A Day to Remember: Of Coins and a Clear Conscience

Sharanya Sivasathiyanathan

© Copyright 2022 by 
Sharanya Sivasathiyanathan

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash
Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

From the moment my words were developed to become fully-fledged, autonomous thoughts, I realized that my older sister and I could never share the same ideas. Playing the “devil’s advocate” grew to become a common occurrence in our household, and it was ingrained in my very thinking that anything I could use to identify with my personality, within my control, would be different from those of my sister. So, it came as a surprise in later discussion when we discovered that June 14th, 2019 was the day when we both had the epiphany leading to our passions. It all came down to one stop on our boundless trip through Sri Lanka, the country which raised both of my parents before the war.

Gleams of early morning sunlight shone through the window panels enclosing the small, mustard-coloured taxi; like a beam aimed straight for squinting eyes. We weaved through bustling roads onto a smooth pathway, headed for the nearby temple. Since the plan was to leave for another city later in the evening, my mother wanted to show us around the place of worship she regularly visited as a child, before we moved on. Just as we would any other day my sister and I were seated within a two-meter proximity of one another, bickering and sharp comments filled the air. To an outsider, it seemed like terse conflict—judging by the fierce glares directed at each other, enough to pierce through the air. In reality, we were merely arguing over whose panjavi looked more lavish. Whose jewelry matched their outfit better.

This wasn’t something worth remembering—it happened far too often to recall each individual dispute—and if it weren’t for the events that would follow, I would have grouped it with all the other miscellaneous chats I’ve had with my sibling.

Upon arriving at the temple mid-morning, we all stepped out onto the road in our sandals. Waiting for my father to pay the driver before heading into the grounds, I turned to admire the details on the outside of the temple. It was a flurry of bright pink, green, blue, and orange, coated onto the sculptures on the walls. I found more sculptures of Hindu-Tamil gods and goddesses molded into the outside frame than I could count! The walls all angled inwards, as if forming a triangular pyramid at the summit. My eyes traced each carving in awe. We inched towards the building without hurry, in order to truly process the beauty— I was in the midst of imprinting its intricacies behind my eyelids.

Already preoccupied with the sight—stretching my neck upwards to catch every attribute—I almost forgot to remove my sandals before stepping into the sand. Once I did, however, it hit me like the sting of a fist to the nose. The scalding sand was scorching beneath my toes! I winced, hopping from foot to foot as I pranced towards the building, in an attempt to leave my feet on the ground for as little as humanly possible.

If the exterior of the temple was astonishing, the interior was beyond phenomenal. There were life-sized sculptures of the gods and goddesses in every cavity of the building, adorning shining jewels and draped with bright saris and dhotis. There were people knelt by every deity with hands clasped together, singing prayers with eyes squeezed shut. In the sea of bodies dressed similarly to ourselves, I gripped my mother’s palm tightly. I wasn't entirely sure we would have been able to reunite if anyone had gotten separated. We spent a solid hour or two, passing between icons, whispering hushed pleas for safe travels and future prosperity among words of gratitude. Once everyone was satisfied, my mother stopped us over by a small well, where she used to wait and feed the ducklings while her father left donations. Giggling, I watched as she traced her fingers along the patterns engraved on the surface, nostalgia and reminiscence clear on her features. Soon after, we exited from the back of the building.

Again, I was hit with the heat of the grainy sand beneath me. I felt like an ant, with the sun pointed through a magnifying glass right at me. The pads of my feet were on fire! Even the stray dogs and cats had fled inside the building for refuge from the intensity. My gaze flitted over to other families crossing the sand—how were they so unfazed?—before I caught glimpse of a large group of people. How on earth were they managing to stay seated in this sand? I cringed, imagining myself sitting on a heated stove.

A chorus of clanking metal reached my ears as my gaze fixed on the group. They were seated haphazardly on the ground, shaking grimy, unwashed eating tins, presumably carrying coins and bills. The sounds meshed with the croaking of hoarse voices and dried throats, calling onto passerbys for spare change. Rarely did anyone turn their direction, choosing instead to speed by without second thought. I noted suddenly, that all of the people seated or wandering slowly had… some sort of injury. A blind man was patting the sand before him to pick up on footsteps, a woman was pleading with her hands though uttering no words of her own, and another used his only arm to stretch his tin forward and towards the knees of others.

Other children, much younger than myself, displayed their horror at the disabilities blatantly. Some would begin to direct questions at them, only to be muffled by a strong mother’s palm to their mouths. Although I would never admit to it, the sight made me uncomfortable as well. I turned to my mother, who was fixed on one man in particular. Both his legs were amputated, and he sat on a flattened cardboard box with the tin before him. He was squinting to peer in our direction. Unlike the other parents, my mother was beaming in his direction.

Oh ho, is that Vimali?”

I turn over my shoulder in confusion, only to find my mother nodding along. How did she know this man?

You grew so big! You have your own children now!”

She walked towards the man eagerly, seated back on her haunches and jumping straight into conversation with him. Apparently, he recognized her from when she was still in her early twenties—when he had last seen her around the temple. Granted, her features had not changed much since then, at least according to the photo albums lying around at home. But still, this seemed way too far-fetched to be a reality!

Then, another thought hit me. If this man had last seen my mother from before she was married, which was the last time she had been in Sri Lanka (over fifteen years ago)... then how long had he been following this lifestyle? Perched in the sand by the temple and asking others to spare some change, the coins used to feed himself? This man had also clearly received no medical attention for the wounds, not even a pair of crutches to facilitate his mobility.

As I watched the scene before me, I felt acutely aware of the bead of warm sweat beginning to trickle down my forehead. I noticed, in discomfort, as the moisture gathered beneath my armpits and in my lower back, beneath the heavy cloth of the traditional dress. My palms twitched with the desire to wipe it off from the lenses of my glasses, and the tip of my brows. Catching onto my predicament, and presumably—the mirrored version from my sister, my father reaches into the back pocket of his pants. He hands us both some Rupee coins from his wallet, gesturing to the ice cream stand nearby, lined with young children handed large cones of the sweet delicacy.

Now that I look back on the day’s events, my father must have had a knowing look on his face.

Before my sister and I could manage our stealthy escape towards the ice cream stand, my mother ushered us both over to speak with the man. Reluctantly, glancing over to one another in silent protest, we dragged ourselves to where they were huddled, amongst the others. My mother sent us a piercing glare once she noticed our ever-standing position. Almost immediately to follow, we knelt before the man to meet his eye-level (and in doing so, burning our legs!). He smiled, dropping the tin and clasping each of our hands in his. I felt his leathery skin wrap around my fingers, taking in his long, graying beard and the circles under his eyes from a closer distance. I was able to steal quick glances at his legs, wincing internally at the dried blood and bruised skin. He must have overexerted himself fairly recently.

You girls are so lucky to have her as your mother,” he managed, cocking his head to his side. My mother grinned with pride.

Without a reply, my sister only nodded. Despite the heat of the sun pouring on us in waves, and the temptation of cold ice cream, my sister then stretched out her fist, dropping the coins into his tin.

I watch, unsure of how to act myself. Should I save the money for ice cream, and share it with my sister? Is that what she was expecting?

Thoughts raced in my head with each second. But, looking over to the grateful smile on the man’s face, I understood that there was only one thing left for me to do.

I turned to the other woman seated closest to us. One of her arms was wrapped in makeshift bandages, but I could tell an infection was growing beneath it. Without a word, I tipped the contents of my tightened fist into her tin. Using her other hand to press nimble fingers against my temple, she sighed in gratitude. The woman brushed a few stray hairs from my forehead, whispering,

Bless your soul. Thank you, dear.”

I was unable to contain my grin after that. The agony of overheating seemed to have washed away. I felt much calmer, with a better sense of presence. A faint smile adorned my father's features as we returned by his side, as if to tell us how pleased he was with our decision. Instead of vocalizing this, my father retrieved some more coins and bills and placed them in both our open arms, before walking over to join my mother’s conversation.

We were as busy as bees after then. Moving from one person to another, our feet were now grown into the sand as we listened to their stories and blessings. I recall one man, who sat me down beside him. He kept his stare out towards the detailing along the walls of the temple, but judging by his words, I was able to pick up on how grounded the man was. He began,

I used to be part of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. You know what that is, right?” I nodded in agreement. He smiled, darting his eyes quickly to catch my nonverbal response before returning his stare forwards.

I was strong, but after some time, I got this,” he claimed, pointing towards the missing leg below his right knee, and the three digits on his left hand that were no longer found. I pursed my lips, unsure of what to say. So, I opted not to press further on the subject, no matter how curious I was to know how he had received the injuries. He didn’t elaborate either. Just the same, the man continued. He shifted his focus to me, angling his body better to face my direction. A warm palm drew to clasp onto my clothed shoulder.

I insist you keep focus on your studies. Do your best, and live a long and healthy life.” I notice a hint of wistfulness in his tone at that final comment. But, I made no remark on it either.

Despite not engaging in deep conversation with this man, his words still resonate with me today. I am determined to gain a life of success for myself back here in Canada, though not only to support myself.

On the ride back to my aunt’s home from the temple that afternoon, I nudged on my mother’s shoulder and met her eyes through the rear-view mirror. A closed fist keeping my cheek upright, I questioned:

Why did the man not get money for living expenses from the government after his war injuries?” I asked. My mother only exhaled, the sound of hundreds of thousands of peoples’ frustrations wafting through the air.

That’s just the way things are in Sri Lanka, Sharanya.”

This was unsettling. An uproar of mixed feelings caught in my throat, from where they were pooling in my stomach, as I took in the grooves of the coin I traced deep in my pocket. At her words, I felt a pang of heart-lurching guilt hit me. I kept thinking about it. My eyes followed the surroundings of the taxi as I tried to wrap my head around the possibilities Sri Lanka could undertake for societal development, just at the small expense of certain members of society becoming less of a priority.

That temple was not only a stop on my first trip to Sri Lanka, but also the first event to lock in my journey. A door to the past of my mother, and my own future. My journey, to discovering policy adaptation and foreign aid as a personal passion. One that will stay with me for my entire life. One I am now sure will be the focus of my career. It was my first trip to Sri Lanka, as a visit to my parent’s home country, but on that trip, I was also able to understand why they fled. The visit to the temple was a day to remember. No matter how desperately I wanted that ice cream, and imagined it would taste while quelling the heat, I truly believe that dedicating the coins to my fellow people instead, tasted better on my conscience. It was a day to remember—one that shaped my morals—all due to hot sand and a few Rupees.

Sharanya Sivasathiyanathan, 15, is a high-school student in Grade 10 at John McCrae Secondary School in Ottawa, Ontario. With a passion for international issues, social justice, and her Sri Lankan-Canadian identity, she has written this travel memoir in hopes of sharing more about the realities of accessing proper medical care services in such third-world nations. In order to achieve her future goals, Sharanya is currently involved in advocacy both within and outside of her school community: she is the Co-President of a local students' union (the RSU), serves as the youngest JMSS Student Senator to represent her school on the board Senate, and volunteers with an international NGO targeting poverty (Results Canada). She has yet to have her more personal works published and hopes that this story will be able to get the coverage it deserves.

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