A Sri Lankan Remembers
I FaceTimed with my parents this morning. I can see the pain and incredulity in their faces. Why would any Muslim group target churches? Sri Lankan Christians and Muslims have always had a good relationship. If anything, the Buddhist extremists have been the most antagonistic towards the Muslims recently. So why attack these churches? Why? Why? I try to wrap my head around this question as well. All that wrapping just blankets my mind in more questions, more confusion, more pain. I am thinking about my seven-year old self again.
The story goes like this: one day at school, two boys chased me down and having finally cornered me, they shouted, “What are you? Singhalese or Tamil? Singhalese or Tamil???.”
My father pauses, and I say, “Well, what happened next?”
He says, “You said you told them that you were Singhalese of course. That’s when I knew we had to leave Sri Lanka.”
You see my father is Singhalese, but my mother is Tamil. And in 1984 as the civil war between the Singhalese and Tamil reached new heights, my father knew he didn’t want his children growing up denying a part of themselves. That event was the spark that fueled our emigration from Sri Lanka to Uganda, then Kenya and finally to these United States of America.
And 35 years later the Easter Sunday bombings have taken me back in time. To that little boy. And I am trying to desperately unlock that memory of being chased down, hunted down, and cornered and asked to declare who I am. Nothing comes up. No image, no word, no recollection. But I feel weighed down again. I feel like that little boy might have felt. Burdened by a mob that made him choose a side. I imagine if that boy never escaped the mob and grew up to be an angry man. A man who was told he must choose one way of being in this world or be annihilated. A man who might one day strap a bomb to himself and walk into a building and annihilate it for not choosing him.
“Aiya, aiya did you hear?” my sister’s voice is choked with panic and sadness at 7:45am this past Sunday morning. I have picked up the phone as my settings only allow family members to break through my silent mode before 8am on Sundays. Still in the fog of sleep I barely utter a “no, what happened?”
“A bombing, churches, three churches have been bombed in Sri Lanka and hotels as well. The Cinnamon Grand was one of them. Oh Aiya it’s terrible.”
My father is Catholic. My mother is Methodist. My sister is Episcopalian and I am devastated. The Cinnamon Grand was one of the hotels where my wife and I spent part of our honeymoon. Much of my extended family lives in Colombo and goes to church every Sunday. But this is Easter Sunday. A day of resurrection we were taught. A day to rejoice Jesus rising from the dead. A miraculous day.
I am not religious. But if you press me to answer what religion I identify with, I would say Christian. I’m culturally and emotionally Christian I suppose. My parents and my sister have a strong belief in God, in Jesus. I have faith, but I don’t know in what. Would an actual beneficent God let 290 people be blown up in a highly coordinated massacre? I suppose a person with faith would answer that God has his reasons. God, I wish I knew what they were.
This coming May would have marked ten years since the end of the civil war. It would have been an anniversary to rejoice and celebrate the hard-earned peace that Sri Lanka has fought so resiliently to attain. This May will no longer mark ten years of peace in Sri Lanka. Instead it will be the one-month anniversary of the deadly Easter Sunday attack. It will be used undoubtedly by politicians wanting to gain power and by religious ideologues to tout the supremacy of their faith.
But the Sri Lanka I know is a country of multiplicity. I remember growing up with peoples of all faiths. The wonder of biryani being brought to our house on Ramadan by our Muslim friends, and sweet treats on Vesak by our Buddhist friends and presents by brown Santa Clause on Christmas day. The Sri Lanka I grew up with was about eating heavenly Kottu Roti from Raheema’s, watching the legendary Royal/Thomian rivalry cricket matches and joyful and rambunctious family gatherings at Patty Aunty’s house. It was about the Singhalese neighbor who shielded the Tamil neighbor from riot mobs. It was about community and caring. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe my seven-year old memories have played tricks on me just like it buried those boys hunting me down. Maybe the country was always layered with rifts and fissures, no doubt laid down by the hundreds of years of colonization. But that’s not what I remember. That’s not the Sri Lanka I carry in my heart.