Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Other David (D. Willis)

Osaka-Singapore - En Route

From Japan in winter to the tropics is a welcome change. To go back to my home, one of my homes, in Madurai, South India, is special indeed. This may be a somewhat different contribution, coming as it does from an Iowan from Japan, an American who lived five years in Dravidian India, an anthropologist who is also an educator.

Thank you first of all to my sponsors for this research trip, Professor Lim Bon and Professor Julie Higashi of Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, as well as the Study Group for the Recovery and Rennaissance of Ethnic Community and Japan’s Ministry of Education for their support. I had originally planned this research trip last fall to visit Madurai, then Krishnammal and Jagannathan with my research project concerning Dalits, the untouchables of India, and change-makers in their communities and others in mind. The tsunami disaster has made work like ours even more important, and this visit is also an opportunity to share with LAFTI the generosity of people in Japan and the outpouring of support.

A special thank you, of course, to David and Aliyah and Donatella for their writings, their reflections, their warmth, and their passion for India, and for sharing with us news of our brothers and sisters in Nagapattinam and environs. And most of all for a deeper understanding of the works and lives of Krishnammal and Jagannathan, two veritable saints of our time who have opened our hearts to some of what is happening in deep India. They are two living giants who have given us pause to consider the larger picture of where our lives co-mingle with those affected by the tsunami, by haves and have-nots, by class, by caste, by the oppression of an economic and social system that upholds tradition in the service of, let us be very open about this, apartheid.

An apartheid of the society and the spirit, it also an apartheid of our spirit as humans, as our actions cleave us off from our environment. Nature has been literally torn asunder from us, the prawn farms of coastal Asia, wreaking havoc on what had been more or less balanced eco-systems, being just one example. The ripping apart of local cultural fabrics that has ensued cannot be underestimated.

It is easy to think otherwise, however, when we look upon some new scene for the first time, imagining that it has always been that way. Journalists are like that, reporting only on the thin layers of cultures and histories. Those of us with the perspective of time on a particular environment are drawn in, on the other hand, to the enormous meddling with the environment which is going on these days. Of course, humankind has always manipulated environments, the pristine natural environments of North America or even the African savannah prior to the coming of the Europeans, having been shown to have the deep imprint of man shaping his environment. Often in the past, though, our ancestors also demonstrated wisdom and balance, a sensitivity when approaching the environment, which was often honored and held sacred as a trust for all the community and all sentient beings. But it is different today.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I am ‘the Other David,’ a name which suits me fine as I have been that ‘Other’ for most of my life. I come to this place through a serendipitous path. David Albert and I were fellow travelers, as the old and apt expression goes, back in the early 1970s in Chicago. We were both students at the university there, David in Social Thought (the name always bemused me) and myself in another transdisciplinary melding, of anthropology, history, political science, geography, and, above all, South Asia. David had come to the University of Chicago because it offered the best in contemporary philosophy with a social praxis; I because it was the best place to study South Asia in the world. What we were really studying was the street and life in Chicago, watching the world, readying ourselves for the plunge.

We had some memorable times together, working with the FOR (Fellowship of Reconciliation), the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee), and in general stirring up trouble when it was necessary and called for in the society. The Vietnam War was raging and there was much work to do: of course protesting the war that had killed our friends and so many others, the B1 bomber, nuclear weapons and nuclear power, environmental disasters. At the same time supporting movements for racial reconciliation, Amerasian orphans in Saigon, racial and economic justice in our own country. We hung out in the blues clubs of the South Side on the weekends, and in the early hours of Sunday morning were on funky Maxwell Street. Much of the rest of the week, we could be found in the Regenstein Library, that fortress of academia on the site of the first sustained atomic chain reaction, commemorated by a large Henry Moore sculpture in brass that could be interpreted variously as a mushroom cloud, a skull, or the beginning (and end) of us all.

But let’s get back to where we are now, in 2005, at the beginning of a new year, only a week old on the Chinese lunar calendar, a year that we hope and pray is better than the last one. The tsunami and its aftermath have been present in so many ways this past month for me, even in snowy Japan. I knew when the first reports came to the Japanese media that this was not a typical tsunami. The range was too great, the devastation likely huge. Those of us who live in coastal Japan knew this immediately. Tsunamis are part of life in Japan, and occasionally they deal a blow so devastating that the terror of that event is deeply, indelibly etched in our minds. The terror is palpable.

Those of us who live in Japan are thus hyper-vigilant, and especially those of us who live in Kobe, at the least sign of shaking in our natural environment. Earthquake reports flash across the top of our TV screens in a matter of minutes, literally two or three minutes after they have happened, with an audible beep-beep alarm. Tsunami warnings follow very quickly (the word is, as some people in the Great Tsunami seem to have already forgotten, Japanese).

Soon after any earthquake above a 4 or 5 on the Richter Scale there is on everyone’s mind, the question: Will there be a tsunami? If there is one coming, and that does happen often, will it be like the common storm surge, maybe a meter (two to three feet)? Or will it be something far worse? We cannot take chances.

I live on an island off the port of Kobe in western Japan, knowing that the second floor where my apartment is located is not going to be of much help when something happens out in the water in Osaka Bay. Even Osaka Bay has been visited by tsunami in the recent past. During the past three hundred years there have been five tsunamis here, three of them involving significant casualties and loss of life. Most folks do not know this, assuming we are free from such calamities. I learned about it after reading histories of the Kansai some years ago, information buried in arcane books but made all the more real now by what has happened off Sumatra. Still, we know tsunami well in Japan.

But there has never been a tsunami in Japan like the Great Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.


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