Seenigama lies two hours south of the capital city of Colombo, on the western coast of Sri Lanka. From my friend Kushil Gunasekara’s vacation home, Lahiru, you cannot see the ocean, but on a quiet day you can hear it. For five years, Kushil has been running the Foundation of Goodness—an organization aimed at raising the standard of living in Seenigama and the surrounding villages. He rented Lahiru out to his Colombo friends to finance his efforts. They, in turn, donated generously to Kushil’s efforts, happy to contribute to the village’s projects and crabbing only mildly about not being able to smoke or drink inside the premises.
When I visited Seenigama, almost a month after the Boxing Day tsunami ravaged the coastlines of Southeast Asia, I could not recognize Lahiru. The tennis court had disappeared, the swimming pool was filled with sludge, and there was an indelible watermark almost touching the ceiling of the ground floor—a stark reminder of what had happened. The village itself was in a state of ruin: lives and livelihoods completely destroyed, seemingly beyond repair. I kept wondering how the sea could have moved so far inland, a mile and a half over beach and road and street, to attack this village with such force and fury.
On the morning of December 26, Kushil and his staff were waiting for one hundred children coming to Lahiru to collect school supplies for the new year. It was to be a special treat, with Sri Lanka’s most popular sports star, the cricketer Muttiah Muralidaran, agreeing to distribute bags, stationery, and water bottles, which the kids could otherwise not afford. Muralidaran, who was en route to Seenigama, turned back to Colombo when he was warned of the wave, while Kushil and his staff managed to escape by running to the Buddhist temple on top of the hill. But over half the children who were traveling to Lahiru perished when the sea swept away their bus. It is something that will haunt Kushil for the rest of his days, along with the image of an old woman he couldn’t save, twisting and turning in the water in front of him.
As I traveled along the south coast of Sri Lanka, I heard story after story of personal grief and sorrow, as heart-rending and desolate as Kushil’s. People had lost families, homes, livelihoods, and were left entirely alone in the world. I traced the path of mourning, saw how it continued all along the ocean in fishing villages, resort towns, and ports, watched how the adults and children walked about frozen in disbelief over what they had witnessed. Burly fishermen became teary-eyed as they faced the uncertain horizon of the sea, children made furious paintings of water drowning the world, and women wept unrestrained in makeshift tents. Everywhere, people had been broken by the enormity of this wave, by the sheer magnitude of it.
But not everyone stopped. Kushil didn’t stop. He recovered the dead body in his swimming pool and the seven other scattered corpses in Lahiru, buried them in a mass grave in what used to be his tennis court, and invited the entire village to pray for the departed souls. He organized huge convoys of supplies from Colombo that very night, galvanizing one of the most efficient private relief operations in the whole of Sri Lanka. The Buddhist temple he’d taken refuge in was converted into a sanctuary for the two hundred surviving families who would spend the months following the disaster sleeping, eating, praying, and living there together.
Back in Colombo, Kushil handed over the running of his sugar business to his cousin and resolved to remain sleep-deprived until Seenigama was back on its feet again. He detailed an elaborate structural flowchart, urging friends to take responsibility for Seenigama’s various needs, and managed to rope in support from USAID and AusAID, with whom he had worked before. He held weekly meetings in his home to brainstorm sponsorship options for housing, education, and counseling and to discuss weekly progress reports. Toward the end of my trip, I asked Kushil where he got the energy and vision to deal with a calamity as daunting as this one. And Kushil, devout Buddhist that he is, said it was because he was able to see the nature of things as they truly are: that change and suffering remain in the continual flux of things—eternally endless and impermanent. I left Sri Lanka with my own, more existentialist thoughts, about why, in order to see the truth in life, we have to enter the world of chaos and death, as if it is only by this process of inversion that we can hope to make sense of human suffering. More than anything, though, I was convinced of the power of the individual to participate in the well-being of the world.
What will remain in my mind as clearly as the images of devastation is a memory of the many people I encountered in Sri Lanka who, like Kushil, cut a steady path first through the tragedy itself and then through the thickets of logistical and bureaucratic problems to help other sentient beings. The secret of recovery, Kushil told me, lay in trying to create something beautiful out of all the destruction. He has no intention of rebuilding Lahiru into what it was. Instead, he plans to transform it into an academy of excellence, a place of study and research where people can go, not to forget, but to remember what happened to them on the day of the tsunami, and to see how far they have traveled since.
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