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April 13, 2005

On the Way to Kalmunai


We wanted to leave a little earlier in the day, he said, because it would be better not to be in that part of the country when it was dark. So we left at 11 but didn’t make it out of Colombo to the Kandy road until almost 1 o’clock. Traffic was super-glued together in diesel smoke and horn honking. The petrol stations were locked in a strike. Nobody could go anywhere even though we all tried. Every back road became somebody’s secret short cut but nothing worked. Our driver was smooth and unflappable.

We got to the district center in Ampara before sundown anyway. For me it was a first, over the mountains past Kandy and down curves in the road that rocked us. Normally my semicircular canals would have notified my stomach that things just weren’t going to work out, motion-wise. At least that’s the usual pattern for most foreigners.

Ari let me ride in the front.

Before 7:30 the next morning we passed the country campus of Handy Technical College and stopped so Ari could say hello to a gaggle of policewomen. “Do you see their sweet smiles?” asked Loku Sir. “They see the Sarvodaya vehicle,” and him, not coincidentally, in his white outfit, now in the front seat. He was happy.

We headed past the Eagle Insurance billboard, past the Oxfam sign and UNICEF bus, a Seva Lanka signboard and a UN Jeep with 3 foot light blue letters on its hood and a flag like a loudspeaker saying “Look at me! Look at me!” I noticed the paddy fields were much larger here than in the hills. Some had full-sized tractors and sufficient scale to suggest that maybe the land tenure issues here were not about who owned what but who seemed to own all of it. “Rich people here…and very poor,” Ari observed.

By 8:30 we were at the steps of the Peace Pagoda in Ampara. Ari led the way past the shrine full of pictures of its Japanese patrons who had built the pagoda in 1988. NipponZan, Hiyohogi something. We took off our shoes and felt the hot stones of the steps to the Pagoda itself. Ari pointed to the marshlands to the left. “Single elephant is always here, he said.”

But not this morning. Maybe the loudspeakers at the pagoda scared him away.

A lay teacher who each month took young people and their parents to different religious sites was lecturing at the top of the stairs. Since ours was just a courtesy visit, we delivered our flower petals, prostrated ourselves at the base of the Buddha and watched Ari take his devotions very seriously indeed. He chatted with the teacher and students and we ambled off to our next stop.

“You pray for others before they pray for you.” That’s what the Muslims said on the sign before we walked into their new housing project near the mosque. We were to be greeted by representatives of the Kalmunai Disaster Management Council near a camp run by the Triple Gem Society (that would be Buddhist) and Sarvodaya. This first foundation-laying ceremony, though, would be with Muslims. Before we could stop to unveil the roadside sign announcing the project, four women with their saris over their heads began uuulating with high –pitched wail of welcome and celebration. Young girls mounded three garlands of flowers around Ari’s neck, then gave them to me and Emil from S.E.E.D.S. We were celebrities.

Overhead, a hastily painted banner declared “We warmly welcome our honored guests.” It was a variation of the banners we would see all day: Welcome Dr. Ariyaratne and others!” Welcome to our village…which, in addition to piles of rubble and crumbling buildings, was really only a few strings tied between stakes marking where the new houses would be.

The pattern of the ceremonies would become familiar by day’s end, no matter which ethnic group hosted such distinguished visitors. The monk or the priest would bless eight or ten stones laid at the top of a ditch. A just-mixed tray of concrete and a trowel would be offered to whomever wished to consecrate the first stones in the foundation. Ari did the honors first, dropping a handful of seeds over each stone as it was gingerly placed on the next. I looked important—“Professor Reek Bruks from America,” Ari said amidst a stream of Sinhala—so I always got the chance to exercise my prowess with a trowel. Potential homeowners and onlookers stared at my big pink feet. The sand was already hot. Thank Allah for the shade in the hole.

Procedure: Village headman or Sarvodaya Shramadana Society member serves as master of ceremonies with his agenda on a wrinkled paper. The paper lists all the people to recognize and other things to remember. Somebody translates into Tamil. The Holcim cement company representative, a clean cut and zippy young fellow who enjoys his work as the “go-to guy” for reconstruction of housing, establishes a pattern of amiable oratory that usually only Ari can top with his self-effacing humor and inspiration. Two or three local dignitaries give speeches that seem too long to me but it’s their privilege because they usually are the people who invited Sarvodaya and Holcim to come in the first place. They are proud, and grateful in the midst of their anxiety and overwhelming sense of responsibility in a situation over which they have little control.

In this place, Mahatma from America is introduced as “having worked night and day for you. All he asks is that you give your labour, too,” says Ari. “This way we will build thousands of houses with you.” We want to work with the village societies, he said, exhorting the men to build the houses.

Two dozen or more women sit quietly in the sun while the men speak. They are not smiling. Some squint, or have raised eyebrows that add a certain grace to vacant expressions. Have they already resigned themselves to more months of this half-life in the camp? Have their husbands already left? Will they ever find a way to make their children happy again? Each face seems to tell a story of sorrow and weariness that may not get better for a long time. Life is hard so they are too.

Back to the procedure. After the appropriate interval and microphone adjustments, the local party planner motions for Dr. Ariyaratne to speak. By this time he has put his hands on the heads of half a dozen or more grateful children and mothers, hugged babies and shaken the hands of almost anyone. He has smiled a lot between the words of encouragement and sympathy. “They all want me to touch them,” he says without a hint of arrogance. “Sarvodaya is very popular.”

Here near the beach and the broken boats and crumbled houses, it’s easy to see why. The Al falah Sarvodaya Shramadana Society, hardly your typical Buddhist temple association, doesn’t seem to care what religion anyone is unless someone is trying to convert them, which apparently some groups already are. In this community two pre-school teachers drowned and some of the children. More than 200 in the whole area died and the pre-school was destroyed. Allah had not been so merciful.

“What do they do about all the salt in the soil now?” I ask. The President’s reply: “It may disappear by and by…”

In Panduruppu, Sarvodaya and Holcim would help build 25 houses. UNHCR tarps sheltered the speechmakers, men in plastic chairs and women siting on the ground. A Hindu priest arranging flowers and food for the laying of the foundation stones tells us that there were 1850 deaths in this area. Women bring bananas, ginger beer and water to the table. The orators continue while Ari wanders off to take photographs and serve tea to members of the audience. He serves them. Holds their hands for a longer time than a mere handshake. When time for his speech comes I can repeat his translations pretty well after the second or third ceremony. It goes like this: “We don’t want to divide the nation. We are all one family. We want to join all of you in one family so we can accomplish something together. Divided, we can’t do anything. We must do this together or we are dead; finished.”

“These older people who were here a long time; they know,” he said. What he meant was that they know that those other NGOs will probably leave and the government will take its time, but Sarvodaya is here now.

“Here we have returned back to the traditional methods of psychospiritual healing,” he says. A Hindu priest is breathlessly rushing back and forth to an altar in the temple by the water. In Indian or Sri Lankan terms, the temple is beautiful. Instead of the standard tens of thousands of Ganeshes and deities whose names I will never learn, it has only e hundreds and they are bigger than usual, painted in orangeish earth tones. Not the normal carnival paint. I am being disrespectful.

The priest’s hair is gathered into a pony tail tucked neatly into a nest of black fur on the back of his neck. Sweat pours down his shoulders and chest. He is unprepared. His assistant, a 12 or 13 year old boy, ducks into the interior of the temple supply room bringing out bottle after bottle of oils, brass lamps, wicks, assorted powders and betel leaves. Eight women and two men stand at listless attention at the side of the altar. One weeps silently. The man had lost all his children; the women, their husbands and mothers and children.

I am amused to think that a second Hindu priest looked like Little Richard with his pencil-thin and natty little moustache and slicked down hair. It’s not a pompadour but it’s close, and perfectly coiffed. He has a feminine sway as he walks, glancing with a sort of coquettish tip of the head that in South Asia means something between “yes, I more or less agree” and “well, whatever the gods have given us we will accept.” His eyebrows raised, he looks up to scan this curious crowd including the man in white sarong and the American who is so tall. The American sheepishly admits to himself that his observations were cheap.

When the first priest is ready he starts to chant under his breath. Each of the eight bereaved adults kneels in turn at the altar where the priest repeats a similar encantation, pouring the same series of oils and powders onto a handful of betel leaves that the grieving person held over a steel cooking pot. Little Richard rings a bell. We all begin to notice how very, very sad and quiet are the eight men and women whose loved ones’ spirits are being escorted to heaven.

The priest nods, then leads a procession to the water. He pours the liquid mixture of souls and blessings, memories and karmic hopes into the same water that had visited its cruelty on this village exactly 90 days before.

We have to move on. As we drive away in our air conditioned RV, the eight stand stoicly in line under the shade of a banyan tree. Mute; lost. Probably they will not be completely healed by the morning’s ceremonies, but it’s at least a minor comfort. If the priest is right, the gods have opened the door and the spirits may find their way.

Rick Brooks
Sarvodaya USA.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement for the People in Need.