12 November 2017

There are footprints surrendered to dust

Footprints fascinate me. They speak of journeys and personalities. They speak of histories, made and obliterated. 

A few days ago, on the hot sands just beyond the Muhudu Maha Viharaya where legend has it that the princess Vihara Maha Devi disembarked after being put out to sea and probable death by her father, King Kelanitissa, on account of having committed the cardinal sin of murdering a bikkhu and consequently invoking the anger of the gods who unleashed mayhem upon his kingdom. That story has many interpretations which we need not discuss here. In any event the vessel carrying the princess is supposed to have come ashore at this place, now believed to be the ‘Kirinde’ of the Mahawamsa.

I did not see any footprints. Just the sand dunes that protected the historical site from the tsunami. Soft lines mimicking the waves, drawn intricately by movement of wind. Hot sands that burnt. 

I wanted to write about the footprints that time has erased, those of the princess, about the tiny feet of a child who must have been traumatized. The tiny feet that grew with time and the paths they walked later, as Queen and Queen Mother. As wife of Kavantissa, among most accomplished political strategists, and as mother of Dutugemunu, the errant but eventually victorious benefactor of Kavantissa’s foresight. As heroine in her own right. 

I wanted to write about Ven. Katharagama Sirirathana, the Chief (and sole) incumbent of the Magul Maha Vihara, resisting encroachment by Muslim residents and neglected so thoroughly by a nation and a community that he could say with a wry smile ‘On April 14th, a day when kiribath is cooked in all corners of the country, I could only eat bread’. I wanted to write about his footprints and his soles. About the textural signature of invading feet. About the solitude of a solitary and unarmed warrior. 

I wanted to write about the footprints of those who did not arrive and those who never left. I even wanted to write about the sands, the shifting, enveloping, erasing sands, harsh, burning sands at noon, about the cool water-brushed, sunset-laden sands at twilight. I am sure I could have come up with a decent enough piece about these things, but I cannot.

I cannot because a few hours ago I saw a picture of a father carrying a child. A dead child. A murdered child. And I want to write about that child, unnamed as yet, an anonymous entity to all except family and neighbour, anonymous in life but so articulate in death. A child whose photograph I do not have the heart to illustrate this article with.

I do not know the name of that child and the fact makes me cry. I cry because I don’t know where he has left his footprint. I don’t know the name of the universe his imagination would have let him explore. I don’t know what unthinking sands erased the tiny footprints of his exploration. I don’t know where he may have walked and what other footprints may have been companion to his as he went from child to youth to middle-aged, old and child again. 

If it were possible, I would take the sands he walked on, real and imagined, literary and metaphorical, and I would put it all in a vial made of dream and sunset, laughter and pain, birdsong and butterfly wings, wind and pollen, and I would call it ‘hope’. Or maybe ‘love.’
It is not possible. 

A footprint has been erased and time had nothing to do with it. And I think I will have trouble walking home. I will not be able to look at my two little girls. There is no blood on my hands. There is sand.

[Published in 'The Nation,' June 18, 2006]