When we come to Sri Lanka we do a certain amount of visiting. We drop in on K’s relatives, drink tea, smile and move on to the next house. I think I’ve got the hang of these visits now but they used to confound me and they still do bring up lingering questions like: Why doesn’t anyone ever introduce themselves and why am I never introduced?
Answer: People rarely use names. And they all know who I am already so there’s no need to introduce me. And, even though I didn’t realize it at first, I already know who they are too.
Children are called ‘baba’ (baby) until they’re about five years old, maybe longer. Adults refer to children and children refer to each other by their sibling names: Akka and Ayah for older sister and brother, Nangi and Malli for younger sister and brother. People your parents’ age are Auntie and Uncle. People your grandparents’ age are Achchi and Seeya. Even within families, names are sometimes not known. Last night at dinner, an uncle stumbled over his nephew’s name and needed reminding. Another uncle was unable to answer when I asked him the name of his new baby granddaughter. “We just call her sudu-baba [fair-skinned baby],” he said.
I’ve got the family tree mentally mapped out and I usually know who is sitting across from me. I understand that a particularly young aunt may be known as an older sister. Now that I’ve gotten used to it, it works. The only confusion remains when I try to refer to someone and I have to mention the colour of their house or the date we visited to make myself understood. ‘No, not the daughter of the aunt who was married to the Navy guy, the daughter of the aunt who was married to the Army guy. No the younger one. Right: her.’
The other day we went to see Saddhu Maama (Priest-Uncle). He’s a Buddhist priest. Saddhu Seeya to the kids.
I like visiting Saddhu Maama. He doesn’t speak any English. The first time we went, I was alarmed to see K. and his mother bow down to the ground in front of him as we arrived. Not alarmed by the action but alarmed because no one had warned me. Was I supposed to do that? How is it done? How far down do you go? Do you touch the ground? His feet? Nothing? How do you do it while holding a baby? I settled for an awkward half-bow, hands pressed together, and that seemed sufficient.
I’ve been to visit him four or five times. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know my name. I don’t know his. I think it’s ok, though, because his nephew doesn’t either.