These Are Auspicious Times, Part 1

7 May

Just as David said, April (and the first week of May) was like the New Year, Christmas, and Easter mashed up into a long string of celebrations incorporating ancient Sinhalese traditions, sacred Buddhist theology, and East Asian and Western influences. Looking back, I’d include Halloween and the Chinese New Year into David’s smorgasbord as well.

Two major occasions mark the Sri Lankan holiday season–Avurudhu, the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, and Wesak Poya, the most important full-moon holiday of the year. Avurudhu is fixed on 14 April, while Wesak can happen anywhere from the end of April to the beginning of June depending on the lunar reckoning.

Avurudhu and Wesak are so deeply ingrained in the national tradition that even in Sinhalese sign language, the sign for April is the same as Avurudhu, and May the same as Wesak. The holiday season also marks the beginning of the southwest monsoons and the harvest, two cyclical occurrences that manifest themselves as incredible electrical storms releasing watery torrents beating down lush, green trees ludicrously bursting forth with teeming cornucopias of fruits.

Simultaneously, the Sri Lankan cricket team was climbing the brackets in the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup, putting no end to the one-day international cricket frenzy gripping the nation (Sinhalese and Tamil and Christian and Muslim alike) and, fortunately for me, my education about this mysterious, 9-hours-a-game sport.

School ended on 4 April; to mark it, Ginette and I invited four hostel matrons over for a barbecue dinner at our Beach Inns.

From left to right, Chaminda, Anojani, Ginette, myself, Damayanthi, and Anupama. BBQ, a cooking method confined to hotels frequented by foreigners, usually requires that you eat the completed meal with forks and knives. The Sri Lankans were not deterred by this requirement and took to the utensils with a curious, but proud trepidation as they gripped knives and forks with fists and used them in all the wrong ways possible.

However, Ginette and I were having trouble as well navigating through fish bones using steak knives; the tools felt alien in our hands. Two months of rice and curry consumption had accustomed us to the flavor of many different ingredients mashed up into unrecognizable lumps of bath. How do you squeeze and mix rice, dhaal, and potato curry with a fork?

Within a few minutes, we were all without eating tools, attacking the food with hands and gusto and then we went upstairs to watch the Sri Lanka-England game (we won by a nail-biting two runs, with Fernando shutting down the English batters by delivering a wicket on the very last bowl).

The week following the conclusion of Rohana Special School’s first term was mainly spent at the Beach Inns working through head coughs and colds, reading books, and watching pirated DVDs that we had purchased in Colombo a week earlier (I have yet to see a legitimate DVD for sale in this country).

As the holiday season approached, I decided I needed a haircut, so Ginette and I visited the deaf barber on the other side of the river which bisects downtown Matara.

Salons in Sri Lanka are threadbare affairs; the chairs are straight-backed with arms and legs of wood; on the table are maybe two pairs of scissors, one electrical clippers, a barber’s shaving razor, and a few bottles of assorted perfumes and oils. If the barber wants to reach the top of your head, you are asked to slouch farther down into the chair. No fancy levers here! Wall decorations are either large calendars featuring light-skinned women in saris, or Indian and Thai contact sheets of photographs of different hairstyles, all vaguely resembling 80s’ style mullets.

I opted for a cut, shave, and head massage. Ginette saw how agreeable my head massage was, and asked for one as well. The barber led her to a different chair near the end of the salon, swept a hospital-style curtain around us, and said that women have their hair cut privately behind drapes to deter leering men sitting nearby. He poured jasmine-scented cologne all over her head, inserted his short but powerful fingers into Ginette’s blonde locks, and began massaging.

With a slight buzz from our massages, we paid the salon manager 150 rupees ($1.50) and palmed the deaf barber a 100-rupee bill and proceeded to visit a men’s shirt factory that we had been promising to see for several weeks.

The address on the business card said No. 246 Kumaratunga Mawatha but we could only find Nos. 244 and 248 (which was a private home that we, in our confusion, wandered into). Finally, a wood carver standing on his doorstep pointed us down an alley to No. 246, the Romans Shirts factory.

Upul and always-exuberant Munsif, delighted by our arrival and perfect hairstyles, showed us around the factory which was closing that day for the rest of the holiday season. They had worked overtime for weeks getting shipments out for the Avurudhu buying season (for many Sri Lankans, Avurudhu is the only time of the month they receive new clothes).

They showed us the tools they used to cut through several layers of fabric, the templates they used for different sizes of shirts, the many patterns they used. Munsif offered to make me a custom shirt using leftover material and Ginette a shalwar kameez with textile hand-dyped and patterened by his older sister.

Munsif, a hearing worker (that’s a shalwar kameez she’s wearing) who uses sign language fluently to talk with the four deaf workers at the factor, and Ginette. For a hour there, all we could talk about were shirt-making.

Upul, myself, and Munsif while Shishan, another deaf worker, successfully snaps a shot with my camera. The fourth deaf worker, a woman, was not here that day, and we promised we’d visit again in May when everyone returned to work, so we could see some actual shirt-making instead of house-cleaning.

Ginette and I didn’t know it at that time but April would find us making friends with many, many new deaf people through various visits such as this to the shirt factory or deaf events. The holidays still hadn’t begun although special Avurudhu sales were popping up throughout Matara and we heard more forecasts of how everything, indeed the capitalist society–even buses and internet cafes–would cease business on the 13th and 14th of April. We couldn’t wait.

Next: Batapola, auspicious times, and firecrackers.

3 Responses to “These Are Auspicious Times, Part 1”

  1. Karen 07. May, 2007 at 4:45 am #

    I love reading your blog and learning about a whole new world to me!

  2. Adamzmom 07. May, 2007 at 8:21 am #

    This is wonderful. It’s great to see everyday life and meeting some of your friends and acquaintances via the web. Your explanation of the culture of the holidays sounded so exciting. I really could feel myself there with you, especially through your descriptions of the barbecue meal and the haircut. The pictures were great.
    Haircut for $1.50? Glad you found the shirt factory. How much is a shirt and what type of fabrics are used? Beautiful shawls too!! Interesting that the Happy New Year sign is in English. What did you mean by this celebration being the only time many Sri Lankans receive new clothes? Are they given to them as gifts, or from the government or did you mean it’s the only time they buy them for themselves to give as gifts?
    Can’t wait for the next installment.


  3. grandma 22. May, 2007 at 3:48 pm #

    We are enjoying your blog now that we are back in Michiganwhere the com puter is in operating mode, Did you ever receive the puzzle books and other stuff I mailed from La Costa? in late April? Don’y know what to do about it if it went lost. Allyour photos are fascinating glimpses into a world few of us willever experience ourselves. Thankyou for opening this window on this unique society and culture. Love from Harry,the lacrosse middler and baseballenthusiast.
    Much love from of Grandpa and me.