From October 2000 to July 2001, my brother Steve was in northwest coastal Sri Lanka gathering material for a dissertation (Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil: A Case of Contact-Induced Language Change from Sri Lanka, Cornell University, 2004). He worked extensively with the inhabitants of a small, Catholic fishing village a few miles from the city of Negombo. Last night he sent the following e-mail, with permission to publish it here.
The news just gets worse and worse. It appears that most or all of the people who were my research subjects and my friends during my stay in Sri Lanka are dead. Negombo was hit quite hard, and the people whose language and lifestyle I documented lived in frail cadjun [coconut-leaf] huts within meters of the high water mark, on the sands of the beach. They knew nothing but God, family, and fishing, and have not, to my knowledge, dropped bombs on anybody or fought any wars on drugs or mass-produced pornography and land mines; yet they are all apparently dead and we remain. Not only that: I could not have gotten my status-conferring, income-enhancing Ivy League PhD without their help, whereas they got along just fine without mine – yet they are gone and I linger on, PhD and all.
Nor can I take any consolation in their being “human beings just like us,” because they aren’t like us, not at all. They have the same DNA, they have many of the same passions, to be sure. But they also have no comprehension of our wisecracking, self-absorbed cynicism; they are (though it sounds cliche to say it) blessed with a certain childlike absence of guile. They place community above all other things and choose not to trouble themselves with the world’s problems. They do not live their lives in “I can give you 15 minutes of my valuable time” mode, ever. They always treated me like a dignitary and usually insisted on preparing excellent seafood dinners, which they couldn’t afford. There was never any suggestion that they were ashamed of their humble living quarters. Their huts were always clean, and their clothing always neat. I paid to help them build a cistern of their own (an untold luxury) in the sand behind their hut. It consisted merely of a 15-foot deep hole lined with metal, but it gave them fresh water for washing and drinking for the first time, ever. I fancied that, in buying them a well – not to mention a pile of clothing and household goods I got for them right before my departure – I was repaying them in part for helping me achieve my ambition.
Now the well and the household goods, as well as the houses and inhabitants, are probably gone, along with those of tens of thousands of others like them, all alike in their poverty and simplicity, all utterly unlike us. Maybe the old, abominable racial theories are correct, in a perverse and unanticipated way, for there really do seem to be two completely different moieties of the human race: the one, perpetually lapped in comfort, snugly insulated from the brunt of mother nature (most of the time), and able and willing to unleash hellfire and bombnation on the other half at the slightest provocation, real or imagined; the other, perpetually under the yoke of the first, always fodder for the cannons, chaff for the economic downdrafts, grist for the millstones of mother nature.
Anyway, enough hyperbole. Suffice it to say, I’m really bummed about this. Call it survivor’s guilt or whatever, but there can’t be too many people out there who’ve seen their PhD subject matter obliterated.
27 December 2004