Serendipitous Sri Lanka – Jaffna, After The Wars

The flight took off from Madurai airport southwards crossing somewhere between Rameshwaram and Tuticorin. Sri Lanka from the sky was looking lush green leaving no space to see the soil beneath. Got into Colombo escaping heavy shower of Madurai, first look was quite moving. The Airport was peaceful. There were no crowds, no shouts, no chaos. Everything was in order. It was like being in a ‘Large Village’. There were no formal baggage check. I was free to enter the lands as my passport was sealed for allowing me to stay for 30 days clearing emigration. Security check was much easier in comparison with Indian Airports. And airport still appeared primitive in its facilities and advancements.

After inquiring natives I got into a bus to reach Colombo bus station. The Tamil which they spoke was totally different from mine. Let me describe in detail some background about the language Tamil.

My mother tongue being Tamil had heavy influence of Madurai-Ramanathapuram accent of speaking which is clearly distinguishable by its more fluent manner where suffix of each words are less pronounced or left completely.

Tamil has many spoken dialects which is inter intelligible and differs heavily from region to region. And Tamils follow a Standard Tamil called ‘Chen Thamizh’ which is used in official and public media platforms while other dialects of Tamil’ are termed ‘Kodun Thamizh’ (Colloquial Tamil). And both these formats will appear to be two different language for a new learner.

I reached Colombo bus station planning further to take bus to Jaffna. Had Beef Fried Rice and Iced Milo with a dry fish pickle garnish which is uncommon in Tamilnadu dinner.

The bus was tidy, colourful, freshly painted and well maintained. There was no great crowd. I choose a front seat. I noted that the seats to be so narrower than usual which makes the seated persons hesitant to share the seat with the other. And the bus had a video and audio system playing Tamil Movies and Songs. The fare to Jaffna was very cheap. The bus went through the hill region of Kandy.

I had ‘Egg Barota’ a South Indian barota like dish with distinguishable addition of egg in it at a road side stall where bus stationed for a while. This dish was viscous enough to smoothly get down into the oesophagus. Beside there were burgers and other bakes. I noticed that the drinking water was filled straight from the running tap which was hard and salty. The bus reached its destination early in the morning 3 leaving me in Jaffna. I had no sound sleep.

Jaffna bus stand was relatively small with three to four sitting blocks which divide the bus stand into segments painted bright red and yellow advertising ‘rhino’ drink. The city was peaceful with hefty breeze from the sea. There were no mosquitos or other troubling insects. I sat inside the sitting blocks along passengers waiting for the bus.

I noticed the dressing of Jaffna women falls broadly into three categories. One similar with South Indian Saris and Churidars which is worn by Hindus of Jaffna Peninsula. Second the Muslim Abaya outfits and thirdly a European colonial style Short Skirts and Shirts worn by Singhalese and Tamil (mostly Christian) teen girls. And this short skirt culture was even observed in adult Tamil Christian and lower caste Tamil Hindu women.

Dawn came. I planned to move around the city to find a hotel to stay. I headed west of Clock Tower Road and took south thereafter towards Jaffna Postal Complex and took a U turn again and headed north to Stanley Road and met at a place where the Victoria Road meets clock tower road and found a place to Stay.

This early morning roam along the roads made me to feel the pulse of the city. Buildings were not taller than three or four storeys. And the city had very limited accommodation options, since the town had just getting back from the wounds of the Civil War.

The lodging price was very expensive to the Sri Lankan Standards. So I decided up to spend just a night in Jaffna. With no time left, I refreshed myself and walked around to the Bus Stand and had food. I ate ‘Idiappam’ string hoppers made of white rice for breakfast and strolled towards railway station using Google maps walking along the railroad.

I entered station from inside and exited through entrance as I followed the tracks. The station had two platforms to facilitate its four daily scheduled trains towards Matara. I knew very well passengers and auto rickshaw drivers were staring at me as I was wandering to and fro to get accustomed to the scene. I purchased a second class ticket to ‘Anuradhapura’ in 10’o clock intercity express the next day and went towards a passenger who was continually watching me.

He went dazed when I asked him the means to reach ‘Naga Deepa’ addressing him ‘Anna’ (Elder Brother) in Tamil. He told me that I could take a bus from the Jaffna Bustand and head towards ‘Pungudu Theevu’ and from there a shared public ferry to ‘Naina Theevu’. He added that he would accompany me abandoning his train to Naina Theevu if I could pay for the journey. I refused because I sensed not to waste his time.

After half an hour conversation with him I understood Jaffna Tamil youths are suffering significantly from unemployment and most are ready to alter their course any occasion as they are not sure about afterward. Their scarcity mirrors with tanned skin, protruding eyes, dry lips, skin and bony appearance.

After sipping Red Coconut I got into a private bus towards Pungudu Theevu. While I was seated, I saw few hundred youth protestors carrying placards demanding justice in the case of Vidya, a school girl gang raped and killed the week before. The protestors were demanding immediate death sentence to the accused. I learned about the case further by reading a Tamil newspaper.

I took seat in front row left to the driver. I don’t know the reason why everybody in the bus were staring at me. The person who sat near me appeared to be in his forties was keenly observing me. When I try to acknowledge his gaze by looking at him he turned to opposite pretending to avoid me.

Here I like to record the major difference between Singhalese and Tamils. Singhalese have habit of smiling at a stranger even at first glance. Their smile will be warm and gentle as if they are welcoming you. They never try to sketch the new comer with prejudices. I sense innocence in them.

Whereas Tamils never smile at a stranger. You can see in their stone faces questions. They will try to sketch who you are at the first sight. They try to psychologically get inside you and know you. And by the moment you speak Tamil, they will show unimaginable hospitality towards you. Smile will never be fake and they will try to help you in every possible manner. Tamils never see Race, Religion, Caste or Creed when a foreigner speaks Tamil. Language is everything for them.

As the bus left Jaffna Peninsula and entered Islands through Mangrove Marshes, I asked my seat partner how far is pungudutheevu? First he was stunned when I addressed him in Tamil and came back with a question to know where I was from.

I replied and he turn out to be extra fascinated. He presented himself as John Antony and introduced his wife who was seated behind. Added he stood in the bus and announced the bus crew that I’m from Tamilnadu. Everybody lightened instantly and came one after another to shake hands with me. I was terrified by this act but became normal after thinking over. They approached me with many questions from which I got stereotypes of Jaffna Tamils.

Though the costal distance between Jaffna and Tamil Nadu is mere fifty kilometres, the cultural difference is gigantic. Tamils of Tamil Nadu have empathy over the Sri Lankan Tamils. One can see Media and Politics of Tamil Nadu focussing on the Sri Lankan Tamils. Any Tamil of Tamil Nadu usually holds a negative stereotype of Singhalese. Media and Politics of Tamil Nadu display Singhalese as people who tyrannize Tamils of Lanka, who kill Indian Tamil fishermen trespassing the ocean boundaries. On the whole Tamils of Tamil Nadu view the Lankan Tamils as people who are constantly under Singhalese military oppression. Almost all of the Tamil Nadu recognise Prabhakaran as Rescuer and not as a Terrorist.

So, usually Jaffna Town once been a LTTE stronghold holds sympathy from Tamils of Tamil Nadu. But I felt different stereotype with the Jaffna Tamils. I felt that Jaffna Tamils were not aware of the Indian Tamil sympathy. I felt Jaffna Tamils to be more centred with their land than the Hill Country Tamils of Lanka. And the newspapers of Jaffna region reported some silly news to represent whole of India. They focussed on some weird incidents like a man marrying three years old or people picking garbage on Indian Section.

On the whole except the Jaffna Tamils who had travelled to Tamil Nadu, others felt no closeness with the Tamils of India. And still I found Tamils of Lanka thought that whole of India speaks Tamil. They felt Indians are far more developed than them. To certain extent it is true that India being a large nation has cheap productivity and large market in comparison with Lanka. And relatively the earning and education opportunities are superior in India than Lanka.

I reached Pungudutheevu there from taking a shared ferry to the Naina Theevu or Nagadipa. After visiting Nagapooshani Temple and Nagadipa Vihara I returned to the Pungudutheevu along Sri Lankan Tamil sea workers. They were inquisitive to know about India. They told that the country is relatively stable after the war.  He also included his smuggling experiences of crossing the Palk Straight into Rameshwaram from Mannar.

At last, I came to the shore, took a bus to Jaffna town. Bus strode across the Islands. It was overflowing with passengers who were typically teachers returning from the island village schools to the peninsula. I observed day to day Jaffna Tamil conversations from the passengers. And the scent was full of sandal filled with sweat. Later I found that most ladies use sandal soap for bathing in Lanka.

The bus suddenly stopped at a place before bus stand and the passengers were requested to withdraw. I found all shops closed, and the city was thoroughly shut. I came to know that Jaffna was observing two day full strike demanding the gang rape suspects to be sentenced to death immediately, which I read early in the afternoon.

I returned to my hotel by walk and had lunch by evening conversing with the waiter who revealed that the situation reminds him of the war time. Jaffna had its own Tamil television channels which telecasted the ongoing protests. Further he explained me the situation clearly and advised to leave the town soon. Already I had prepared to leave.

The morning came. I left for the railway station by walk. The town was still on full strike. I found a shop near railway station open. I got inside, took some Milk Drink and Snacks for breakfast as there was no breakfast available and entered the station.

I stood in booking queue to pre book train between the routes of Badulla to Hatton. I met with a Learned Jaffna Tamil man of almost 50 years of age. He came rushing pushing me and issued ticket to Vavuniya for the upcoming train. I noticed in him higher degree of self-centrism. He took the ticket to a girl and convoyed her into the station. She seemed to be his daughter. I entered station following him, as there were no pre booking facilities available apart from Jaffna – Matara route in the counter.

I instigated my conversation asking him on which platform the train will hash out. As usual he got shocked on my Tamil and minded me that the station has only one live platform. The chat broke out between us. Once getting ample information from my side he introduced himself as finance officer employed in Sri Lankan Government and further hosted his daughter and included that she is pursuing her Engineering Degree in a college in Pune, India. He spoke about the quality of India. He praised India for constructing rail line between Vavuniya and Jaffna. He told my journey will be smooth in Indian constructed line up to Vavuniya and bumpy later till Colombo with Sri Lankan counterpart. It was really true, I felt shuddering after crossing Vavuniya. He was similar to any Middle Class office working father of India. His speech represented despair thinking a lot about stable future for his family and children.

Train arrived. The girl took seat behind me and her father waved us both bye. I left Jaffna to Anuradhapura.

Baba Pakurdheen A

Anthropologist, Writer, Traveler, Journalist and ultimately a Simplite.

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