One year of anxious prayers

How quickly we move from one crisis to another. COVID-19’s arrival was timed in the lead-up to the one-year remembrance of the violence of last Easter. A year later, people are once again confined to their homes, places of worship are closed, and we’re debating face coverings, for entirely different reasons.

We visited two of the churches. Three days after this visit, isolation becomes lockdown becomes curfew. I get to know of the situation at Zion Church through phone calls and photographs – plans we had to visit Batticaloa, to see it for ourselves, had to be postponed till whenever this lifts.

[This is not, and is never intended to be, a social or political analysis. Calling it ‘personal’ feels like a violation too, when so many have much more closer and traumatic personal experiences of this day than I do. So, this is neither of those things but also both of them at the same time.]


 

The most vivid memory I have Before Easter is taking the bus from the Southern Province to Colombo – the No. 2, along Galle Road – on Good Friday last year. Along the stretch from Panadura to Moratuwa, churches and their gardens are spilling over with crowds attending the long mass of mourning.

The first memory I have of Easter itself is the WhatsApp message, forwarded to a group that I’m no longer a part of, asking if there was an issue at Kochchikade church.

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Photo via Thyagi Ruwanpathirana. I’ve never actually taken a photo of these because they make me so angry.

Now, looking out the window of the slow No. 240 from Wattala to Negombo, I spot the remnants of a ‘mathakadha 21/4?’ (remember 21/4?) poster on a wall in Kurana, from an election campaign run on the suffering and trauma of 260+ innocent lives lost. It has torn and is faded, but I can still see the edges of the numbers, and that looming question mark.

Owu, mathakai. (Yes, I remember)

Katuwapitiya

At Telwatte Junction, when you tell a tuk guy to take you to the ‘palliya’, it seems automatically understood to mean St. Sebastian’s, despite the concentration of churches around Negombo. Winding off the noise of the Negombo Road, inwards onto increasingly residential areas, the intensity of the sun slowly dropping behind the cover of trees.

Taking the final turn onto the last lane, I am met with the sight of five uniformed and armed Army personnel – four men and a woman – at the church gates. Printed on an A4 paper, laminated and hanging from the bars of the gate, is a sign that said ‘produce your identity card to enter’, in Sinhala Only.

Brusquely, the officers take our IDs and glance over them, waving us through. It’s been a year, but the sight of heavily armed personnel standing at the gates of our places of worship hasn’t gotten any more ‘normal’ to bear. The quietness that I associate with visiting a church instantly shattered by the row of rifles strapped to chests that wait outside the gate.

Inside, the light is streaming through the tall trees that line the church gardens, patches dancing on the concrete and stone, on the piles of red flags accumulated at the St. Sebastian’s feast a few months ago.

We walk in from the main entrance, eyes adjusting to the darkness. The tiles are cold under our bare feet. Our feet making no noise, and the praying aunties’ lips moving in the quietest whispers, there is almost no sound within the church. The roof – half of its tiles fallen in following the explosion, and now restored – despite the bright sun outside, keeps the place cool.

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I sit on one of the pews to take a moment in prayer, and can feel my chest constricting.

Light reflects off glass at one of the doorways. On the side of the door is a patch of wall, plaster blasted off by the impact, that has been encased in glass.

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Outside, movement – an elderly gentleman pulls water up from a small well in the gardens, marked to be holy water for the sick. He washes his face and hands, these actions a strange nod to the stream of ‘wash your hands’ instructions that had been swirling around during (what was then the early stages of) the island’s COVID-19 alert. A blessed disinfectant.

I wander off to the side chapel, where a ray of light through one of the windows is streaming down on an lady praying in the front row. In her hands, and on the pew next to her, are slim prayer books and litanies, the kind my grandmother used to have, filling her bible and tucked under her mattress. The now-iconic statue of the Risen Christ – his robes ‘torn’ and splattered with blood – watches her, relegated from its position on the front altar for the Lenten period. On close inspection, I notice just how blue his eyes are, and also notice how the impact has taken out an entire fold of his plaster robe.

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Seeing the photos of the damage that day, the roof of the church fallen in almost entirely, one wonders how on Earth this small clay structure survived. The red flecks on his face almost like the tears of blood on the miraculous statues that Catholic elders travel the world to worship. This too, will no doubt become a site of pilgrimage, a ‘miracle’ in itself.

I wonder, always, what this statue means to someone who survived the blast, or someone who lost a loved one that day. Is it, as the pastors are so quick to say, a symbol of hope, a miracle? Or is it a reminder of how much was lost, and so quickly? There are no answers in his startling blue eyes. A small Marian medal of blue and silver sits at the statue’s feet, outside the protective glass case.

Out in the shade of the trees, a lady comes towards me, bearing a canister laden with kiribath and bananas, which she offers to me – ‘Jesu pihitai’. This is new for me, being offered the leftovers of an offering while in church. The practice more familiar in Buddhist shrines and temples – think Kataragama in season – when the piles of fruits and food offered to the stone gods are brought outside and distributed to the real people waiting on the sandy grounds. The kiribath has that light smoky taste of being cooked over a fire, and fills you right up.

We have barely finished it when another lady offers us tea buns out of a cardboard box. We try to be polite and turn them down but she insists. I think of something I heard on July 21st last year, from the cab driver who brought us to the reopening service. ‘You know, usually during Lent, people in Negombo will prepare for Easter celebrations, stocking up on meats and alcohol. Next year, I have a feeling that people won’t be doing that, they’ll all be giving alms and going to the cemetery.’ That year is now, and that time has come, and in a few days, even that will be impossible, as curfew is put in place across the island.

The buns are dense, with a slightly sticky sugar coat on top. We munch as we walk around to the other side of the church, coming across a chatting young couple seated on the short benches. The wide gardens, devoid of much else life on that day, are again a world apart from seeing it at full capacity, crowds seated on the grass, and some having even brought their own stools.

Near one of the doors is a notice board covered in photographs of the immediate destruction and the reconstruction thereafter. A spot on the floor, just inwards from this door, glints. Covered in a glass case and appearing sunken beneath the new floor, is more damage. Individual shots, particles, and larger chunks of the tile ripped right out. Families come to look down at this reminder, lingering over it wordless, before passing on to pray. Sunlight streaming through the stained glass on the opposite wall throws red crosses and bright blues onto the glass that shields the damage.

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Maybe it was just me, but the weight that hangs inside the church is tangible, almost. In the eyes that strain to take in the spots of ripped plaster, in the feet that quicken to avoid stepping on the preserved tiles, and in the hands that linger on the glass case of the tortured statue. Every prayer is inevitably linked to the memory of what one saw, or what one saw captured of that day. Just as we are about to leave, I turn to look at the large cross at the main entryway to the church. Draped in the Lenten purple, the shade of mourning, the silk fluttering in the soft winds.

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We walk down a side road I remembered from last year. Then, it was a column of security vehicles, and a steady stream of foot traffic of mourners to the funerals happening in each house. The walls were draped with banners of mourning, and I remember where each one was, the couple who leave behind three kids, the three sisters, and the young man who worked at Sri Lankan Airlines. Now, it is quiet and almost desolate. For every house where small construction is happening, there is another that lies almost ghostly quiet.

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Every few meters down the road is a statue of St. Sebastian, in a small shrine or pedestal, bedecked with flowers that are now drying. His pained expression, arrows piercing his chest and torso, is as searing as the noon-time sun from above.

Kochchikade

A journey down Jampettah Street is a loud flurry of sound and smell. As one approaches the roundabout, the gleaming white façade of the church comes into view. Gleaming so much in the midday sun that it is almost blinding. As the tuk turns the corner sharply, the gentle scent of temple flowers fills my nostrils. We’re barely out of the tuk when a small man in a checkered sarong runs up to us bearing the yellow church candles, each bundle wrapped in newspaper.

‘Hundred rupees, it’s the same price inside but buy from us, please.’

I can barely hear him over the sound of the machines – digging, dragging, unloading – whirring outside the church as they widen its pavement. Among the surveyors and engineers are again, uniformed armed forces personnel, armed to the teeth. Here they are actually holding their rifles across their chests, in preparation. For what, I don’t know. We walk through takaram security booths where last year, we were thoroughly body checked, and our bags searched. Now the security officer seated inside barely glances up as we walk through.

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The heavy walls of the church cut the noise of the machines in half as soon as you enter. The little side chapel that I know from a previous visit, the one holding a special memorial to the lost, has been updated, photos of the carnage collaged and printed on a large flex banner that covers an entire wall.  Shrines such as St. Anthony’s draw their spirituality and power from histories of prosecution and trauma that have been witnessed at the site. Think of the many Catholic saints in various stages of distress and painful sacrifice – these graphic displays of the photos at both these locations are a strange modern addition to that litany.

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Perhaps the most striking addition to the memorial is the addition of a new name. As late as nine and eleven months after April last year, news of deaths were still trickling in. Individuals who had spent the last few months of their lives in hospitals, fighting to recover from injuries and trauma. Where the rest of the names are carved into the black stone, their letters painted white, the new ones stand out – printed on heavy black insulation tape, names printed in white ink, and pasted under the long list.

At the feet of this dark manifesto, a few white ixora flowers are wilting.

It’s strange how a church looks in the first few seconds when you walk it from the blinding light of day. Dark on the edges, the people moving inside looking like ghosts, before you blink.

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And then the yellow light bathing the new, smooth surfaces comes into view. Smooth, that is, aside from that one tile on the floor, carrying the reminder of that day. It’s not as lovingly (?) preserved as the one at St. Sebastian’s, no glass to protect it. Because it disappears so easily into the rest of the dark ground, people walk over it without so much as a second glance.

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It is either coincidence or cruel accident that the tile marks the start of queues towards another iconic statue. Designated for men and women and bordered by silver railings, these direct the faithful towards the golden statue, placed where the ‘miracle’ of the shrine took place many years ago. On the day we visit, there is just an old lady saying her prayers, shakily crossing herself at the statue.

Sitting ourselves down on the pews, a thousand eyes are upon us. The eyes of every ancient painted into the 12 scenes of the cross over every arch, the CCTV cameras placed right beneath these, and the blank new flat screens under these. A constellation of things to watch and be watched by.

We slip outside to light the candles, and the loud noises fill our ears again. A lady in a yellow dress stands watching as I light them, one by one, and place them in a long row. One gust of wind and five of the seven have been extinguished. She grabs them all, swiftly placing them as a single bunch in the sand, their wicks inches above the cold water, motioning at me to light them again. It is almost therapeutic, this act, to watch the wicks slowly light, and the orange flames cause the air around them to shimmer, so when it is done you are looking into a complete blur.

The aunty sits down on a stool, her watch post, and above her rise tall flex banners of photos of that day, and the long year since. She motions to a plaque above all the others – ‘say this prayer’ – the trilingual words of ‘The Candle’ bearing down on us.

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Turning to face the gleaming white façade as we leave, I notice that the clock is no longer frozen at 8.45 – time is moving again, for some at least. Down the road, lined with snack stands and murukku carts, are several statues of St Anthony. Reverent on public pedestals bathed in the sun, or hidden on the shade of small avenues that run deep off the main road to the homes of hundreds more believers.

Batticaloa

Despite not being able to visit, I scramble trying to get a sense of what the church looks like now, partly out of guilt of not being able to go. The photos come to me on a WhatsApp chat, and my heart sinks.

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Photo by P. Sasikaran

What I see is stark against the two Catholic churches, where lights flood their new arches, sunlight streams through new glass and feet walk on glossy tiles. There is little progress at Zion Church, from the quiet hollow I saw on a visit last July. The main frame of the church is still just strong iron bars. There are no walls, just the beginnings of them, still bare red brick. A takaram roof shades what a is still a sandy earth floor from the hot Eastern sun.

The faux-rock façade, close to where the explosion took place, has remained. All the external buildings – Sunday school, offices, I assume – are still completely damaged. A hand-written sign on the gate in Sinhala and English – languages that the church does not hold services in – declares this is a ‘Forces construction site – entrance is prohibited’

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Photo by P. Sasikaran

Walking into the other two churches was possible, and easy. Being 8 hours away on the other end of the island that’s now locked down, not so much. I made a connection on a last visit, a kind woman whose heart very much beats for the church. I’ve struggled to dial her phone number for the last month – I no longer have the ‘media’ reason to call, we’re not friends in that I can casually ring for a chat, and my general anxiety about upsetting people means I’m worried about calling on a wrong date – one that’s too sensitive – so I put it off for a long time.

When I do manage to get over the anxiety, her voice is as kind as I remember. She tells me they’d been promised their church would be complete in time for Christmas. Believers want to return here for prayer, where their lives were so inexplicably changed. It stings more now that one year is gone, and they could not mark the remembrance in a rebuilt space.

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Photo by P. Sasikaran

She points out, not accusatorily, how quickly the other two were finished.

Suddenly, their opulence feels unsettling, as if this congregation has been failed all over again.

_

In the last year, after so many lost their lives, the country lost so much more of its soul.

Something that has broken my heart is the messages from Muslims – friends, acquaintances, internet randoms – apologizing for the violence of last year. The outpouring, that we demanded from an entire community, for the actions of a few. The bitterness and hatred we felt was legitimized by the fear we were feeling. I think of this when I see 15 year-old Mohamed Rizwan’s name engraved at St. Anthony’s; when the priest at St. Sebastian’s reads out 13-year old Fatima Aslam’s name during a Facebook livestream of a simple Easter Sunday mass, in a list of 115 others.

The election campaign that used the bodies of the lost and the pain of the injured, without shame, all the way to victory. Their pamphlets covered in digitally illustrated blood of the 260+ innocents. The same people who, as results broke slowly, suggested that maybe not enough lives had been lost, that more bombs were required. I think of this when a young woman DMs me photos of her parents’ grave, that she managed to visit somehow on the one-year remembrance, when I read her fervent prayers on her short videos of a candle lit near their photos.

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I notice another ‘mathakadha 21/4?’ poster down my lane, almost hidden behind a growth of reeds, just a few steps from a small statue of Mother Mary at a sharp bend. A statue where I’ve seen families who live in the small houses nearby gather around to pray. I am angry that a year’s worth of heat, dust and rain have not succeeded in tearing the paper, in pulling it off the walls. They remain, painful and present, a reflection of the day’s effect on the lives of everyone touched by that violence, physically and otherwise.

Amathaka karanne kohomadha? (How could we forget?)

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