Tsunami 5+: the longest day, the darkest night, memories that linger

“What good is all the reconstruction, when we have no parents” — orphaned boy in Hambantota Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

Emotions have a mind of their own.  It doesn’t respond well to reason or logic.  You can suppress them, hold them, seal them but once a year about this time the lid flies open, the jack-in-the box horror spills out.

Prasanna Kirtisinghe

Cresenta Fernando

Prasanna, my brother and Cresenta my colleague are but two out of the hundreds the sea devoured that day.  For the many I met  in these 5 years the scars of that wound go deep.

The wound is just below, a little scratch and the wound bleeds– a person that from the back looks like Prasanna my brother, a girl playing tennis reminding me of Cresenta’s jokes about the view from my office.

As the 26 Dec. draws near, the images gradually become more vivid, intense, horrifying.

My eyes were the video camera that I didn’t possess.  Like in a slow moving movie, they appear — the early morning walk on the beach;  the smell of sulphur in the water as I bathed in the sea at Hikkaduwa; the boys playing cricket on the beach; the time on the clock on the dressing table and above all the image of Prasanna in a red  and white striped T-shirt, a gift from my niece Ranmali and her husband Aaron.  I can still hear his voice “What time are you going back, give me your car keys, I’ll wash your car.  Your Sunday papers are on the table in the kotu midula. .. what? you still don’t know how to check the radiator water – want to do it now or later?” I wish for the millionth time, we had gone to check the radiator water at that time.  Then we would have been at the front of the house.

The sea behind our house where I bathed on 26 Dec.2004. Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

 As I work in the office my mind shifts gears and I plunge into thoughts of the day that started off with so much laughter and joy and how it turned into a twilight zone horror  — the unimaginable scenes of death and destruction–bodies in trucks piled high,  bodies twisted and foaming at the mouth,  the body of Prasanna on the verandah at the  rural hospital in Arachchikanda, and the terror and helplessness in my mind in the face of this colossal tragedy.  Outside the perimeter of the hospital it is pitch dark.   There’s no electricity, no petrol, no mobile telephones and I have no money.  A Doctor cautions, “animals might come in the night for the smell of blood.”  We move Prasanna’s body further inside and leave a note on his body as an identification tag with instructions not to take it  to a mass grave. One of his faithful workers stand vigil while I get a lift back to the Annasigala Farm where we sought refuge.

There my friend Laleeni was up waiting for me and had kept dinner for me.  I eat a bit but the food has no taste. My mother, not knowing her favourite son was gone sleeps on the bed with my nephew Mathisha and his mother Padmini.  Later I learned that throughout the night Mathishsa had been touching his mother’s eye lids gently to check whether she was crying.

Lying on the hard mat on the floor, every bone in my body cries out. I dare not shed any tears for fears that I might not be able to stop.  Bats cry, an owl hoots, the changing wind brings the smell of a dead rat 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.

The next day ,  my younger brother  Pradeep finds an old school chum and his car takes us to my brother’s cinnamon plot where we plan to bury him.  There we had to carry Amma in a chair across the padi fields and up the terraces to the cinnamon peeling bungalow where the funeral was to be held.  In the hastily given instructions the previous day, I had asked for the coffin to be closed but the villagers had left it open as is the custom here.  My mother wails “this is not my handsome son, “when she sees the bloated distorted body.We hastily closed the lid.  Mathisha later said it was easier for him to handle it as he didn’t look like his father. Our family friend and scholar priest Rev. Thilaka is there. The sermon tries to assuage the grief – life can get snuffed out like the wind blowing out a lamp. …

A week later,  Rev. Tilaka directs me to the undertaker’s house.  The undertaker had burned Prasanna’s clothes fearing infection and found my car key in the ashes.  I meet him and introduce myself.  No words are spoken. He quietly gets up from his almchair, and searches between the rafters on the roof and fish out the singed key.

 Five years down the line how have we handled this tragedy?

Tsunami orphans in Hambantota. Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

I wonder how the orphaned kids I met in Hambantota are doing.

Then there is Shanika that Shahidul Alam photographed and wrote about. couple of years later.  Last time I saw her she was growing up into a beautiful girl.

Then I despaired as to how we would manage without Prasanna’s larger than life presence in our lives.  I underestimated our strength and the human spirit.

Now I can look back and say thank you to Upal Soysa , Laleeni, and many in the family who helped us get back on our feet.

Amma on her 87 Birthday with Mathisha. Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

Kanishka, Prasanna ‘s elder son graduated and took his oaths as a lawyer and is working now.  Mathisha  the younger has got through his ‘O’ levels  with flying colours . He is studying for his “A” levels and loves cars as much as Prasanna did but wants to be an accountant.  With the sons doing well, I see smiles on Padmini’s and Amma’s faces.  My mother at 87, is more fragile, more keen on the Dhamma but can still sing from memory the song that my father wrote to her in a letter in the 60’s.

My tsunami experience is my own private epic tear jerker movie.  Hollywood or CNN are poor imitators.  Every year the reels come out, gets re-edited, viewed from a different angle.  It’s cathartic, it never grows old.

2005:  Ashes of thoughts what the tsunami took away

2006:  A look back twenty four moons after the tsunami

2007:  Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe

2008: How Blue was my sea at Hikkaduwa

23 thoughts on “Tsunami 5+: the longest day, the darkest night, memories that linger

  1. Chulie,

    I thought of you here this morning even before I read this poignant well drafted note. Five years have lapsed and you must be back at Hikkaduwa for the annual alms giving ceremony in memory of those who have departed.

    May the peace of Moksha be upon all those who perished on that fateful day.

  2. You did well, Chulie, that day.One can survive tragedy only by trying to protect others; by going outside of one’s self.
    A scrap from Tennyson comes to mind, unbidden:
    “He is not here, but far away
    The sounds of life begin again
    And ghastly, through the drizzling rain,
    On a bald street breaks the blank day”
    Does this make sense? I don’t know. But it resonates.
    Blank days – they will always be with us.

    • Dear Sir, Jaffna, Angel and Dr. Lakshman

      Thank you all — Tennyson is very apt and makes perfect sense. I went for the almsgiving at the temple of Rev. Thilaka in Katudampe, off Ratgama. It was a day of drizzling rain which turned into real storm on the way back along the Moratuwa coast road. Yes, the blank days will be with us and I think for me it is the days before 26th that are hard. The ritual of almsgiving when we all gather as a family is very healing.

  3. Chulie,

    Very moving indeed. Time is the best healer. I didn’t know all this. May Prasanna attain nibbana.
    Writing in haste on a trip out of Colombo. But I just had to respond immediately.


  4. This is one of those occassions when I cannot (and no one can) find the right words, say it to you and share in your grief fully. Your ability to convey in such graphic details the events of 5 years ago and your feelings helps us to share some of your grief. I have no answer as to why it happened to Prasanna; none whatsoever.
    And why your mother, nephews and you were put through all this trauma. On occasions like this I ask the question “where was God”. We all have our blank days. you are not alone.

    • True there are no right words that we can say to anyone at times of grief but any words expressed caringly helps immensley. I remember all who wrote and called post 2004 Tsunami– and not all were friends. One such person was Diana Captain, a former U.S. Embassy Cultural Officer. I had not worked with her, nor did I know her well but I took offence at a remark of hers to me made at a function many moons ago. Her phone call to me took me by surprise but touched me very much too. She too had lost a brother and understood the pain. So, thank you all for the caring responses.

  5. Dear Chulie

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful write up and for thinking of me. No words can describe the tragedy that happened, but I hope the loving memories will continue to comfort you. Sending loving thoughts your way.

    Love and blessings

  6. How I wish all who lost loved ones on that fateful day could read your beautifully written words. It would be so cathartic. They would know there is someone who has spoken for them.

  7. A beautiful and moving remembrance. May the tragic memories of that fateful day give way to a lasting peace – the peace that I’m sure your brother’s departed soul has found.

  8. Dear Chulie

    As usual we always think first of you and Cresenta on the 26th. Your thoughts continue to evoke so many memories of that day. This year there was a documentary on the anniversary with a lot of footage of the day that I had not seen before, and so many of the situations reminded me of what you and Cresenta faced that day.

    Time heals but as you so eloquently note it doesn’t take much to reveal the wounds.

    My sincere wishes that 2010 will be good to you and to all Sri Lankans, not least those whose lives have never really got back to normal after the tsunami.

    Warmest regards, Peter

    • Dear Peter

      I was blessed too to have had you as an empathetic and supportive Country Director at the time of the tragedy. I remember how hard you worked and spearheaded the World Bank’s tsunami recovery program and from me and many anonymous beneficiaries all over Sri Lanka a big thank you for all you did for us. Among the sad images there are the good images too that bring a smile to my face — You are a part of that :-))

      With best wishes for 2010 and beyond


  9. Dear Chulie — five years and so many miles away, yet that infamous day will always be with us. Thank you for reconnecting me so powerfully to your remarkable brother, to Cresenta and so many others — and for your annual updates of the ways in which you and your family have been able to move forward inspite of the unspeakable loss that is with you everyday.

  10. I’m lost for words. It gives life a whole new perspective, and makes us truly appreciate every day and every person in our lives.

  11. Dear Jan

    For me there is a strong need to put down some thoughts that crowd my mind at this time – but am never sure how others will see my writing. Especially my thoughts turn to Cresenta, often a silent presence in the office for me and to Prasanna when I see the sons growing up well. Thank you and good to hear the post made you reconnect.

    with best wishes for 2010 and beyond


  12. With the arrival of each boxing day I cast my mind back to 26/12/04 and the catastrophic events that literally shook my old country to its core. In its wake, a new word, “tsunami”,made its way into the Sri Lankan lexicon which wrought havoc in a few terrifying minutes. Looking back, we as a family, many thousands of miles away, were pretty numbed and helpless by the thought that Prasanna, my brother-in-law was lost and the rest of his family were victims of both physical and psycological trauma, quite undeservedly. Nevertheless, in referring to an old saying “the past is history, the present is a gift and the future is a mystery” I would rather be considered philosophical rather than blaise, and sincerely hope that all victims of that boxing day tragedy 5 years ago can put aside their pain, focus on the future and move on although this is admittedly, more easily said than done, given this massive upheaval in their lives.

    Quite often, good deeds are invariably unacknowledged and indeed inevitably forgotten but that’s in the nature of things. We, Yasoja, Ranmail and Arjuna,as part of Prasanna’s family living in faraway Brisbane, thought of the most tangible way to help and delivered this in our own, small way. But what is most disappointing is the allegation that around half a billion dollars of tsunami aid money sent by a generous public has either gone missing (this is akin to stealing from a homeless person on the street), or spent on projects unrelated to the disaster, whilst many thousands still languish in grinding poverty . As one who actively participated in raising funds in this part of the world to help tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, I hope the powers that be carry out an extensive audit and explain the utilisation of monies that had been received, and ensure that families that lost everything they had, are given, at the very least a roof over their heads with adequate measures to follow in the areas of education and health. .

    May better and more prosperous days lie ahead for all of you.

  13. Chuli Nanda,

    Came here by way of the blog that has a photo of Manel Mal. I had lost track of your blog for a while though. You write poignantly and I could live a life in those words.

    I just thought of leaving a comment that will stay in my life forever. This was told by Sen. Edward Kennedy to sons of late. Robert Kennedy when they lost their father to an assasins bullet:

    “Even the most profoundest of losses are survivable by Man (Woman)”

  14. Dear Chuli,
    found your page by accident. I had your short message by mail to all the things you told in here.
    I remember your brothher Prasana very well. And he loved his Ford automobile so much. Allways rummaged in Automobile-Journals. I often think about him.
    I am lucky to read, that the two boys of him are going a good way.
    Give my best regards to the whole family.

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  17. Years later your blog continues to echo through the hearts and minds of people. I wandered off here from a google search. Epic tale this one is.! “Even this day will pass into memory”. what an idea to have in the mind when going through such times.
    Thanks for writing this and letting the memory live. I hope your brother and friend are now in good places in their journey of this universe.

  18. Pingback: Unbridled thoughts on Tsunami Anniversary | Chuls Bits & Pics

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