Sunday’s terrible events in Sri Lanka are now well known. At the time of writing, the number of deaths from the attacks was in the hundreds, although the exact toll is unclear.
We didn’t know about the numbers then. I did know about the geography. The first thing I gathered when I learned of the attacks was that the Galle Face Hotel lies between the properties that had been hit. The hotel’s location, opulence and reputation screamed “target” to me. The first order of business was to get out.
I wasn’t panicked. I wasn’t even angry. What mattered was to get my son, our passports and the rest of the family. Along with them, I entered a problem-solving zone I would only really exit days later. That we ended up locked inside the same hotel I was so desperate to leave — barred from exiting the crosshairs, as it were — focused our attention on what was in our control, not the horror that was beyond it.
What to order from a menu; how to cut a cake when a knife isn’t available; changes to our flight bookings — these consumed the rest of that surreal day. A normal holiday, you might think, but with sudden death lurking on the periphery. As the day wore on, as the explosion I’d so feared in the morning didn’t happen, even that dread receded beyond the hotel’s walls.
Into a crippled city we had no access to.
My photos establish a timeline. The rainbow was at 6:25 a.m. We were down at breakfast at 8 a.m. We would have been eating with the family when the attack happened at the Shangri-La Hotel, just up the road.
We had no idea. I did a short prayer with my father for my son — we are observant Sikhs — then headed down to the hotel portico. Around 10 of us were headed to Bentota, a nearby resort town, for a day trip. Our guide came to me.
“There have been bombs,” he said abruptly. Sri Lanka’s turbulent history lends itself to concise recitations of such events. India’s past, no less scarred, renders us good listeners. The hotel staff I noticed lurking anxiously by the front gate confirmed what he had said. Three hotels, all close by, all hit by explosions. It was then 9:20 a.m. News of the church attacks filtered in as we stood by the gate.
“What should we do?”
“Since you have a vehicle,” said one of the managers, “get your family, and get off the premises. We’re expecting an evacuation order as soon as the police arrive.”
He didn’t have to say it. There was every likelihood of an explosive device being in our hotel, as well. At that stage, we had no idea that suicide bombers were involved.
I ran inside. My father is 84; an aunt who was with us is the same age. By the time I got my father sorted, a niece messaged that she was inside the hotel with my son. I rushed down. Inside is precisely where I didn’t want them to be. Not with a bomb in every potted plant, behind every pillar, possible death in every flying shard of glass.
“We can’t leave,” my niece said shortly. “The hotel’s been locked down.” With us inside, along with the bomb I thought was already there.
It was 9.30 a.m. The situation was already out of our hands.
We herded the family toward the sea, away from the building. Guests were streaming out now, looking worriedly at their phones. The hotel had organized a small petting zoo for Easter. My son and his young cousins consoled themselves with the little birds and rabbits. I wandered about, looking in garbage bins. If I had found something, what would I have done?
By 10 a.m., we had ordered drinks by the pool and were responding to messages. Armed men went through the hotel. Nobody told us we couldn’t go to our rooms, but we stayed outside anyway. My photos tell me it was a cloudless, beautiful day.
My sisters and I chatted about likely escape routes. We ended up in the pool together, something that hasn’t happened in decades. My adult nieces and nephew stepped up like champions, laughing, shouting, herding their younger cousins. News that the spa had been closed was met with theatrical dismay.
We had lunch. Some of the staff’s families would have been at prayer that morning around the island. Still they smiled and served us our orders. Their stoicism struck us then. Now, having processed the events of that day, it awes me.
There were rumors of a suicide attack on the Indian Embassy next door. We could see armed guards on its roof, a machine gun pointing out to sea.
Social media was blocked in the early afternoon, cutting off the rumor supply. Men carrying automatic weapons moved in. They stood inside the hotel, on the seafront and by the pool. A small armed boat stood off to sea.
The scale of what had happened was coming through on the regular news by then. We asked other guests what their embassies were sending out. Around 3 p.m., we went back inside. The hotel had been cleared of threat, apparently.
We were sunburned, tired, a little bored. My son curled up next to me, absorbed in his device. At 5 p.m., the hotel organized a birthday cake for him. We learned then that the curfew scheduled for 6 p.m. was already in place. We sang “Happy Birthday,” then moved to the Long Room, where the hotel organizes sundowners and canapés every evening.
I think that is when I realized why I wasn’t terrified. Everyone I had to worry about was with me. But what of those who weren’t with their people?
I asked a waiter where he was from. A village up in the hills. His family was safe. But he knew staff at the hotels that had been attacked.
We watched the sunset together, the armed men below taking selfies by the sea.
After dinner that night, I asked the resident manager where the other guests were. “Some have left for the airport. Some are holed up in their rooms. We’re expecting lots of people tonight.”
A chef held a door open for me as I headed to bed. “No,” I insisted. “Tonight, after all your staff have done — after you.” He smiled as he stepped through.
We were driven to the airport by a hotel employee in the morning. He was from Anuradhapura, a town in the interior. He made the trip every week. His 3-year-old son insisted on it.
“Will you come back?” he asked. “We can’t let them win.”
When you return, he told my son, “you can meet my boy. He loves visitors.”