Monday, May 29, 2017

Fadil Iqbal’s journeys: One country, nine days

The best way to sum up Fadil Iqbal would be to describe him as a go-getter. That’s simplistic, even naive, but for the time being (I hope) it’ll do. The point about him is that he’s travelled, or rather cycled, through Sri Lanka. In nine days. No mean feat, obviously, which is why I am as interested in that journey as I am in his story. The latter, I will get to later. The former, I will get to now. Before I do so, however, I need to elaborate on what kind of a person he is. So here’s a sketch.

He’s a scout, a basketball player, an actor, and an undergraduate. He began these activities when he became a Scout in Grade Six at his school, S. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia. Having forayed into camping, he later became an Under 19 basketball player. He didn’t forego on his studies, moreover: he chose Maths and Physics for his A Levels, a decision he attributes to his parents (his mother had studied Chemistry and his father Botany). At Colombo University he pursued marathons, rowing, and the Gavel Club (when it was first formed two years ago). That first activity, he tells me, got him thinking about cycling. I ask him to explain.

“I ran my first marathon in 2015. That was over 21 kilometres. My second marathon the following year was longer, at 42 kilometres and from the BMICH to the Negombo beach. It was of course excruciating, but I learnt a lot. Yes, I know one long run isn’t going to change your outlook on life and the world, but when I passed all those kiosks, those ordinary people going about their daily work, their children, and even those street dogs and cats, I realised how much we were missing on the road.”

I put to him that marathons usually inculcate such an attitude in those who take part in them, and he attributes it to the fact that compared with most other countries, such activities are considered as out-of-the-ordinary in Sri Lanka: “In the West, they are the norm. Here, on the other hand, athletes are looked up to as superheroes.” As for his second activity, rowing, he had been taken up by an observation made by his fitness coach Vajira Dharmawardhana: that a good cyclist was a good oarsman.

“Vajira aiya got me thinking,” Fadil says, “I remembered a friend of mine from school who used to cycle all the way from his hometown in Kalutara to Mount Lavinia and how he could recall nearly every shortcut in my own neighbourhood. I remembered a friend of mine from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura called Saroj Somarathne, who would later bike to work from his residence at Wijerama to Diyagama. I remembered that I owned a rusty mountain bike. Because it was rather worn out, I switched to a road bike and began cycling to work every day.”

This was last year. Things moved quickly thereafter. Because Fadil had been used to waking up at about seven to get to his office (RCS2 Technologies Wellawatte, the only local manufacturer of 3D printers), he was intrigued by the prospect of waking up one hour earlier. “That gave me a lot of time to read, think, and reflect when I arrived at work at about seven,” he tells me, “Which was when I realised that the two-wheeler actually catered to the cyclist’s sense of time and priorities, more so than any other vehicle.” But there was a caveat: “I was always worried about the tyres.”

It was his friend Saroj who proposed that they bike around the country. “I didn’t hesitate when he mooted it, but we needed to discuss how we’d do it and how long it would take. We met up at his campus, talked, and decided to go for it over Avurudu, since our offices would be closed and since we couldn’t take too many days on leave. Moreover, we were used to biking about 20, maybe 30 kilometres. This journey would take us about 100, sometimes 200 a day. So we practised. We biked all the way from Nugegoda to Bandaragama to Panadura to Kalutara and back. Mind you, these were reasonably well paved roads, so we were still unprepared.”

Saroj however had been confident, so confident that at about 4.30 in the morning on Thursday, April 6, they began their ride in earnest. Their route (spanning more than 1,300 kilometres) would take them all the way to Anuradhapura, to Jaffna, to Mullaitivu, to Trincomalee, to Batticoloa, to Arugambay, through the Buttala Road and Lunugamwehera to Kirinde, and from Kirinde to Mirissa to Galle and finally back to Colombo. They would be riding until April 14 (Friday) and stopping every night at run-of-the-mill rest houses or friends’ places.

Naturally, given all these impressive logistics, my first question is: “Did you get to stick to your plan?” With a chortle that smacks of sarcasm and amusement, Fadil replies with a decided “No!” I ask him why. “We were actually mad to think we could do it. The first day was fine, all the way to Anuradhapura and Dambulla. Everything after that got messed up with the heat. Earlier we’d stopped every hour. Now we were stopping every half-hour. The sun blinded us, simply put.”

Sri Lanka is of course no stranger to extremities in climate, so soon enough he would experience the other side: the rain. It had happened, he tells me, after he’d dropped Saroj at Tissamaharama. From then on, Fadil had been his own man, which turned into a nightmare when he ran into a day-long deluge on his way to Galle. “I should have considered that a blessing, given the heat. But it wasn’t.” So in Matara, he stayed over for Avurudu with another friend of his, Parami Kodippili. Fadil ended up eating through the festive season and (after the rain stopped) made his way back to Colombo a day behind schedule, on Saturday April 15 at about 10 in the night.

Important as these details are, I am more interested in the anecdotes they hold. So I ask Fadil as to what, out of every stop, kiosk, person, and house he ran into, he remembers the most, and he answers “The people.” I ask him to explain.

He is quick with his reply. “I believe that anyone running for the presidency here should cycle around the island. I say this because it will bring him or her into contact with the common man, woman, and child. I met some of the simplest folks I’ve come across anywhere. I saw the so-called rural simpleton and reflected on my acquaintances back home. I could only think of how hollow our lives were. So yes, I was humbled, and yes, that part of the journey was the most memorable for me.”

He then singles out that attitude of complacency and synthetic happiness we’ve been conditioned to affirm here for censure. “We think we lead the best lives, when we do not. For the blue-chip company executive, to give just one example, the best day of the week would be Friday. He has nothing beyond that. I suppose we’re more fortunate because we’re not part of this rat-race, but looking back I can’t help but think how terrible it is that we force the game miniha to adjust to that executive’s way of life.” Being qualitatively differently from the usual simplistic attacks on the city, that hits me. I therefore ask Fadil as to what he learnt the most from his trek.

“More than anything else, I understood that even ambition has its limits. When I was biking in the South, through the rain and the sharp katukurunda branches on the road, I remembered Jayanthi Kutu-Utumpaala and Johann Peiris, especially the latter as he never reached the top of Mount Everest with Jayanthi: he barely made it because he ran out of oxygen just metres away. It would have been pure heartache to go back, but that’s all he could do at that point. I understood then and there that although we try to hit it big with what we do, there are times when we must step back.”

All these offer much to reflect on. Recently Fadil started a blog (, through which he will use his encounters to interact with other likeminded cyclists from here. Personally speaking, and given all this, I believe much of what he singles out for praise and censure should be taken to heart, especially in light of what he’s gone through. Why and how, I will get to in a later article, but for now here’s what I will say: I am glad Fadil Iqbal cycled around the country and I am glad that he has learnt. For the purpose of this brief sketch, that is enough.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 28 2017

Sunday, May 28, 2017

'Battle of the Kings': Of kings, knights, pawns, and players

On April 21, 22, and 23, the Royal College Chess Club held the 21st Battle of the Kings, the longest uninterrupted chess tournament organised by a student body here. The 21st, be it of a person or institution or event, usually calls for reflection, meriting a throwback to how the thing being celebrated evolved. This is hence a sketch of how a bunch of schoolchildren, left to their own devices under the supervision of a set of elders, have proved themselves.

My first recollection of chess is that it was a game where victories and defeats were (to say the least) unpredictable. You can win and go up one day and slide down with one wrong move the next. Your opponent may be poorer (in whatever respect) than you, but luck even with its many shades and nuances (thankfully) doesn’t take that into account. To a considerable extent then, it has come to reflect the wider social landscape of the country, where mobility remains a distant possibility that’s nevertheless emboldened the proverbial underdog. For me and a great many followers of the game, that’s what has defined Battle of the Kings throughout its history.

21 years is not a long time but it certainly is considering the strides made in chess here. Not many people know, for instance, that we’ve produced players who were not only able to reckon with better players elsewhere, but could rout them too (as Vajira Perera proved when he defeated Vishvanathan Anand somewhere in the eighties). We have not produced a Grand Master but a few years back we did produce an International Master (Romesh Weerawardena). Clearly then, we are not lacking in talent, inborn, inherited, taught, or picked up. We aren’t lacking in tournaments either. And above everything, we aren’t lacking in across-the-board representation. Which brings me back to the subject of my piece.

I went to watch the Battle of the Kings on Sunday. Because it was the last day, the tournament ended rather quickly, at about noon (I left soon afterwards without staying for the awards ceremony). At the outset I was pointed at three teams by a member of the Royal College Chess Advisory Committee (I’ll name him later). All three were from the North: Chenkalady Central College, Hartley College, and Kokuvil Hindu College. I didn’t get to talk with them all, only with the captain of the latter school team.

Unlike in Colombo, Kandy, and much of the South and elsewhere, there’s a disjuncture between popularity and dissemination, where chess is concerned, in that part of the country. “It’s popular, but not widely played,” the Kokuvil Captain, Gajendran Gasanthiran, told me.

His story of how he got to rise up in the game is typical of schoolboys like him from there: having seen a senior boy clinch the school championship, he’d asked him to teach him. His knowledge of the game at the time, naturally enough, had been elementary. So elementary, in fact, that when he managed to route that same senior and clinch both school (two years in a row) and provincial (in 2015) championships, he would have been as (pleasantly) surprised as we were.

The Kokuvil boys played rather decently at the tournament, I noticed. Gajendran in particular, with a FIDE score of 1209, spoke of how he defeated two more highly ranked players, with scores of 1298 and 1600, elsewhere. Now chess is a game where ranks and the categories embedded therein do matter, but while Gajendran and his colleagues do need to rise up more, their level of interest and enthusiasm speaks volumes about how it has ascended over the years. “Most of those who take to chess where I come from grow up in the city,” he told me with a slight grin, “I am an exception: I come from outside.” Heartening, no doubt.

And to a large extent, that’s what has shaped Battle of the Kings over two decades. Here’s what that Advisory Committee member wrote: “From the earliest days of chess that I remember, we at Royal were not only aware of the privileges that accrue from the fact of being students of the school, but the responsibilities therein. Chess players in particular have always felt a need to do what is possible to lift the game in schools outside Colombo and in less privileged schools in the Province.”

Inasmuch as the Club consists of juniors and seniors guided by determined teachers, it has been structured to teach those juniors and seniors not only how to play, but also how to accommodate opponents as hosts regardless of background. I didn’t get to talk with either of the two College Captains (regrettably), but I did get to talk with a junior player (Minul Doluweera, currently the Number Two Under-18 player in the country) who confirmed this, attributing it to a set of elders of whom one stands out significantly: Muditha Hettigama, the most senior chess coach at Royal.

The tournament ended with the Senior Chess Team of Royal College winning 25 out of 30 possible games, defeating runners-up Dharmasoka College Ambalangoda 4-2 and second runners-up Ananda College 4.5-1.5. As in the last two years, Dharmasoka clinched victory in the Girls category, with Anula and St Joseph’s (Nugegoda) coming in second and third respectively. The top scorer from the entire contest, moreover, was Lakindu Withanage, from the host school. All in all, well played out.

I am no chess player, only enthusiast, so I think it best to end my piece with comments made by two individuals who’ve been involved heavily in the tournament.

The first, Minul, I texted the following message to the other day: “It’s good to see how you all use your privileges to help other less privileged players." He texted back: “That’s the whole point of this tournament: to give back to society.” The second, that aforementioned Advisory Committee member, whom I will now reveal as Malinda Seneviratne, penned the following years ago: “The boys do their best. I think they deserve a salute now and then. I haven’t contributed much all these years, so saying ‘thanks and keep it up’ is the least I can do.”

Taken together, the young and the old, the king, the knight, the pawn, and the player have come together. Now that they’ve all hit 21, I think it’s safe to infer that in the years to come, the Battle of the Kings will impart more, much more, than instructions on getting past the opening and middle-game. So thank you, for the game and for everything else that has been taught.

Written for: The Island YOUth, May 28 2017

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The law as a schoolboy sees it

It is difficult to define the law, not because scholars haven’t tried but because at its inception, it is divided and subdivided into various streams and disciplines that resist easy categorisation. The best way to explain what it is, consequently, would be to extract the essence of all those variants: a tough task, some contend. I confess I know little about the subject, tutored as I have been in it, but I do know that the history behind it, as with the history behind every other ideal which has governed human society, is rooted in the philosophies of those who tried to explain it.

The law is based fundamentally on the divide between ideal and reality. After Socrates’ murder and the destruction of Athens, his student Plato saw in justice the remedy for his country’s ills. He contended that justice was an ideal, an equivalent of or approximation to which was possible in human society. He valued order over anarchy, a key motif in Western jurisprudence. In equating it with the human soul, moreover, Plato restored it to the human and the secular, away from the divine.

From there, it evolved through the proponents of natural law (who contended that it was the secular expression of divine ordinances) right down to important thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham (who contended that justice was the dissemination of the maximum possible happiness among the most number of people), Thomas Hobbes (who contended that law and order were best served by a necessary autocrat), John Locke (who sanctified the right to property), and Rousseau (who formulated the social contract, or the implied consent of the people to be governed by their representatives).

The cornerstone of the Western philosophy of law, from Plato to Rousseau, is its fixation with property. European political power was rooted in land, in turn rooted in patriarchy: essentially, the father owned the land and he had the right to give away what he owned. This was reflected in the king or queen, who had what was referred to as the divine right to rule because of his or her right to the property of the realm. Locke’s legal philosophy boiled down to a variant thereof: human society was an Eden before human beings began clamouring for land. It was property, in other words, which necessitated some form of order.

The 19th and 20th centuries were centuries of revolution, reaction, and counterreaction. The roots of the law (in property) were challenged by a new set of thinkers, from the Marxists to the Anarchists. For the former, the law was a means of oppressing the people, while for the latter, it was a fiction created to uphold the myth of order. Both of them considered it as expendable, or at best necessary to the attainment of their perfect societies. Marx in particular, with his copious writings on the subject, argued that the end of law was the beginning of Marxist society, with its removal of property qualifications.

Because these were extremist tenets, they couldn’t survive for long: Anarchism died away a failed experiment, while Marxism survived only in a few backward societies. Their impact on the larger legal landscape of the West, however, can’t be discounted. The first inkling of this came about with the feminist movement. The second inkling came about with the Civil Rights Movement. Both these imbibed the crux of Marxist jurisprudence (rejecting hereditary power and class barriers) while doing away with its political edge. In other words, the legal experience of the 20th century was based on how inequalities shielded even by the law could be rejected by resorting to the law.

The best summing up of the law was made, not by a philosopher, but by a poet: William Blake. “One law for the lion and ox is oppression.” In other words, with its obsessive commitment to equality (best symbolised by the image of a blindfolded Lady Justice), it equates one to the other without preferring either: a point that has been pondered on by the fathers of the Civil Rights Movement, who envisioned a legal system which would go beyond neutrality and would privilege equity (with its preference for the downtrodden) over equality. Whether or not this has been affirmed, one thing is certain: that the law continues to evolve, within and without, often questioning itself and repudiating its own stances on diverse issues like race, religion, poverty, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In one word, therefore, the law is dynamic.

Written for: Daily Mirror EDUCATION, May 18 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

The 'Olcottisation' of Project Gotabaya

The theosophical movement, as the likes of Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara have pointed out, was fixated on imitating the same colonialist hegemony its representatives were contending against. They derived considerably from the Protestant tradition, a given since many of them were educated at Wesleyan schools (Olcott himself was a Presbyterian).

That the Buddhist Catechism was structured along the lines of Luther’s Small Catechism is not surprising: in the absence of a strong bilingual bourgeoisie, it was left to the urban Buddhist elite to “salvage” Buddhism from the pirivena to the British curriculum. Inherently this transformation was hybrid. As later events show, it couldn’t survive the Buddhist Commission of 1956, a document vilified by members of that same elite.

All that is history of course. But history is a reminder. It crops up, sometimes in gushes, sometimes in bits and pieces, and finds other channels of venting out the anomalies of the past. The fact that Olcott Buddhism died down in 1956 didn’t mean it couldn’t be resurrected. It was more or less a structural flaw in a well-intentioned revivalist program. And it has found a way of venting itself out today in the rift, vaguely discernible but very much present nevertheless, in our nationalist movement.

The Sinhala Only pamphleteers of 1956 found their leader in an incongruous figure. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was primarily a product of Western liberal humanism, though he was streets ahead of the Marxists and the Olcott Buddhists in trying to attain a Buddhist utopia. What he failed to realise, however, was that there are no Buddhist utopias. Buddhism has no place for a secular paradise. The Sinhala people have no place for a secular paradise. In Bandaranaike’s writings, copious as they are, one can infer a sensibility that rebels against this fundamental line of thinking.

His nationalism was largely derived from two sources: the Bengali renaissance and Western liberalism. Being neither a Tagore nor a Henry Wallace (whose exhortation of “the age of the common man” became a refrain in his program), however, he was to say the least an ideological parvenu to what transpired in 1956. Such an incongruity finds an equivalent today in Gotabaya Rajapaksa. With a caveat: Bandaranaike was the messiah figure for the Sinhala and Dharmapala Buddhists, while Rajapaksa represents a similar figure for the Protestant and Olcottised Buddhists.

Project Gotabaya isn’t a term I came up with: Hafeel Farisz coined it. In it one can infer the ideological self-contradictions at the heart of the professional nationalist electorate. This electorate continues to be sustained by the urban middle-class. It’s no surprise that one of the reasons for the rift in the Sihala Urumaya between the Champika Ranawaka and the S. L. Gunasekera factions was the series of victories gained by the former over the latter in areas such as Borella, Maharagama, Dehiwela, and Kotte, areas which housed the same professional middle-class electorate that would back the later Hela Urumaya.

This class has essentially bifurcated now, between an Old Guard and a New Guard. The Old Guard comprises of the Hela Urumaya. The New Guard comprises of those who hedge their bets for 2020 on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The reason for that is owing to the man’s popular image as a technocrat: in particular, his stint at the Urban Development Authority, the same Authority Ranawaka is in charge of now.

But Gotabaya Rajapaksa is as much the technocrat as his brothers, which isn’t saying much really. It’s a classic case of a movement being led by a man who’s ideologically distant from some of the tenets espoused by its representatives. In a similar vein, those who lead Project Gotabaya are not just distant from but also opposed to the other major faction in the nationalist movement (led by firebrands like Gevindu Cumaratunga, Elle Gunawansha Thera, and Manohara de Silva). The best way to draw up a contrast between these two is by resorting to the primary focus of each: while Project Gotabaya is centred more on economics, on numbers, the Cumaratunga-Gunawansha nexus (which includes the Yuthukama Sanwada Kawaya) is centred more on slogans, on protest symbols. Basically, it’s reason versus rhetoric.

Project Gotabaya is on that count an extrapolation of what Dayan Jayatilleka referred to as smart patriotism: the kind of patriotism that subsists on nationalism and internationalism (Dr Dayan compares it to Fidel Castro’s ideology: “Internationalism isn’t just a necessity... it’s a condition for survival”). Gevindu’s movement, on the other hand, is housed by the likes of Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekera. For obvious reasons, these two don’t see eye to eye. Not too difficult to figure out why.

The professional nationalists who back Rajapaksa are for the most renegades. They are also modernists. Unlike de Silva, Amarasekara, and Cumaratunga, they are not opposed to Western paradigms of development. They are against the UNP, but not the technocratic thrust that defines the UNP. In trying to “market” technocracy to the nationalist, they concomitantly reject and pander to populism: roughly the same ideological schizophrenia exhibited by the Olcott Buddhists. They openly spurn cosmopolitanism, but in spurning it they end up emulating it in a different way. In place of a figurehead like Razeen Sally (with his libertarian streak), for instance, they promote Howard Nicholas (with his Keynesian undertones).

Should we worry, however? I don’t think so. They are needed. Not because they will uplift the grassroots movement here, but because in acting as a Third Force between the regime and the anti-regime, they serve a purpose: market the tools of the cosmopolitan to the nationalist. Which brings me to another point.

People have written on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Some see in him a messiah. Others see in him an autocrat. The congruence of messiah figure and autocrat has led to the popular image of the man as a placid administrator, the kind of administrator Project Gotabaya conceptualises him as. The Jathika Chinthanaya, which houses Gevindu, is not interested in personalities. It is more interested in perpetuating ideas.

For me, this simultaneously personality-driven and idea-driven thrust of our nationalist resurgence is comforting. There can be clashes, there can be rifts, but owing to the lack of a cohesive grassroots campaign here, it’s consoling that one of our nationalist movements is campaigning from the premise that to combat the enemy, one must emulate what underpins the enemy.

By that I am not thinking of parties or people alone, of course. I am thinking about ideologies. Patently anti-democratic, anti-nationalist ideologies. All of them skewed against Sinhala Buddhists. If it takes a smart patriot (what does that make other patriots though, I wonder) to undo or question them, as citizens we theoretically shouldn’t be having problems. Are there problems in the first place? Strictly speaking, yes. But we shouldn’t be worrying about them. At least not now.

Written for: Daily Mirror, May 26 2017

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Remembering Jaffna: Glimpses of hope and despair

Some places are hard to sketch, particularly if one visits them only once or twice. There are people whose stories never get told. There are territories that never get visited at all. More often than not, outsiders, in their quest to experience a territory, rely on travel guides. That is why those who return only speak of religious sites, exotic getaways, fancy restaurants, and four-star hotels.

I first visited Jaffna in 2010. This was after the war and during my A Levels, so being an 18-year-old bookworm I was, at best, indifferent. Jaffna has a way of hiding itself when it rains, and since this was August the rains, while a blessing at one level (they “hid” the heat), nevertheless dampened our spirits. We were accompanied by some journalists, moreover, so whatever privacy I would have had, I had by minding my own business. That wasn’t a very happy trip.

The second trip, made some years later, was more revealing. In 2010 we came across army shelters and fractured roads. Five years isn’t a long time, but it’s long enough for fractures to heal and shelters to become less unfamiliar. With no rain, moreover, one could get a more wholesome glimpse of the territory. I didn’t mind my business this time, consequently. Here then is what I remember of Jaffna.

The first thing that strikes you about Jaffna is the roads that greet you. When you turn to the A9 route, you come across a visual treat: roads that stretch out so far that you can see the point at which their edges converge. You see people, faces baked by the sun, looking at you indifferently, treating you the same way they treat every outsider who visits their land. When you pass Anuradhapura, however, you are on your own: no house, no settlement for miles, barring the occasional thatched hut with people who have no one to call their own. How do they live, one wonders.

When you’re in Jaffna, barring the city, you hardly come across any traffic. The most frequently resorted to vehicle is the bicycle and motorbike. And it’s not just ordinary people who ride them: even shop owners and University lecturers go about their work on their two-wheelers. My friend Fadil Iqbal, who cycled across the island in nine days and whose story I will get to soon, told me that when he cycled past here, he came across the most beautiful sight he ever saw: “That of women clad in saris, biking their way on those small, sun-baked roads.”

Of course, it’s no paradise. Visit their tenements, talk with them, and you’ll come across the same problems you face at home. These are people like us, after all: they bleed, they laugh, they cry, they scowl. They have their imperfections, like us, and they like to hide them with a veneer of simplicity they've grown used to. That’s where they are unique: in the way they speak, for instance, they prefer simple words to the refined excesses we blurt out when interacting with outsiders. It’s not that they are different: it’s just that they have adapted to their world, and their world (more than ours) gets them to seek comfort through simplicity.

My first trip, as I mentioned before, was with some journalists. We were boarded in a hotel near the Nallur Kandasamy Temple and were lavishly treated. No such frills the second time: my colleagues and I not only spent both days jaunting around, we were also boarded at a more modest army bungalow. Since we were short on time, breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner were separate, random affairs. Not that it bothered us: Jaffna is one place where the less ready you are, the more more open to experience you will be. Hotels, kiosks, even that accursed necessity of toilets and washrooms: these you tend to forget as you move along.

The sun is merciless: it forces you to seek shelter and to value shade. That is why the people of Jaffna value their trees and look down on the practice of felling them. We have been compelled to feign indifference when it comes to mundane matters, but the people here, because of how they privilege the smallest detail, are angered by indifference. I was unwilling, for instance, to talk about the politics of Colombo when a University lecturer asked me for my opinion. I copped out because I couldn’t be bothered, but that lecturer was riled up. He immediately replied, “That is what you do. You say you must be balanced and ignore the common man’s sorrows and hardships.” The people of Jaffna are more farsighted than me, I thought to myself as I heard his anger.

And in a way, that is why this corner of the world merits so many responses, some neutral, some biased, others so jagged they are self-contradictory. The sun has hardened the people. They don’t take kindly to outsiders who treat them as exhibits. But that’s the burden they must carry, for they have been forced to be exhibits. The wider picture of Jaffna as a ravaged city, consequently, marginalises those little, little tragedies which the visitor ignores. I came across one of those tragedies, in a corner of Jaffna.

Navatkuli is located about seven kilometres from town. It’s inhabited by Tamil women who have married Sinhala men and Sinhala women who have married Muslim men. When I visited it, there were about 15 Sinhala villagers among a total of 59 from other ethnicities. They had returned here after the war. Since then, they have been intimidated to leave. They have not left. “From the previous government, we got land and electricity,” one of them said, adding, “We have got nothing more as of now.” They get along well without and despite us, I realised to my shame.

To a considerable extent, Navatkuli sums up the entire country: riled as we are by interethnic feuds, we are still willing to come together over common grievances. It’s not all beds and roses for the people there, but they understand each other well, not least of all because they speak in each other’s tongues. I was told of politicians who’ve come and made promises. I am, however, less worried about the political dimensions of Navatkuli than the problems of its people: one of them, for instance, is a graduate from the University of Peradeniya and has been reduced to being a labourer because of a court case. They’re used to such hardships. How much more can they take?

Sure, Jaffna is not Navatkuli and Navatkuli is not Jaffna. There are other places, other traces of war and despair. But Navatkuli is special to me, as a citizen of this country. It is special because the people there are unused to writers and are suspicious of them: one of them made his anger towards me and my ilk evident in no uncertain terms. They are suspicious not because they distrust us, moreover, but because they are tired of people coming in, promising much, and going away. We can only write, of the rains that have felled their houses and the sun-baked afternoons that have left them dehydrated. Like anthropologists.

The first day passed by. So did the second. Soon enough we were packing. We passed and left Navatkuli. Left Jaffna town. Left Jaffna altogether. Left the A9 route, returned to familiar territory, and reached Colombo within eight hours. The next day I had a function to attend at my school. A quiz competition. I hadn’t prepared a speech and didn’t think it important enough. I reached home at about one in the morning. I had a bath, had something to eat, and slept soundly.

Those were freer, let’s-kill-time days of wine and roses. I’m less happy now with a nine-to-five job: it gives me less time to reflect on trips and life in general. I do remember Jaffna though. I also remember Navatkuli, along with those other exotic getaways we can’t seem to get enough of. Yes, one never gets the full picture of a place with one visit. Jaffna, going by that, was not made for visits. One needs to live there. We’re not so fortunate. We’re condemned to live elsewhere, seeking comfort through extravagance. Sad.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 21 2017