BB5: first readings

If you would like to view just the workshop report, click here.

Despite the repetitive elements, each week feels singular. This Friday, I had to leave my Environmental Law class a little early to be able to catch the train. I nearly missed it, too – I’d left early enough, but I had to detour to collect one of the play scripts that had been translated into Tamil, and I underestimated how much traffic there would be on Havelock Road. It’s fortunate I decided not to stop to buy snacks when it looked like I had enough time, because I would certainly have run out of it when I got to Fort. I arrived with five minutes to spare, but I was lucky – Manishka was going to join me this Friday and had arrived at the station earlier than me, so she was able to pick up the train tickets I’d booked.

The ExpoRail journey was a little long – we were late again, and it was raining most of the journey. We also had a few seat escapades – we were ensconced quite comfortably in our assigned seats when an hour later we noticed tiny bugs (that looked horrifyingly like baby cockroaches) poking their antennae out of the woodwork. We hurriedly asked to switch seats, but the only seats available at that point were the ones right in front (i:e: at the very tail of the train) so we endured another hour or two of being jolted around. The seats in front also didn’t have little drop-down tables, but instead this incredibly awkward-looking collapsible plastic writing-desk item, which made you have to shrink into your seat in order to get it open. Fortunately Munch is small, but that doesn’t quite make up for the bad design. It’s funny how ExpoRail has invested in carriages aimed at Sri Lanka’s train-riding elite (foreign tourists to Anuradhapura, NGO-types, Sri Lankans who want the comfort of air-conditioning and wifi), but skimp on the details like design finishes and overall presentation. Because honestly, apart from the air-conditioning, I prefer the 2nd class carriage hands down. Anyhow, we managed to eat our dinners without mishap, and changed seats again at Anuradhapura when most people got off (or “detrained” as the notice says in Fort – although I’m surprised, in SL we manage to avoid Engrish in civic spaces, especially in Colombo).

Mr Premadasa was waiting for us as usual, stooped and smiling, and we putted off into the Vavuniya night. I completely expected the same nocturnal stillness that pervaded the town to hang over our fine establishment, Thai Hotel, but when we got there it was a hive of activity. At 11pm! It’s funny how I was instantly uncomfortable, wary of the construction workers who were putting the finishing touches on a temporary structure replete with “Welcome” board. On entering, I was told by the Thai staff that there would be a wedding the next day (it has now begun to amuse me how much Mr Kamal does not tell me – but I recognise that I’m incredibly lucky to have booked the hotel so late and still have rooms available!

Munch and I showered and fell asleep. I’d requested and received a mosquito net after last week’s episode, and I was very glad I had when I saw the small insects buzzing around. It’s not anyone’s fault – it’s just that the monsoon brings with it all kinds of small bugs, and Vavuniya is a small concrete oasis in the middle of a very big jungle. So some of the outside makes its way inside, and I admit that I am less tolerant in real life than I am in cyberspace. I thought the net would ensure a good night’s sleep, but I was wrong. In the middle of the night, I felt someone shake me. Having completely forgotten that I wasn’t sleeping alone, I woke up with a yell, only to find Munch’s apologetic face in front of me. She and I apologised profusely to each other for a few seconds, and then she said, “Nush, I think someone’s trying to open our door.” Sure enough, there were (male!!) voices outside, and I had horrifying visions of drunk construction workers swarming over the sitting room outside, thinking it would be funny to give us a fright. And sure enough, our door-handle was tried once, twice, thrice – intermittently, and strangely as though the person outside were not trying very hard. To my sleepily fearful mind, it sounded like the Drunk Construction Workers were taunting us. I sat there, not really knowing what to do (and I’m fairly sure if I were alone I would have barricaded the door and/or locked myself in the bathroom – although on second thoughts I may not have woken up at all) until she suggested I call Mr Kamal. I did so, and got no answer. I then thankfully called Mr Kanapathy (he always knows what to do!) who said he’d get in touch with the hotel, and not to open the door (only too pleased to comply, Mr K!). So we shivered (albeit shoelessly) for a few minutes and then he called again to say he’d contacted Mr Kamal. While he was talking to me, I heard a knock on the door, and refused to open it. I then got a call from Mr Kamal, who told me that Kodis would come upstairs and I could open the door to him. I politely refused (despite the fact that I quite like and trust Kodis, not tonight sorry!) and said, “No, that’s okay, could you just tell those people not to open our door?” Whereupon he seemed to realise I really was quite shaken, and he laughed, not unsympathetically, and explained the situation. Apparently a busload of people had arrived, at 3.30am (!?!) for the next day’s wedding, and were not really very good about finding their rooms. It would explain why they weren’t trying very hard to open the door! Somewhat appeased, I settled down. Mr Kanapathy called again to make sure I was all right (this is why he is my favourite hotel manager) and I assured him I was, and that the door-opening-attempts had a perfectly logical, laughable reason.

I slept soundly until morning, when we woke in the hopes of taking to the town’s bazaar before setting off for our afternoon workshop. Outside, there was a cacophony of music and voices of wedding-goers. We decided we wanted to have showers before we left for the town, but just as I finished showering the water ran out. I went downstairs to look for someone to tell this fact to, acutely conscious that my jeans and wet hair contrasted dreadfully with the sari-clad, jasmine-braided wedding goers (Where’s the back entrance when you need one? Also, were Munch and I the only non-wedding guests? Looked like it!) and I managed to tell Mr Kamal about our ablutionary issues. He told me the water in their bowser had run out (no wonder, with all those guests!) and it was a bit of a light-bulb moment for me. I always feel a little guilty at the way I can luxuriate in the certainty of a post-workshop shower, when Vavuniya has clearly been dealing with water issues for several months now. Also, no water tank – only a bowser! I’m so sorry, Vavuniya, that I’m so callously and frivolously using your limited water. I really am. I try to keep my showers short, but maybe I should bring a bowl in future.

And a bowl is what Munch used for her ‘shower’ – there was still some water the tap (probably didn’t need as much pressure?) and she managed to manage with that. Then we called Mr Premadasa, and putted off back to the town, stopping at the bakery for breakfast (we felt that Thai Hotel had enough on its hands without having to provide us with breakfast as well!). I bought biscuits and felt pens for the kids at Cargills, while Munch bought snacks and drinks for us. We then went to the station to buy tickets for Monday, and after much hanging around managed to get three of those seats that face each other. Meanwhile, Munch felt a little unwell, so we decided to put-put back to Thai so she could sleep it off with the aid of Panadol (paracetemol has no American equivalent – ibuprofen is actually slightly stronger medication, I believe, and I tried to avoid it while I was there…partly because you always go with what you know!).

I needed to photocopy the scripts that have given me so much cause for concern this week – first with writing them out, then getting them translated, then picking them up! I really need to thank Abhi and Vaishnavi, this week’s translating heroes, and Sushmitha, for putting Vaishnavi in contact with me, so I went back out, and Mr Premadasa took me to a weeny little communication centre down the road from Thai, so efficiently space-saving that no cats (or even mice) could be swung inside it. After half an hour of photocopying (each script was 6 handwritten pages, and I got 20 copies each, in addition to two copies each of the two 3-page English scripts) I discovered to my delight that my bill was less than five dollars. Hurrah for outstation cheapness!

I returned to the hotel again and learned that there IS a back way, which I thankfully used, and took my scripts upstairs to sort and staple. The hotel was thoroughly engrossed in the wedding, with even the hotel staff dutifully decked out in black and white. Thankfully, driver-Kamal arrived relatively on time, the Milos were ready, and although there were no buns there were funny sponge-cake items) and although Munch decided that she wasn’t feeling well enough to come along with me, I felt that with the colourful chaos of the wedding in the background, things could have gone a lot less smoothly. Btw, we have a few pictures from the wedding…it was pretty exciting, although we felt rather like tourists ogling at their ceremonies.

The workshop itself was uneventful. The Kakkaiyankulam kids were waiting for me when I arrived, and Farvin’s mother decided to join us, with her tiny son. Somehow there was room for both of them, and an hour later we reached Nattankandal. Major Edirisinghe was in Colombo, which might have explained why the Chiraddikulam kids took so long to show up. While we were waiting for them, I played Dog and the Bone, relay races, and a new variant of the walk-stop-clap game (walk=clap, clap=stop, and stop=clap). The children took a little while to get used to it, but I think they’re way more used to getting this kind of contradictory command from me now, and I think they didn’t adapt too badly. Meanwhile, I had to keep one eye on the kids and one ear glued to my phone, figuring out where the Chiraddikulam kids were and sorting out Reza, who’d just arrived in Vavuniya (he’s taking photographs for the official performance and wanted to meet the kids this week). Then the Chiraddikulam kids arrived, and we settled down to assigning parts and doing a read-through of the script.

Most children fit into their parts, but I made a few mistakes – I hadn’t bargained for so much illiteracy! I keep forgetting that the children I’m teaching are the sons and daughters of poor farmers, attending schools sans good teachers. Just yesterday, I was reading about the sharp divide in American private schools between the haves and the have-nots, and I admit I resonated with that – I’d definitely never seen the kind of wealth and privilege that manifests itself at Princeton, before coming to America. And while wonderful, generous, financial aid (for which I will never stop being grateful for, and which follows me out of Princeton thanks to ReachOut) meant I could both live comfortably and make friends with those like myself, I will always consider the extravagantly ubiquitous quality of money to be one of the more unpleasant parts of my Princeton experience. And yet there is the same kind of divide between me and the children – having attended an elite private all-girls school in Colombo, this upper-middle-class girl has grown used to hobnobbing with Colombo’s 1%, and I sometimes have moments of incredible stupidity regarding the lives of Sri Lanka’s 99%. Thank goodness there’s only one of me, and my faux pas sail over the heads of the children while I berate myself silently.

A few were quite fluent, including Aasir, but not his brother Sahir, and some of the girls, including Fathima and Farvin (cousins, I learned during the course of the workshop!), but the struggle evident in the voices of some of the others made me want to be their teacher. But I can’t be, not for all the illiterate children in Sri Lanka (although statistically, apparently we’re quite a literate nation) and especially not for illiterate Tamil children when I struggle to read their script myself! Fausan was a delight as the grandfather, although his interpretation of old was mouse-squeak, at first. Aasir and Hafrath were really good narrators, but Sathurjan was rather dreadful and will be given a different part tomorrow. All in all, it wasn’t a bad runthrough, although I would have done well to get a few more Tamil-speakers to help me out with this workshop! I apologise for the lack of pictures, but these last few workshops will lack photos because it’s hard to direct the kids and take photographs at the same time. The final performance will have Reza filming and photographing, so that’s sorted! The sky was growing dark with rainclouds, so I decided to send the Chiraddikulam kids home, and let the Kakkaiyankulam kids amuse themselves playing Fruit Bowl (although I too call it Palangal in my head, like the kids) whereupon they got wilder and wilder and wilder. Very soon they weren’t scrambling for seats anymore, they were hooting and screaming and playing a sort of musical chairs without music, never staying in a seat for long, but switching several times within the space of one round. I hoped the children’s hyperactivity would blow itself out, but I clearly have no understanding of children. Their noise and excitement seemed to grow so large it threatened to blow up the building, so I hurriedly sent them outdoors to the somewhat-squidgy garden. They spent a good few minutes howling like hooligans, and then when they had calmed down slightly, I played one last game of Dog and the Bone with them, and then Kamal arrived in our rather muddy-looking white van. The children wrote their names in the dust before piling into the van, and we got back to Kakkaiyankulam by 6pm. It was raining too heavily to visit the town when I got back to the hotel, so I spent the rest of the evening catching up with Munch and Reza over hotel-cooked fried rice (surprisingly, we managed to eat most of our ultra-large portions) before retiring to bed. Reza said he’d be up early to take a walk and scout out photography opportunities, and Munch was quite enthusiastic about joining him. I wanted to explore Uma Maheshwaran Road myself, but as I drifted off to sleep I doubted if I’d be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed enough to join them.

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