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Ashes of thoughts for what the Tsunami took away

Yasoja, my sister with the doll, me holding Prasanna with cousins Lucky & Pem. A photo taken when we came running in after playing on the beach on the good old days

Prasanna, my malli, my brother is never far away from my thoughts. We lost him tragically in the Boxing day tsunami of 2004.

Tomorrow, just 13 days short of the three years after the dreaded tsunami , Kanishka my brother's eldest son will take his oaths as a lawyer. Mathisha sitting for his 'O' level exam won't be able to make it. Prasanna's absence will be keenly felt and tomorrow we will smile among the tears and remember the dreaded day. ...

A View of the Sea at rest through the cinnamon stick fence

As long as I can remember I talked to the sea. The sea behind our ancestral house at Hikkaduwa on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka was my friend. The sea listened to me, soothed me, fascinated me. At the end of school holidays when everyone was ready to go back to my grandmother’s house to go to school and when everyone had packed themselves into the car, I would say please wait a moment, let me say a final goodbye to the sea. I’d run back to the beach, shoes in hand for a last touch of the sand, a last breath off the water. My father and family indulged me in this ritual. A week after the tsunami, once again I went to talk to the sea. I had to walk through the next-door Poseidan diving station to get to the back of the house which gave directly onto the sand. Childishly I wanted to ask why it had turned into a monster which devoured my brother, Prasanna. He was the only one in this generation to have been born in the house itself. I have always been proud that I was born in Hikkaduwa, but Prasanna was the true son of the Hikkaduwa house; the house whose walls enclosed him in his last moments.

My grandfather built this house nearly 100 years ago and called it Siri Niwasa, “gracious house”. My father who inherited it called it The Garden on Sea. As I stood outside its brokenness that day nearly a year ago, chiding the sea, a solitary black high-heeled sandal of mine teetered on a broken slab of concrete. There were two middle-aged rotund foreign ladies wrapping themselves in bathing towels, the cinnamon stick fence was gone, the coconut trees that my father lovingly planted were stripped bare to the roots. The sea was ever so gentle kissing the beach, but had no answer for me.

This Boxing-Day weekend was like many hundreds I had spent in Hikkaduwa. Wherever we were, England, Malaysia, Brunei, or Australia, the pull of this house was very strong for all of us. When I first went to England, I used to write to my father three times a week, missing the love and warmth abundant in this house. I dreamt about the sea, the coconut trees, me lying in the back room reading, munching on hakuru nuggets, little sweet jolts of palm sugar. Once when I was late replying to a letter from my father he chided me: This account will be closed soon, and then you will have only memories – ashes of thoughts.

I was very tired after a heavy week of year-end work but all I wanted was to go back to Hikkaduwa, do a little bit of reading as before, walk on the beach, and talk to my friend, the sea. Hikkaduwa was celebrating Christmas with all the trimmings. Disco music mingled with laughter, fire crackers burst intermittently. The night was humid and sultry, there was no breeze to stir the coconut trees. I hung on the cinnamon wood fence and watched the moon streak the waves silver. I heard my 13-year-old nephew, Mathisha, telling my sister-in-law, wake me up at 6 a.m I want to jog, and I called across to him, hey, call me too, I’ll join you.

Next morning he jogged, while I walked, with his faithful mongrel Lassie running ahead of us as usual. The sea was calm, the reef exposed, sky blue with lashings of pink. We exchanged customary greetings of good morning with other early joggers. School children were warming up for a swimming lesson and I smiled as they exercised with their little faces all screwed up in concentration. I stopped at the straw hat stand and chatted with a lanky boy as he was setting out the hats. I was happy to see my childhood friend, Laleeni, in her garden. She and I chatted across the fence as we had done over the years growing up and talked about getting together on New Years day, when her sister – and my bridesmaid – Vajira, would be in Sri Lanka.

Perhaps curiously for someone who chats to the sea, I have never learnt to swim properly. That day, too, I splashed around in the shallow waters and was pleasantly surprised that the water was quite warm. My brother was proudly playing host to my elder nephew Kanishka and his batchmates from the Colombo University Law faculty over the weekend. I watched the budding lawyers play cricket on the beach, a gaggle of boys, not yet men, burdens of life resting lightly on their shoulders. Floating lazily around I looked tenderly at our house through the coconut trees, my brother Prasanna reading the Sunday papers in the planter’s chair, my sister-in-law flitting around serving tea to the boys. I thought how blessed we were for the joy this house gave us.

The tide was coming in too fast, the little waves were getting a bit higher – funny this shouldn’t be, so I thought, fleetingly as I got out of the water and headed for my freshwater shower. As I came out of my room, Prasanna asked Akka, sister, when are you going back, give me your car keys, I’ll wash your car. This was another ritual. Whenever I came down for the weekend Prasanna, a car freak who loved everything about cars, would wash my car for me. I told him I was going after lunch and he replied that the Sunday English papers were in the main house. He returned to read his favourite, the Sinhala “Lakbima” on the verandah of the cottage. This separate one-bedroom cottage, located behind the main house, was just a few yards from the sea. This in the hey day of the Hikkaduwa house was the outhouse, where coconuts and cinnamon wood was stock piled. Now it was the favourite meeting place where all of us gathered for sundowners and an unbroken view to the horizon.

Having read the papers sitting in the kotu midula, the inside courtyard open to the sky found in many old houses, I went to the kitchen. My Amma, my mother, is a fiercely independent lady renowned for her cooking. Not only would she do her own cooking but would cook and pack enough curries to last me two weeks in Colombo. As I chatted to her, I was tucking into her stringhoppers and ambul thiyal, a fish curry specialty of the South. She was reminiscing about when she came to the house as a young bride almost 60 years ago. The 96-year old house was crumbling a bit at the edges but still charming; so was my mother, lines on her face more marked but still lovely and gracious at 82.

My sister-in-law Padmini had sent a plate of rice cooked in coconut milk. Kiribath is the closest Sri Lankan thing we have to a risotto. Made on special occasions, kiribath is a perennial favourite. Having dished out a portion, I went in search of her to ask for the hot lunu miris, the traditional fiery onions and chilli accompaniment to the rice. The time would have been about 9:20 a.m. Passing the back verandah where I normally have all meals, I noticed that I had not closed the door from the bathroom leading to my room. For a moment I hesitated wondering whether I should go in and close it. It can wait, I decided.

Back in the kitchen I barely had time to set my plate down when my younger brother, Pradeep shouted get Amma out quickly, the sea is coming in. At the same time I was forming the words to ask her what’s that noise? But I don’t think I had time to complete the sentence. Kanishka, my older nephew and two of his friends were there and we were all urging my reluctant mother to move.

None of us were prepared for the huge terrifying torrent of water that burst around us as we took the first few steps. We were thrown, pushed, and propelled with such an unbelievable force. Reactions were instinctive. The boys lifted my mother, held her above the water and swam with her. Huge concrete slabs, dislodged, came careening towards us but swung away miraculously. My mother was screaming what’s happening, what’s happening, has a big pipe burst? I just let my body go – this was not a force I could fight.

But my mind was swirling as fast as the water – odd thoughts, memories of a team leadership training we had done, an exercise in desert survival and I thought, good grief, this is exactly the opposite. Another thought was of a D.H. Lawrence story, The Gypsy, and its references to a flash flood. Not too far away was the thought, will we survive this? We shot pass my brother’s Mazda and I can’t remember how we went over the gate and a parked Pajero. I saw my mother being carried to dry ground close to the police station and a policeman coming out to help her, but I was being carried away by the current. A desperate lunge and I held on to a metal grid at the front of a hardware shop as dislodged metal sheets, iron poles, cars and bodies swirled past. A man across shouted at me “swim, here we’ll catch you”. “Can’t swim, I’ll hang on here,” I shouted back. My flip flop sandals were getting entangled in the debris and I kicked them off. Another man climbing on to the roof of the shop was shouting “follow me, climb up here.” I looked at the rickety pole and the derelict roof and decided to hang on as the current pulled me back and lashed me once more against the metal grid.

Then, just as it came, the water ebbed away.

My one thought was my mother. I went searching for her, pushing past the swarm of people screaming and crying. I found mum seated in a chair across the railway line. She stretched out her palms and feet and smiled: “See, not a scratch; your father must have looked after me.”

Unknown to us, probably the same time I was walking back to the dining room with my plate of kiribath, a wave slightly bigger than usual had washed the beach. The boys playing cricket cheered, the wave had cleared a good smooth pitch. The next slightly bigger one, still not yet frightening, brought the cinnamon fence down. Kanishka, though, had the presence of mind at that point to urge his 12 or so friends to run towards the house. The water swirled ankle deep in the cottage. Prasanna had called out to Padmini, my sister-in-law: “The sea is a bit rough today.” Padmini came outside to cover the plates that she had set out on the cottage verandah for the boys’ breakfast.

Curiously, no one looked at the sea. No one saw what was coming. Within seconds the water was six feet high, and then over the roof, tossing it away. Prasanna, Mathisha, and Kanishka’s friend Amila, caught in the swirling water, tried desperately to hang on to a beam. The torrent catapulted Padmini through the same corridor I had walked safely just minutes ago. A heavy six-foot long sideboard twirled around effortlessly and came at Padmini. With superhuman strength she managed to push it away with her shoulder. Amila lost his hold and Prasanna managed to pull him inside and shouted at Mathisha: “Buddhu putha go, my precious son, go.” The water pushed Mathisha and Amila out of the house and they clutched desperately to two coconut trees. Amila shouted to the younger Mathisha to hang in at all costs. Mathisha turned and saw the walls of the cottage collapsing, Prasanna, his father, crumbling under the falling rubble.

Padmini, struggling in the torrent of water sweeping her forward saw Lassie atop a floating cushion. She saw Pradeep, my younger brother, and together they turned back, frantically searching for Mathisha, jumping over toppled wardrobes they get to the back verandah to see Mathisha’s grip on the coconut tree loosening. He falls. But the waters are receding.

I settle my mum on the first floor of the house and run back to Siri Niwasa leaving a Belgian tourist lady who I had rounded up to keep an eye on mum. As I run down the stairs I hear the tourist telling Amma: “You must have been a very pretty lady”. And I hear my mum’s reply: “No, I was just pleasant.”

Only rubble remains where my room was

The front of the house is still standing but the death and destruction abounds.

The debris is all over the place. A brown layer of silt sits over everything like vomit – splintered glass, clothes, hand bags, a toilet bag, the empty box of an after-shave cologne I gave my brother last New Year, my favourite blue and white polka dot shirt. Beyond the kotu midula there is no house. I cannot find my room; it has collapsed like a pack of cards. There is no furniture in the house. I couldn’t go beyond the doorway; that doorway that my father had told us umpteen times was the doorway of love. He had first glimpsed my mother through this door and fallen in love with her. The electrical wires are down and broken furniture is piled high.

Through the gap, I see Pradeep, Padmini, and the two boys. I heave a huge sigh of relief. Prasanna, not visible to me at that moment, was the strongest one of all so at that time, I have no cause for worry. I run back to assist tourists who are cut and bleeding. My car that was under the porch sits outside the gate but I have no keys to take the injured to hospital. And no road I suppose.

In the middle of the chaos and screaming, a tourist is coolly filming. I spot a mobile in his pocket and ask him whether I can use it. “It’s Danish, but if you can work it, you are welcome,” he says. I call my young friend Jan, who was supposed to come down with his friends to Hikkaduwa that morning. His voice is muffled, still sleepy, but he soon wakes up. I spot another young friend of Kanishka’s and ask: “is everyone OK?” I hear him say everyone, except Uncle Prasanna. I feel my knees weaken. And then I see Padmini with her head in her hands crying – my Prasanna is gone, my Prasanna is gone. I look in disbelief at my two nephews. Mathisha the younger is cut and bleeding, but the pain in his eyes is not from the cuts. I look at Kanishka and say “come, son we need to go to him.” We run across the road, jumping over deep freezers, boats. We cut diagonally across the cooperative house garden and I spot Pradeep standing where the cottage was. He is signaling us not to come. Kanishka is behind me, pulling me back. Don’t go, Nanda, aunty, I won’t let you go. I can think only of Prasanna trapped under the rubble. Then I stop dead in my tracks. The whole garden and the beach is a cavern. There is no sea as far as my eye can see. The reef stands exposed, a brown band of dead coral covered with the brown vomit. Now, I turn back, shouting at Kanishka and everyone: We’ve got to get to higher ground, the next wave is going to be worse and is not far off.

My mother comes down reluctantly, not understanding the gravity of the situation. “All the food I cooked for you so lovingly must be spoilt now?” she asks me. By the time I bring her down from the first floor, the second wave has struck. Pradeep is there but Mathisha had been sent off with some tourists to get his wounds dressed. There are more calls to get to higher ground, and people are running helter skelter. I worry that the house we are sheltering in will come down. We walk away slowly wading through the water to higher ground, Kanishka holding Padmini, and I, Amma.

Kanishka is dispatched to look for Mathisha. We drink warm tea and take refugee in a friend’s house. Hydrogen peroxide, antiseptic creams, Dettol are all brought out. We try to listen to the radio to confirm what we have heard, that the coastline is devastated. Pradeep finds our neighbour who comes in his van to take us further inland. Half way we meet Laleeni, my friend, and her daughter, walking. They join us. Mathisha is plucked from a bus destined for the Galle hospital. As our vehicle moves inland, we see troops of inland villagers – the looters – running towards Hikkaduwa. We end up at Laleeni’s cousin Upal, on his Annasigala Farm. There is some anxiety. Upal is waiting for his sister, Tamara and her daughter to arrive in the Samudra Devi train, the Ocean Queen. We switch on the TV for news. We are relieved to hear the train is safely at Hikkaduwa. Pradeep confirms to me that Prasanna is dead, that they pulled the body out, but had to drop him and run when the second wave came.

Brown country rice, curried lentils, Jak fruit – the lunch is hearty and generous but I cannot eat. I worry. How am I am to break the news to my mother that her favourite adored son is gone. The air is suddenly pierced by a young voice wailing: “Ammi is gone, Ammi is gone, I couldn’t do anything to save her.” Upal’s young niece has arrived in a tractor, with one British and three Scandinavian visitors. Sheth, British with Sri Lankan roots, has an open gash on his foot. One girl has been separated from her partner. The Sri Lankan man who brought them in a tractor has no idea whether his family is alive or not. Upal takes the injured to a doctor. I call State TV and tell them that the train is not safe, that over 2000 are dead, we are hearing.

We have no money, no clothes other than what we are wearing. But Upal’s Lanka Bell phone is working and I call many to tell them that my little malli, my brother, is gone from us for ever. As dusk falls, two of Kanishka’s friends turn up at the farm. Prasanna’s body has been found washed ashore near the police station and is now at the rural hospital. A family member has to identify and claim the body, before it is sent to the Galle morgue. Padmini, my mum and Mathisha are asleep, exhausted. I tiptoe out of the home. Laleeni comes around to give me her slippers, a thousand rupee note. Upals’ wife gives fresh clothes.

Part hitchhiking, part walking we reach the hospital as night falls. The bodies are all laid out on the verandah. Men, women, children – lives snuffed out in a few seconds. Many foaming at the mouth, the bodies twisted in agony, the struggle with death very visible on their faces. The stench of death is everywhere. My brother lies on his back, no shirt, his handsome face peaceful. I kneel near him, hold his cold hand, bow my head and struggle to say a few stanzas to bless his soul.

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