April 22, 2019

Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka

It was a perfect sunny day in Weligama. I was lying in a cabana at the Marriott hotel beach, sipping on a chilled king coconut and listening to Frank Ocean on Spotify. It is but ironic that I was reading ‘The Runaways’ by Fatima Bhutto. Fiction, but so real. If you read till the end, you’ll know why.

Before he started driving, Fernando would kiss the cross hanging from the rear view mirror.

Our driver and tour guide for the week, Fernando* from Negombo came to me looking visibly disturbed, ‘Something really bad has happened, Ms. Gayatri’. He showed me a video of bodies strewn across the floor of a demolished church and the loud cries of those who had been hurt. His screen was cracked so visibility was low, but I could tell this was bad just by the sounds I could hear. I got a horrible feeling at the pit of my stomach. ‘It must be the muslims’, he added. The feeling got worse. Do you mean IS? I wanted to ask. But this wasn’t the right time. He was clearly operating from a place of shock and fear. A father of two at 49, Fernando lost his own father when he was 19 when the LTTE barged into his home and shot his father in front his eyes. He could never forget that moment that changed his life, but insisted that even 30 years of civil war did not see an incident like this one. Disoriented, and without any warning, he suddenly walked away to make some calls to check on his family, many of whom were likely to be at this church on this festive Easter morning. One of his uncles did not make it, we learnt the next morning.

A few hours passed. The hotel staff and army had checked every room and suitcase in the building. They said we were at high risk because we are in the biggest hotel in the Southern Province. Army personnel were placed few feet apart all around the hotel, but the hotel staff were going about their business as usual. As I looked around there was a sudden sluggishness about everyones movements despite the smiley faces. The uncertainty wasn’t over. No one had claimed responsibility for the attacks yet, or atleast not in the media. Curfew started at 6 PM and went on till 6 AM the next day, after which it was announced that Sri Lanka was officially in a state of emergency.

We were learning of one blast after another until the count stopped at eight. Without any certainty about where the next one would be, the hotel staff kept us feeling safe. Underneath their calm demeanour, I could sense a heaviness and persistent sadness. Since the day I landed, I had felt an ingenuity and a jovial nature among the Sinhalese people. I inherently trusted them and let my Delhi guard down.

What made me sad, in addition to the event itself was the understanding the locals had that tourists must not feel affected by this reality. Partly because tourism is a big source of livelihood since the civil war, and partly because an attack of this nature is supposed to be the problem of the particular country that is undergoing this horrific loss at a particular point in time. I realised how we have failed at many levels as a people. Instead of tourists showing up for the locals whose families had been torn apart, the locals were being strong for us tourists.

What could possibly drive someone to kill 200 innocent and happy church goers? They suffer in ways I could never understand. However, I have tried to make sense of one particular reason that drives young people with creative potential to radicalisation.

The peculiar isolation of the educated poor, reduced to watching life from the outside, from the gates of big houses they were not permitted inside. (The Runaways, Fatima Bhutto Page 404).

The above lines are written about a young girl called Anita Rose who was born and raised in the slums of Karachi. She changes her name to Layla in her teenage years to avoid being a minority Christian in a city that has mostly Muslims. She gets radicalised in her late teenage years despite having attended an American School among highly educated and upwardly mobile classmates. She was a misfit there owing to her background but she did a fairly good job of blending in, until she didn’t deep inside. Income inequalities and disparities that exist in Karachi, much like any other metropolitan city of India create an environment of frustration among the youth who feel they deserve better than being discriminated against for no fault of theirs. While marginalisation does not justify radicalisation, Bhutto makes you empathise with iPhone and Tumblr using teenagers who yearn for the same validation that non radicalised youth crave in life. Ultimately, what we all want is to be seen in a world that views so many as outsiders.

Another character in the book, Sunny aka Salman Jamil was spat on while he was on his way to school one day on the bus and accused of causing the 9/11 attacks by an elderly white woman. As a young man who was ready for college, he did not view himself as a ‘Paki’ or a migrant. His father had migrated from Pakistan and lost his wife soon after Sunny’s birth, leaving him alone in a foreign land to raise a son and build a new life by himself. Sunny was second generation, born and raised in Britain. As English as any one of them on the bus that day but felt marginalised every single day because of his name.

Being in Sri Lanka during the deadliest attacks the country has seen in a quarter century is a reminder of the importance of working with the urban poor to create opportunities for each individual to realise their potential so that young people feel seen and recognised for simply being their ordinary or extraordinary selves, regardless of their identities. One life equal to the life of any other. We are all born equal after all, but in today’s polarised world only in theory.

The story of Sri Lanka’s deadliest terror attack and that of the 3 individuals in ‘The Runaways’, who were radicalised are all the same stories. They are the stories of people feeling marginalised by a society that has failed to include them and by leaders who fail to create a narrative that makes hatred unacceptable. The responsibility of preventing such an inhuman and colossal attack on humanity in the future starts with each of us being less racist in the privacy of our living rooms, less polarising and more empathetic towards each other and carrying each other with patience when it is difficult to see another’s point of view. Engaging with those who think differently and trying to walk a mile in their shoes rather than rejecting their views. Being more tolerant of a life lived different than yours.

I believe humans inherently do the best they can given the tools they have. We suffer with limited bandwidth given the struggles we face. Ultimately, our individual and collective sufferings, and their alleviations drive most of our decisions. If we could hold each other with tolerance rather than anger and hate, peace could be on the horizon.

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. — Nelson Mandela, Long walk to Freedom.
So long, Sri Lanka. Until we meet again. Stay strong ❤ Praying for the families that have been left to deal with unfathomable loss. I had tears in my eyes when I saw this before flying back to Delhi. (This is a sign at the airport in Colombo.)


*Name changed to protect identities.