Category Archives: Write to Reconcile

Randomness-Part one

(Based on an in-class exercise at one of the Write to Reconcile workshops. A little simpler than what I would generally write, but here it is, until I come up with my next post)

Savithri and her sister Sujatha led their two dogs across the harvested field that belonged to Ananda, their father’s old friend. Everything was going the way of the two girls when they set out. The low breeze enveloped the world like a cool curtain, lifting the locks of hair off their once-sweaty shoulders. Their dogs barked and slobbered with dumb happiness as only a dog could as the girls led them by hand. Savithri heaved a sigh halfway there.
Their dogs were delightful, dainty little mongrels, and practically took care of themselves meant that she had time to spend-or “waste”-on herself. These were such sturdy, adaptable creatures, far more than the cattle and goats that were so common everywhere. The scent of coconut oil massaged finely into her glistening hair, was dancing on the sweeping wind. Her memory jogged along with her feet. Her parents said so many things about her “habits” as they called them.

“Worrying about her face! I will find a husband one day, then you will find out that your face is not at all important!” her mother rasped sharply from the labyrinth of her mind.

“Buy this dress, buy that!” The thunder of her father’s voice hit her like…

Pursing her lips, she shook her head violently. For fifteen years she’d been alive but for all those years, she’d never known what the thunder in the north was about. She felt in the depths of her heart that something was wrong with someone else in that vast country. A cascade of thoughts rushed through her and the wind brought on a sudden drop in temperature. “Catch up, come on!” Sujatha’s voice struck her in unison with the powerful chill of the wind. Emotions mixed in her mind and heart as she clenched her fists, nerves rising with each tremor of soft tan skin.
“Catch up, come on now!”
Some god with a crude sense of humor had tipped her world on its head. Why would she care what happened to those other people? The poor villagers. Those miserable creatures always shied away from her own race, but all she knew was, they were being massacred. Slaughtered like cattle, so the newspapers told her. Those words in block letters stung her heart as it drummed away within her ample chest. She was, for a second, blind and deaf, standing alone and straight as a pillar. The wind attacked her, biting viciously into her limbs and chest as dull, hellish thunder shook the air. The two dogs whimpered nervously.

“There, there.” Sujatha’s gentle voice calmed down her dog, a small spotted pup with spindly legs. “Now come on, sister, let’s go!”

Savithri’s face darkened, an emotionless cloud passing over her eyes.
She could not explain what she read about all the time. Slaughtered people, both Sinhala and Tamil, lying in their own blood. the hands of Yama, King of the Dead, would not lead them to his dark kingdom. The great tumulus of earth loomed ahead, casting a low shadow over the area. It stretched across the plain like an ugly scar, festering with pus of barbed wire. She had never tried to climb that barbed wire, unlike the foolish village children.
Their screams would echo from whatever monster lurked behind the mound. Monsters that took the form of humans, and wielding the cruelest weapons in all the Three Worlds.

 She was from the biggest house in their village.
She was not poor, she would never be poor.
But she asked herself, what right did she have to insult those ignorant and sometimes extremely young, poor children? Had she been like them-she prayed and wept every night, hoping that she wouldn’t-she would end up with her house burned and the flower of her innocence ripped away from her body.

That scar tainting her landscape hid secrets so dark that she felt her heart sink into an abyss as she pondered about the mound.
No divine hand could allow men to murder one another in cold blood. “Walking the dogs was all your idea, you know. You told me that we could go up to the…” The little girl’s excited and subtly confused banter stopped. Her sister’s expression was rock-hard but her mind was racing. The great wind once more lifted her dress off her legs as the vast shadow of a supersonic aircraft blotted out the sun like a hell-born bird. Sujatha looked up at Savithri.
The unspoken understanding between sisters rippled in the air as Savithri’s gaze hardened. This metal dragon had launched itself from behind the tumulus like all the others they had seen. Minutes crawled by at snail’s pace as the dogs whimpered at their mistresses. Thunder again filled their ears, though Savithri’s eardrums felt like exploding. But they didn’t.
“It doesn’t matter.” Her reply was curt. It was hopeless trying to think about the atrocities that occurred in their world. Nothing mattered. Not the dancing blades of grass, slicing against their legs, nor the angry roar that swept across the plain like an invisible wave. It didn’t matter when Savithri’s mind struggled with flashing images of the bomber’s vicious cargo decimating people in their thousands and turning beautiful forests into lifeless hellholes.

It didn’t at all.


A Journey with no Destination

I knew something was wrong even before I got home. I was an hour late and the roads had been full of slowly moving vehicles. Drivers impatiently pressed on the vehicle horns. It had been a hot and dusty ride back home. My fears were confirmed when I saw the relief on my mother’s face as I entered our home. I walked to the TV where my uncle and grandmother were already seated. The TV screen read in big bold letters, “at least 15 dead. Many more injured.”
“Suicide bomb. Just a bit away from your school. We were so worried” I heard my mother say.
“I’m just so sick and tired of this stupid war” I said as I walked to my room.
I heard my uncle tell my mother that maybe I should change schools. Colombo wasn’t safe anymore, and a place close to home will be better. My mother said, “we’ll wait and see. These things have to end someday” and then they moved on to the veranda to have an ‘adult’ conversation on politics, the war and the government.
That evening as I walked to my grandmother’s room to read I found her seated on her bed with an open album.
“Athammee, whose photographs are these?” I asked.
“This is my grandmother, then these are some people from your Seeya’s side” she said, showing me various photographs. I pointed to one of a man, his hair parted to a side. He was wearing a suit and was smiling slightly. Clearly taken in a studio, it was of various shades of brown.
After a few seconds of silence, she said “that’s my friend David. He was David Phillip Anthony I think. We were pen pals…”
From my grandmother’s story I learnt that David and Athammma used to be close friends. He was from Jaffna, which is where the war started and where the real fighting was. They used to send each other letters at least twice a week and he had even come for my grandmother’s wedding. His gift had been a beautiful clock. Slowly though the letters became shorter and then stopped altogether as the duties and responsibilities of adulthood and marriage took over.
“Why don’t you write to him again? Do you have his address?” I was excited by her story.
“I still remember it very well. No. 10, Shady Grove Avenue, Point Pedro.”
“Okay so send him a letter. Or at least a card”
“No Duwa. Times are different now. For all I know, he must be dead and gone.”
It may have ended there. Maybe it should have but a few weeks later, I was standing outside the Panadura post office with my grandmother.
“Come we’ll post it. Then maybe he’ll reply and you two can be friends again”
“We’ll see. I haven’t still decided”
“There’s nothing to decide”
“It’s not a good time you know. He’s a Tamil and” her voice trailed off. I knew what she meant, but the war that had been going on for decades never started as a racial war. It shouldn’t be a deciding factor when it comes to finding long lost friends or talking to those of a different race. When I told my grandmother my thoughts, she asked me to sit down for a bit.
“Duwa, you may think you have been part of the war, or you have seen all there’s to see. We live here, we don’t see what’s happening in the North. People are killed or forced to kill others. Maybe after the war, I’ll post this letter. Now is not a good time. Little things like these can cause a lot of unnecessary problems. When I was your age, I had so many Tamil friends. And I know the war shouldn’t be about race. But it is. Tamils and Sinhalese are enemies for now, or that’s how things are seen. For me this letter is about finding a dear friend, for you, it might be an adventure of some sort. For others though it’s betrayal and maybe even for him too. Maybe David is one of those people who hate us.”
We slowly left the post office, the letter still with us. What my grandmother told me was true. I had always been able to befriend Tamils, I never hated them. They had never hated me too. But most of us hadn’t been victims of this dreadful war. We were still too young to hate, to fight, to understand. We were never really in danger, only the threat of danger was present.
The years 2008 and 2009 were unforgettable. Schools were closed on most days, more bombs and more blackouts. The war had slowly moved to Colombo. People started leaving the country, fleeing to Canada, Australia and many other places. Friends left, family members left. Prices increased drastically, and more time was spent indoors, always watching news on TV. More and more planes and helicopters flew above us. Then finally in May 2009 the president announced that the war had ended. We sat in our school hall, watching the speech live. It made us all cry, it made us all happy. Finally it was safe again.
Then came the accusations from other countries, the legal issues, the photographs and movies. Jaffna also became a place we could go to, like Galle or Kandy. Busloads of people would go, visit these war torn areas and talk about the battlefields and the ruined city.
I had finished school by now, buses and trains were safer and the number of check points had reduced. Death was now not caused by war and it was truly part of the past. Then I got the opportunity to go to Jaffna with my mother and a few people we know. Finally, I thought, I get to see this unknown area of Sri Lanka.
To say Jaffna took me by surprise is an understatement. The town itself was being rebuilt, and already looked like Colombo. Shops had been re-opened; houses had been built, just three years after a war of three decades. Then there were the polka dotted houses, bullet holes a reminder of the war. Hints of buildings that once stood high. The threat of war was still present in Jaffna, soldiers were everywhere and a sense of uneasiness had taken over the area. Also the area affected shocked me. Jaffna, the city was a small area, but Jaffna, the North was a vast area, miles and miles of bare and dry land. The plants that bordered the road and surrounded the red sings that said “Mines!” were powdered with red dust. It wasn’t the city with the hospitals and restaurants that people really needed to see, these were the areas that really shook that little bomb inside me, that little bomb that released love and pride for this nation in my heart.
While we were walking around Jaffna town, buying palm oil and bee’s honey, I suddenly remembered David Anthony, my grandmother’s pen pal.
“Amma, can we please find Athamma’s friend? Please,” I begged her.
“How do we even find him?”
“We’ll just find the house. I remember the address. And hope for the best”
“Duwa, we don’t even know this area”
My mother gave in though, and we took a three wheeler to Shady Grove Avenue. The sea breeze and palm trees made the ‘Takaran’ house filled street look almost beautiful. Some of the houses were quite big, newly built and painted in bright colors. Others though, like the house that once belonged to David, were small and had fences made of metal sheets or takaran. We knocked on the hot gate and waited for someone to come out of the house. Just as my hope began to slip away, a somewhat old man in a sarong came out.
I spoke to him in Sinhala and asked if a David Phillip Anthony lives here. A smile covered his face when I mentioned David’s name.
“Miss, he was a very good friend. He told me his address and once the war ended I came to live here. We met at a camp, two months before the war ended” a faraway look clouded his eyes, and he slowly told us the rest of the story.
“I somehow lived down the 3rd lane, just close by even though those weren’t good times. I never understood politics and I never took sides. Then one night, our street was also bombed and for hours I was under all the debris. I found my wife and two children dead. Their bodies were crushed. It broke my heart, miss. Then an Army truck took all of us who survived, another five people and I, to a camp. There we were given small meals and dirty clothes. There was never enough water for a bath, until the war ended four months later we lived under tents, in the burning hot sun. There I met this David fellow, such a good man. We started talking and that’s how we became friends. How do you know him, miss?”
My mother told him how David had been my grandmother’s pen pal and that we were interested in finding him.
“Yes yes. I remember him telling me how he had this friend. He wrote to her, and he said that he wished they were still friend. It came about when I said I had relatives in Kaluthara, from Panadura, noh?” he asked us. I nodded my head, and asked him where David was now.
“Don’t know, miss. He left the camp before I did, and I never saw him again.” We all had tears in our eyes by now; Samuel, old and frail as he remembered his friend who shared the pain and horrors of a refugee camp with him, like a brother would, my mother because the story just shook her and I, well I had expected a perfect ending but only ended up with so many unanswered questions.
We spoke with Samuel for some more time, we sipped the hot plain tea he served us, and we listened to his stories about the war. When we left Shady Grove Avenue that evening, I realized we may never come back, no more letters would be sent to this address. We left Jaffna two days later and as I sat in the bus, looking at the blue sky and trees and people, I felt sad. I had seen everything I wanted to, I had enough memories to last a life time, but I only had a story with no ending for my grandmother. Maybe I would keep on looking for David or maybe he will fade away from my mind as he may have from this world.

Write to Reconcile Anthology

Written for Reconciliation wouldn’t even exist if not for Write to Reconcile. I met Vasika during the Colombo workshop and we had enough and more time to talk, even later, during the Jaffna workshop. We had our anthology launch on September 4, and it was perfect. Seeing the anthology in print made me realize just how real the entire experience was.
Last December, we were asked to send in our applications. I remember writing a story about a long lost friend of my grandmother. Of course the story was made up, but my grandmother once knew a David from Jaffna and so it became that my contribution to the anthology too, was not altogether fiction.
The launch which took place at 80 Club, Colombo, had a full audience. H.E Ambassador Grete Lochen, Royal Norwegian Embassy, H.E Ambassador Michele Sisson, Embassy of the United States of America and Dr Jehan Perera, National Peace Council addressed the audience. Further, Project Director, Shyam Selvadurai presented a lovely introduction to the Anthology.
Anyway, at the launch, I had to speak about my experience and this is what I put together.
Hello, my name is Shailendree and I was one of the Write to Reconcile participants. When I heard about the program, I was more than just excited. Here was the perfect opportunity to work with one of my favourite authors, doing something I love. Yet, on my way to Boralesgamuwa, where the Colombo workshop was held, I was having second thoughts. How could someone as asocial and awkward as I handle four days with people I have never known before?

Then I met the Shyam and Nayomi, who conducted the sessions. The words were never forced out of us. Even when we had to work on poetry forms like sonnets and haikus, it was quite easy to bring our ideas and words together. And for that I have the authors to thank, for they did an amazing job bringing out the writers in us. I must also say that if not for these sessions, I wouldn’t have the confidence to talk in front of a crowd, or be able to happily accept comments and criticism on my work. Write to Reconcile showed us that it wasn’t enough to write, you must also be able to make changes and listen to the reader’s opinion and interpretation of your work.

The organizers, Shiromi and Amrita, took care of all of us, especially the younger participants who were treated like their own children. They made sure we were all well fed, in good health and were managing quite well. Whenever we were out, in Colombo shopping for books or in Jaffna enjoying the Fort, they were always taking care of us.

Finally, the participants. You all were such amazing people. Not age, where we came from, the social circles we moved around in or what we did in life, nothing mattered and it didn’t take more than a few hours to make friends with everyone. The online forums and groups made us spend time with various participants and during the program nothing stopped us from sharing our lives with each other. Everyone had their own stories, and it was so easy blend in and feel like you have known these people all your life.

The places we went to were much more than seeing an area of our island most of us had never been to before. We were not aware that such diverse culture coexisted within our small nation. Coming from Colombo, I was able to widen my identity as a Sri Lankan and we were able to incorporate our experience and observations into our stories. Walking down the deserted roads, enjoying night-time Jaffna, made us all feel like we were one and not people from two corners of the country. After the Jaffna workshop ended, we weren’t leaving behind just another city, we were leaving behind a place we had started to call home.

Finally, it must be said that Write to Reconcile wasn’t just an opportunity to contribute to an anthology. Looking at the printed copies, we all can say, “We made this happen.” Yet, what we have learned since the beginning of the year, and the experience is invaluable. The Write to Reconcile journey we took has reached its destination and I must thank everyone who made it worth the ride.

I’ve read only a handful of the contributions and plan to read all the stories as soon as I can. And I would recommend the anthology, which can be downloaded for free here, to anyone.

Page after page
that new book smell
small black letters
carved into
untouched paper
our names on print
the words
we put together
day and night
creating a
not always
fictitious world
where characters came alive
our thoughts given a voice
and now
the book in print
we hold it
too scared that
our human touch
will wake us up
for this reality
is so perfect
the moments
they seem like
a dream