Journeys start with chance encounters and deliberate action; both are needed. Nothing just happens and wherever there are dire survival needs there is also an energy to make like-minded people set out on a journey together.
How I met the little children
I met Tharindu Amunugama at a rather noisy festive location in Colombo in August 2011. It didn’t take long to find out his inspiration in life: the Children’s project he believed in which his Chairman Mano Nanayakkara had launched titled Glorious Jaffna. I had seen the book. Curious, I watched the Youtube vid of the launch and there was something about the ‘Wheel-Chairman’ and his commitment that was riveting. Had I not heard this name before? Maybe as a young lawyer at Paul Ratnayeke’s I may have, but I didn’t ask anyone about it and pledged to support two kids in the project in the name of my own two kids in 2012.
When Trehan sent me the pictures of the kids I chose the little boy cos he had one eye and the little girl cos there was an angry expression on her face as though she did not realise that a smile would help her case. Nor care.
The journey with the little girl was a particularly rewarding and involved one with Trehan and the Glorious Jaffna Project. But that is a story for another day.
All I heard of Ravindan was that he had achieved 159 at the Grade 5 scholarship exam and had passed with flying colours. This amazed and delighted me as well as alarmed me a bit. How about his good eye? What if the push towards studying may force him to study in bad light and strain his good eye in the long run? Could we save the bad eye? or even improve his appearance?
It was not easy to convince Ravinthan’s family that he needed to make a trip to Colombo though they admitted that he had never seen an eye doctor since 2009. Trehan and I persisted in getting an appointment with Dr. Charith Fonseka at Durdans and even up until the day before it was not clear whether the family would bring him to Colombo. But with the efforts and patience of Dushan, Trehan and co the kid came up to Colombo.
I offered that they could sleep over at my home. A Tamil friend had asked her own family and friends and was embarrassed that they had all made excuse. The language barrier is no worry I said. They can stay at mine. Yet Yaso was nervous am sure so they only came up for the day travelling in the night bus.
6am Pettah Bus depot:
Thanks to the Kangaroo cab driver who spoke Tamil we found Yaso easily. When I first saw them standing fearfully among the bustle even at that early hour, I noticed how the sister had her arm completely around her little brother, as though fending off danger. I got out and took him by the shoulders and gave him a kiss on his cheek and hustled them into the car.
Despite the sister’s rebukes he was delighted with the drive down Galle Face. He kept getting up and clinging onto the window and looking out ecstatic. Kids. “How would you have done it without me miss” joked the driver. “I don’t worry about these things, there would always be a solution” I replied. For Yaso didn’t speak a word of Sinhala or English though Ravinthan spoke a few words of English later on like ‘Christmas tree’.
We arrived home to Moratuwa and I told her this is an old house where I was born. After bathing and refreshing herself and her brother we had a good stringhopper breakfast and i was thrilled to see that he was eating uninhibited and enjoyed the fish.
“We are catholic” said his sister.
I carefully placed Ravi s and Savi’s photos and letters on the cabinet in the dining room. I know how children are surprised at finding their photos in other homes. He carefully looked at his letter there and smiled up at me.
9.30 am Confidences
Later when Ravi ( who insists that his name is Ravinthan not Ravi ) had walked around our garden with me exclaiming at the trees which did not grow in Alaveddy and had been settled with a 3D puzzle he found enthralling, Yaso told me how the family members had died in a shell attack. Father, two siblings and his eye all at once she said… we, I my two sisters and mother were not with them and we were saved.
But what was worse is that he saw it all she said. He saw the limbs being flung off and the bodies dying… I glanced at Ravinthan’s face : you could not have said that he had heard a word. Just focusing on the puzzle he said ..”there are numbers on the other side” and never looked up. I remember the pattern on the curtain at the window and my eyes filling up and yet as my shoulders shook, she came over to me at once and embraced my head and ‘felt’ my hair telling me not to cry.
It’s moments like these – and its the second time it happened with a Jaffna victim of war,- that makes me determined to bring some light into the space that we have been given in the darkness. If this community and reaching out is possible surely there is something incredible here.
10.30 am We leave to Colombo City
Our Muslim driver and a Tamil friend of mine (who called Yaso and welcomed her to Colombo) both reassured her that she will not be arrested in Wellawatte if stopped by the Police. It was raining and as they could not see the Zoo, she wanted to see St Anthony’s Kochchikade and Colombo. Thanks to Rizmi I had a wonderful Tour Guide in Thamil and he was very understanding.
11 am St. Anthony’s Kochchikade and the Kovil
As you enter St. Anthony’s you feel the war had returned somehow. She bought three candles for the dead family members and so did I. There were many candles alight and as they knelt together I realised that right next to them kneeling and praying was a Navy Officer. What a capture ! But I could not be invasive and photograph this; a stark reminder that the war took away many on all sides and is still shrouding
Then on to the Kovil next door which was just amazing and left me wondering how much of CMB I myself have discovered.
Thanks to Ramzi we toured a wet Colombo much to Ravi’s delight and showed him the Nelumpokuna, Town Hall, Museum, Racecourse Avenure and else. Any questions as to what they would like to eat or were they hungry were met with ‘anything’ and ‘no, not hungry’.
A friend, Gowrie Ponniah told me KFC would be nice for the kiddo and they did eat chicken so there we were! The elegant Gowrie joined us in white linen, characteristic pottu and calm voice and had a great conversation with Yaso and the kid. I am so happy she did, for we all could then speak more about their family and plans.
Despite passing the Scholarship, Ravi would continue in the small school as the sister was a teacher, and so, special attention will be given to him. The other 2 sisters were at University of Jaffna studying the Arts. This was a classic example of a middle-class educated family who would not have been dragged down if not for war and reduced to poverty and to rely on the help of others. The sisters are teaching him English she said and you can write to him in English for one sister can understand and read to him. Gowrie would keep the little boy in mind when special needs programs are in action in Jaffna.
What would you like now I asked him ? Ice cream!! he squeaked confidently and got a cuff on his ear from his sibling. We all had soft ice cream… and when his sis was in the loo, he peeked at my iPad and I managed to get a few good shots of Ravi, all smiles and relaxed.
1.30 pm Vijitha Yapa
Vijitha Yapa had quite the range of children’s books but the sister made a beeline for the English Workbooks! In addition I bought Ravi his first jigsaw puzzle set and many books both of the world geographic as well as a set of Ladybird books of the old stories which interested him. He was so thrilled that his sister hadn’t the heart to refuse the gift.
2.15 pm Moolchands
“Just give me a minute” I told the driver and hopped into Moolchands and chose a really solid reading lamp with bulb ( daylight glow) for his reading and studying. He had said that he studied with the one light in the room not with a study lamp. The next day I got a call from Yaso to tell me that they all wanted to say thank you for Ravi was so very happy with his new books and lamp.
4 pm. Dr Charith Fonseka
He spoke fluent Tamil needed between doctor and patient. This accounted for the large number of Tamil patients outside and surprised Yaso. “his eye cannot be saved” he said. “It has shrunk and not even a donation of an eye can help. Yet the other eye is very good and 100 percent ok. No, he cannot strain it but he should protect it from sticks and stones and I think glasses would help to protect it. He really should have a glass eye to improve his appearance and this will assist him greatly”. Yaso was a little bitter and said that’s what the other doctor said. But of course, we wished to check his good eye out and get the all-clear and to know if we could have done something, anything even in Belgium where a doctor who had carried out much good work in the Southern coastal towns post-tsunamis had pledged assistance. I understand what Yaso feels and I kicked myself for the belief that something could restore what Ravi had lost forever to the violence of war. It was perhaps too cruel to have brought them to another verdict such as this but I hope he will get a glass eye to match his other beautiful one if only to boost his self-esteem. Oh Ravi , you vivacious little boy with a gorgeous eye!
5.pm Ramakrishna Mission Hall
Yaso and her brother sat down with their belongings to wait for the Jaffna coaches to arrive. The driver warned her to look after the stuff and they came running suddenly as the van pulled out to say goodbye. Ravi was very lively and waved back grinning ear to ear.
Next day they called me and wished me a safe flight back home and thanked me for the day. It had been an overwhelming day at the time and the next day was easier to connect again. Yaso said that Gowrie had called her to explain the benefits of the glass eye and self-esteem to a little child.
A Journey begun
We need to be patient but at the same time, an intervention is needed for kids like Ravi to be coaxed out of their disability and given confidence and support to stand on their own two feet. Sometimes families wish to keep the tragedies alive and it is human not to wish the victim to move on. But move on he shall. In time.
The Glorious Jaffna Project gave a little help to Ravindan and to both of us, an encounter with random kindness, a shop with jigsaws and books, and a day out at KFC which was just that! A day out for a little boy!
Next stop: The Zoo.
Thank you all especially Trehan for being a Glorious Support and Committed Officer on this project. We are indebted to you in facilitating this connection and making it happen for us all. A mutually transforming experience and one that surely many others could share as our communities heal together post-war.