366 days and more

Journeys, cups of tea, upsets and more – here’s a (very) long recap of 2020, minus the angry/angsty political things that you’d see me posting on other platforms.

January

I start the year on Marine Drive, looking out on the dark waves crashing against the breakwater, and at all the colours of the fireworks erupting from the Port City, Galle Face and Mount Lavinia. Our tummies are full with string hoppers, smiles on our faces as we revel in multiple new beginnings.

A few days later, I am leading friends on a winding journey to a waterfall on the Bambarella edge of the Knuckles. It takes us two buses and a tuk to reach, only to begin raining as we dip into the base pool (sorry, A+P). The merciless sun as we trekked up Hantana the next day, looking down on a landscape of greens, golds and udarata stress hopefully helped balance out that long chase.

We are walking down narrow lanes to the home of three generations within the Neethavan IDP camp, a place that ideally shouldn’t exist this long after the need for it arose. The fourth generation now resides in the belly of the young woman cooking in the confines of a small kitchen. Just a short bus ride later, we are watching the evening overcome Jaffna. Golden hour on the concentric circles and patterns in the Library’s lush gardens. Sunset in streaks of orange and pink over the crowds gathered at the Fort. The distance – in every sense – between the camp and the city centre itself feels worlds apart.

It is a slow Sunday in the small government hospital in Kotagala. We drive in in a frenzy, when the head nurse had leaned back for a short nap. In the little ward, a group of women – doctors and nurses – help revive a loved one who has a medical emergency on the way back from a trip to Nuwara Eliya. They are unfazed by the powercut, improvising right through it. Speeding on the rest of the way home, a policeman stops us, and shines his flashlight on the said loved one as they rested. I am so furious I yell at him. He lets us go.

February

We spend Independence Day at two protests. The first is close enough to the ‘celebrations’ that we can even see the fighter plane demonstrations flying overhead, dipping and dripping their patriotism over a silent city. The second happens in the heart of the city, with enough bustle, traffic and foot traffic around to remind us that this day means little to nothing for so many people.

I am walking familiar, difficult trails with new people. We begin at Muslim homes in Akurana that remain gutted after the racist fires two years ago. Later in the evening, we are seated in the uda mahala of the Dalada Maligawa, watching throngs of people worship and place flowers before the relic. We then move to a small mosque in Digana, only now coming back into shape. All the while we observe the life-size paintings of kings and gods on the public walls of the ‘sacred city’. This oscillation between worlds is unsettling at best, and a reminder of reality at worst. A serving of fried paratha from the consistently wonderful Kandy Muslim Hotel brings some respite.

We are tracing a route of 1500+ km across the island. We sit in so many possible variations of what one could consider ‘home’. Languages and landscapes alternate. The taste kadey serving delicious manioc snacks by the raging Eastern sea. Tea cups that go cold in Maskeliya’s cool chill. Biting ice packets as we watch the sun drop over Anuradhapura. Eating our weight in ice cream and vegetable rolls in Jaffna. Getting ‘blessed’ by a group of pilgrims walking to Mannar in devotion. Rounding off the journey with samosas from Periyamulla – the kind that crunch louder than you’d think possible when you bite them.

March

We are walking the winding lanes of Kompannaveediya, the heart of the rushing city. Walls in bright colours, creepers masking the doors and parrots calling out from the balcony of one home. We take bends down smaller roads, sharing with women their stories of strength, and laughing over shared jokes in these quiet corners. An uncle deftly chops manioc slivers into hot oil, and the resulting chips – dusted in salt and chilli, packed in old tuition notes – are divine. On our way, we pass the buildings left faceless by machines for ‘development’. Two steps away one such construction looms ahead of us, it’s halls and rooms lifeless save for some laundry flying out of a few windows. The one sign of life is the small kadey selling pasthol and tea on a mid-level balcony. From here, we look out onto an new city we don’t recognise – towering giants of glass, meant for people very unlike those in this part of town, blocking out the sea breeze.

After a few winding kilometres on a crowded bus, we are walking to the top of Diyaluma falls. It is a long weekend, there are crowds, campsites and vendors, and it almost feels like Galle Face. I see a white-haired aunty, in saree, climb with her family to the very top of the falls. She quickly changed into a dress and slipped gleefully into the rock pools. Her kids and grandkids were worrying about her – I can see the frustration on their faces as they call out, telling her to be careful – but she already having the time of her life.

A + I are walking slowly through Katuwapitiya. We’ve just taken in St. Sebastian’s, the impact marks on its walls and the mournful eyes of a distraught statue. We’ve been fed too – kiribath, bananas and tea buns – by families bringing Lenten offerings to the church. We then take a long route to the bus, passing by a road of houses filled with ghosts. An hour or so later, our eyes are adjusting to the interior of St. Anthony’s, the fading flowers near the updated death toll. Candles at the makeshift stand outside don’t stay lit for too long as the traffic of Kochchikade whizzes past. A year later, we are still coming to terms.

Two days later, everything changes.

After a while, all these memories will dissolve into one another, but for the first two weeks of curfew, they are a fascination. The choon paan trucks that frequent the lane more than usual. The bakeries who manage to load their entire display cases onto the back of a truck. The old Hiace vans that have been stuffed to the brim with vegetables, coconuts, fruits and eggs.

April

My dad is running a redistribution racket. One of the better kinds of racket, I reckon. We order from the supermarket or purchase from the trucks way in excess of what we need. More than three quarters of it is then given to everyone in the vicinity who has been out of work. The tuk guy, the lady who makes string hoppers down the street and the baas who said he and his family were refused the government relief aid.

I put on jeans and a shirt on Easter Sunday for the first time since curfew started, and tune into the Facebook page of St. Sebastian’s Katuwapitiya as they livestream the mass. Throughout the two-hour service, the number of viewers on the livestream fluctuates around 80. I like to think that, like our house, there are several people, across several generations gathered around a single device to watch the mass. On April 21st, a young woman DMs me photos of candles and flowers placed on their graves at the Sellakanda cemetery this year. The police allowed the families through, with curfew, to spend some time at the cemetery.

We unearth a giant box full of photo albums. Me in diapers being given sips of alcohol from some adults drink. My sister in a reddai-hatte for a school avurudhu celebration. Much older photos of my parents from when they both flew ‘Air Lanka’ – cooking up Lankan curries in European hotel rooms and taking tours through the desert. Amidst the albums is a notebook bearing J.R Jayawardena’s signature from when he flew with them once, in 1983 no less, and newspaper cutting my dad has saved about a bus accident that he was in. Meticulously marked on the yellowing paper, on the photo of the bus, is the window he found himself hanging out of, having been thrown on impact, he shows me with pride almost.

May

We lose a family member to old age and illness. Getting an emergency call in the night, when curfew is in place, and then having the news broken just a few minutes after it has lifted in the morning, messes with everyone’s sense of responsibility, their sense of being able to ‘be there’. The funeral parlour remains empty aside from immediate relatives. One every other seat is an A4 paper with the words ‘please maintain 1m distance’ printed on it. Looked from a distance, they seem like floating spectres surrounding the casket. There are others having to bid goodbye – if one can even call it that – to their deceased loved ones in much more difficult ways.

Aunty S’ recipe and instructions for kanji come in a long WhatsApp message. Pretty soon, the smell of the chicken broth is wafting through the whole house, aromats and spices and all. Seeing the rice absorb all the liquid in deeply satisfying, only less so than adding the themparaduwa to the top. We drop some of it off later, to Aunty S and her family in time for iftar, and they don’t let me leave without serving me a bowl of their own kanji before we rush back to make the 8pm curfew. Her reviews are in, an hour later – it is life-affirming to have a Muslim aunty say she really enjoyed the kanji you made.

We post call after call for relief on social media, for those in need in various parts of the country. Within minutes I am DMed deposit slips from people I don’t know, or from people across the world who are trying to contribute through tricky international transfers. Ordinary folks, likely anxious with the possible job losses and pay cuts happening everywhere. This is all I can give now, I’m sorry, says one person, depositing 1500 rupees – 1500 rupees will buy a small family rations for a few days. ‘All you can give’ is all someone else needs to survive, and when the state was failing to support its people, amounts to more that you can imagine. I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

June

I am helping mum light candles on spanchi cakes or butter cake we’ve bought from the choon paan van so that she can sing happy birthday to the handful of kids who make it to her online lessons. A little one screams to an entire virtual classroom that they need to pee.

This month brings a roller-coaster of emotions. First, an acceptance letter that makes my heart soar. It’s doubly relieving because the process of applying for universities and adult-things can be ridiculously exhausting. It wrings you out, a balance between making you boast and making you question every ‘achievement’. Weeks later, there is a letter of rejection from something else, a more important thing. I’d spent a fair while envisioning an incredible opportunity and a huge life change, so reading that letter did me in. I allow myself a good cry and some chocolate. Had it not been for the likes of a friend sharing their rejection letters on social media, I’d have probably gone on for longer.

Just as restrictions on travel are easing, I go in for a small surgery. It was a short hospital stay, of which I have only two real memories. First, is collapsing on the floor after trying to walk for the first time on waking up from the anaesthesia. Second (that actually came first) was that two little babies were born in the few minutes that I was sitting in the waiting area of the operation theatre. From across the room I can see the head nurse swaddling them. She lifts them up by the legs – like in a fishermen would lift a huge fish by the tail – so she can slip the cloth under. Then, she proceeds to wrap them up the way the uncles in the kadey wrap buth packets – fold right flap, fold left flap, bring bottom flap up and then she rolls them over twice to seal them up.

July

The trip to Navaly is the first one I’ve done since curfew, hobbling along now in a huge sock I’ve had to wear since the surgery. I remember there being less security on the way up and down than any other trip to the North in the last year. Except for in the church – the church is swarming with men in uniform, and intelligence men in civvies whom you can still spot a mile away. There are candles, flowers, and laments carrying the weight of twenty-five years of grief. There is also rude shouting in Sinhala from the uniformed men, to a people who do not speak the language. What they are saying, not explicitly but when one reads between the lines, is that their grief is threatening the clean and victorious narratives that the state has cultivated so far. That the candles they want to light are not convenient. This isn’t the first time and won’t be the last time this year that Tamil people will be faced with similar indignities as they attempt to mourn their lost loved ones.

The hotel in Kalutara, like most others, was offering reduced prices after months with little to no occupancy. Lankan families filled the restaurant, the swimming pool, the vast green garden and the strip of beach, running from the occasional downpour of rain or dipping their feet into a sea churning grey in the monsoon tide. No foreigners in sight, which felt strange for a West coast beachside location. This amount of people made me uncomfortable, but there was something else about it. Knowing we’d all been stuck at home for months and were all probably cautiously out and about for the first time, it felt different. Like we were all breathing a little easy together.

August

The next two months bring with them a frenzy of alternating landscapes. We dip into this somewhat-freedom – that I realise later might have been misguided – gleefully. We starting with the cold pool around Kumari Ella, which comes complete with a group of boys ‘performing’ to catch our attention. Smooth rocks, greens overhead and chill waters – feelings we’d missed. As we pile into the vehicle again, narrowly missing a downpour, it was almost as if life hadn’t been in suspension for a few months. Almost.

Election day comes and goes in a series of disappointing but expected pronouncements. I feel like enough words have been expended on it.

We aren’t expecting the incredible weather we find in Weligama. The aunty running the guesthouse tells us that though local families are moving around now, they don’t usually stay at places like hers, preferring hotels. Sipping Lions under a blue sky by a relatively calm sea, we later find spicy seafood curries for cheap at a rice and curry spot. In the evening, small crowds of Lankan families gather at the wide beach, watching as daylight fades away, and cows take a rest on the soft sand.

We are placing tens of ‘vows’ at Madhu Church, coins wrapped in white cloth, at the feet of the shrine. For health from an old illness, for the life of a new baby, for safety. On any other than festival days, the grounds and halls here remain serenely quiet. Groups of devotees take refuge under the trees in the garden, pulling out biscuit packets and drink bottles for relief. Refuge like the many others before them, just like them, who fled layers of violence to sanctuary.

The geolocation for the little shop claims it is ‘Almost the End of Sri Lanka’. Makes sense, considering that after we turning down that road, and walk a few kilometres along the white sands of Rama’s Bridge, we really are at the end. In the night, the sound of dry palmyrah leaves rustling against each other sounds like rain, but the land is bone dry. The hotel is down to two staff.

My first hike in months, up the steep ascent to Eagle’s Nest, leaves me breathless. As in the effort to get to the top and the view from within the narrow cave to the lush forests down below. I scooch as far as I can without getting vertigo, and dangle my legs out the cave. Next to me, Menike, the dog who accompanied us all the way up, is napping on the cold stone floor.

The buses in Maskeliya are full, and on each bend is a view of the reservoir or of the holy mountain rising over everyone’s heads. From the bus to the freezing cold waters of Gartmore and Moray cascades, so cold you almost go numb, and racing back to catch a bus that leaves at a particular time, or else. We drink multiple cups of tea – generously sweet, and with a leaf of mint – to keep away the lingering cold. The guesthouse owner confides that he is not going to be able to pay back the loans he took to build new rooms, given that we are some of the very few guests he’s had in months.

September

Bliss is finding cascades and rock pools like those at Nalagana Ella. From being dwarfed by the falls to floating in shallow pools to again, narrowly missing a rainstorm, few things can dampen a day such as this. Creepy ogling boys and uncles, definitely, but we’re not going to let them take away from this moment.

We are seated under the trees in Panama, speaking to the residents of the little huts that surround them, people resisting the occupation of their land. The beaches that line this coast were just one weekend ago swarming with long-weekend Colombo crowds, yet they feel as if people do not know they exist. The Panama village is quiet, its little tea shops missing the income they’d get from pilgrims to Kataragama and Okanda. The beach, at the end of a long drive through sand dunes and casuarina trees, isn’t – we are met with the sounds of kids shrieking as they run into the water, and the waves crashing against the rocks are twice as tall as me. As the sun sets, we are the only ones atop Elephant Rock, a relief after the traffic-jam here we’d seen on Instagram just a week ago. Sunset over the Heda Oya, rain over the Uva mountains far away, and a seamless sea.

We are met in Mullaitivu and Jaffna by the communities that most of us doing this work have sorely missed this year. Warm welcomes by circles of resilient women, sharing tea, soft drinks and vadai as conversations stretch back three decades into the past, and for hours in the present. We fill notebooks and hearts with their words.

The new portion of the Southern Highway is kilometres of emptiness. After its end, the road is interspersed with the occasional town, giving way to jungle and mountain bends otherwise. Ella town looks almost ghostly, devoid of the masses of white tourists that flock here at any given time. Still, there are crowds of Lankans – off buses and trains – trekking to see the Nine-Arch Bridge in Demodara, to have thambili, tea and rotti as they wait for a train to cross the structure. On the way back, we take a route that sees us stopping to shop for every food item imaginable – cordials, jams, fruits, curd, kalu dodol – till the back of the vehicle looks like one of the mobile curfew trucks.

We are eating isso vadai at Galle Face as a spectacular sunset happens around us. Gold falls on the buildings of old, and the new concrete giants, coming up along the main road. School kids line up to board a bus back home, and children run through the bubbles that the toy vendor is casting into the air.

October

The road to Pitamaruwa winds on, broken and potholed, through sweeping tea estates and peaks rising in the mist. 30km from the nearest village of Madolsima, the buses are infrequent. When we stop to ask for directions, we pick up a group waiting for a bus long gone, or a long way away. Uncles in sarongs and little kids in school uniforms, waiting to reach the deeper parts of the Roberiya estate. One uncle tries to pay us a Rs. 50 ‘fare’ when we drop them off. Later, we are setting up camp on a plateau closeby, watching the many colours of sunset. Bells from a nearby kovil ring through the air. I am reminded how a journey for us is a cross-country road trip, and a journey for them is the very act of getting to or from home.

Sometime on the return from that trip, the news breaks that a positive case has been reported – Brandix factory, Minuwangoda. The week that follows is one where we’re literally waiting for a district-wide curfew to drop.

Before it does, I am travelling past the popular hotel strip in Negombo, an armed guard at the entrance of most of the iconic properties. I arrive near the beige minarets of the Poruthota mosque, and am whisked away to a house a kilometre interior. He tells me over tea and soft drinks of his father’s death, a PCR test whose results they were never shown, a death certificate that asks too many questions, and what would be the first of many cremations of Muslims whose faith expressly forbids the practice. As much as he wants to fight it in court, he knows he and his family don’t have the community support they need, much less the emotional strength, to do so.

The curfew finally drops. I spend a long time feeling angry that we took things so lightly and slipped back into our routines so easily, to the point that many no longer see the gravity of the situation.

November

Every day, Derana sends its news alerts in a reliable pattern. Between 2pm and 4pm, the number of recoveries. Between 5pm and 7pm, the number of new positive cases that day. Between 9pm and midnight, the number of deaths. As if they’re hoping we won’t notice it in the dead of night, almost asleep – that we will not give much thought to the lives we are losing, or how much they are scrambling to make us think that everything is fine.

The uniformed man tells us there is nothing to worry about. The doctors – and I can’t tell you what they look like because they’re never given airtime he is – are relegated to the occasional article in a paper, or doing the best they can on Twitter, warning us that there is in fact something to worry about. Meanwhile, the sounds of helicopters meld into our everyday, as more armed men look from the skies for people ‘disobeying’ them. This false sense of security does its job for some, and the lapse back to carelessness speeds up. For others, it is a plague almost as bad as the virus itself.

It begins to rain – daily, heavily. The mornings are gloomy, and by late afternoon the darkness has rolled in. I am walking barefoot in the grass of the garden, under an umbrella, feeling the water and the chill envelope me.

December

The last month ended with shots – from guns – ringing out at Mahara Prison. This one begins with shots – of fireworks – ringing out over our Catholic neighbourhood. Unfailing, those fireworks, despite the mayhem. The news cycle turning through the day tells us of an increasing body count, as if killings happened. Much is written about unacceptable state violence and the problems of incarceration. What shatters me is a simple question on a social media post, that encompasses decades, generations and whole communities in its words – ‘Mothers falling on their knees in front of police and military officers for the sake of their children’s lives – when will this end? Is not this shame all of us as a country?’

I am purchasing a ticket, a value in AED, for a Sri Lankan migrant worker to return home from Dubai. There is a name on the payment link. Suddenly, a group that we talked about in abstract all year becomes very real. They and many others boarded a plane and returned home a few days later, a photo from onboard shows a crowd that has been stranded without visas or work for months, and I can only hope the return brings some relief. Many times over we will stay up late, on Zoom calls and WhatsApp group chats, logging deposits and buying more tickets. Generosity, still, beyond measure. We receive a video message from a woman coming home through this help – I don’t have the words to thank you, she says.

A 20-day old baby boy passes away, suspectedly of the virus, and is cremated against his parents wishes. His parents were sent away from the hospital, so he was alone when he died. He is in a peaceful sleep in the photos that are circulating widely, too widely, on the internet, as it laments as a collective for his soul. We tie cloths on the fence at the cemetery where his little body was burned, remembering him and all others like him, their bodies subject to final rites in complete violation of their faith. People join as they can, throughout two days, and soon many ‘flags’ are fluttering from the fence. Late one night, men with power, in uniform and not, begin removing these. The grief just multiplies. They begin taking photos of visitors, asking questions; ‘why are you doing this, what will this achieve’? That the men with even more power are worried at the sight of some white flags mean something has been achieved in itself.

Christmas doesn’t register this year. ‘Merry’? ‘Happy‘? Hardly. It passes in a blur of food, drinks and gatherings that seem unnecessary.

Publishing this a few days before the actual end of the year to get it off my chest, and out of my drafts. I’m not sure what I hope for the next year, honestly. We learned so much from the last one, at least I hope we did, and lessons are important, but maybe in less of an all-encompassing, life-altering vehicle.

Constants

The wealth of free publications available (if occasionally from slightly shady sites) on the internet. I have downloaded and devoured a decent list of titles in the breaks between ‘working from home’ and ‘trying not to overwork from home’. New books to learn and grow from, along with old familiars reread just for that sense of relief that comes from knowing the setting or knowing what will happen on the next page.

The azaan from the mosque nearby. Being at home for so long, it rings out keeping time – as I wake up, have lunch, settle in for afternoon work, the evening dullness and as the light drops. The day now seems incomplete without it.

The overwhelming weight of loneliness that envelopes and crushes me. I am in a full house, or constantly talking to friends or internet acquaintances. But the loneliness remains, amplified in the long stretches we remain at home.

The words and video calls with wonderful people. Giggly gossip sessions where we spend too much time dissecting internet drama, but also revelling in each other’s company across space and timezones. There is one blessed evening of actual IRL interaction, and the weight of the year lifts for a few hours. Through regular checkups we hold space for the frustration, the happiness, the unexplained emotions that everyone is feeling. And we are all better for it.

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