January 1, 2005
When Colombo has an occasion to celebrate, it really goes to town. Whether it is Christmas or a cricket match, a strange fever seizes the city and for a while it looks like nothing else is happening in the world. Nothing else seems to matter.
My appointment with the secretary general of the Peace Secretariat, Jayantha Dhanpala, having been shifted from Friday morning to the Monday after Christmas, there was little for me to do in the Sri Lankan capital through the weekend. With everyone in a celebratory mood, there was not much prospect of getting any more appointments lined up for the next three days. I decided to join my friend Sarath on a trip to the south.
We went to Matara, Sri Lanka’s southern-most district that almost abuts into the sea. There is the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean extending all the way to Antarctica. The ocean has a large heart, and most of the time it beats gently as waves roll to touch Matara’s splendid beaches resounding with strange redolent sounds.
On Friday night it was carnival time in the centre of the town. Young people of all ages and all classes were gyrating to the music played by a group of local college students. It was time for fun and games.
On Saturday, friends suggested we all go to the beach for a bath. The Polhena beach, a bathers’ haven is supposed to be a safe place to get into water even for those who can’t swim. It was chock-a-block with bathers of all ages that Christmas afternoon.
Nobody could have thought at that time that barely fifteen hours or so later, this placid spread of water would turn into a watery grave for many unsuspecting bathers, beach walkers and others caught by the tsunami waves. Among those who disappeared into the sea here that Sunday morning were the wife and son of a visiting mathematics professor. The mother and child had come out to the beach, while the professor was getting ready to participate in a conference.
I was to return to Colombo on Sunday afternoon for the Monday morning appointment. But then, Sarath got a phone call. It was an invitation to a Christmas party near Horana, about eighty kms up north. We left on Saturday evening. The tsunami struck some twelve hours later.
If there had been no Christmas invitation, chances are that we would all have ended up in the list of the anonymous dead. Or with some slender luck, might have survived on a treetop.
The jovial Christmas weekend had taken us close to the eye of the storm. And a Christmas party took us out of it in time to save our lives.
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