It has been over a month since Bandu’s tragic death. We have struggled with whether or not to post an entry about Bandu’s funeral.
We finally decided that because death is a natural part of the cycle of life and because our blog is a reflection of our cultural experiences, that we will share our experience of the funeral. As well, a few of you have kindly inquired as to how Nilu (Bandu’s wife) is doing since his death. We will also provide an update on that.
The funeral rites went on for three days. We visited the house every day to pay our respects and be present. It was incredibly difficult in many ways. Bandu’s tragic untimely death was a great shock to all those that knew him. He had a huge presence in his community and was known (we found out through several conversations) for his kindness to strangers. Apparently he would often stop his tuk tuk to give free rides to poor people walking along the side of the street.
From a cultural point of view, we were surprised by the continuous outpouring of loud unabashed grief. Wailing, crying, screaming… for all the days of the funeral. (In Western funeral rituals people seem to do a combination of talking, sharing stories and memories, and crying. Funerals tend to be a subdued affair for the most part). Here this was continuous full throated grief. It was non stop and it was not easy to be a part of it. It was heartbreaking. At the same time, it was clearly cathartic for the family.
On our first visit to the family home, Nilu was inconsolable. Understandably. We brought with us a contribution for the funeral expenses and a few photos of Bandu which we had enlarged and printed, to give to Nilu and her sons. The reaction to the photographs was extreme. We thought at first we had offended the family and committed a severe cultural faux pas. When the photos were taken out of the envelope, all the family who were gathered around us and NIlu in her bedroom, erupted into instant loud wailing. We felt sure we had made a bad mistake and offended the Buddhist culture in some way we did not know about…. But as it turned out, the reason everyone reacted in that way, was that it was the first time they were seeing a visual of Bandu in the two days since his death, since his body was still at the hospital.
Nilu did not eat or drink or shower for all three days of the funeral. She just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. One thing she said to us a few times, was that Bandu had been a soldier for 22 years and in all that time he never got a scratch on his body!
Bandu’s oldest son (16) was in the middle of his final exams in high school. Bandu had been driving his son to his exams, every day and waiting outside for him to finish ~ an indication of the pride and support he had for his children. Because these annual exams are one time events, the bereaved 16 year old had no choice but to continue going to take his exams (every day for 9 days) even on the day of the actual burial. How he did that, is really mind-boggling, but his uncles reminded him that this is what his father would have wanted him to do.
The funeral had an unusual juxtaposition between the Buddhist monks and the uniformed soldiers. We knew it was time for the casket to be lifted for the procession and long walk to the cemetery when the funeral musicians started to play their traditional Sinhalese instruments loudly. The friends, family and neighbors all lined the small street outside the house, to get ready for the procession. Young men had the job of throwing out long saris overhead, which were laid on the ground in preparation for the casket and the procession coming. The idea was to always have cloth on the ground between feet and earth, but given that there were only about six of these saris, and that the cemetery was a good distance away, these fabrics had to be thrown in haste, spread, lifted up, thrown from the back to the front of the line again repeatedly. Ben was given the (difficult) honor of being one of the people to help carry the casket to the cemetery.
After walking through narrow streets and pathways, behind the lifted casket, the soldiers, the musicians, and mourners finally reached the main road where traffic was stopped by the military to allow the procession to reach the cemetery. (A small plot of land on the side of the road next to the ocean.) Before and after the casket was laid into the ground soldiers lifted their rifles and shot successive rounds of ammunition into the air with deafeningly loud bursts. A military bugle was played. (Buddhists have a choice between burial and cremation, and burial was selected by the family.)
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Since the funeral, our focus shifted to finding ways to help Nilu re invent a life without Bandu. We realized that after this tragedy, Nilu’s challenges are multi dimensional: Her emotional grief from a life interrupted with the man she loved dearly ~ obviously nothing we can do about that. Her probable marginilization in a society where a woman’s status shifts dramatically downwards as a widow and where remarriage is virtually unheard of ~ again, outside the realm of our ability to impact the outcome..
Where we CAN help is to think through ways to help her create income for survival for both herself and her sons. The first thing we did was to give her peace of mind by shifting from a task by task payment arrangement we had previously with Bandu, to a monthly income for her that will cover the family’s basic needs. Just knowing every month that she is covered, reduces the angst that might otherwise be present.
That said, we are of course aware that we won’t live here forever, and therefore this is a good transition period for however long we do live here. But it is of course not a long term solution for her.
In response to our decision to provide her a monthly income, Nilu felt strongly that she wanted to earn her monthly amount from us in additional ways than helping with the house. One of her suggestions was that we buy ourselves a washing machine so that she could start doing all of our laundry, which up till now, we had been taking to a laundry service, which is expensive. Ben had a eureka moment. Instead of buying ourselves a washing machine, what if we bought HER a machine?! That way, she could perhaps use the machine to start a business of doing laundry for other people. Nilu was VERY excited with this idea! It would not only provide additional income opportunity, but it is something she felt she could easily do well and it would recast her in her community as “Nilu the business woman.” This is a big deal. It changes her reality and as well, how people perceive her, in her neighborhood. From Nilu the widow, to Nilu the entrepeneur.
Nilu loved the whole idea.
We reached out, as many of you know, to friends, family and Green Global Trek readers for contributions to the establishment of a savings account for Nilu. Many of you all over the world generously donated money to help Nilu and her family and for this we thank you all from the bottom of our hearts. Nilu too was very touched that so many strangers had offered to help her and her sons. We were able to open an account for the family, within a week of Bandu’s death with $1,000 of donations. This savings account, something she has never had before, makes a huge difference in that it creates a survival buffer and a psychological ease.
After Nilu agreed with the idea to start her own small laundry business, Ben was on the search to find her a first customer, ideally a small hotel. As he drank his daily cappucino and the French owner of the cafe stopped by for a chat, Ben told her the story of Bandu’s untimely death and Nilu’s predicament, to see if she might be interested in helping as she has a small hotel. Sylvie, did not skip a beat, and instantly understood that she could make a difference in someone’s life. As it turns out, being the busy season, her small staff was struggling to keep up with the daily avalanche of linen and so she agreed to give Nilu a chance and help her start her laundry business.
She had some specific requirements. The washing machine would need to be industrial size and strength and hot water would need to be used. Laundry would need to be picked up every morning and returned the following day. Timing could not have been better, as Nilu’s family was about to go out and purchase a machine that we offered to pay for. An industrial machine obviously is more expensive and so the just created savings account provided the extra rupees needed for the start of the business.
Within days, the machine was purchased, delivered and set up in the house (where there is plenty space for hanging laundry in the sun on the roof), Ben went with Nilu so that he could introduce her to Sylvie and the first batch of ten sheets to be laundered and ironed, was handed over ceremoniously. Minor mishaps with punctuality (a cultural thing, as Sri Lankan time operates on island time), were quickly resolved once Nilu understood that European time is different and that to be successful in business she would need to be at the hotel every day at the same time. The family rallied around her to guarantee daily tuk tuk rides for pick up and delivery of the laundry.
It is now over two weeks and Nilu has embraced her role as business woman, and has demonstrated that she is reliable to Sylvie and can do a good job, and Sylvie has in turn, responded by giving her more work. All of the money made from the laundry, is going straight into the savings account to replenish the extra money used to purchase the industrial size machine.
Of course this current situation is seasonal, but hopefully even once the busy season is over, we can help Nilu to find other customers that will need laundry done.
Nilu has other marketable talents. We wrote in our blog post which introduced Bandu, how Nilu was making us delicious traditional Sri Lankan curries once a week. Since we use our home for home exchanges, we immediately realized that we can include the option to guests in our home, of having Nilu cook curries for them, for a fee. Our first guests who were here for a week, (while we were in Colombo for Ben’s work), took advantage of this offering and Nilu was able to get some extra income from her cooking. She told us excitedly that she had used this income to buy both her sons new school uniforms, backpacks, shoes, books etc for the new school year.
Of course, Nilu’s financial situation while improving, remains precarious over the long term and ideally we would like to be able to see her small savings account grow to provide her added security. If anyone still would like to contribute, the best way is via our paypal account (All one needs to do to open a paypal account is to download paypal and link your credit card to the account and then a one click transfer to our account which is: email@example.com and we will do the transfer to her savings account).
Thank you again, to all who have generously and kindly helped and made a difference. Nilu was extremely touched by the unexpected support from kind strangers, from afar ~ from Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Texas, France, Canada, Portugal, Israel, the UK, and even from a sailor navigating the seas near Thailand… And many of the contributions came from you, our compassionate Green Global Trek blog readers!
And to those, who meant to contribute but did not get around to it, you still have a chance to help out. With thanks in advance.