It has been a while since I’ve written, and I think the reasons are clear. After you’ve been living in one place for a while, working with, buying from and socializing with its people, all that once appeared different and new and worthy of writing about fades into the background and becomes, well, ordinary. And even if a gaudily displayed store-front or a group of sleeping goats creating a breathing street divider formation captures your attention, they are no longer enough to warrant being written about.
You have, for all practical purposes, become a resident of your new environment – albeit one that still sticks out like a sore thumb – and you notice this when you receive the highest form of anointment symbolizing that they too consider you one of them: you get a wedding invitation.
With only a few single colleagues at the office, we always joked that we should have a wedding before our beloved boss moves to another post. We really did like our boss, so I’m not sure what humorous hand of fate set the ‘auspicious’ date for our colleague’s wedding two weeks after she left Jaffna. In any case, this didn’t dampen the happy event, nor my anthropological curiosity as to all the rites and rituals involved: how was it arranged? What are the events leading up to the big day? What role do the brothers and sisters play? And most importantly: what do I wear?!
I already knew the answer to that one, but was hoping that the reply would inadvertently recruit a volunteer to help me shop and then dress in the celebratory saree. My evil plot worked and from that point forward, my entire obsession with the wedding was in my saree. I would listen lightly as the elements of dowry and contract and blessings were explained to me, remaining fixated on “and where would we be sitting at that time? Would we be in our saree by then?” The first weekend I was supposed to go with my recruited volunteer to pick a saree, a general strike was declared in Jaffna, and I took it very personally, considered it plain sabotage! But that only served to strengthen my resolve and I took notes from a colleague as to what I need to look for, what questions to ask, and so on. I thought I was all prepared when, through some twists of opportunity, she was able to come shopping with me. Very fortunate considering it was much much more complicated than her instructions had led on. You see, it’s one thing to go looking for a saree you think you might like, but it demands much more imagination to visualize the flat section at one of the ends as the shirt, and what part of this flowing material appears where when you’re fully dressed. As a true ‘do-it-yourself’ experience, there are more bits and pieces, none of which I could have imagined – there’s the lining for the shirt, the full-length saree skirt, and forget whatever jewelry or accessories you already have, you must make a special trip to a tiny store stocked up to the ceiling in sets of necklace/ ring/ earrings, bangles and bindis. Out of all of these, I think the only item that will travel back home with me are the funky coloured bangles; the whole time I was trying out the rest I was hoping I wouldn’t develop a sudden rash. One wedding, one-time-wear.
I won’t go into the details of the stressful last minute making and refitting of the saree shirt, which was finished the day before the wedding, and I truly wish I could go into the details of dressing up in the saree, but I think it might be easier for me to re-learn organic chemistry. My wonderful recruited volunteer was on hand to help me get dressed, and after the second pleat that I am still convinced was held up by pure magic, I could no longer follow the folds and wraps and pins that she was effortlessly maneuvering around me. The whole time I was in the saree, I couldn’t figure out what was connected to what, which meant that I was vigilant about stepping on this, or pulling on that for fear that the falling dominos train would unhinge a limb or something. This became rather exhausting, especially as I also had to keep in mind where I left my shoes, which had to be removed before we walked into the wedding hall, and to avoid unseemly leg cramps as we ‘elegantly’ sat on the ground. In fact, I was so distracted and tired that I stopped asking what was happening to the betrothed couple at the front of the room as blessings were being bestowed and a slew of offerings were being made. It was somewhat liberating because I could then just watch my friend go through this process, and take in that we were witnessing a pivotal moment in her life. In the years to come, and already now a couple of months later, what I remember most is how busily and intricately everything was decorated – the stage, their chairs, them – and how swiftly and generously every single visitor was offered a delicious lunch on an environmentally friendly banana leaf.
Either as reflection of the similar meanings we hold for rites and rituals, or a reflection of my one main concern, I had an almost identical first-reaction-question to the funeral as I did to the wedding: what do I wear? Whereas my energy for the wedding was siphoned into the saree, for the funeral it was the details of orchestrating a group visit to the location, which was out on one of the islands. It is heartening to find that colleagues who are consistently late for meetings will arrive early to the rendez-vous point for a funeral, and more so to find that people do take on responsibility and initiative as we negotiated our way to cut through a 2km line of waiting tourists, on to a packed cargo boat, and finding three tuc-tucs on the island which we squeezed into for the final leg of the journey. There is little I can write about the funeral here to do it justice, and in some ways, less that I want to remember. The guttural, distressed wails of our colleague as she flailed her arms over the body of her dead brother continue to haunt me, and I am comforted only by the procedures that were explained to me in which the life of the deceased and his body are honored before being sent to their final resting place.
On the way back from our long morning, I was still pondering the traditions and symbols that had been explained to me for the better part of an hour while at the funeral, and I felt emboldened to ask a few more questions about other symbols. And about one in particular that had consumed me for a while: throughout my walks through Jaffna, I would occasionally see a 2 liter plastic soda bottle, filled with water and hung outside the front gate of a house. The bottles were different colours, and sometimes the water was coloured a bright fuschia or food colouring green, and I never understood what they were for. After a morning where everything that was being done around me spoke of a deep meaning, I asked about the mysterious symbol behind these bottles and finally got my answer in two simple words: “dog’s pee”. Convinced I had misheard I asked again, and was told that people hung them to stop the dogs from peeing at their gates.
Symbolic mystery solved. I guess sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.