Sri Lanka, Summer of ’96

Soldiers patrol the beaches where children play
amidst snake charmers, kite fliers, ice cream salesmen.
The youngest run naked in the surf, their daily bath
in salt water, good for insect bites. Their mothers
watch, wrapped in thin drenched cotton saris, oblivious
to the soldiers. It has been eleven years, after all.

I was to visit in ’83, a fabulous summer spent alone
among aunts and cousins, free from my mother’s watchful eye.
Three days before the plane’s departure, the telegram came —
“Do not send her. Too dangerous. There’s trouble.”
The troubles started then, such an innocuous word to
encompass such a storm of shattered lives and broken
bodies. Across the island houses burned and babies
breathed their last breath scant days after their first.

Life continued, as it will. Children grew and kissed
their first kisses; marriages were arranged (and sometimes
broken); sick people healed and healthy grew sick. My
grandmother died, of old age, not war. Only rarely did
bombs fall in the city, and last summer, the whole family,
babies and all, flew to the island for a wedding.

No telegram warned this time of trouble, and a tourist
could almost forget the war. Shoppers bustle in the open
markets, and sugar is plentiful again. Distant reports
come from the north — the rebels contained, advancing,
contained again. The wedding proceeds exactly as planned,
and my uncle’s young bride smiles with nervousness having
nothing to do with guns and only a little to do with blood.

On the last day but one, I tour the civic sights in a
rented car, camera fluttering at buddhist and hindu temples,
sidewalk peacocks and snake charmers. A perfect tourist
on a picture-perfect island, yet at the museum the guards
warn me not to take too many photos, for government
soldiers would impound my camera. The guerillas send in men
disguised as tourists to take strategic photos, the better
to bomb museums and other civic buildings.

I take my cousins to the beach that night, and the five
children laugh and play amidst waves and fireworks. I
watch them, silent, unable to forget. The soldiers walk the
beaches, and each exploding firework shatters like a
gunshot in my ears.

M.A. Mohanraj
June 27, 1996