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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Post tsunami, I grieved over the debris but no one wanted to repair and come back to the house.
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.
I didn’t think my mother would survive 6 months after losing her favourite child but she did.
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.