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