As time erodes the mind, and as I recollect the memories of close to twenty thousand days of my life, I am starting this blog, “A Journey from Jaffna”, as a means of connecting with my friends, old and new, relatives, colleagues and others in the Jaffna Tamil diaspora across the globe. At this stage of my life, I am craving to be somehow there in Jaffna after being away for almost four decades. I feel like my river has many tributaries that have taken me to many different terrains, mostly fertile but at times arid. I am a product of my personal and professional experiences in different countries in addition to a traditional Jaffna upbringing. I was not physically there during most of the bloodshed that took place but have been emotionally drained by what my family had to endure as well as the violent hatred directed against my brethren living there.
Jaffna derived its name from Yarlpanam. Yarlpanam became Yappanam, Jappanam, Jaffanam and finally Jaffna over the passage of time during the Portuguese, Dutch, and British rule. Geographically the Jaffna peninsula is only around four hundred square miles with the outlying ten or so islands an additional eighty square miles. My forefathers lived in one of those islands, Kayts, for generations. Jaffna is such a contrast to the rest of the island of Sri Lanka, which is so verdant and vibrant. The landscape and topography are greatly different, stark and barren and dotted with cactus and Palmyra trees. The effort of cultivation in this arid territory has bred an austere and minimalist culture.
My upbringing was in a typical Jaffna Tamil family focused so much on education as the only means of reaching a semblance of prosperity. My parents led a very non-acquisitive way of life primarily because we were not rich nor poor, struggling at the lower end of the middle-class spectrum. My mother was the stronger more dominating personality. My wings were clipped a little too close once in a while, but my spirit remained always optimistic. Home in Nallur was full of traditions and customs, particularly the religious ones, and was enriched by festivals, fasting, vows and penance. Nallur Kandaswamy temple was just a stone’s throw away, and the annual festival was an occasion of happiness and celebration while giving the feeling of absolute devotion
My parents were aware of what they called my “talent or gift” and took it very much for granted that I would enter the engineering faculty at the University of Peradeniya while I was studying at Jaffna Central College. Central molded me into the person I am today- one who is able to thrive in alien environments and unchartered territories. When I graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering from Peradeniya I had to face the ongoing political reality and the Orwellian requirements to succeed as a Tamil professional. I was searching for scholarships to pursue higher studies as the only means of leaving the country. I went on to get Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Environmental Engineering due to the generous scholarships provided by the governments of New Zealand and Canada. Along the way, I worked in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Canada as an environmental engineer before settling down in the US. Currently I function as the Chief Technical Officer at ARCADIS, a leading global engineering and consulting company. I am fortunate enough to write three important text books in Remediation Engineering and develop multiple patented technologies. I have founded my own technical conference and started working on a fourth book.
In the search for my identity I realize that my journey began in a faraway space and time from where I am domiciled now. Here I am, an ethnic minority, carrying out, at times, a completely alien set of traditions related to a faraway ‘home country’ and yet searching for relevance and conformity. The romantic imaginings of greener pastures are often contrasted by the harsh realities we often had to face. The emigrant puts his head down and works hard, excessively, unwilling to abandon the hope that the new land might provide a successful career and a home. This hybrid journey of professional and personal growth in a transplanted country has helped me to shape, form, and create my own identity from my own personal experiences. My past together with the present and the inevitable future has helped me in this search for identity. This search will be continuous and I hope will assert and affirm the essence of my humanity towards helping the re-building of Jaffna in any small way that I can contribute.