Today was another day that I had no expectations for. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself after my only Thursday class which ended at 9:40. I swam, I took a walk, I took a nap, I thought about doing homework, then I decided to abstain from doing homework. In fact, today I had been dealing with a recent bout of home-sickness, but in the back of my mind I knew that there was something I was supposed to be doing.
Luckily, I didn’t miss what I was supposed to be doing, because the ISLE staff knows where you should be even if you don’t. 4:15 came around and I was ushered into the car, and driven by our director Nancy, with our assistant director Dan, and Chris the only other student in the art and poetry class back to the University.
Although Professor Halpe is our official teacher for that class he has decided to split his responsibilities with Sumathy. I’m not being rude calling her Sumathy, instead of “professor so and so” because she dropped her last name and is just Sumathy. It was a conscious decision to return to her Tamil roots and reject the Western convention of a surname. Now we were going to a screening of Sumathy’s film, Oranges, followed by a reading of her newly released book, like myth and mother.
Peradeniya University has many faculties but its art’s faculty is its claim to fame. Genius is what we deal with on a daily basis because Sri Lanka’s best and brightest literary talents seem to flock to Peradeniya. For the book reading it looked like the entire staff of the English literature department had gathered along with quite a few students. Now, Sumathy, is without a doubt a thespian, her speech is deliberate and well delivered and her movements match her speech. We know that her ethnic background is Tamil but that is it for autobiographical details that Chris and I have been able to pry from her. I could attempt to describe Sumathy but I would do it poorly so I will instead quote the back cover of her book, thin veils, where there is a photo of her with her eyes carefully placed glancing above the camera and then under the photo is this quote from her work, “I am the shadow beast And I’ll stalk this land’s destiny Like a woman’s Curse.”
With that quote, regardless of what it was in reference to anyone could guess that she is a fierce woman. In class I am fascinated by her, but on the few occasions I have challenged her I have deeply regretted it. I must say I give her a ton of credit because she just bore her soul in her book and then she stood in front of a crowd and asked for their criticism. I can’t imagine having the inner strength to will a crowd to question my work, but she did. Then a few of the other professor’s decided to criticize her. One man was saying that she was dealing with the idea of learning to live and learning to die but that she was naive because she wasn’t dealing with learning to kill. I think that because we come from a society that hasn’t been torn by civil war, Chris, Nancy, Dan and I had trouble understanding this criticism. Why must Sumathy write about learning to kill, but apparently she was weak because she wasn’t, at least that’s what he suggested. Shortly after, another professor said that she sounded lonely in her writing. Sumathy was quiet for a while and then came the highlight of the evening with all her colleagues there she looked up with her signature glance, eyes posed slightly above the crowd and she said, “I am lonely, intellectually I’m lonely.” I thought that was probably the best response I had ever heard anyone give to their critics.
Some of the conversation moved beyond my intellectual sphere, or perhaps it moved beyond my life experience. I’ve been spared from wide scale suffering in a way that most of the people in that room had not, I think that is why I had trouble following some of the conversation. In my peace and conflicts studies courses we read about people who are suffering but they are always the so called ‘others’. Now the injustices I’m studying are the shared suffering of my host family, my professors, the beggars I pass on the streets, now they are not just the others, they are everyday people just like me. So, just as I was wondering why I had to leave my family and friends and come half way around the world, Sumathy’s fierce words reminded me that I was here in the hopes that I could learn something that I couldn’t from within the confines of my comfort zone.