Endowed with a grace that seems almost out of place in her surroundings, Asanthi Swarnalatha is first and foremost a homemaker. In her one-room home which is situated at the mouth of one of the many pockets of maze-like alleyways in Slave Island, she fusses over her brood of two young sons with a touching protectiveness. As they sit on the floor, bent over their schoolbooks, she works briskly in the kitchen – a small offshoot of the main room, separated by a strip of cloth hung up like a curtain – making a meal for the family and, always, a cup of coffee to welcome us into her home.
Despite being so small, their house seems strangely uncluttered. Perhaps it is the mirrors hung on different walls that make the space seem larger than it is. By the bed on which we are invited to sit, there is a large pile of neatly folded paper bags and a bowl containing a thick paste of homemade glue – Asanthi’s way of contributing to her husband Chandrasiri’s income.
As we speak with Asanthi, Chandrasiri is always close by, friendly but watchful. Together they present a united front of total contentment. Asanthi tells us with absolute conviction that she and her family want for nothing and that her and her husband’s only wish is for their sons to do well in life. With a smile even more beautiful than the orange glow that swathed their house through a clear rafter on the ceiling, Asanthi – a Buddhist before her marriage to Chandrasiri – spoke of her faith in God and her belief that their collective faith would keep them safe from harm.
Inside the house, there are signs of the family’s chosen faith in every corner: a porcelain statue of St. Mary perched on a large stereo atop a cupboard; a small placard bearing a Christian slogan hanging above the doorway.
Her sons would listen as their mother spoke to us, smiling into their books and nudging each other whenever they heard their own names come up in conversation. The first time we encountered the eldest boy, he was outdoors, playing with a baby belonging to a neighbouring family, gently rocking the child in his arms. Only later, when Asanthi invited us into her home, did we recognize him as her son.
Asanthi and Chandrasiri kindly allowed us to join them for their weekly Sunday Church service; and even amidst the fervour so characteristic of Assembly of God Churches, their show of faith was subtle – almost private – despite the dense crowds around them. As Chandrasiri stood, arms raised, lips moving in silent worship, Asanthi would sometimes sit with her sons, fingers intertwined or leafing through the Bible. It was a picture of quiet togetherness that we hadn’t the heart to disturb as we left, slipping out of the premises as discreetly as we could, leaving the family to their prayers.