The first time I cried after the tsunami struck was when I heard a Sri Lankan mother speak in Sinhala to a CNN reporter. “I didn’t buy her shoes, I couldn’t buy her shoes,” she kept repeating urgently to the journalist, speaking of her daughter who died. The little girl had come home from school on Friday proudly saying she aced her exam and demanded that the mother follow up on a promise to buy her a pair of shoes. But the woman neglected to do so on Saturday, and by Sunday her world was swept away, and her daughter was dead.
At that stage, two of my best friends were missing, my dad’s hometown was completely washed away and I had heard far worse stories from friends and relatives living in Sri Lanka who were all directly or indirectly affected by the catastrophe. Yet somehow it was the voice of the woman who didn’t buy her daughter the pair of shoes that made me finally break down.
Since then, life has been surreal for me. I shop for classes, eat in the dining hall and concentrate on mechanical tasks like setting up a relief fund, answering e-mails from concerned friends and posting fliers for upcoming benefit concerts — somehow believing that by doing so, I can stop myself from thinking about the mothers and fathers who couldn’t save their children from the waves or about the tsunami orphans who will never know the warmth of a parent. Yet, for a brief moment every day I think of the woman who didn’t buy her daughter the shoes. And when I do, I freeze inside and lose my balance.
Surprisingly, that moment of insanity is short-lived. My comfort comes from knowing that many others in the Yale community, even as they too go about their day-to-day lives, genuinely share the sorrow and care about what is happening in a world far removed from what they are familiar with. Every day I am humbled and awed by Yalies who walk to a donation box and readily empty their pockets while concernedly asking how I am doing, by those who sign up to sit outside dining halls and collect money, by those who give their time to design posters or brave the cold and post fliers. True, braving the New Haven cold might be something minute and insignificant considering the intense suffering in South Asia right now, but it is remarkable to me that these students are not willing to just sit back, feel good about the aid that is flowing to the affected areas and trust the rest of the world to do something about this horrible situation.
Back home in Sri Lanka, when tragedy strikes and life gets disorderly, we get monks to come into our households and chant prayers, invoke blessings, bring the community together and help restore some calm. As a child, I never understood this ritual, but it was an event to look forward to, for I could hang out with cousins, eat lots of goodies and stay up all night listening to the soothing chanting of the monks even while not understanding a word of what they were saying.
If you happen to pass by Battell Chapel this weekend between 8 p.m. on Saturday and 7 a.m. on Sunday, you will hear similar chanting. If you walk up the steps and take a peek, you will see Buddhist monks inside. Indigo Blue, the center for Buddhist life at Yale, has organized this extraordinary event — monks and nuns from different countries in South and East Asia will chant continuously for 10 hours — as a memorial service for those who died and for those worldwide who have been affected by the tsunami.
It will also be a place for all those of us who have been either personally affected or have been concerned enough to sit silently through a horrible news update to come together — a place to remember that we have all in our own different ways faced adversity in life, and we have always overcome such situations with silent yet warm acknowledgement of support from others around us.
Indigo Blue has invited the entire Yale community to this event of solidarity and support. Just as in my childhood, I will once again sit through a somewhat familiar chanting session (of which I will understand only a few words). This time, though, I will sit with friends who give a little of their time to show respect and support for those struggling to rebuild their lives half a world away — all the while knowing that we did more than just provide clothes and shoes for a homeless mother.
Nilakshi Parndigamage is a junior in Trumbull College.