We returned to Sri Lanka, a month later. The war was in its infancy then, and we did not witness any other atrocities. Still, it persisted in the background—like when teargas wafted over the wall of the swimming club and the tennis tournament had to be postponed, or when we had to flee Nuwara Eliya once while on vacation, or when the father of one of my classmates had the tip of his nose shot off by a jumpy soldier. After we left, the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization fighting for a separate Tamil state (these are the people who enthusiastically pioneered the use of the suicide bomb), stepped up their attacks, and the largely Singhalese government they were fighting marked an increasingly brutal path toward resolution.
Now, after 23 years away, I had returned, leaving my wife—then considerably pregnant with our first child—behind. I arrived in a country still traumatized by its war and the 2005 tsunami (ghostly, partially smashed fishing boats remain parked half a kilometer inland). In Colombo, I expected a barrage of wartime memories, but instead got the minor details that had caught my childhood eyes. I recalled the small brass emblem that glinted beside the gate to the Prime Minister's residence opposite the swimming club. I remembered, immediately, the difference between a well-made egg hopper and an overly spongy one.
For the first few days, I met friends of friends and, at first, everything was predictable: bursts of nostalgia, debilitating jet lag. I applied sunscreen, took photos of the Indian Ocean.
Then something changed.
People kept being evasive about politics. In the course of chatting, I'd ask someone for his impressions of the election, and he'd hesitate, say that we shouldn't discuss it on the phone. A kind of sickly and cold dread started mixing with my warm reminiscences. The cagier people acted, the more this dread sharpened. Maybe I could have played carefree, pretended nothing was askew, but it was hard to ignore. So I asked more questions. I started taking notes. Then I set up interviews with people I didn't know, but who might have valuable insights.
For weeks, I interviewed dozens of people—reporters, business leaders, aid workers. Abandoning my plans to hike Adam's Peak, I worked the phone in my hotel. And nobody, least of all me, seemed perplexed by the fact that I was suddenly carrying on like a journalist on assignment, instead of a man returning to his childhood home.
Eventually, one of the reporters told me to be careful. Fake journalist or not, I was starting to look like the real thing, and Sri Lanka is a dangerous place for journalists. I began listening on the line for clicking or other signs of eavesdroppers; in taxis, I kept an eye out for cars that might be trailing me.
On my final day in Colombo, while eating at another hotel, I convinced myself that I was being followed by two mustachioed men who looked like clichés of secret agents, so I fled the hotel in a tuk-tuk. I ended up at the airport several hours early, dizzy and sweating, impatient to leave. I still don't know if I was just being paranoid or not.