Sunday, November 12, 2017

A third side to the coin

An impish face smiles my way and greats me with a manly handshake that is the dichotomy I face each day when traveling with Surendra. It’s the two sides of the coin once again, and I’m seeing some aspects of a darker side, a more somber side. Perhaps this coin has many faces and only time, patience and much questioning will expose them all; or at least, some of them. Right now I see the adult between the boy and the man.

It’s not that we are running out of tourist things to discuss. We are always more than satisfied with the amount of information we receive at each and every turn. Some history on a building or cricketer, something to do with a fruit I’ve never seen before and not likely to ever see again, a bit of geography, a Buddhist saying, a remedy from a tree not found anywhere on the planet except the deepest part of a distant Sri Lankan jungle, and a nice place to eat; especially a nice place to eat. Surendra does like his food although his diet could do with a bit of Buddhist interrogation.

Nevertheless, after a 20 day period confined to a Hi Ace, people tend to find time to reveal something of themselves beyond platitudes and peripherals. 

Surendra’s collision with life has been ‘interesting’. He’s had his share of personal dramas and delights, disappointments, experiences with other humans, and a decent bite of the cultural cherry that makes him so Sri Lankan. On the odd occasion does he expose some regret as to how things went or how he might like things to go in the future. I’m not in a position to wish for a second go at life but apparently, Surendra is. He obviously knows something I don’t. Or someone! The request he has submitted to the higher authority is that he return as that which he had started but not completed: that is, a monk. Perhaps he’s not at ease with the idea that the love of another individual has a potently and pleasure that over-rides all other goals and ambitions. As they say: “just lay back and enjoy the journey”. As someone almost famous once said “what makes us human is the ability to reason and love. Unfortunately, they are totally incompatible concepts and in the face of love we are totally unreasonable and any reasonable person would avoid love at all cost”

Surendra’s outlook on life has been subtly influenced by his rather limited contact with the outside world. I’m constantly surprised by the surprised look on his face when I mention something of ordinariness from my life yet totally alien to his. Homosexuality for one, traveling backward in a train for another. I still think Surendra is coming to grips with which of these conditions could come about in a Sri Lankan world and which has the most damaging effect on the human race.

Imagine you only learned your geography and culture of other countries from a joke book. That’s what it’s like when traveling with a guide. Travellers like to keep in good humor. They also enjoy keeping the driver happy and relaxed. This has its benefits I’m sure but unfortunately, every conversation must end with a joke or at least a laugh. Surendra probably thinks Australia is a theme park with lots of funny things happening; like Disneyland. In such an exchange people become stereotyped and geography becomes compressed. For example, it’s just as difficult to explain how far Darwin is from Sydney as it is describing Bob Cater. But it’s fun trying.

I, too, have a vague idea of the nature of Sri Lanka after my time with Surendra. One thing is bleeding obvious; everyone smiles, none less than Surendra. On the other side of that coin is the empathy for others less fortunate. As soon as Surendra comes across such a living thing he immediately stops smiling and gives a faint whimper, as if he feels the pain as well. This can happen with sick humans, dogs on the road, a camelion caught in traffic or a mosquito looking for food on his forearm. All are dealt with in the same caring manner and no one is hurt in the process. On the other hand, if it were left to me there would be one less dog, camelion, mosquito and I’d still be considering my options on the human.

Christine says Surendra doesn’t seem to worry or get agitated. I think he’s well practiced at concealing it. Or perhaps he allows his short-term memory loss to forget his recent troubles. I’d need to spend more time with my new found companion to answer that question. Perhaps we will meet again in another place, time or body. You never know. He might come back to me if he’s been a bad boy. That will certainly turn him off reincarnation a second time.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The man who could be a monk

Surendra laughs out loud, like a child among friends, his white teeth contrast strongly against his glistening brown skin. It’s not so hot today.  Moisture hangs heavily from the blackening sky and deposits a layer of softening dew on his skin. There’s a sparkle in his eyes that allows the stranger in me to connect with him. He speaks a Sri Lankan version of English I find easy to interpret. He listens intently, showing a discomfort with my language that is typical of one who has English as a second or third language. I can almost hear him translate in his head as he hastens to catch the words and hold on to them long enough to grasp their true meaning. From time to time he squints, a sure sign that his brain makes no sense of the translation he has rendered and shaped in his head. 

In spite of this struggle with words, we manage to communicate with a great deal of ease. I’m surprised at the quality of his thoughts. His understanding of his culture is born from a deep belief that what he is, is what he thinks of his country’s history, religion and culture. 

Yet I crave to know more, beyond his countryman. What of the man who stands before me? What lays beneath the surface? What life has he lived? What has made this young man what he is now?

Surendra has exposed small fragments of his ‘other’ life; the one I choose to know of. The voyeur in me looks hard. I listen for signs of life beneath the tour guide exterior. His mind is like warm wax and his personal thoughts stick firmly as the dust from a long day. From time to time I ask: “what of your family?”, “What of your youth?” and Surendra brushes the dust from the wax ever so slightly. I can smell and taste the thoughts and my appetite is stimulated. I ask myself: What will bring him to raise the broom and loosen the secrets that I crave and he holds so dearly. 

“Tell me of your courtship? How did you meet your wife?.”

He draws in the warm air and seemingly gathers his strength. I make no sound. I must listen. I fear to breathe, least I will shatter the silence he needs. I let him speak without interruption, holding still, letting each word settle. If I am still, perhaps he will not notice my presence. This experience is new to him. He has done it before; spoken openly of his life, but there is pain that comes with it. He must conquer the pain. No, he must ride with it, as the bird on the wind. He is learning that the anguish is part of him and he must live with it, not fight it, but know it and know it’s place in his life. His memories of painful times and events are no different to the scars on his lustrous skin or the rounded belly he carries as a consequence of his indulgences. 

Slowly, methodically, carefully, Surendra places his fears where they are safe and speaks more freely of his past. His eyes give way to the yearning to weep for losses and suffering. Moisture gathers and blood rises to the surface as the soft pain in his head pushes his thoughts forward. His moistened eyes look away from me momentarily. He speaks to the warm, thick air. None of this comes naturally. 

Converting thoughts to words isn’t something that any of us can do easily. We fear too much. We fear the permanency that comes with being heard, the misunderstanding that others might gather, the ‘truth’ that some might deny, the ‘lies’ that others might perceive. Surendra’s fears are ‘real’ but often unfounded. He must learn that the thoughts of others are not his responsibility. He can only be in control of his own dread; that which once held him silent in the presence of others. The pain of others is beyond him, out of his reach, out of his field of knowing, distant to any responsibility he feels he must own.

Surendra tells me of his life, at least the parts he is willing to share just now. It is early days. I should not expect too much from him. He is young and still to know the freedom that comes with age. He is yet to know that smart men know of others, wise men know of them self. He will see how his memories grow old with him. They soften as the wax in the summer sun, they change as the dust of years settles and sinks into the softening and malleable wax. The memories will become new, in the ages of time. They will still bring feelings with them but less of the pain and more of the simple joy of living. 

For there is no destiny that holds Surendra to a particular path. His life has not been written beforehand. He is not scripted to perform like a monkey on a chain. This is the creator of his own experiences. Each new event is the consequence of what has gone before. Where he is now is the best possible outcome of all that has gone before. The yin and yang of life give both: rich with poor, sick with good health, friendship with enemies, love with hate, good with bad, happiness with sadness. Surendra is learning to live with both sides of the token of life. He cannot hold the wax solid in the sun. Nor can he see the dust settle and stick. He will live with his truth. And just as we face life, he will face death; his own and that of others, because life and death are sides of the same coin.

As he faces his life, so will he see in his wisdom, that there is no pain that cannot be accompanied by the joy of living. 

Perhaps pain and joy are the same things. Surendra and I are still learning to see how that is so for both of us. For a while, we follow the same path. For a while, we are connected.

Are you sure?

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