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Malinda Seneviratne


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What is the definition of tragedy? What are its known contours? What are its measurements? Why is nature so cruel? Is it because we ourselves as a collective are cruel? But were they all cruel these people that died? Weren't some of them innocent? What can we do? Would it be enough to help people in whatever way we can? Will that cure them of their sense of loss?

The bombardment of questions is nothing like a tremendous wave flooding our hearts, minds and lives with ocean, that mysterious and awe-inspiring entity that surrounds and sustains us. Still, there comes a point in the question-answer process that attempts to make sense of tragedy that leaves you numb. These questions leave you without explanation, they forbid conclusive answer. Man-made tragedy, despite its own complexities, is comprehensible even in part because at least some of the causes, some of the precipitating factors can be obtained. When nature strikes, the logic flows from a cosmology we are incapable of grasping. We are left speechless.

I wrote to a friend of mine that I am overwhelmed. Friends ask questions I have already asked myself and others, questions that have remained unanswered. I feel helpless and impotent. Ours is such a small country and the tragedy is so colossal that everyone alive today would know of some friend, relative or acquaintance who died, who suffered loss of property, loved ones and life as they had come to understand. This national tragedy is already a personal one for each and every one of us. It is not something that happened to some other people in some other place. It happened to us, to me, here in my land, in my neighbourhood and in my heart.

This country has known tragedy, both man-made and otherwise. We have got used to almost annual relief efforts. Our people have always risen to the occasion, putting aside all differences and these efforts have been in the order of a generosity that has by and large outweighed the impact of the profiteers and profiteering that seems to be so naturally spawned by tragedy. And so, today, our concerns and sorrow at the suffering and loss of our fellow-human beings have produced a giving that is in a sense as tremendous as the waves that took away familiar landscapes and known and unknown lives. We have shifted into top gear in the matter of collecting money, providing food, clothing, medicine and shelter. Our people are cultured enough to help the helpless for as long as it takes.

What then? Sooner or later, we have to address the question of rebuilding lives and livelihoods. We will use our resources and will gladly accept whatever help our friends from other countries provide. Sooner or later, there will be houses. There will be schools and hospitals, and jobs even.

But do these constitute the entirety of "rebuilding", of "recovering" lives? No, it will never end and I believe it should never end because this is something that has produced a lifetime's grieving all around. People cannot and most will not recover their lives. How will they recover from the loss of loved ones, someone asked me. This is the poverty-stricken answer I could come up with.

"This is a national tragedy but to each and everyone who lost someone near and dear it is an unbearable personal loss. It is in this sense no different from someone hearing that his lover with whom he had spent a beautiful evening being run over by a bus a few minutes after she happily waved goodbye promising to meet him the following evening as well. Devastating, but we all learn to accept death and separation and courageously wear the attendant scars throughout our lives. So it is with this."

That answer didn't satisfy the young woman who asked me the question. It didn't satisfy me either. My sister called me from the United States and she was wondering how she could help apart from raising funds for relief work. She said "I could adopt a couple of children, maybe". She was thinking out loud as any one of us would under the circumstances. "How about parents who lost their children, aren't they orphaned too, in a way?" I asked her.

Of course we could all do our little bit and hope that these little bits would in aggregate yield some kind of material recovery. We could, each of us, as my wife suggested, "adopt" a family or a child, providing some food, clothing and medicine until such time the physical infrastructure is rebuilt and livelihoods recovered. I am sure that even in these inflationary times, our people have it in their hearts to make the necessary sacrifices.

Is that enough? What is the true meaning of "enough"? These questions kept me awake last night and will keep me awake many more nights too. Would the answer be, "Enough is when people have their own homes again and when they recover the dignity of being able to say, 'You have been magnanimous and our gratitude knows no limits, but now we are able to manage on our own'"?

I don't know. We can't give back son and daughter to mother and father, parents to orphaned children, lover to distraught lover, friend to grieving friend, neighbour to broken neighbour. We will not be able to give back community to displaced lives, home to dismembered family, or hope to those who lost the providers of hope.

I just wrote to a beautiful human being, as lost as I am in the surging waves of incomprehension, that maybe we have to be (as best we can) the fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters and friends, to those who lost their loved ones. Speaking strictly for myself, I am terrified that I will not be able to be these things to these people.

So I tell myself, "let there be no time-frame for this kind of giving". I tell myself, "let there not be in this giving anything that bruises dignity". I tell myself, "let there be no capital whatsoever made in this giving".

Let there be my friends, in this giving, a coming together, a sharing of grief and a caressing of hearts and a more nuanced and benign understanding of the human condition. We have suffered as a people. We are grieving as a nation. Let us from the debris raise a spirit and solidarity that will be the one true tribute we can give all those who perished. Through this surging of compassion and fortitude let us contest the waves that scattered our lives. And in embracing the ocean thus, let us gather together something indescribably human in ourselves, in each other and as a nation.




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