independent-minded, strong-willed young women into the world, and S. Thomas’ with its unwavering love of traditions that veer on the anachronistic, determined to be a Sri Lankan Eton even today, more than sixty years after being freed from the fetters of colonialism, and despite the fact that its student demographic is much wider than that of Ladies’ College (I love my school dearly, and am much more comfortable calling her my alma mater than I am with bestowing Princeton that honour, but the truth is that both LC and Princeton are more alike than I care to admit).
I read, a few weeks ago that the love of the right-angled Order and Method is a distinctly Western ideal, and that pre-colonial Sri Lankan ‘planning’ was more circuitous and cluster-based. It wasn’t seen as a method by our dear colonisers, though, with the result that our architects and planners have apparently been trained to emulate a style of planning that was never really Sri Lankan. Perhaps that is true, although this reaction is also very symptomatic of the post-colonial search for identity (which has a tendency to violently reject colonial influences), and if that is the case, then I apologise for the Anglophile in me, but the immaculately geometric S. Thomas’ quadrangle at sunset, flanked by the Chapel, school hall, and classrooms, and trimmed with the perfectly manicured green lawn, is one of the prettiest moments I have seen – it reminds me of Princeton, and makes me wonder about the nature of beauty, that elusive phenomenon artists will ever-fail to define.
I thought about all these things as I watched the preacher, and then (and now, as I blog) also pondered idly on the still, small, voice of God (not the storm, never the storm) and the jangling intensity of Miriam’s musical tambourine, accompanied by the voices of the thousand thankful women who set foot in the Promised Land. There are many ways to show reverence, and I suppose we all prefer our own ways best. And isn’t it curious how we associate our preferences with what is right? It’s much the same with beauty – it’s just so easy to be critical. I’ve always felt that one of the great strengths of my liberal arts education is that it taught me to be critical, and that one of its great weaknesses is that it doesn’t demand that critics provide a valid alternative, so there’s the danger of being a perennial and unproductive critic.
It was suddenly 10.15am, and it was time to quietly slip out. I walked barefoot back to the hotel, successfully stepping on a sticky piece of gum in the process. I tried to stay out of the cowpats, but honestly there are just so many of them that eventually they must disintegrate and become one with the dust. Ah well. I washed off my feet once back at Thai, and prepped for the afternoon’s drama session.
Kamal was unable to serve as driver-interpreter, so he sent along his older brother Gajan again (the one who had to deal with me the week I got all arty and abstract). Gajan was a little late, but we set off sans mishap. We took the Omanthai Road again, and although it was a little puddly and muddy, we made good time. When we got there, it looked as though there were no children, and I was worried – communication seems to have been breaking down as of late, and I have a shrewd idea that it’s partly because this has been quite a long programme, and the two villages don’t believe there is much value in what I’m doing – transporting sets of kids to play with other sets of kids. I do understand that, which is why I think a language programme for Part II will be better received. At the end of the day, I have little tangible evidence for a success for Part I (apart from the fact that my kids are really comfortable around me now!) and I think that’s what bothers each village. Our children went for a programme and what did they do? They made some files, wrote some essays, drew a few pictures, did a small play, and played FAR TOO MUCH. Personally, I think the Tamil kids especially have really benefited from the opportunity to shriek and laugh and hang out with my Muslim ragamuffins, but it’s hard to show any concrete evidence for why that might have been beneficial. So Part II is almost definitely going to be language – I’ll figure it out in November and December, and launch in January.
Getting back to the workshop at hand, I was relieved (and amused) to suddenly see some of my kids popping out of the windows, but we had to pick up the rest from their houses. I’m never entirely sure how much the Tamil children enjoy my programme (apparently Mayuran has been pretending to have fever these past couple of days to avoid the workshops, but then again, his mother did happen to come on the very day my workshop went dreadfully) but at least the Muslim kids seem to love them? It’s always hard to tell, when all the children of a particular age group are expected to do the same things together. I would definitely have preferred voluntary participation! However, hungry children also like to be given to eat, and I won’t pretend that buns and juice aren’t a draw. Ah well – again, I can be a lot more sure about a language class, because people care a lot about their ‘studies’, and language is definitely a barrier for employment.
Being able to travel with the children has definitely been one of the perks of the building bridges workshops. I can give some of the girls more attention at this point, and I can practise my limited Tamil, which I must say I’m getting slightly better at using. We rattled along and arrived only about 20 minutes late – I really need to get used to asking drivers to arrive half an hour before I actually need to leave. Most of the Kakkaiyankulam kids were there, and after determining that the Chiraddikulam kids had not had lunch (sigh), I gave them their buns first. The children ate in silence, at first, taking in the presence of two strangers (one replete with camera and tripod) but their silence began to fray at the edges towards the last of the bun-eating.
Getting the kids organised took a little longer than I realised, but we managed to sort them into their two groups, and I took over one with Gajan, while Munch and Reza handled the other – they went to another classroom to practice, which I think was good for both groups. I did two read-throughs with the children, and then we really quickly put it up on its feet. I forgot how much I miss acting! It went quite well, and I think the evidence that all these past workshops have served as a good foundation was evident in the fact that although I had to give them acting tips, they threw themselves into their parts wholeheartedly (except poor little Vanoja, who thinks if she’s not saying a line she needs to make herself as tiny and invisible as possible – I keep having to remind her that she has a big role…something I did deliberately, btw!). For a really quick first attempt, that certainly wasn’t bad! We then “showed” both pieces – the other piece, all the children got their lines in well, but need some work with their blocking, but we can do that next week.
The children started going mad in front of the camera, while others clamoured to play, but the truth was that our first real rehearsal had taken longer than I’d hoped, and it was time to get the Chiraddikulam children home. After hearing about the elephants and bears after dark, I certainly don’t want to put the children at risk (or myself, really) and with the monsoon coming after a very long time, animals will be at their watering holes earlier than usual. So it was time to go, after a group photo (once Reza finishes processing the photos, I’ll see if I can get a CD of the week’s photos to ReachOut – they’re wonderful!). He’s also taken a few short videos, so I’m excited to see what he puts together.
All the way back to Chiraddikulam I practised Tamil with the kids. In a sense, I’m almost sorry I didn’t propose the trilingual class as my Building Bridges project, but I like to naively believe that this was a good thing, being able to let the children be children for a bit (albeit with me and my strictness!). We practised saying numbers, colours, parts of the body, things in our surroundings, and it was nice. I’ve learned some of this stuff fifteen years ago, and it was like stretching a muscle I didn’t know I had. It was also really nice to just hang out with the Chiraddikulam girls, my quietest children, and give them some one-on-one time.
It was a beautiful evening, clear-skied, and after dropping the children off I watched the evening turn to night, while musing, as ever, this time on the music in my ears. Princeton let me be unashamedly nerdy about my love of Gold FM-esque music – turned out most of my friends were too, and they also seemed to know a great deal about the bands themselves. So now I know, when I’m listening to Genesis, if it’s Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins, and I also now know that Mike and the Mechanics is Mike Rutherford’s own deviation from the band. I’m also lucky to have had Pandora and P-Rex at this time, to listen to albums instead of singles, to follow chronological musical trajectories, not chart-toppers. I’ve had the chance to find music typologies that don’t make their way on to the airwaves at home, and it’s quite nice to have discovered it. But I somehow feel more foreign than ever – although it’s not an unpleasant sensation, mostly just a familiar tickle. It’s also just really funny to listen to this incredibly dated white music in the middle of the Mullative jungle.
When we got back to Vavuniya, we decided to eat dinner out. This was a Good Plan – and something I really couldn’t have done alone (the joys of being female) – because the Best Prathap Restaurant served incredibly good curry. Honestly, I could’ve eaten that chicken curry minus the chicken. But because I am a big fat carnivore, I ate the devilled chicken with equal gusto. I speak for all of us when I say that that was an incredibly satisfying meal – also that kid in the background playing loud games on his phone added to the ambience. The Best Prathap Restaurant is also an incredibly clean establishment – the surfaces are spotless, and you have to leave your slippers outside. SO GOOD. I definitely want to go back soon.
We got back and looked through some of Reza’s photos from the day (those children really are photogenic and amazing) and then it was shower and bed. We woke at 4.30am the next morning for our 5.45am train, and arrived with breakfast and plenty of time to spare. The journey back was uneventful but nice – I travelled 2nd class with Munch and Reza because Expo doesn’t have those seats that face each other (I’ve always been fascinated by NJT’s reversible seats, btw) and I might take to travelling 2nd class more often. I blogged, listened to music, had a brief conversation with an ExpoRail attendant who recognised me and wanted to know why I wasn’t taking Expo (!), politely refused to let an old lady throw two empty Milo cartons out the window, and watched the world go by. Sri Lanka really is an incredibly beautiful place. Says Nushelle the eternal tourist.