The hall has been cleared of all furniture, with only a few plastic chairs scattered around with more stacked outside. There is an air of expectancy among the knot of seated women, faces sombre, talking in hushed tones.
Expectancy but at the same time despondency, tinged with sorrow.
For life has dealt a hard blow on this extended family, as they await not one but three coffins from abroad at their Kotagedera home in Piliyandala.
It was a week since their loved ones had died in Bahrain, and when the Sunday Times visited their home last Tuesday, they were still unable to come to grips with the triple tragedy. “We gave a heel dane (almsgiving) this morning,” said Nishanthi Perera whose younger sister, Kumuduni Perera is one of the victims.
Lalitha Ranjani, 58, and two of her nieces, Kumuduni, 34, and Indani Udeshika, 27, are reported to have died of smoke inhalation after a fire engulfed their second floor apartment in Bahrain, early morning on January 26. Two more, a three-year-old Pakistani boy whom Lalitha had undertaken to look after and an “Arabi Uncle” also succumbed in this fire.
Two others, Lalitha’s adult sons, managed to escape.
Lalitha, widowed young, had endured the hardships of work as a housemaid in Bahrain for 28 years to feed, clothe and shelter her four sons. She was just enjoying her “retirement” as her sons had grown up and two were with her in Bahrain, working there to provide a better life for their families.
Kumuduni had sought greener pastures for the sake of her 15-year-old boy whom she left in the care of relatives, just last December while Indani had gone to Bahrain and toiled for seven years to earn some money and collect stuff for the new home she hoped to set up when she married at the end of this year.
Lalitha spoke to all of us on January 25, says daughter-in-law and namesake K. Lalitha, whose husband, Kumara Silva, was in the apartment at the time of the fire. “When Amma came to Sri Lanka about two years ago she was worried that she had not provided for her youngest son. She had bought small blocks of land for the other three and she did so for the youngest as well then.”
When she called the day before her demise it was to inform Lalitha to negotiate with the organization through which the land had been bought to reduce the interest as she had been sending Rs. 10,000 a month as the repayment instalment although the stipulated amount was about Rs. 6,500.
Amma was looking after that Pakistani boy to earn a bit more money, says Lalitha, who herself had been lived in Bahrain for nine years with her mother-in-law while working as a housemaid.
Uyala, pihala, redi hodala, okkama weda karala thibba api gedera enakota, she sighs explaining that her mother-in-law had done the cooking, housework and washing by the time she and her husband, a motor mechanic, returned after work.
All relatives, clustering around the telephone have only been told the sketchy details by Kumara, who is frantically running around to get the bodies home to Sri Lanka for the funeral. “I will tell you when I come back,” he has told Lalitha indicating that the other brother in Bahrain is in shock.
It was through a third source that Lalitha and family heard that Indani had faced a karadarayak (some trouble). Lalitha, thought it was a joke, because the previous night Kumara had spoken to her and all was well. She tried the Bahrain apartment phone but it was dead as was her husband’s mobile.
It was then that the family realized that their lives were about to change. Lalitha called a relative who confirmed that trouble had befallen her husband’s family. Finally she was able to get through to Kumara, who amidst the tears told her how they woke up at about 2 a.m. to screams by their mother that they should get out of the apartment.
With their mother’s urgings of…. “Malliwath arang ikmanata paninna” (Take your younger brother and get out)….that’s what he did, covering his face with a blanket as smoke engulfed the apartment.
Once out only they found that the others were still inside, says Lalitha, explaining that Kumara had told her that it was not possible to go back in to rescue them because they would have suffocated too.
The family believes that is what happened to the others. Coughing and spluttering after inhaling the smoke, they would have died an agonizing death. “They are not burnt,” says Lalitha sadly.
For this extended family who found a beloved Amma in Lalitha as she stretched out a helping hand not only to her brothers, sisters and sons but any relative who sought her succour, their world has collapsed around them.
We leave them to their vigil, which ended on Wednesday night when the remains of their relatives were brought back to Sri Lanka. The funerals were held yesterday.
The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) facilitated the process of getting the bodies to the country, said Additional General Manager L.K. Ruhunuge, explaining that the bureau bore the cost of the airfare.
One victim, is entitled to insurance, while the SLBFE will give the families a total of Rs. 50,000 this week, taking into consideration the circumstances under which they died, he said.
A fire had broken out in the apartment, most probably due to an electrical short-circuit and some plastic bottles and shoes by the front door had caught fire, with heavy smoke emanating from there. They had died of suffocation, Mr. Ruhunuge added.