Carla, The Holy Lama and The Falklands War
An Incident in the Life of the Celebrated Humanitarian, Carla Grissmann (1928-2011)
We were motoring in a Morris Minor, sort of yesteryear’s version of today’s Mini-Cooper but with a top speed of “moves and goes okay downhill”. That’s what the dean said, and he was driving. He was the Dean of Arts at a southern Sri Lankan university, and he was taking Carla Grissmann and me out for a drive in a narrow farming valley.
Rice paddies filled the landscape to the south as the road hugged the valley’s north wall, where a lot of deeply green tropical vegetation rolled up over the hillside. The Morris Minor coughed its way up a slight incline, and we curved out of the hot sun into a thick banana grove. Carla was in the front passenger seat and I was cramped into the rear of the car. “We meet and visit my friend,” the dean said. He had the Singhala habit of doubling his main verbs. He wove along a dirt track through the banana trees and parked by a large mortared wall, kind of a dirty yellow with large patches of tropical mold.
We slipped off our sandals and went up a few steps into the main room of the temple. It was large and square with a tiled floor and a lot of pillars spaced across the open area to support the massive temple roof. On each pillar there were one or more scrolls in handwritten Singhala. “Those are the titles of the books the Great Lama has written and published,” the dean commented. I tried counting, but gave up. The dean, anxious to introduce us to the Great Lama, disappeared into a side-room, then came back out and began furiously motioning us to the doorway. “He’ll see and greet us!” the dean exclaimed.
The Great Lama’s room was narrow and made an “L” at the back, which hid a rear exit. By the doorway through which we had entered was a wooden bed, shaped like a bunk bed, but where the top bunk would be there was a shelf piled with thick, rolled-up scrolls. Below lay the Great Lama, stretched out full length on his side, his head propped up on his elbow and displaying a bulging midsection above the paisley sarong he had tucked around his hips. On a small end table was an oil lamp and a radio, one of those third world types that use short wave and medium wave bandwidths to connect to the world. Carla and I stepped into the room and the dean came in behind, folding himself down with his head lowered between his knees and his hands clasped in prayer above.
The Great Lama lurched himself up enough to clap and two acolytes appeared. He ordered chairs brought and Carla and I sat on them in front of the bed, but the dean remained folded down on the floor. His hands were still clasped in prayer posture above his head, and he rolled his eyes upwards towards our host. They spoke in Singhala briefly and then the Great Lama spoke to us in the broken English of one who can read and listen to a language, but rarely has the chance to speak it. He thanked us for the service we doing for his country and for helping his friend, the dean, but the Great Lama was a man impatient with small talk. He clapped his hands again, and when the acolytes appeared, ordered treacle and curds be brought. The acolytes disappeared and we made more polite talk until they came back, bringing our snack in greenish soda fountain ice-cream cups with “Coca-Cola” lettered into the rims.
We fell to our refreshment, the Great Lama eating while still reclining on his side, and when he finished, he pointed to his short-wave radio. “I listen to BBC and VOA,” he said. Looking straight at me, he asked, “Why is America making war on Falklands?” It was the week that Queen Elizabeth had sent Britain’s warships steaming into the Falkland Islands in response to Argentina’s attempt to assert its claim to the territory. I was caught completely off-guard by the question. Carla was sitting just far enough away to be out of the line of eyesight of the Great Lama, and I heard her stifle a laugh, discretely, but audible. I quickly realized that I could not tell the Great Lama that he had his facts wrong, at least not with the Dean of Arts folded up on the floor in front his holy master. Carla stifled another laugh, relishing my being made speechless.
“We can beat the Falklands,” I said. “It’s a war we can win.” The Great Lama rolled onto his back and looked up towards the ceiling, or heaven, or nirvana, considering my answer. I looked at the dean, who had unclasped his hands and was now looking at me, in gratitude I think. The dean began to speak in Singhala and soon announced that our audience was at an end.
Back in the Morris Minor, Carla waited until the engine was started and the noise of it filled the banana grove. And then she laughed. And laughed. And laughed, Carla Grissmann’s great uproarious laugh.