Feeling Like a Visitor in Jaffna-My Home

All of you who are reading this post know that my blog is named “A Journey from Jaffna”. I am very proud to say that I am from Jaffna and have many fond memories of growing up there. I am proud of Jaffna because I feel that I am a product of a city whose culture encourages ingenuity. As Plato said “what is honored in a country is cultivated there”. The fruits of education were honored, encouraged and embedded in the Jaffna I grew up.

I left my country as a 23 year old looking for greener pastures leaving a broken country riven by civil war. When the British left Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon at that time) they “united” two disparate communities into a co-habitation mode that set the stage for a decades long civil war and bloodshed resulting in the death of more than 100,000 Tamils and the exodus of close to a million, more than a quarter of the Tamil population. I was lucky to have graduated with an engineering degree and a scholarship in hand to pursue my graduate studies.

There have been many wistful conversations over the years of a possible family trip to Jaffna. I loved my homeland and my life growing up there was a mystery to my family. We could not visit Jaffna as a family for so many years (particularly during my children’s formative years) for obvious reasons. What held us back every time was the concern for the safety of my family. Unfortunately the only glimpse they had of my upbringing in Jaffna was through the tattered black and white photos stuck in a disintegrating album that my mother painstakingly held on to when she was forced to flee Jaffna in 1995. Like so many of us who left our homeland, I had to look forward in my journey waiting for that day where I could visit the place I once called home.

I preserved the image of Jaffna for years as the good place and a place of belonging and rootedness. In spite of the feeling of being driven away, I have been waiting all these years to feel at home as you once had. I know that the title of this blog sounds “sardonic”, but my experience visiting Jaffna after so many years was strange and somewhat anti-climactic due to all the emotions bottled up for decades.

While Colombo is trying to slowly creep into the 21st century, history seems to have pressed the “pause” button in Jaffna except for the multiple hotels springing up, even in many residential areas. The number of hotels dotting the map of Jaffna is a clear sign of the impact of the diaspora and I wish the economic resources of the diaspora could also be relied upon for Jaffna meeting the basic 21st century needs. Once the second largest city in Sri Lanka, Jaffna had been hollowed out by the war, and now has a population smaller than it did a century ago.

In spite of the reconstruction efforts, the signs that Jaffna was in the middle of a civil war is tattooed all over the place. We passed half empty shells of bombed houses, covered with vines that had twisted around crumbling facades. It was clear that making Jaffna to recover its familiar surroundings and make its populace feel the rich texture of daily life will take a lot   more time and effort. However, I also have to say that the people have quickly learned to forget and get beyond the hellish, “conquered” conditions that existed for decades during the war.

We had the choice of taking the Yarl Devi to Jaffna – whose on time departure from the Jaffna railway station was my father’s responsibility 50 years ago- which would have been an emotionally extraordinary experience for me. However, we drove to Jaffna from Colombo and stayed at a hotel in Nallur because that is where my family lived for the longest time. Our home in Chetty street, just a stone’s throw away from the great Murugan temple, is still there with the majestic Veppa maram and the king coconut trees I planted providing an imposing presence. I also realized that my emotional resonance with the place and many of my other fond memories have faded over time.

I was looking to connect the dots of familiar places that marked my upbringing and daily routine. The small boutique shop owned by an elderly couple where I picked my newspaper every morning, the co-operative store where I picked my family’s weekly rations, the bi-cycle repair shop, the barber shop are all gone. Subhas café – owned by my late classmate Manoharan’s family- , the kothu rotti joints, Mokkan kadai are gone too.

My wife wanted to visit her ancestral home in Anaikottai. “We are looking for Gnanasambanthan master’s house. His daughter Sushila lived there.Know it?” we asked anyone we encountered in the vicinity of Anaikottai junction. Gnanasambanthan master and Sushila (my wife’s grand father and mother) grew up in the house. None of the information we provided rang any bells. It was clear that mass migration has taken place and memory chips have been plucked away from the time machine. By sheer luck, we were able to find one of my mother-in-law’s childhood play mates. As a result, we were able to visit the bombed, unoccupied home.

The war had also transformed my ancestral village (Karampon), where my grandparents lived and my parents grew up. Their homes, the landmarks that were itched in my memory, are shown here in the pictures. It was really heartbreaking. On our way back from Jaffna, we also stopped at the water tower knocked down in Killinochchi, which has been transformed into a creepy tourist attraction. I could not believe that there was a souvenir shop right next to the fallen tower. I had an emotional connection to this place since I worked at the National Water Supply and Drainage Board as a young engineer.

I also met many of the people who are responsible (at least on paper) for the re-building and development of Jaffna – politicians, ministers, high level administrators, and academics. My main interest during this visit was to help them on the issues surrounding the perceived water pollution related to the operation of the oil fired power plant in Chunnakam. I wanted to offer my experience and expertise having dealt with hundreds of similar sites across the world. I was hoping that I will get some level of acceptance and an invitation to participate in developing a solution. What I faced was total rejection and at best some polite lip service. I did not expect to be received as a son coming home to help the ailing parents … but some level of recognition of the collective best in class know-how that could have been brought into find solutions to the most pressing issue for the future generations – i.e. availability of clean drinking water in the peninsula.

At the end I felt like a tourist, a wanderer and a wonderer in my own home town. I want to finish this blog with some observations which were very different from the Jaffna I remembered. Some of the army camps are being converted into tourist resorts, lot of Sinhalese workers from faraway places working in Jaffna – particularly in the hospitality industry, the sad plight of the many wounded people trying to make a living and the very visible scars of the war embedded in all aspects of the daily lives of our Jaffna brethren.

The most important and obvious, but never realized, revelation was that Jaffna is really a small place. Those days we walked, biked or took the bus to go anywhere in Jaffna. It took me two to three hours from Nallur to visit my grandma in Karampon. This time, having a car at your disposal, it took us only twenty minutes to make the same trip.

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