Poverty, simplicity, absence of guile: these are the traits my brother emphasized in his description of the fisherfolk of Negombo, Sri Lanka, whose Tamil dialect he recorded for his dissertation. Going through the dissertation this morning, I imagined I was able to detect these qualities in its examples of usage, which in light of recent events appeared irredeemably fragmentary, flotsam marooned in a black-bound text, translated and explicated in an alien language. I thought perhaps that if I gathered and grouped them roughly by fours, I could create the illusion of coherence, perhaps even conjure the ghost of a folk-song. The final three stanzas, however, are snippets from an actual conversation included as an appendix. “Setting: Ameer and Susila’s house. Susila, her daughter Laksika and her niece Nirosani are preparing a meal for the author a few days before his departure for the United States.”
I see a bird in that big tree.
There are many birds there.
Children always play under that tree.
The bus that goes to Colombo may be late, it seems.
Father wanted to read the newspaper, but it got lost.
Because he went to Kandy yesterday, he has no money.
I can go anywhere in this country by bus.
When I went to Colombo, I couldn’t find work.
Having gone to the store, having gotten fish, I came home.
Many mosquitoes came inside.
Maybe they’ll go to Chilaw tomorrow.
Don’t open your mouth when you chew.
Because it’s raining now, let’s stay at home.
It’s here that I work.
If I don’t have money, I don’t go to Colombo.
I have to go by foot.
I worked yesterday, so I want to take it easy today.
Let’s eat those bananas.
We got fed up with eating fish.
If you eat a lot of fruit, your body will grow.
Do you want anything now?
Let’s go to Negombo.
This is enough. This house is beautiful.
Today it might rain.
Whose dress is this? Whose?
Is it a white man’s?
A white man gives it for money.
He’s very silly.
The white man is going. He’s going on Sunday.
After we go to America, we’ll put our hands together.
We’ll bring the white man to his wife.
We’ll show photos.
Salt and coconut – bring that.
Is the fish just sitting there?
Yes, indeed, it is.
It only takes me a little while to cook it.
Steve writes, “A little more info might help put this all into context. The sentences aside from the oral text given at the end are mostly elicitations, meaning, they were sentences I gave in Sinhala which they then translated. That way, I could test for particular grammatical traits. Elicitations are an artificial but necessary tool of the field linguist. In addition, of course, the field linguist must make use of recorded informal conversations, which will of course disclose many unanticipated grammatical features.”
So, as I guess I kind of figured, the first six stanzas bear only the most tenuous relationship to the real sayings of real people. In effect, they are rearrangements of translations of translations. Perhaps one could make a case for this kind of exercise as a form of circumspection, given the inadequacy of any language to grapple with such total devastation, I don’t know. Something about the extreme ordinariness of these lines appealed to me – perhaps as part of a mental picture I have developed from Steve’s descriptions of his interactions with his informants. Sure, let’s talk about the way we talk – and please stay for supper!
“Regarding Sri Lanka fishermen in general,” Steve continues, “they belong to the Karava caste (in Tamil, karaiyar). The origin of the word would appear to be from Tamil karai, ‘(sea)shore.’ From Colombo south all around the coast, the Karavas are predominantly (though not exclusively) Buddhist and speak Sinhala. North of Chilaw on the west coast, and throughout the Tamil area, they are mostly Hindu and speak Tamil. Between Negombo and Chilaw, however (a stretch of about 40 miles) they are almost all Roman Catholic and bilingual. What’s more, they’ve come to identify themselves as Sinhalese who happen to speak Tamil, and have no interest whatever in the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict elsewhere. In fact, there are many signs and posters around Negombo, in both languages, indicating that conflict is not welcome.
“Within the Karava community are many subcastes, and the group I worked with were at the bottom of the hierarchy. To a great extent, this hierarchy is signalized by the type of fishing vessel used. The upper-crust Karavas use modern boats with deep-sea capabilities, and provide shark and other large fish for the local markets. The middle stratum, at least in the Negombo area (though spottily elsewhere) uses outrigger sailing vessels called oruvas in Sinhala. The poorest of the poor use only teppams, tiny balsa rafts that enable them to sail only a few hundred yards beyond the surf to catch shrimp and very small fish. From what I can ascertain, the wave hit Negombo but seems to have spared some of the coast further north, so the northwest coast may preserve some of the Karava/karaiyar villages, but it’s hard to know for sure.”