When walking through the dark halls of the buildings, you could see the outlines of garlanded or framed photographs. The tall buildings rose high into the sky and were pockmarked by what seemed like hundreds of small dark windows, out of which leaned men, women and children. Hung diagonally across the windows were clotheslines with multicolored garments blowing in the breeze that carried the scent of the riverside shanties up to the people above. Children played with tools, wrenches. They had matted hair. This was the natural, visceral way of life. The elevator stank, the buttons had been punched out. They told me this was because the elevator was misused. From the banks of the slums you could see the high rises, the towers of the city, almost illusory. Sri Lanka’s tallest building, a futuristic monstrosity resembling Seattle’s space needle, could be seen in the distance. * contrast. The eyes of the men and women followed you as you drifted through the stained corridors, lingering. These were people who had been forcibly relocated, transferred to government housing after their illegal dwellings had been torn down. The tenants made up for the building’s drab exterior by painting the walls of their personal* apartments bright colors such as pink and orange, tempering the dullness of the stairway**. Cheap chrome-colored posters of flower arrangements or teddy bears were hung on the walls with blue-tack.
The first home we entered was that of a Muslim woman. She was wearing salwar and her dupatta covered her head. She invited us to sit one the couch, insisting she sit cross-legged the floor. Fascinated by the environment, the extraordinary of people crammed into such a small space, I asked her how long she had been living there. Ten years in the area, and three years in the apartment, she responded. I wondered how the couple was able to reconcile living a devout life with the chaos and the inevitably haram practices of those they lived shoulder to shoulder with. It wasn’t a problem, they said, because first and foremost, they were all neighbors. “When there’s a problem, we call our family and our neighbors, and our neighbors help us more readily than ever our own family.” It was their faith that taught them to live like this. Living in harmony was more important than extremism. “The Qu’ran said these days would come,” he said. I asked the woman what her greatest blessing in life was. She blushed. “My husband.” She was lucky to have such a caring and devoted husband who respected, she told us. ***
We left, moving through the dark corridors, weaving in and out of crowds of children with their arms linked. We arrived at the Buddhist woman’s house. We arrived at the Buddhist woman’s house. She grinned when she saw, exposing tiny white teeth and black gums. She had her baby bouncing on her hip, a big black mark on its forehead to ward off the evil eye. She welcomed us all inside, seating us on the plastic chairs in her living room. She hand her child off to the three other women/enumerators, who took turns rocking and kissing her. She sat and watched her mother with wide eyes. The woman was delighted to be interviewed; she was childlike in her mannerisms, fidgeting, crossing and re-crossing her legs. She told us she had grown up in a shanty on the banks below, until she and her family had been relocated to the government housing. She lived with her mother, who helped her take care of her child, as her husband was serving in the Sri Lankan army in Mullataivu. It was very challenging, sometimes, for her to raise her child without its father. Yet, she was grateful that she had such a loving husband, and a mother who helped share the burden of raising her child. Her faith carried her though her challenges, she said, acknowledging the framed photograph of the Buddha above the door. Everything she had learned she felt had sustained her. She enjoyed living surrounded by such an extraordinary number of people. She felt supported, surrounded by community**
We had to get an auto to go to the third apartment. We rose past row after row of government buildings, until we arrived in front of an even taller building. We took the stairs this time, side-stepping crinkled chip packets and discarded plastic bottles. When we reached the seventh floor, we could see a long strip of green receding outwards in the direction of the horizon. One one side, dilapidated little homes leaned against each other, surrounded by a perimeter of refuse. On the other, identical tall buildings rose high in the distance**
The Christian woman’s apartment looked out on this view. She was short and subdued, and she wore a red and blue floral print dress. She had an astigmatism, which gave me that the impression that she was looking right to my left as opposed to directly at me, and she sat with her hands in her lap as I asked her questions. Her daughter, a girl of about eighteen, stood shyly in the corner. She had been living in the area for about five years. Her husband was a cobbler nearby. Many photos of her children were placed all around the small living room, and in the center of the wall, at eye-level, was a large photograph of a wooden cross adorned with lilies. “My sons’ conversions is the greatest blessing; when I really felt God working in my life.”** Her two sons, both in their twenties, had been drug-addicts openly scornful of religion. She prayed for them everyday, and now they were both evangelists. The phrase “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” rang true for this woman as well; she was at peace peace with the inter-religious arrangement. She led a prayer cell group that met once a week, and the different faiths. Fear for her children**
Our last stop was the Hindu woman’s apartment. The doorway was framed by golden tassels, and the interior was the bright, warm, pink so particular to the third world. The vibrant colors were made even warmer by the yellow light from the lamps on either side of the small living room. On the walls hung photographs of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth, and Ganesh, the god of *** in golden frames. Right next to the, set off to the side, was a small photograph of the holy family. It was given to her by her father, who regularly went to the shrine of **
She was dressed in a loose dress with orange and pink flowers her two gold chains tucked into the neck. She wore glass bangles and a large red boot between her eyebrows. She had deep dark circles that threw her black eyes into relief, a trait she had passed a onto her son, a quiet boy about twelve who hovered around her. She had two children, a daughter and a son, but she took care of her sister’s children.
Neighbors, after the war. People living so close together. A mere twenty minutes, half an hour to the city. They all had great esteem for their husbands, their families. To them, everything came from God. Harmony among people who lived like sardines. Perhaps living in such proximity helped them understand. Physical closeness eventually transforming into emotional closeness. Man liveth not by self alone but in his brother’s face.