Revving up again

hello, Vavuniya!

In the past, when I visited the villages after a short hiatus, I could count on nothing going as planned. When I was able to visit each week, I could tell the children about the date and time of the next workshop and be sure they would turn up. If I had to miss a week or two, I’d have to call up Mr Farhan, the principal at Kakkaiyankulam Muslim Maha Vidyalam, or Major Edirisinghe at the army unit overseeing Chiraddikulam, and ask that they tell the children when the next workshop was. The whole process felt a bit uncomfortable, because I always felt like I was giving them an order (when in reality a drama workshop is naturally the least important priority on anyone’s plate), and because I was never sure, until I actually got there, whether the message had been scrambled in an unintentional game of Telephone. I’d show up, fingers crossed, hoping really hard that I’d see familiar cheeky faces peering out from the classroom or community centre.

Sometimes, all was well. Sometimes, it wasn’t. The army would sometimes round up a motley assortment of kids ranging from ages five to fifteen, and I’d have to read out my list of kids all over again. It was awkward, not least because I hated telling the other children that I’d do a workshop for them another time. I’d picked kids from the fourth through sixth grades simply because I couldn’t handle more on my own, but it was always hard to remember my reasons for being selective in the moment, and I just felt cruel.

Building Bridges was always filled with incredible joy, but I can’t deny that I spent most of my time also writhing with self-induced guilt about potentially misplaced good intentions and something akin to white saviour complex – but more like urban/foreign-educated/English-speaking saviour complex. Now I felt guiltier than ever – somehow, in the midst of trying to stay afloat in grad school at MIT, I’d missed seeing them once, twice, thrice – and those three times equated to one and a half years. I’d planned a whole workshop for January 2016, but then heard news that a classmate struggling with a long illness had passed away, and the funeral was the weekend of the workshops. I cancelled the workshops. Two years.

When I got home for the summer holidays in June, I could feel the weight of a two and a half year absence digging and clawing into me, more so because I started the programme as a year-long series precisely because I believe that no one should do a short-term project and then up and disappear. Without realising it, I’d stopped practicing what I preached, and if I were to be really honest, I knew that I was no longer sure that anything I’d done was really very meaningful in any way. I knew I’d changed, and I was grateful for the chance I’d had to expand my world, but four years down the line, I couldn’t really believe that learning to cut paper precisely or playing Fruit Bowl had any kind of positive impact; even the tiny things that I took incredibly seriously at the time, like making sure all the juice was still iced at break time or making sure to give them different kinds of snacks every week, felt like a particularly idiotic manifestation of OCD.

Then there were the final days of fiasco – monsoon rains that thwarted a nice wrap-up performance not once or twice, but three times. After several aborted attempts at learning lines and blocking movements, doing rehearsals that I was sure were much less rewarding and fun than the workshops crammed with games and art and writing that the children had gotten used to, I simply took it as a sign and gave up. I was sure the children were tired of it, hated it, and wished it would stop. I knew that it was unlikely that they could or would love theatre as much as I do, and I certainly didn’t want to make them dislike it.

I was also feeling another jab – I’d received the Queen’s Young Leader’s Award for the work I did in 2012 (Mr Farhan had seen my interviews with BBC Sinhala and alongside Kumar Sangakkara with Philip Schofield) and been named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list for being a “social entrepreneur”, a category I certainly would never have chucked myself in. It was easy to forget, with all the spotlight and attention, that I’d received them for work completed, not work I was going to do tomorrow or next week or next year, and I felt desperately that I needed to prove myself, to show I really deserved the accolades.

I’d planned to visit the villages on the 20th and 21st of August, with no higher ambition than to do a simple workshop that was more apology than anything else. A way to say I was sorry that I was often so overwhelmed by juggling grad school in Boston, and long-distance relationships with partner and family that necessitated travel to Stanford and Colombo whenever I could squeeze it in, that I took the easy way out and dropped the ball on the people who couldn’t tell me indignantly that I was neglecting them too. My tendency to dream up too-grand plans meant that often, that’s all they ever were, and I wanted to keep things simple in the hopes that this time, finally, they would become a reality.

So when I called up Mr Farhan to lock in dates and he said that weekend was out because of the scholarship exam, I decided to do a hurried workshop on the 13th, rather than on the 27th (my last weekend in Sri Lanka). I dutifully called Kamal, Indran’s Hotel, the army unit, and Mr Farhan as many times as I needed to lock everything in, squeezing in these logistical operations inbetween travelling from Colombo to Kandy to Anuradhapura to Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa to Dambulla to Galle and back to Colombo with two of my MIT professors who were in Sri Lanka for a week.

It meant a lot of re-establishing connections and apologising for being MIA, but I tried not to think too much about what they all thought of me. I was also shunted from Major Ranjan to Major Ranjith, which was confusing for when saying hello, but about on par for the course for my Kakkaiyankulam communications. When friends who had put aside the 20th to join me sent me anguished messages to say the 13th was impossible for them, I decided that this shouldn’t change anything. There should and would be a next time. It didn’t matter how small or hurried or shoddy I felt it was going to be – right now, the only important thing was that it should happen. Lastly, I decided to make two trips to Vavuniya – the first on a weekday merely to set everything up and show everyone my face – which would make for a very painful week for me, but would significantly reduce any uncertainty-related stress on the weekend. A test run of my apologetic-workshop-weekend.

I got back home from the week-around-the-island on Sunday, and although I meant to visit on Wednesday, to give myself a couple of days to breathe, Kamal asked if I could do Tuesday as he wasn’t free to drive me on Wed. I agreed, and on Monday, my dad managed to snatch up the very last ticket on the Tuesday 5.10am Yaal Devi commencing from Mount Lavinia. It occurred to me that on this trip I could potentially also solve a lot of other little problems, like being able to get snacks and drinks at 6am before the supermarkets were opened, and it felt like a better idea than ever.

The train journey to Vavuniya was poshly air-conditioned and uneventful. I alternated between sleeping and attempting to do final copy edits on a module for the Queen’s Young Leaders programme. I got to the railway station by 10.30am, and although I’d fully prepared myself to zip to the guesthouse, drop my bags, and turn around sharply to make my way to the villages, I couldn’t help but nostalgically pause at the Vavuniya train station (even if there was a giant board in Tamil on the platform courtesy of the Australian government, which I assumed was trying to discourage illegal migration because I’m good at stereotyping Aussies like that – but does it count as stereotyping if I’m an Aussie myself? But if I’m a citizen of Australia but haven’t lived there in yonks, am I an Aussie at all so am I really stereotyping? Fun questions that I’m not going to answer here, except to say that recently I’ve been thinking a lot about coming to terms with my Australian identity and that a related blog post is brewing and bubbling).

Anyway! I sauntered to Indran’s, took time to arrange my stuff, and savoured actually being in Vavuniya before calling Kamal to let him know I’d arrived. When he turned up, cheery and grinning as always, I felt a wonderful sense of relief. Coming early had been a great idea. Except for the bit where I asked the guy at Hotel Indran’s to bring us two lunch packets and found that each curry came in its own bag, rather than the tightly wrapped-up and wedged-in wodge of rice-dhal-chicken-veggies that I was envisioning, which would make for a messy lunch. But no matter.

The road to Kakkaiyankulam was good (we went en route Thandikulam) and arrived a little past noon. As we turned in to the village, I found myself gawping a bit at how much at changed in the time I’d been away. So many little concrete houses had replaced earlier cadjan huts, while the school itself had an entirely new, government-funded building housing 60 computers (sans internet, but hey, we can fix that with an internet stick when needed) for learning MS Word and PowerPoint and Access and Excel.

Mr Farhan and I had a long chat about current student numbers (225 in KMMV from Grades 6-13, now offering Science and Arts for A Levels, with two feeder primary schools: Kakkaiyankulam GMTMS with 100 students and Al Madina School with 75), things that they needed for the future (storybooks for the library, past paper and model paper books for O/L’s and A/L Bio Science and Maths, Tamil, Political Science, Geography, Business Studies, and Religion – both Islam and Hinduism. ICT was now being offered as an optional subject for both O/L’s and A/L’s.

For jobs, the kids needed to know Sinhala and English (argh, never know what to do with this one, apart from my aborted Language Exchange programme), and they tended to work in guest houses and garment factories in Vavuniya or Colombo, while a few went to the Middle East. Some stayed in the village after A/L’s to help their parents in the fields. At the end of all this, I wasn’t sure what real support I could give, except to buy some past paper books and storybooks for the library, but at least I was getting a better idea of what was going on in the school.

He called in the kids, and needless to say, they’d grown immensely. Aasir was still fairly small-made, but most were much taller. I couldn’t recognise Fausan at all. In typical 14-year-old fashion, he was experimenting with a new, cockatoo-like hairstyle. Nakira was a little less skinny. All the girls now covered their hair, and it felt a bit odd to have to pick out Asira without her plaits or Sabiba from her straight ponytail. Fleetingly, I thought about what a complex thing face recognition is. I learned that I had been calling Agar Akkar and Afkak Afkath throughout the entirety of the previous workshops; I’d blame the tricky similarity between the Tamil “ka” (which can also be “ga” and “ha”) and “tha” but it was just funny to think that I was more concerned about getting their names right now (when I felt like a stranger) than during the whole year when the thing I felt least guilty about was showing up.

I was also surprised to find that I felt no sense of loss for the children that they had been, only gratitude and excitement that I was getting to see them again at a different moment in their lives. It was really fabulous to see them grown. It was awkward and my Tamil was rusty and the children (sans Aasir) were decidedly more demure than they had been in the past, and I didn’t know if they were thinking, “Well, why is she turning up now?” but I was just really truly wonderfully pleased to see them, regardless of how they felt about me.

And then they went back to their classes, and I finished up my chat with Mr Farhan while drinking tea, and then I was taken to the new ICT building to marvel at the shiny new computers, and then it was time to go because I’d been there for over an hour.

So many new computers!
So many new computers!

I called Major Ranjith to let him know we’d be there in an hour, but the road from Kakkaiyankulam to Chiraddikulam was painfully bumpy, and it took us one and a half hours. Now, more than ever, I was convinced that the whole idea behind Building Bridges was unsustainable and idiotic, particularly when decoupled from the larger body of programmes that CI had carried out in tandem with my work. I consoled myself with the thought that at least I knew this now, and that I could help each community individually on more prosaic but actually Needful Things, in ways that wouldn’t let everyone down as horribly as I had in the past.

Chiraddikulam turned out exactly as I expected, and not at all as I expected. Again, all I can say is, deciding to go on a test-run trip must have been the result of a flash of divine inspiration. When I got to Chiraddikulam, I called the Chiraddikulam principal. Major Ranjith had sent me his number just that morning (hoping to get me off his hands, no doubt), and since I didn’t speak Tamil and the principal didn’t speak Sinhala, I told the Major that I’d speak to the principal once I got to the village with the aid of trusty Kamal. When Kamal called Principal Kamaleshwaram, he apologetically told us that he hadn’t been informed, and that he was on his way home. When he heard the names of all the kids I’d worked with, though, he said that they now went to the bigger school in Nattankandal, and gave us the Nattankandal school principal’s number. So we called up Principal Moorthy, who happened to be at the school. (But first we had lunch, and I was so hot and tired and somewhat dispirited that I couldn’t bring myself to take the effort to open all the curry bags, so I just had chicken and rice, and not very much of that, either.)

After I apologised to Kamal for making him endure my wild goose chase with me, we drove bumpily back to Nattankandal, and then sat down to chat with Mr Moorthy. The Nattankandal school isn’t as lucky as the one at Kakkaiyankulam; not a great deal has changed except for the fact that the army has become a lot more hands-off. They have children from the first through eleventh grades (about 50 children from grades 1-5, and 80 from 6-11). The kids from Chriaddikulam go to primary school in their own village, and join Nattankandal in the sixth grade. Like Mr Farhan, Mr Moorthy requested books of model papers and past papers, as well as translation books that allow children to learn Sinhala when all they can read is Tamil script. Lastly, they said that while children receive schoolbags and uniforms from the government, stationery packs for the beginning of the year would be very welcome.

I explained about the work I’d done with Building Bridges, and suggested I do a workshop for the kids from grades 6 to 11 at Nattankandal, just to introduce myself. I was surprised to find that he seemed to like the idea immensely, and didn’t request that I replace doing art and drama with a tuition class. He said the children needed more of these kinds of resources (I imagine that they haven’t got much in the way of extra-curricular activities) and that he would be pleased for me to do a workshop for the senior school children (except grade 11, who would be preparing for their O/L exams in December). I was a little worried about taking it on – 60 kids from Grades 5 to 10! – but I also didn’t want to pick and choose. It would also be a good test of how many kids I could actually work with.

So that was that, and again, I was more thankful than ever that I’d made this preliminary journey, despite how tired I was. I’d never have hit upon this communications gold mine otherwise, and I really wished I’d made a few “scouting” trips of this nature before, when I was still going every week. While it felt like such an egregious waste of ReachOut money (which was kind of idiotic, though, given that I’d figured out how to turn money for 8 workshops into 25) I think it would have helped me build stronger bonds with the adults in the village, despite my subpar Tamil.

And then it was back to Vavuniya, and I felt my tiredness sweeping over me in waves. We took the Omanthai road back, which was much quicker, except for a bit where the road had all been dug up in small mountains that extended over half the road. Kamal tried to drive over one and we couldn’t quite make it, so he got out to inspect it. I’m not sure how he managed to find the random mammoty that happened to be on the side of the road, but he experimentally hacked away at some of the grass (I’m assuming to make our next attempt a little more successful).

I can’t quite explain how bizarre the whole thing was, especially when we were joined by a man on a motorbike who was dressed exactly the same as Kamal, in checked shirt and jeans, yet his sunglasses and attitude made him look like a Tamil movie star. Also, he spoke some English and used it liberally, drawling out what he thought of people who dug up the entire road at once, and how, incidentally, I ought to learn more Tamil (I agree!). Having dispensed these pearls of wisdom, Mr Movie Star Motorcyclist zoomed away on his merry way, leaving Kamal to do a bit more experimental hacking at the ground before managing to heave the van over the bumps. It’s terribly unfunny in writing, but when it happened I was chuckling inside the whole time. It was all just so weird.

On the way, I stopped by Cargills to buy a present for Mr Kanapathy (I had just discovered in the morning that Keells hadn’t packed the cashews I bought him), then got back to Indran’s and made a beeline for my bed. I discovered the air conditioning didn’t seem to be working, so I was transferred to another room, and then another. The bathroom in this last was fairly dreadful, but, you know, one night. I also almost regretted that I agreed to meet up with Mr Kanapathy on my return, and to moderate Jaason Geerts’ session for QYL. But when I did see Mr Kanapathy, it was fabulous. He was as nice and as serious as he always was, expressing his serious opinion that I ought to get sponsors to pay people from Vavuniya to carry out my workshops. As he said this, I realised that this wasn’t at all how I wanted to continue Building Bridges, but I also realised how nice it was to have Mr Kanapathy looking out for me again.

A party was ramping up at Indran’s. I was informed it wouldn’t end until 12.30, and asked, “Miss ta disturb da?” Although there was only one answer to that question, I was so amused that Vavuniya should have such a happening night life that I shook my head. So I took my dinner to my room, moderated Jaason’s live session, tried to sleep, couldn’t because of the loud Tamil techno music and a few mosquitos that had made their way in, had a bit of a breakdown at 2am when I was exhausted but still couldn’t drift off (I blame my unfinished papers, though, not the party) and then woke up at 5am for the 5.45am train. And then I tried to sleep as much as I could until we got to Fort. I tried one last experiment – taking the 11.15am train from Fort to Lunawa – and regretted that last one enormously. My bags were heavy and I didn’t have a seat, so the relatively short (and cheap) ride felt interminable. I decided I would take a taxi back on Sunday, for sure. And then…that was that. A more successful test-run visit than I could have hoped for.

Also, it turns out that all my assumptions – about what the children liked, what they felt about me, and what they thought about the idea of Building Bridges at all – were mind-bendingly wrong, and that I’d completely underestimated how much they loved the mystifying games and coloured paper and not-quite-iced juice I’d brought into their lives.

But I didn’t find out all this stuff until the weekend, so that’s another blog post.

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