7-8 April, Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Farzana Haniffa

 7April 2020

Lunch today was fish curry with beans and gotukola.  I scraped a coconut the other day (after 30 years) and a bit of it was still left in the freezer for the gotukola. My 78 year old mother cooked the fish. She had mentioned the other day how much my sister, who lives abroad, liked her fish curry, so we have decided that cooking fish in the house will be her job. I did the beans, and since Mum had retired for a nap after the fish curry, the gotukola as well.  My mother and I don’t cook very often. We both can, and of course we dabble when the maid does not appear, on and off. But we have established in our household that we are otherwise too busy.

It is different under lockdown. My mother, active and independent, still holding a job, is not doing well. My sister and I used to joke for decades that our mother’s social life was better than ours.  She is clearly struggling without it. Being unable to dress up and leave the house every day and have people to talk to and hang out with is weighing on her. She seems to be losing her sense of purpose. So she will cook the fish curry. The other day she wanted to make  kiribath. Tomorrow I must suggest that she does that.

We are struggling to establish a routine through this crisis. Cooking has helped with that, but only a little bit. My husband cooks much better and much more often than I do and our eldest, Ayan is also a cook.  Aniq our youngest is still wondering if he should also be a cook and emerge from Ayan’s shadow or resign himself to being the eternal sous-chef.  So the cooking helps. But no fixed routine is appearing after the several weeks.  Sometimes we cook two meals. But sometimes we are all too exhausted by nothing much and can only do one. We are developing a certain equanimity towards not having a routine. The boys have school work with hours and hours of tasks to figure out. We watch TV until late and wake up when it is bright outside. I sometimes wake up early and work.

The first few days, unable to slow down in the middle of a brutal semester, I continued to work. There was marking to be done, there were papers to finish writing. But then it all stopped. There was this sudden and familiar shift in the mood in the country, the talk on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and television was of Muslims who went to mosque on Friday, Muslims who avoided quarantine, Muslims who hid their medical history, and Muslims who were 19 out of the 20 infected on one day. In the middle of all of that, a Muslim man died and was denied a burial. Another person died a day later and the result was the same. Then a news anchor and some politician guests on a network already notorious for its racism were “caught out” joking about “handling” Muslims’ demand for burials to be allowed. The days that the families were denied a burial for their dead in the service of science, rationality, and the greater good were among those when the burden of being Muslim in Sri Lanka weighed the heaviest.

The next days were spent in a frenzy trying to ward off that feeling of heaviness.  One strategy was to help with the production of information about the virus, the curfew, and quarantine, especially in the Tamil language for the areas in which the government’s Sinhala language information was useless.  Participating in WhatsApp debates about the chosen form of response was another. A third was to join friends with similar politics in writing a petition, asking for solidarity from among the like minded – drafting, finalising circulating, feeling gratified at the response, alphabetising name lists and formatting for publication was a productive distraction and a necessary moment of connection. Today there is a bit of a lull. The petition, full of prominent names and not just of Muslims was published, a panel on TV explained the issue of burials to the general public, and so far no 3rd Muslim has died. The decision on refusing burials still holds and the racism on social media has only dipped a little bit. Muslim groups everywhere are hopeful, however, and awaiting a response from the powers.  No other country in the world, other than India,  has a similar no-burial rule. So today I could think about my household and cooking beans and making a gotukola salad.   

8 April 2020

The Prime Minister had made a speech last night that I only heard today.  In that speech all two million Muslims in Sri Lanka were told to forget about their burial rights. This was not the time to ask for respect of religious laws we were told; it was the time to come together as a country.

Today therefore is another day where I can do nothing. The weight is heavier that it has been and I do what I can to function. I pace around my living room forgetting my plans to clean. I call a BFF and unload; she gets the point and it gives me a little clarity.  I call and speak to several other friends. There is almost no point.  There is no walking back from the PM’s position.  It is now a political question, a question for the elections. Muslims in the country have been cuckolded to accept the denial of burial for their dead. And this victory is one on which the election too will be won. Wanting to salvage at least the remainder of the day I sit at the computer and finish this. I hope there will be no more deaths.  

I look at the WhatsApp conversations and don’t bother to intervene.

And just like that the landscape shifted. The issue is now political. There is science on both sides.

Two things are clear. This is now a political claim and will be decided in relation to majority sentiment.

I could even go back to the writing tasks that I had and write two or three paragraphs and again appreciate the odd pleasures of the lockdown. Our street WhatsApp group is unusually active today. We have a vegetable van, the gas delivery, the Cargills guy and the Elephant House ice cream van all show up. Ice cream is important in our household and we had just run out. The Cargills delivery has very few of the essentials. No flour, no parippu. But two tins of mackerel and fancy overpriced sausages that we hadn’t ordered. We have two packets of Atta flour from an earlier time. Tomorrow I will stay away from media in the hope that other issues will eclipse the racism, and shift the compulsion to respond at least for a bit. Tomorrow’s task is to teach myself to make Atta rotis.