17 March, Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Chiranthi Rajapakse

I’m still surprised by the silence. Like a Sunday but a quieter, denser silence. My house is right next to the road and usually the sound of cars and tuk tuks is the always the background, even early in the morning.

A three day holiday has just been declared to keep people at home. Events have been cancelled. What this means still isn’t quite clear. Going outside isn’t forbidden but most people in Colombo seem to be staying indoors. We seem to be holding our breath to see what happens next.

I talk to my sister on the phone. We have nothing particular that needs to be said but as always the conversation makes me feel better. I’m grateful for this.

We argue about how I’m going to get home. I work in Colombo, she lives in Kandy and I’m planning to go to Kandy as soon as I finish some work. Usually I take the train or bus but is public transport safe? Car, she tells me. No train. It’ll cost a lot more but it’s worth it. 

I want to go soon. I am half expecting a curfew any minute, probably because in times of trouble we’ve always had curfew. Bomb blasts, communal riots, JVP troubles. Buy food and stay home to wait until curfew ends. That’s been our routine in the past. 

After the conversation I feel more settled, eat (tea, bread, bananas), sit down at my laptop. Working through the usual routine makes me feel more in control. There’s a document I have to finish.  It’s factual repetitive work, which at this moment I find comforting.

At about twelve the doorbell rings. I wonder who on earth it is. I open the door cautiously and find three men standing in the garden. The baas (plumber) and two assistants.  

I’ve been getting a bathroom renovated which came to a halt after the baas disappeared to another job.  After numerous phone calls “Baas unnehe heta enavada? Ah heta berida?” the baas promised to turn up this week to finish the work. With everything changing in the past few days I hadn’t expected him to come.

But here they are, the head baas and two assistants. They look at me expectantly; I am slightly flummoxed. They have come all the way from Kandy, a three hour journey by bus, to work. What do I do with them?

I automatically let them in and realise that I’m trying discreetly to sidle away so that I’m standing a safe distance away from the baas (who is acting exactly as usual). He’s been working all week in spite of the holiday, and sounds prepared to carry on working forever.

He tut-tuts over the half-finished bathroom and goes into a short digression about what needs to be done next and the material they need. I feel slightly adrift. What is a barrel nipple? Or a magic hose for that matter? From not understanding the coronavirus I’ve gone back to my usual state of not understanding my house. This is weirdly comforting.  

I make appropriate noises and slide out, leaving them to it. The two assistants are already starting work. One is a grey-haired old man – probably in his sixties. He must have taken the bus to come here, the bus that I – younger, healthier – am going to avoid because I can.

I go back to my laptop and the work I do from home, leaving him to the work he cannot do from home. The chasm between having and not having has never seemed wider and never has it seemed more important to struggle to stay on the right side of it.  They are daily paid workers. If they don’t go out to work, they can’t live.

I try to get back to my document– tell myself it’s okay to look at Twitter because after all I need to see the news, and then get hopelessly distracted.  Parliamentary elections are due to be held in April, and still have not been postponed in spite of requests. I watch a few videos which infuriate me – a former member of Parliament ignoring all the stay at home guidelines and thanking her constituents for coming for an election rally in spite of Corona.

In the evening I drive to independence square, where I usually walk. On normal days it’s packed. Today there is just one other car in the parking lot.  Three cleaning women are seated on a step, resting, wearing masks.

I run. There are people I don’t know in the distance.  A woman playing badminton with her child. Two teenage girls climbing a tree. It feels good to be out and I feel normal for the first time.

When I get home I get out to open my gate as I always do. There is not a single person in sight. No one at the car wash opposite which is always open, no three wheeler driver parked at the side of the road waiting for a hire. I have lived here for years and for years I have complained about the noise, the crowds, the traffic.