Tsunami 5+: The longest day, the darkest night, memories that linger

“What good is all the reconstruction, when we have no parents” — orphaned boy in Hambantota Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

Emotions have a mind of their own. It doesn’t respond well to reason or logic. You can suppress them, hold them, seal them but once a year about this time the lid flies open, the jack-in-the box horror spills out.

Prasanna, my brother and Cresenta my colleague are but two out of the hundreds the sea devoured that day. For the many I met in these 5 years the scars of that wound go deep.

The wound is just below, a little scratch and the wound bleeds – a person that from the back looks like Prasanna my brother, a girl playing tennis reminding me of Cresenta’s jokes about the view from my office.

As the 26 Dec. draws near, the images gradually become more vivid, intense, horrifying.

Prasanna Kirtisinghe Cresenta Fernando

My eyes were the video camera that I didn’t possess. Like in a slow moving movie, they appear – the early morning walk on the beach;  the smell of sulphur in the water as I bathed in the sea at Hikkaduwa; the boys playing cricket on the beach; the time on the clock on the dressing table and above all the image of Prasanna in a red  and white striped T-shirt, a gift from my niece Ranmali and her husband Aaron. I can still hear his voice “What time are you going back, give me your car keys, I’ll wash your car. Your Sunday papers are on the table in the kotu midula. .. what? you still don’t know how to check the radiator water – want to do it now or later?” I wish for the millionth time, we had gone to check the radiator water at that time. Then we would have been at the front of the house.

The sea behind our house where I bathed on 26 Dec.2004. Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

As I work in the office my mind shifts gears and I plunge into thoughts of the day that started off with so much laughter and joy and how it turned into a twilight zone horror – the unimaginable scenes of death and destruction – bodies in trucks piled high, bodies twisted and foaming at the mouth, the body of Prasanna on the verandah at the rural hospital in Arachchikanda, and the terror and helplessness in my mind in the face of this colossal tragedy. Outside the perimeter of the hospital it is pitch dark. There’s no electricity, no petrol, no mobile telephones and I have no money. A Doctor cautions, “animals might come in the night for the smell of blood”. We move Prasanna’s body further inside and leave a note on his body as an identification tag with instructions not to take it to a mass grave. One of his faithful workers stand vigil while I get a lift back to the Annasigala Farm where we sought refuge.

There my friend Laleeni was up waiting for me and had kept dinner for me. I eat a bit but the food has no taste. My mother, not knowing her favourite son was gone sleeps on the bed with my nephew Mathisha and his mother Padmini. Later I learned that throughout the night Mathishsa had been touching his mother’s eye lids gently to check whether she was crying.

Lying on the hard mat on the floor, every bone in my body cries out. I dare not shed any tears for fears that I might not be able to stop. Bats cry, an owl hoots, the changing wind brings the smell of a dead rat on the roof somewhere. The film of the day’s events run and rerun in my mind’s eye. I keep repeating over and over a mantra I learned from my father “even this day will pass into memory”. Daylight is a long way coming.

The next day, my younger brother Pradeep finds an old school chum and his car takes us to my brother’s cinnamon plot where we plan to bury him. There we had to carry Amma in a chair across the padi fields and up the terraces to the cinnamon peeling bungalow where the funeral was to be held. In the hastily given instructions the previous day, I had asked for the coffin to be closed but the villagers had left it open as is the custom here. My mother wails “this is not my handsome son, “when she sees the bloated distorted body.We hastily closed the lid. Mathisha later said it was easier for him to handle it as he didn’t look like his father. Our family friend and scholar priest Rev. Thilaka is there. The sermon tries to assuage the grief – life can get snuffed out like the wind blowing out a lamp. …

A week later, Rev. Tilaka directs me to the undertaker’s house. The undertaker had burned Prasanna’s clothes fearing infection and found my car key in the ashes. I meet him and introduce myself. No words are spoken. He quietly gets up from his almchair, and searches between the rafters on the roof and fish out the singed key.

Five years down the line how have we handled this tragedy?

Tsunami orphans in Hambantota. Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

I wonder how the orphaned kids I met in Hambantota are doing.

Then there is Shanika that Shahidul Alam photographed and wrote about couple of years later. Last time I saw her she was growing up into a beautiful girl.

Then I despaired as to how we would manage without Prasanna’s larger than life presence in our lives. I underestimated our strength and the human spirit.

Now I can look back and say thank you to Upal Soysa, Laleeni, and many in the family who helped us get back on our feet.

Amma on her 87 Birthday with Mathisha. Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

Kanishka, Prasanna‘s elder son graduated and took his oaths as a lawyer and is working now. Mathisha the younger has got through his ‘O’ levels with flying colours. He is studying for his “A” levels and loves cars as much as Prasanna did but wants to be an accountant. With the sons doing well, I see smiles on Padmini’s and Amma’s faces. My mother at 87, is more fragile, more keen on the Dhamma but can still sing from memory the song that my father wrote to her in a letter in the 60’s.

My tsunami experience is my own private epic tear jerker movie. Hollywood or CNN are poor imitators. Every year the reels come out, gets re-edited, viewed from a different angle. It’s cathartic, it never grows old.

2005: Ashes of thoughts what the tsunami took away
2006: A look back twenty four moons after the tsunami
2007: Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe
2008: How Blue was my sea at Hikkaduwa