The Jaffna Connection

When I last visited my Thatha’s house, nets were strung out across the verandah. It is now occupied by an extended family of fisher-people. I believe they moved to Moolai some years ago during the war. A road leads through the village and out to where rice paddy fields segue into a palmyrah-fringed coastline. A golden Hanuman statue and a Sri Lankan Navy post mark one end of a long, straight causeway that extends across the Palk Strait. Colourful nets, small boats and the occasional thatched roof shelter indicate an array of fish farms that fan out from the road across the shallow water that connects the peninsula to Karainagar Island. I came to that area again yesterday, when the glare of a hot afternoon sun rendered the fishermen, like their bicycles, as thin black silhouettes.

A relative in Colombo expressed some disapproval about the current occupants of my Thatha’s house, possibly because of caste prejudice or disputes over land ownership. The title of the house lies in my aunt’s name, but she has expressed little interest either in selling or maintaining it. Though the property is large, the house itself is in poor condition. I understand the current occupants are paying rent, perhaps only a token amount. When I first visited with my mother, we were taken to visit the man we believed to be the rent collector. Was he someone known to my Thatha? He refused to speak to us.

Moolai house with Mr Gopal

Moolai house with Mr Gopal

I think of the Moolai house as an architectural marker, a physical trace of my family’s ‘routes’ and our history of migration. It functions as a historical monument and point of departure. The concrete fact of what was left behind also brings to mind what has over generations been lost—a connection to place, and most significantly for me, the loss of language. The house was built when my Thatha attempted to return to the village of his youth with his family after living for decades in what was then Malaya. My mother and her siblings enrolled in local schools, but as my mother recalls, they could never quite adjust to village life and left after only a year or so. Their emigration from Ceylon pre-empted the troubles that were to plague Sri Lanka and the struggles that befell our more distant relatives who stayed on in the Jaffna peninsula. I sometimes think of my recent visit to this once grand but now neglected house as a kind of pilgrimage to contemplate that decision and what it took to be able to make it—an English education, a particular citizenship, professional qualifications and acquired wealth. I never knew my Thatha, but I imagine that his proclivity to move echoes in my own inclination to travel and pursue opportunities as they arise.

My mother has vivid memories of her childhood in the once ‘beautiful and peaceful’ home, that she recalls in a recent email:

The house used to be full of visitors from morning to night. The wood carvings above the windows were beautiful and the house was bright and airy. People from around used to come for the well water as it was clear and tasted good (not salty). It was also well maintained with fencing all around and stone columns on either side of the front gate. It is disappointing to see the ruinous state of the place.

In 2011 I came to Jaffna for the first time with my mother. She is now retired and has no thoughts of returning, happy enough to have visited once after the war. Late in 2014 I was able to ‘stage a return’ as part of a writers’ residency, to discuss the issues that arose. Whilst most of my experiences were welcoming and hospitable, I encountered some anxiety about diaspora Tamils such as myself returning to claim property and intervene. Alongside anxieties about ‘Southern colonisation’ or ‘Sinhalisation’ I was advised about a spike in land prices putting property ownership outside the means of many locals. On my return I was also struck by the numerous guesthouses and hotels that had sprung up in recent years, priced beyond the purse of most domestic tourists.

In Colombo I caught up with an old family friend from Sydney who now manages a handful of resorts in Lanka from his base in Singapore. He agrees the coastline of the peninsula is exquisite, but confirms that tourism has been slow. He suggests there is no local basis for the kinds of activities that attract tourists from the West, and that political corruption and a lack of bureaucratic transparency hamper development. The owner of my guesthouse concurs, there is not much for tourists to do in Jaffna, and I would also agree. There is no nightlife to speak of and little is open in town after 9pm. I often joke that Jaffna seems livelier at 6am, soon after the numerous temples announce their first pujas with clanging bells before dawn. The area is picturesque, fertile and productive, and I have enjoyed my excursions past ancient tanks, landmark temples and shady coconut groves—but what am I to do here? My relative in Colombo seemed relieved when I confirmed the date of my departure, more pleased than when I first arrived.

My mother remains in touch with a young couple we met when we were both here. I spent some time with them on Christmas, three years to the day since we first met. Back then they were newlyweds, now they have two young sons. The eldest is a cheerful and inquisitive child who entertained us for hours with his toys and antics. They rent a house directly opposite my Thatha’s and there is a curious symmetry to this arrangement, as once distant relatives draw in closer. In Sydney their close relatives connect with my mother and they see in the new year together. Over the last months I have become an unlikely family field reporter, sending photographs and filing the occasional update. My mother is surprised—growing up in Australia she never expected that I would be the one to make the Jaffna connection.

Yesterday, as I cycled down the long causeway to Karainagar I felt as though I had stretched my time here to its limit. Veering off to the side of the road before it met the island, I could think of no reason to go further. Heading back towards town, I was somewhere near Vaddukoddai when I received an email from an old friend with whom I had not spoken for a year or maybe more. He had sad and unexpected news, his younger brother had taken his own life in the days leading up to Christmas and there was to be a memorial in Brisbane in a few days time. The family were ‘pretty awfully messed up.’ The notice for the ceremony asked attendees to wear bright colours to celebrate the deceased’s life rather than mourn his passing. One scenario spills into another—a carefree ride through the backwaters of my grandfather’s youth winds up in a tangle of connections, loyalties and responsibilities with the pull of a dear friend in distress. The brevity of life filters through the brilliant afternoon light. Out here in the ‘homelands’ I did not feel any deep connection to place, but was instead made acutely aware of distance.

Palk Strait Causeway

Palk Strait Causeway

What drives one to ‘connect’, to reach out to others and find things in common even if the only thing in common is family? Why desire to make conceptual links, to make sense of one’s experiences and render them meaningful? Is it not strange that I was able to return to Moolai to connect with my distant relatives because of my professional connections? ‘People-to-people links’ is often how relations with Sri Lanka are described by Australian Government officials. The term encompasses a range of shared interests that include membership of the Commonwealth, initiatives such as the Colombo Plan, development aid, education, sport and regional security. My coming to Jaffna is also reliant on ‘people-to-people’ methodologies to make links between people, concepts, institutions and experiences. It is a way of ‘being Tamil’ for one not able to speak the language or participate in a ‘traditional culture’ that has at times seemed obscure or unreasonable.

In the post-war scenario my being here in Jaffna is a means of producing cultural theory from the perspective of being ‘theoretically Tamil’. Without language, one becomes attentive to the details their daily routines. Rather than cleave to tradition I would rather trace personal histories, map political trajectories and flag possible futures as a means of producing a common culture. Making these connections is, as an old family friend in Colombo put it, ‘like completing a circle.’ Joining the dots between here and there and now and then brings with it a sense of closure.

13 January 2015


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