As she kneels before the stray dogs, in her hand a bowl full of food for the poor starved creatures, more dogs from far away streets come running in her direction. A brown dog, comparatively healthier than the others who look like bare skin pasted on skeletons, their fur gone, wounds glistening in the sun as glittering blood trickles down from the purple stains, wags its tail in new-found hope that today, maybe today, the Lord that looks over them had felt sympathy in his kind chest. Dogs of all sizes and colours, some mere puppies, some black as the tar on the road where she stands, some brown as chocolate, some grey as the clouds before raindrops start hitting earth though their God-given colour was white, wearing thick coats of dust, dirt, lice and illness, surround her, their hearts weighing down with anticipation. They bark, the sound like thunder in her ears, as they fight to get closer to her- the one with food in her hands. Her long black hair, almost blue under the raging sun, flows down her back, touching the ground beside the road as she kneels before the dogs. Her eyes are filled with overflowing sympathy and kindness rare in many human beings. She folds a newspaper and laying it on the ground, mounts handfuls of fish and rice on the paper while the dogs hungrily devour the food-like a hungry pack of wolves. Her face is lit with the thin smile on her lips but it’s her eyes that smile with a joy unknown to human kind.
I sit on a plastic chair by the roadside, in front of a little shop with a small board on top of it, “Juices Of All Kinds” written in thick bold letters, sipping my koththamalli with a piece of hakuru, watching the little girl with long hair on her strange world surrounded by starved stray animals. On my way to Kataragama devala and Kiri vehera I had stopped momentarily, overtaken by sudden thirst, on the side of the road. I wonder what others think of me-isn’t it absurd for a young man to have a hot drink under the hot sun all alone on this scorching day oh heat? They must be thinking. But I’m lost in my own world of warm koththamalli bitter on my tongue and a strange girl who makes me long to meet myself at such a young age once again.
There’s an ache in my heart when I start my journey towards kiri vehe3on the narrow path which leads to the colossal milky stupa. Rising like a giant drop of dew, to me it is no bigger than a little white balloon from here. The sky is unbelievably blue with no clouds, it’s as if the clouds could hear the thoughts springing up in my chest and decided to hide themselves from such ungodly conceits. On either side of the sand-strewn path, there lie series of little shops with tin roofs, selling flowers for the purpose of worship, sticks on incense which fill the air with a smell of jasmine that real flowers cannot, their shop fronts decorated with multi-coloured flowers- lilies, lotuses, white and red, with sprinkled water on their petals like beads of perspiration that roll down my spine it is a pretty sight if not for the men and women whom shout out to every passer-by in a shrill voice of desperation,
“ Buy some flowers from us, madam”
“ Sir, would you need some oil? “
“ Lotuses! Lotuses! “
“ All fifteen just for one hundred rupees “,
Their voices high and desperate, filling out the atmosphere with an uneasy air.
Not only dogs but also cows loiter aimlessly in this path, their heads in the big blue bins of garbage as they silently nibble on long stalks of flowers and the remainder of fruits offered to their God which lie in these bins. A woman carrying a child in her arms emerge from behind one of the shops, in her hands a bunch of white lotuses. At her arm is another child, probably of four or five years of age- a little girl dressed in nothing but a pair of underwear. Her brown skin is full of scars and on her knee, her right knee, I see, there is a large purple wound attracting flies. She leans onto her mother, her bony ribs touching her stained red dress. Now as I look at the mother, I notice pain written all over her face and how her hand-the one with which she holds the other child – a sexless creature with sticky hair covered in a Web of dust, trembles. My heart drowns in a tsunami wave of hurt as my eyes almost dress in tears. Her pain becomes mine for a timeless second and my twenty eight year old heart bleeds I present her with hundred rupees which she takes with a gentle smile, offering me the bunch of flowers which I refuse.
“Thank you so much, sir” she voices, talking in Sinhala, her eyes filled with tears of Helpless gratitude.
Many more women emerge from the shops – hundreds of them carrying infants and holding bony hands of toddlers, their hair messy and unoiled, their bodies devoid of human flesh. Saddest of all, their eyes are without hope as if they do not believe in any God for their miserable disposition is such. Some of them have in their arms flowers held out, flowers of all colours-lilies, jasmine, but mostly white-white as their bloodless faces
“Buy flowers for the puja” one shouts.
“ Lamps and oil!”, another.
Hundreds of voices join together in a helpless plea-choose me, choose me, let my family eat today, my child is hungry it’s painted all over their faces. I think of my sister, happily married, enjoying music and a delicious meal with her fat husband and well-fed children at a hotel in Colombo – far away from this universe of penury. Her laugh rings in my ear-the pure sound of a silver bell, clear and joyous, unlike the croaky entreaties of these weeping women.
I quicken my pace as I’m remained of my unemployed situation which brought me here-to the feet of God – in the first place.
Instead of peaceful salvation, my heart is shadowed with rootless exasperation, as I stare up at the huge stupa in the shape of a bubble created when actresses in Hollywood movies take baths. It is painted stark white, a beautiful creation that must’ve exhausted many thousand men and aged humanity in ancient times despite its grace and glory at this moment I wonder how many men it took to build this stupa, how many deaths it caused. The expense of painting this humongous bubble in white paint every year must cost an equally humongous amount of money. Ungodly thoughts birthed and multiplied within my head rend to take me over. I realize I hadn’t bought any flowers for the puja.
“Good, it would’ve been a waste of money anyway”, a part of me thinks.
I circumambulate the stupa, stopping at each of the large statues of Lord Buddha on the four sides while I recite the only gaatha I know. “Ithipiso bagawa arahan… “ I hear my mouth utter continuously as my mind soars into the sky to observe the white statues of Buddha. On his lips is a smile of peace, his hands on his cross-legged lap, as he meditates serenely, belonging to a higher existence. “To have the contentment this man has achieved”, thinks my mind in shallow sorrow. I close my eyes and wish for a new job, a job to survive. The sun grows mild on my face as I pray with fervent appeal for the cause of my pilgrimage.
Be fore me spreads thousands of flowers offered to a lifeless statue of Buddha, flowers which were plucked just for this purpose. I imagine the countless white flowers on trees, hwt a paradise it must’ve been. Those flowers still breathing, with a lifespan longer than this. There sits on the tray drinks offered to Buddha as gilanpasa- ten different kinds of drinks, now that I count. Water, King coconut, koththamalli, apple juice, mango juice, there’s also something red-not the colour of tea, but a deeper blood red in a plastic cup. Do these little beggars I passed know the tastes of these drinks? I’m burning in a hell of my own invention.
I walk on the cobblestone towards a step where I can sit as I pray. My mind is ignorant as to know who I’m praying to, God or Buddha. To Buddha now, I think to myself later I will go to the Devala with a basket of fruit-all kinds of exotic fruit that those destitute children have never tasted and request from the almighty a job, an opportunity to rise with a good profession. As I sit on the step, I notice a family to the right of me- two boys standing on either side of a bearded man, probably their father and and a woman in white trousers holding a little girl dressed in an adorable lama sari. The boys are jumping up and down with excitement as their father hands them each twenty rupees they run to the dark woman selling lottery tickets some distance away as swiftly as deer, their feet arousing the dust peacefully settles in the sand.
“ I’m going to pray to God and ask him to make me win the lottery”, screams the taller boy in joy, his youthful eyes heavy with avarice unknown to but children 9f wealth. He is dressed on a white shirt, his hair parted in the middle abs combed to the sides with the skill of a hairdresser.
“No, I will ask God”, says the smaller boy in a voice as tiny as him, full of competition and desire for good luck.
“ Father, Father, will my wish come true? God listens to humans, right dada? “ the boy’s excitement is not lost.
“He does”, says the father in a grace tone which suits his fearful appearance
There is a look of amazement and disbelief on the younger child’s face. After a moments silence, he questions his father with innocent eyes, “But dada, don’t those people who sell flowers—why don’t they buy lottery tickets? Don’t they know how to pray? “
The father remains silent for a while
“ Recite your gaatha now”, he says after some time has passed.
I stand up, my mind uneasy and a spring of questions on my heart. Pray, pray for purity, a part of my mind orders. I’m lost in my own imagination, drowning in a world of white clad worshippers all mumbling gaatha or prayer of some kind. I pass the thousands of lamps lot under the burning sun, their orange flames dancing in the wind I’m reminded of loku mama, how he used to light lamps in the village temple, how he set his wife on fire, her body sinking in growing orange flames lines of beggars lie on either side of the path. Their eyes are hungry and their arms are bony.
Written by Ranudi Gunawardena
Illustration by DRG