The best thing about American lecturers was that they meant free books. The cheap-smelling editions of Stephen Vincent Benet or Melville’s Mardi might not have been exactly what we’d been craving, but they were respectable additions to our struggling collections of ancient inherited volumes, second-hand books and the few orange, black and pale green Penguins bought at outrageous prices from the city’s one major bookshop. Even the inevitable student Webster was quite welcome, though of little practical value in a community governed by the O.E.D. The problem really was the American professors who unfortunately went with the books.
The first one we had was easy to place: ageing, mildly successful mod. lit. specialist, on a last spree, perhaps, before retirement. Probably taught a 400 level course or two and was quite liked by his students at home. On our campus, though — raw, freshly bulldozed roads, harsh green vegetation dotted with ragged children and dogs from the village — and particularly in the shabby and dust-ridden English department, rumoured to have once served as a cattle shed, he was certainly not at home. He greeted the first class, large and well disposed after the handouts of books, with a little lecture on the vastness of the cultural gap yawning between us.
‘Take your lorries, which we call trucks in America. There a truck has a large back section, made of steel. When trucks are imported out here — for obvious reasons — because the whole thing is too expensive, I mean — a wooden section is added on to the front. Very strange it looks to a foreigner at first.’
We took this in silently. Not many of us had consciously known that lorries looked different in the rest of the world. We must have noticed the difference in films, but the implications — and they suddenly seemed appalling — had not become apparent.
Faced with such obstacles to communication, the American probably tried harder than at home. The text was Saroyan, The Human Comedy, and we spent the first two hours deciding which war the book was about, and what exactly the Second World War was. At the next meeting the class was smaller, a little less well disposed. The objections to Saroyan became somewhat rancoured. We were at pains to point out something we had paid little attention to before, that our culture lived from very different centres and that being over two thousand years old we looked at history in a slightly different way. The American began to sense undercurrents. He tried harder and kept tripping himself up. During one discussion that led to the symbolism of silver and gold, Manel found the opportunity to inform him of the famous craftsmanship of ancient Kandyan silversmiths. I suspect she’d read it up the night before, anticipating the direction the class would take. She was the kind of student teachers instantly took note of: pungent, very shrewd and assured.
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ the American pleaded, ‘I know this must seem very crude to you. I know your culture was flourishing when my ancestors were still in caves.’
He was rattled. Next time it took only a raised eyebrow of Manel’s to drive him to near hysteria.
‘You show such contempt of me,’ he yelled at her. ‘Always sneering and smirking. Why do you make it so hard for me?’
‘I’m sorry if I offended you in any way. Sir,’ Manel apologised with much poise after class, ‘I really don’t know how I could have. I was thinking of something else.’
The next day we had an appeal from the department head to be more co-operative. ‘He’s very well intentioned and he’s leaving soon.’
The attendance at class fell dramatically over the next few weeks until the American was left with the three seniors. The head spoke to us again and asked for a better show, at least at the final sessions. But we were just beginning to discover the campus and feel, if not at home, then at least less isolated in it. We found a two-room hut abandoned by the villagers which the bulldozers hadn’t got to and decided to turn it into an English department hang-out where we could speak what language we wanted without fear or guilt. The other students called it the ‘Peretha Canteen’, the greedy demons’ place. Soon we started to call it that ourselves. We had become resigned to being marked out in these ways. Hadn’t we chosen to study what the department’s Resident Poet had called the language of the most despicable people on earth? The Poet had resolved his dilemma by deciding he would write only ‘destructively’ so long as he wrote in English. In the meantime he was taking lessons in Sinhalese. And we still had to come to terms with his first premise. We had nothing to spare for the feelings of the American who had shown us a new refinement of rejection.
The replacement appeared next semester. We had already seen him during the vacation at British Council gatherings and noticed him on campus a day or two before the first class, sitting on the grass seemingly unaware of the danger of falling coconuts, or on the dirty steps of the department roaring with laughter over a new copy of Tom Sawyer he usually carried around in his pocket. Later in the term we found that it was quite unsafe to be anywhere near him on the bus from the city. He aroused deep suspicion in the villagers by laughing wildly at his book while desperately clinging to the strap with one arm. He used to say that being only five three he had to think of something pleasant down among the smelly armpits. He once spent a whole hour telling us how deodorants were ruining America, so I guess Twain was his answer to Arid Extra Dry as well as to a lot of other things.
Different in every way from the first American, he seemed to accept the raw, ugly campus, the dogs, calves and scruffy children from the village still wandering around, quite composedly. Only years later, seeing the immaculate lawns and imitation Cambridge quadrangles of his alma mater, I realised the shock it must have been. The village dogs figured largely in our lives just then. They were mangy, starved, and for some reason, caused us to feel more guilt than the scrawny, staring children. Some of us had adopted particular dogs which used to share our lunches with us. The village hens and cows also wandered freely around; a crowd of hens once walked into a reading of Neruda poems, listened solemnly, then strutted out again. Another time Renu and I rescued a calf that was choking itself just a few yards away from the department, having got entangled in its tethering rope. There was mad confusion when Renu approached the struggling calf and her pet mongrel, Ignatzio (after Silone) thought she was in danger and charged the calf, barking loud enough to set off all the other dogs on campus. The calf, its lovely eyes popping, got even more choked as it tried to escape Ignatzio. At last, Steve the American, who’d baulked at touching the calf, got hold of Ignatzio by the neck and held on somehow while Renu, I and the Resident Poet (who was to choke himself to death by hanging in precisely the same way a few weeks later) managed to untie the noose.
After this episode Steve was no longer ‘the American’. He became quite one of us and we ate our lunches together on the department steps or at the Peretha Canteen with the dogs at our heels. The set topic for Steve’s course was American Literature from Twain to Faulkner, but looking back it seems that there was one topic for discussion and one text only: Reich’s The Greening of America. Steve was a child of the sixties and had lived the protests and the euphoria; Kent State had happened while he was actually across the street. Almost five years later his talk led back insistently to this scene and his anger, fear and confusion at what he called Amerika.
Consider how this fitted with the mood of our campus: radicalised Buddhist monks, vehemently leftist professors, a majority of angry rural students who were hostile and mocking of our sheltered Anglicised backgrounds. Kadu-class they called us, the English-speaking classes. The word translated directly into sword. Our speech marked us out for the sword. We carried one and were also scarred by it. We were surrounded by hungry dogs and children. We had to travel in smelly buses packed to bursting — arriving by car would have been unthinkable. Literature was no longer the comfortable Shakespeare, Hardy and Jane Austen we had known at our exclusive schools. Instead we were confronted with Latin American and Black writers we had never heard of before.
The Greening of America offered us neither validation nor authority but, as it were, dramatic relief. Berkeley and Kent State were for us a refuge from the abandoned villagers’ huts which we had to see daily. One day, we took Steve with us to the main canteen which we had become confident enough to visit occasionally and were shattered by the response. The friends we’d started to make outside our own public school set wouldn’t even smile. The food and smell were worse than usual. Steve sat smiling over his cracked and saucerless cup of black tea, licking the dark brown sugar from his palm as he saw the others doing around him. It was a gesture we had not yet brought ourselves to make and it didn’t make us any happier with him. What we most feared was the appearance of condescension. We sat miserably with our tea, talking bad Sinhalese and mumbling a sentence or two in English to Steve. We never asked him again. It was to be our token of good faith to the others that we preferred them to him. He was our sacrifice to the pressures we felt around us, an acknowledgement of their moral authority.
Steve’s answers were not ours, much as we wished they could be. His classes, filled to overflowing at first, began to resemble his predecessor’s. A few of us stayed on because we liked him, others because he seemed to represent something important: he stood for what we’d have been ourselves, given the time and place. Renu continued to come because he’d helped with the calf. Between us there was affection, even trust. What was missing we didn’t discuss.
The last class was a painful failure. Steve had been preparing for it through the semester, an ambitious plan to trace in the Black music of the early years of the century the roots of the movements of the sixties. He’d had to send home for old recordings and books and had reserved the enormous auditorium in the US Embassy with its expensive equipment for a special three-hour session. Five of us turned up and sat shivering in the air conditioning while Steve played us ‘Still crazy after all these years’ as a conclusion. Outside in the Saturday morning sunshine, we thanked him, said we’d gained so much, offered a cursory invitation to lunch, then hurried off.
As far as we were concerned, that was the end of it; we didn’t want or expect to see him again and had refrained from asking when exactly he was leaving. But on Monday, there he was. Huckleberry Finn stuffed into one pocket, two packets of best New Zealand butter in his briefcase.
‘I was just clearing out.’ He was rather tentative today. ‘I didn’t want to throw this in the garbage. Thought you might know what to do with it.’
Butter, like apples or Penguins, anything imported, was a precious commodity. When you wanted it for a wedding cake or anything like that you had to explain to the shopkeepers before they would let you have more than two pounds at a time. After the bus ride it was already soft around the edges. We were all embarrassed and uncertain. There wasn’t anything we could say after the latest failure that wasn’t suspect — that wouldn’t have suggested there was something to apologise for, or resent, or be ashamed of, on either side.
‘The village children,’ I suggested lamely.
‘Where would they put it? They might not even know what it is, or what to do with it.’ This appalled all of us; it was the kind of thing we hadn’t thought of until Nihal said it, but it was probably true.
‘Another thing, how can we give it to them — call them here and explain, or what? If we start giving them food all of a sudden we’ll have to explain.’
But there was nothing we knew to explain. The situation was one we had shrunk from all our lives and the spectacle of guilty and inept patronage the very thing we had been careful to avoid on campus. The children hadn’t yet learned to beg, as the dogs had, but once we began to feed them how could we stop? ‘I’ll tell you what,’ Manel decided. ‘There are some kids there. We’ll just leave it here and they’re bound to see it. As soon as we move away they’ll come and take it.’
It was the best we could think of. A bit quiet, we watched Steve put the butter down on the warm stone seat — it would melt quickly now — and walked self-consciously up the steps. Quicker than we could believe, two forms were on the bench, Ignatzio and her pup. They were now so used to being fed, they regarded our butter as their own. Renu tried to get them away, but it was useless. Their rough tongues had punctured the already damp paper and the butter was spreading in thick yellow puddles. As we all stood around, and the children approached to see the cause of the confusion, the dogs licked up Steve’s butter.
Suvendrini Perera was born in Sri Lanka and educated there and in the United States. She now works for the Ethnic Affairs Commission of New South Wales.