Unboxing the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004

The tsunami affected about one million people and devastated over two thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastline. The tragedy claimed 35,322 human lives, injured 21,441, and left 1500 children orphaned. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

The tsunami affected about one million people and devastated over two thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastline. The tragedy claimed more than 35,000 human lives, injured nearly 21,500 people and left 1500 children orphaned. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

The tsunami day is the longest day and the hardest night of my life and somewhere in the last ten years I neatly packed and put away my memories. So, why did I unbox them to look back at a singular tortuous experience that has haunted me for many years.

It was an invitation to speak about my experience at a Rotary Club meeting here in Colombo. No doubt, I could have declined but as the 10the anniversary draws near, there is a need — no almost a compulsion to go back over the bits and pics of this unforgettable event.

Only the outer shells of houses were left after the tsunami. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Only the outer shells of most coastal houses were left after the tsunami. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

True when my private film reel starts playing, the horror spills out. The images gradually become more vivid, intense, horrifying. Like in a slow moving movie, they appear… and last night the nightmare paid a return visit. But when preparing for the talk I realise that once the memories are unboxed there are things I didn’t write about when I wrote my experience of that day.

Now when I look beyond that trauma, I see now that I can section the disaster into 4 stages. This I think applies to most instance of calamities and disasters like flash floods too.

It was happy days when I snapped this photo of Prasanna, Padmini and the young Kanishka and Matheesha. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

It was happy days when I snapped this photo of Prasanna, Padmini and the young Kanishka and Matheesha. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The first stage is the environment you were in immediately before it happened – a nostalgic look back, remembering last words exchanged, memories of the person or persons you lost and thoughts like if I did this or that could the outcome be different.

The Back verandah of Siriniwasa, circa 1970's. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. Photographer unknown.

The Back verandah of Siriniwasa, circa 1970’s. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. Photographer unknown.

The way we were at Siriniwasa. as happy go lucky children. L to R My sister Yasoja, myself, Prasannna with cousins Lucky & Pem. Circa 1950s. Copyright Chulie de Silva

The way we were at Siriniwasa. as happy go lucky children. L to R My sister Yasoja, myself, Prasannna with cousins Lucky & Pem. Circa 1950s. Copyright Chulie de Silva

The second stage is the actual disaster – what thoughts went inside your head, how you survived, how you reacted at that moment, along with the shock and disbelief that it is actually happening to you and your family.

Third is what you did immediately after the disaster – for most caught in the tsunami this is the poignant bit when you confront the destruction, death and the slow walk through the twilight zone of devastation.

Then you finally come to the short term and long term coping mechanisms – something all of us worked at quietly. Most of these I have written about — a sort of a cathartic of memories.

Siriniwasa, taken a few days after the tsunami.

Siriniwasa, taken a few days after the tsunami. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

The house, our house at Siriniwasa was the stage where the drama unfolded. This our ancestral house in Hikkaduwa, built by my grandfather K H Bastian de Silva in 1911, was not just a house. It had over nearly a century imbibed the laughter, the tragedies and indulged my father Bennie who inherited it. My grandfather — Seeya — had bought this land then for LKR 110 per perch and the whole block was 100 perches. The sea has eaten most of It away. Seeya, even then was thought a bold man to build a house with the back garden ending on the beach and he called it “Siriniwasa.”

My grandfather and grandmother with their seven sons. My father Bennie is seated on the left. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

My grandfather and grandmother with their seven sons photographed in front of Siriniwasa. My father Bennie is seated on the left. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

He was a building contractor by profession and is supposed to have built many bungalows for British planters and even the Hatton Post office.We have no written proof of his skill as a builder, but the main house he built stood strong against the wrath and fury of the tsunami. That’s proof enough for me.

A unique incumbent of Siriniwasa was the huge Chubbs ironsafe my grandafther had built into this house. According to Aunt Maya, my grandfather would light a huge hurricane lamp in the evening and keep it on top of the safe.The tsuanmi damaged safe in 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

A unique incumbent of Siriniwasa was the huge Chubbs ironsafe my grandafther had built into this house. AThe tsuanmi damaged safe in 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

He had a huge Chubbs iron safe, which was discarded by one of the planters. He must have got that down then by bullock cart. It was referred to as the “Yakada Almirah,” yakada being the Sinhala word for iron. My aunt Maya Senanayake remembers the evening ritual he conducted of lighting a huge hurricane lamp and placing it on top of the safe. All our valuables, including jewellery and even more precious the first letters we wrote as kids to my parents while at school in Panadura were in this safe. As a child I used to claim the safe was mine, because the first 3 letters were in my name too.

The mangled inside of the safe . The tsunami ripped the metal into shred. Photograph copyright Chulie de Silva.

The mangled inside of the safe . The tsunami ripped the metal into shreds. Photograph copyright Chulie de Silva.

My father who inherited the house called it the Garden on Sea and he converted the old “dara maduwa” (hut for keeping firewood) to a seaside cottage and added more rooms. However, the tsunami would show that he could not hold a candle to his father as a builder.

The cottage near the sea. Photo copyright Aruna Kirtisinghe

The cottage near the sea, which collapsed completely killing my brother Prasanna who was pinned under the collapsing walls.. Photo copyright Aruna Kirtisinghe

One year after the first anniversary I trekked back to be there at Hikkaduwa the time tsunami stuck to light lamps and bless my brother Prasanna who died here. Tragically, Prasanna was the last child to be born in this house and he is the one of our generation who closely resembled my grandfather. He was my lucky mascot, the one who made us laugh, the one person who was most of value to all in the family. The loss is huge and thoughts of him still brings tears.

What remains. ... Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

What remains. … Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

Lying on the hard mat on the floor that night in the house we sought refuge every bone in my body cried out. I dare not shed any tears for fears that I might not be able to stop.  I remember the bats crying, an owl hooting, the the smell of a dead rat that came with the changing wind 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.

Lassie, our faithful pet. 16 Oct.2005. Elpitiya, Sri Lanka

Lassie, our faithful pet. 16 Oct.2005. Elpitiya, Sri Lanka. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

t was after we moved to safer grounds that Kanishka, my nephew went looking for our pet Lassie. Padmini, my sister-in-law through grief of losing her beloved Prasanna, remembered Lassie floating on a cushion as the tsunami waters ripped through the house. Kanishka found him still keeping guard underneath the rubble of the house. Left with friends at a house slightly away from the sea, Lassie refused to eat the food that was offered to him and threw sand into his plate or turned it upside down.

Finally, when we brought him home to Elpitiya Lassie went berserk licking everyone and running around.

High among our material losses is this photo, which disappeared without a trace. I can only think it was a photographer who knew the value of a lovely composed old photo, who took it as a souvenier, not realising that it was a much valued family treasure.

Wedding photo of Romiel Anthony Fernando and Eva Edith Engelthina Dissanayake, among the tsunami 2004 debris at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. circa 28 Dec. 2004.

Wedding photo of Romiel Anthony Fernando and Eva Edith Engelthina Dissanayake, among the tsunami 2004 debris at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. circa 28 Dec. 2004.

What's left of my room at Siriniwasa after the tsunami of 26 Dec. 2005. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka.

What’s left of my room at Siriniwasa after the tsunami of 26 Dec. 2005. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka.

Post tsunami, I grieved over the debris but no one wanted to repair and come back to the house.

What was left of the house where additions to the main house was made. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

What was left of the house where additions to the main house was made. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Amma at 82 was vibrant and active till the tsunami stuck.  The pain of losing Prasanna was a heavy burden for all of us. Gradually she became quieter and more fragile. She didn’t like Elpitiya or Galle and always wanted to get back to Siriniwasa.

Amma in front of the Birawa Almirah, which survived the tsuanmi of 2004. Elpitiya, 22 April 2007.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma in front of the Birawa Almirah, which survived the tsuanmi of 2004. Elpitiya, 22 April 2007.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

I didn’t think my mother would survive 6 months after losing her favourite child but she did.

Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa. 12 Oct. 2013. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa. 12 Oct. 2013. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Seven years after the tsunami, the main house was repaired and the family moved back. However, Amma never ever stepped on to the back verandah. All the coaxing couldn’t get her to go for a walk on the beach, something she did twice a day without fail before the tsunami.  When I tried to take her, she would peep out side, but gently and firmly say “Not today.” She always  wanted the window of her bedroom that opened to the sea closed. The “today” when she would walk on the beach never came and she passed away on the 17th January this year.

Related Posts:

Ashes of thoughts for what the tsunami took away

Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe

 

In May I go a-walking in Washington

Yes, it was the Spring of 2008 and I was in Washington DC — the big city. Armed with my new camera I was drunk with the thrill of taking photos. Every moment of light was grabbed –early morning before going to work and evenings as the day ended.

Playtime in the gardens of the cathedral. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Playtime in the gardens of the cathedral. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Hearts are gay, blithe as May 
Dance and sport the livelong day;
Spring has come to make us glad, 
Let us give her greeting. 

Anon. The Cowslip

Weekends my friend Delores would plan my cultural forays to museums, art galleries, Washington Cathedral, Roosevelt Memorial Park . …the list was long. I was seeing Washington through my lens frame and she would slow down willingly as she did to catch this Sunday classic shot of baseball players.

On the road leaving Washington Cathedral, Washington DC, 17 May 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

On the road leaving Washington Cathedral, Washington DC, 17 May 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

My journeys would start in Dupont Circle, a very cosmopolitan area and I could have taken 100 shots here.

Men playing chess at Dupont Circle, Washington DC, 10 May 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Men playing chess at Dupont Circle, Washington DC, 10 May 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

I didn’t know about the genre of street clicks but that is what I was doing — see, like, click.

The ubiquitous Big Mac. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The ubiquitous Big Mac container at Dupont Circle. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Interestingly, McDonald’s tried to stifle a locally owned Lanka Spice Limited (LSL) from registering its trademark logo with the word McCurrie. Sri Lanka’s Intellectual Property Office rejected the notice of opposition. Its ruling said that the facts did not show any violation of the country’s intellectual property laws, noting that the LSLs “McCurrie” only sells raw spices through groceries and supermarkets in Sri Lanka and does not compete in the restaurant industry. LSL’s products have been in the market since 1982, according to local media reports.

Dupont Circle Metro. Washington DC. 25 May 2008.  Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Dupont Circle Metro. Washington DC. 25 May 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The grunting, groaning metro was there to get to the Washington Mall — often the most favoured destination.

Away from the hustle and bustle of a big city — the quiet read.

The quiet read. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The quiet read. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

As it fell upon a day,
In the merry month of May,
Sitting in a pleasant shade
Which a grove of myrtles made,
Beasts did leap, and birds did sing,
Trees did grow and Plants did spring.

Richard Barnfield. The nightingale

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial needs a separate blog but here’s is another shot taken as I was walking around.

Boy and his Dog at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memoria, Washington DC, 18 May 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Boy and his Dog at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memoria, Washington DC, 18 May 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

the Law and Order watchdogs.  Photograph©Chulie de Silva

the Law and Order watchdogs. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Then there are the other bikers. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Then there are the other bikers. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Yes, Washington was loads of fun and what could be more American than this of adults and kids playing!

The view from the Washington Cathedral. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The view from the Washington Cathedral. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Random Clicks In Kilinochchi

 

Dancing girls Kilinochchi, 21 July 2010. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Dancing girls Kilinochchi, 21 July 2010. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Going up North for work was so interesting in 2010. North was reviving and there was this wonderful joyous exuberance – especialy among the young.

The only setback for me was that I often had to put my camera through the window and plead with the drivers to slow down as I tried to frame, focus and click.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But am so glad for the memories.

See more at post on my new website.

The Old Nupe Market, Matara

Central Turret, Nupe Market Matara, 31 May 2014. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Central Turret, Nupe Market Matara, 31 May 2014. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

“I always remembered it for its shingled roof,” said a friend who hails from Matara about the Market in Nupe. Yes, the red Sinhala Kandyan period flat tiles –peti-ulu are there in this airy T-shaped building located at Wilmot Balasuriya Mawatha in Matara.

This interesting heritage building of the Nupe Market certainly caught my attention and my imagination soared. Historians claim it was built by the Dutch in 1775, and is one of the oldest Dutch surviving buildings. The British also lay claim to it– so did the British remodel an old building?

Read more on my new website: The Old Nupe Market, Matara

Matara: Digging Legends

 

Saman the crab catcher, rows across the Nilwala River. Matara. 31 May 2014 Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Saman the crab catcher, rows across the Nilwala River. Matara. 31 May 2014
Photograph© Chulie de Silva

After a days romp through the staid Dutch built Church, Fort and other monuments, I started digging around for the history of Matara and its legends.

One of the legends that emerged is of the scholar poet King Kumaradasa or Kumaradhatusena son of King Kasyapa of Sigiriya fame and the poet and dramatist, Kalidasa who is supposed to have lived sometime between, 170BCE and 634CE.  Matara likes to claim Kalidasa as a son of theirs but our big neighbhour India thinks otherwise. The salacious bit of the legend is that the handsome King in flagrante delicto with a courtesan, spied a bee entangled in the petals of a lotus flower, and was inspired to write two lines of poetry.

Read more about how the lives of the King and the Poet Kalidasa changed with this poem on my new website myislandlanka.com

Link directly to the story: http://myislandlanka.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=176:matara-digging-legends&catid=79:gods-temples-legends&Itemid=458

Spring Vienna 2007

Photos, photos and photos, you take heaps on holiday and then they lie inside a folder, often forgotten. … Till, one fine day, you unearth them from a half forgotten archive. It all comes back then — the walk through a park, on a warm spring morning in Vienna.

The grasses stirred as the soft wind rippled the water. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The grasses stirred as the soft wind rippled the water. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Time to go cycling with Dad. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

A father goes cycling with the duaghter. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Seeing the boy fishing in the clear stream, brought back memories of how my cousins and I used to fish in the little stream below the bridge at Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

A boy with his net catching fish in the clear stream. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Cooling off in the clear meandering stream. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Two girls and a horse cooling off in the clear meandering stream. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Photograph© Chulie de Silva

… and then there were the lovely birds —  drakes am told.  Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Three drakes in a row. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Three drakes in a row. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

.... and then there was four. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

…. and then there was four. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Four ducks on a pond,
A grass-bank beyond,
A blue sky of spring,
White clouds on the wing;
What a little thing
To remember for years
To remember with tears!

By William Allingham (1824 – 1889) , “Four Ducks on a Pond”, from Evil May-Day &c., published 1882