17 August, Veralugama, Sri Lanka

By Sunila Galappatti

We’ve run away to the forest again.  Months before the first case of the new coronavirus surfaced in Wu Han, we took over the management of a friend’s house, just outside a strip of reserve forest.  When we could, we did weeks of small repairs around the house, preparing it to rent to travellers – it sits just an hour away from the airport, a perfect first or last stop on a holiday, we thought.  It was here, in March, that we were finishing the last repairs when we heard of the first case of local Covid-19 transmission in Sri Lanka.  We shopped for vegetables and essentials on the way home, deciding it was time to lock down (a laughably meagre shop for the two full months of strict lockdown enforced a week later).

 Needless to say, we cannot now rent out the house as planned, given the airport is closed and we are concerned not to introduce any risk to the village.  So, for now, we have connected the house to the internet so we can work in it, and we’re using it ourselves.  It takes us away from the tension of how one does and doesn’t unlock in a city, allows our son to play outdoors all day long and we hope will be a place where we spend less money.  We both work freelance: as assignments finish, new ones don’t now arrive and three streams of our income – dependent on how much is cricket is played and there being visitors to Sri Lanka – have dried up altogether.

 The night before we packed to come here – for three to six weeks, the longest period yet – I made two moves towards a new state of life.  I took the leather handbag I haven’t used since March and refilled it.  A strange time to do it, en route to a forest, but I had finally to admit to myself that the temporary cloth bag I was using, the one I usually take to protests, now with only my keys, wallet, mask and sanitiser in it, was no longer adequate to my reality.  It looked limp and needed a wash. 

The other thing I did was to use one of the small containers of parboiled beans and carrots, I’d frozen back in March along with others of curried okra, when we thought we were running out of vegetables, and before produce trucks had begun to supply our neighbourhoods under police curfew.  We decided then that we’d freeze small containers of what we had left so that each would be just enough to prolong the presence of vegetables in the diet of the toddler, if we ran out altogether.  We never needed them but we never used them either – so to defrost one now felt like I was saying that time had passed.  The truth is we never lacked for what we expected most immediately to lack – in our own lives the costs of this pandemic have so far been more to our collective than personal reality, and also to our states of mind.

Almost two weeks ago already, we went to the polls. When Parliament was dissolved at the time of Sri Lanka’s first Covid encounter and elections scheduled for June, we were angry – how could it be safe to hold elections?  Then as we proceeded under executive and military rule, with no legislature to hold them accountable, we began to feel that elections were essential.  Besides one couldn’t really declare it unsafe – a combination of surveillance, iron control and a working public health system had apparently kept us extraordinarily safe from the spread of Covid-19, as compared to almost anyone in the world.  Our fears began to deepen in different ways; they were not primarily fears of illness.

We planned to be early to the polling station – our rationale was to decrease our chances of having to go into quarantine if an elector in the same ward was later discovered to have voted while Covid-positive.  We are also keen voters and, in this case, perhaps the more so for knowing our vote would not really touch the overall result. Instead we drew comfort from conviction and the solidarity of voting as an extended family bloc.  It is usually a habit to take our son Kavan to the ‘voting place’ with us, we’ve done so at every previous election in his life. This time, for Covid reasons, we did not.  We checked with my brother – he wasn’t taking Kavan’s cousins either.  Instead, we joined my parents who were in the queue just ahead of us, all of us masked and clutching our own pens.  Indeed Covid-protocols at the polling station seemed exemplary, huge bottles of sanitiser and taps at entrance and exit, officials behind screens, clear directions of how to dispose of ones polling card oneself etc.  Where previously an election officer clutched the little finger of ones left hand, to paint the nail in purple indelible ink – a long held practice in South Asia against voter fraud – now she did it with a brush and bottle, never touching.

We waved to neighbours as we exited and to the policeman who had paid my parents a daily visit during and long after their quarantine in March, after they’d returned to Sri Lanka on the last flight from Bangladesh before our airport closed.  Then, still rueful we hadn’t taken the children with us this time, we went home and asked if they’d like us to drive them back by the ‘voting place’ so they could see it that way, at least.  Our son and our youngest niece said they would.  So we returned there in time to see my brother emerge from the polling station, in turn. 

Kusal and I had made a plan to work after voting – this time results would not be counted overnight but the next day (again to simplify the Covid-protocols) so we decided we should not sit around and anxiously waste the day (as we felt we had done the two previous).  But in fact the day went rather differently.   All the voters in our larger family are registered to the house my grandparents built, so there we gathered for breakfast and drifted into a long lunch.  It had all the suspension of a Christmas day, but a simpler joy; a far greater need to enjoy the suspension while it lasted.