As she kneels before the stray dogs, in her hand, a bowl full of food for the poor starved creatures, more dogs from other streets come running in her direction. A brown dog, healthier than the others who look like bare skin pasted on skeletons, with their fur missing and wounds glistening in the sun as blood trickles down from the purple stains, wags its tail with new-found hope that today, maybe today, the Lord that looks over them feels 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 (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 which is 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. Her face is lit up by her thin smile,but it’s her eyes that smile with a joy unknown to humankind.
I sit on a plastic chair by the roadside, in front of a little shop with “Juices Of All Kinds'' written in thick bold letters above it. Sipping my koththamalli with a piece of hakuru, I watch the little girl with long hair in her strange world, surrounded by starved stray animals. On my way to Kataragama Devala and Kiri Vehera, overtaken by sudden thirst, I had stopped at 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 all alone on this scorching day? But I’m lost in my own world of warm koththamalli, bitter on my tongue, and this strange girl who makes me long to meet myself at that age again.
There’s an ache in my heart when I start my journey down the narrow path leading to the colossal milky ant drop of dew, it is no bigger than a little white balloon from here. The sky is unbelievably blue with no clouds, 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 lie rows of little shops with tin roofs selling flowers for worship, and sticks of incense which fill the air with the smell of jasmine in a way 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 area; a pretty sight if not for the men and women who shout at every passer-by in shrill voices of desperation, filling out the atmosphere with an uneasy air.
“Buy some flowers from us, madam”
“Sir, would you need some oil?”
“All fifteen just for one hundred rupees,”
It is not only dogs, but also cows that loiter aimlessly on 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 previously offered to their God. A woman carrying a child in her arms emerges from behind one of the shops with a bunch of white lotuses. At her side is another child, probably four or five years of age—a little girl dressed in nothing but her underwear. She leans against her mother, her bony ribs touching her mother’s stained red dress. I notice the pain in her mother’s face and the way the hand with which she holds the other child trembles. My heart drowns in a tsunami of hurt as my eyes almost dress in tears. Her pain becomes mine for a timeless second as 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 says in Sinhala, with 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. Saddest of all, their eyes are devoid of hope, as if though they are here, they do not believe in any God. Some of them hold out flowers of all colours, but mostly white, like 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. 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 ears—the sound of a silver bell, pure and joyous, unlike the croaky entreaties of these weeping women.
I quicken my pace as I’m reminded of my own 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. It is painted stark white; a beautiful creation that must have exhausted many thousand men and aged humanity, despite its grace and glory at this moment. I wonder how many men it took to build this stupa, and how many deaths it caused. The expense of painting this humongous bubble in white every year must cost an equally large sum. Ungodly thoughts birthed and multiplied within my head take me over. I realise I haven’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.
Before me spread thousands of flowers offered to a lifeless statue of Buddha, plucked just for this purpose. I imagine the countless white flowers on trees, what a paradise it must’ve been. There on the tray of offerings, sit ten different kinds of drinks; water, King coconut, koththamalli, apple juice, mango juice, and something red, not the colour of tea, but blood red in a plastic cup. Do these women I passed know the tastes of these drinks?
I walk on the cobblestone towards a step where I can sit as I pray. My mind is ignorant as to whom 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,—exotic fruit that those destitute children have never tasted, and request from the almighty the opportunity for 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 a woman in white trousers holding a little girl dressed in a lama sari. The boys are jumping up and down with excitement as their father hands them each twenty rupees. They run to the woman selling lottery tickets some distance away as swiftly as deer, their feet arousing the dust peacefully settled 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 only known to children of wealth. He is dressed in a white shirt, his hair parted in the middle and combed to the side by 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.
“Dada, dada, will my wish come true? God listens to humans, right dada?”
“He does,” says the father.
There is a look of amazement and disbelief on the younger child’s face. After a moment’s 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 full of questions. 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 prayers of some kind. I pass the thousands of lamps 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.
About the Author: "I'm just one of those people writing to escape the realities of this world. And I'm a huge fan of Oscar Wilde, I write because of him."