I sit here desperately trying to find the right words to tell you what the recent terror blasts mean to Sri Lankans like myself, to my Muslim and Burgher (Eurasian-descendant) friends, to my Tamil mother, to my Sinhalese father.
I am afraid I will fail because it’s never easy to explain the visceral melancholy of having what you hold dear and sacred violated.
But I am going to take a deep breath and try:
Sri Lanka is not just some pretty island with a handful of beaches, ancient temples, and a couple of five-star hotels cheaper than those in most of the other world capitals, not to Sri Lankans who live there.
It’s home – those beaches that are an exotic getaway to some is where I and many other Sri Lankans go when we wanted peace after a stressful day at school or work; it’s where we went to break up or make up with our significant others; it’s where we went with friends to fly kites and eat ‘isso wade‘ (the vada with a prawn plonked in the middle – sometimes unpalatable but a must-have at the beach, especially the Galle Face beach in Colombo).
And those ancient temples revered by Unesco heritage lists and architecture buffs are places we went to pray to god for a promotion, or good results in exams so we don’t annoy our mothers and deny the nosy neighbour aunty a chance to snicker.
Those hotels that you turn into your vacation home is where people’s weddings took place, the anniversary dinners, and education seminars.
On 21 April, what was damaged was not some location Vogue magazine called a fashionable travel destination or a place US President Donald Trump thought held a population of over 138 million.
What was damaged was home — that most sacred and revered of places so close to one’s heart.
The places I call home were desecrated on that day.
St Anthony’s Shrine must now be a shattered mess of dried blood – I can’t say it’s a personal favourite because it’s a congested area that sometimes doesn’t smell nice. But that was where my mother and my aunt would go to pray when they felt we needed special prayers. They were among the millions of Catholics, and some Hindus and Buddhists, who believed a church dedicated to a powerful saint could make the impossible possible. The land of the shrine has been a cornerstone of the devoted since the 1700s. How do you think they must be feeling right now?
Or the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, where the buffet restaurant was destroyed. I love that hotel, for its all-white foyer, the water fountain that never seemed to work right, the breeze that blows in from the ocean nearby. That foyer was where I would go as a college student when I needed to nap in luxury but couldn’t afford to pay for it. That’s where a tree house is – one that lacked in nothing for a teenage couple up to no good.
Those memories are marred, my safe places are marred. I will always love these places but hidden behind that love will be a lingering sadness.
But it would be worse for those who buried their loved ones in mass graves that were so large they looked like an excavation site for gold. Sri Lankans will now always drive or walk by these mass grave and reminded of who lies only a few feet beneath the ground.
That is how Sri Lankans feel right now.
Beyond the obvious mortal fear of another bomb blast is a deeper apprehension, “What if my beautiful land never recovers its lovable qualities?”
“How many more onslaughts of terror can my country handle without becoming a ghost town?”
Sri Lankans don’t doubt the country can be rebuilt – the tourists who left will come back. As for the economy, well, we are used to foreign debt and a perpetually falling rupee (which is currently at 174 to a dollar).
But mostly we fear that the new Sri Lanka that will emerge from this tragedy will be a place we won’t recognise anymore – if you have ever been to Sri Lanka, you may have noticed there is a certain slow, peaceful rhythm to life. “Islander’s time”, they call it. Banks close at 3pm, every full moon day is a holiday, people smile a lot, and speak in slow sing-song tones. Imagine a new Sri Lanka that is wrought by sirens wailing, explosives blasting, security frisks every few kilometres, people wary of each other, and constant curfews. That is what life has been like since 21 April.
Sri Lankans are also angry at and disappointed by their politicians – I certainly am. After living through a war, and an anti-Muslim riot just last year, those in power should have learnt how to handle national security threats. The government and the opposition leaders like Mahinda Rajapakse had prior alerts about the terror attacks, but they did nothing. Now they will use the attacks to play political blame games. I am frustrated and disappointed.
But mostly, what remains is the worry that a new, dramatic turn of events may ruin my island home — where the political drama and the fear of terror never seem to end.