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Jaffna life

Down a yellow-taped road

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Pock-marked both by years of ethnic war and brand-new construction, Jaffna is a curious mix of ruin and resurgence.

Bus No 87 would take us to Jaffna. It looked like any state transport bus in India, but with Jesus on the dashboard. Pahee, my local friend, and I hopped on, only to have the conductor tell us matter-of-factly in Tamil to get off and make a photocopy of my passport. I would need it at the checkpoint. Although I could easily pass for one, he had known at once that I was not Sri Lankan.

Photocopy in hand, we got our bus tickets : Rs 180 a pop for the 115-km ride from Vavuniya to Jaffna. The engine roared to life and, with it, a Tamil film song. The sound jolted me out of the dream state I had been lulled into by the splendid serenity of bordering Anuradhapura - the last zone of safety between Tamil Tiger territory and the rest of Sri Lanka during the war - and prepared me for the bite of the Vanni.

Out on the A9, the sole land route to Jaffna from the south, the landscape was lush to begin with, though trees and shrubs flanking the road had been cleared to prevent ambushes. But mid-way through the journey it turned arid, looking uncannily like the Cauvery tract of Tamil Nadu. The scrubland held remnants of war: a row of abandoned sniper huts;the grave of a railway track;untended fields;a jungle patch cordoned off by neon-yellow tape signalling landmines. At every kilometre loomed a military watch-point or a camp that often held a dagoba (stupa) of Buddha Shakyamuni. A contradiction in terms: a Buddhist army.

There wasn't a lot of talking in the bus. I was the sole foreigner, and only Pahee and I were engaged in non-stop conversation. We passed Pahee's ancestral village, Kanakirajankulam, which his family left 15 years ago for the relative safety of Vavuniya. "I plan to start a cattle farm on our land here, we're lucky we didn't lose it, " he said.

"Everybody out, " shouted a soldier in Sinhala. We had reached the checkpoint - during the conflict with the LTTE, this spot in Omanthai had marked the forward defence line of the Sri Lankan Army. The officer scrutinised my passport and asked: "Profession?" "Researcher, " I replied. He asked for my address in Jaffna, made a note of it in his register, and waved me on.

We were back on the A9. Near Murugandi, I saw the first stretch of yellow-taped trees. A military truck stood nearby: the army was de-mining that jungle. The bus halted at the Pillaiyar (Ganesha) temple, where drivers and passengers pray for a safe journey. Afterwards, we passed a tree-less colony of neat little red-roofed houses, "among the 50, 000 being built by the Indian government for war victims, " Pahee informed me. Set on a grid, the settlement looked sterile, the houses as unimaginative as the ones built for earthquake-affected families in Latur: children would dislike it for being unable to play hide-n-seek there.

My tailbone was protesting by the time we reached Kilinochchi three hours later. The erstwhile LTTE headquarters is a dusty boomtown today. The UN office functions out of a set of containers topped with thatched roof, but is "soon moving" to a new building. "Rents are sky-high here, " Pahee said. "My cousin paid a security deposit of Rs 40 lakh on his 40x20 ft furniture shop for which the monthly rent is Rs 20, 000. " (One Indian rupee fetched 2. 3 SL rupees when I was there in March. )
Despite its mercantile bustle, Kilinochchi wore an air of melancholia. Here, the shell of an LTTE tank, there, a fallen water tank with soldiers' names inscribed on it;elsewhere, a sculpted concrete block with a large brass bullet piercing it and a bronze lotus emerging from the bullet-hole to stretch towards the sky. But these icons of triumphalism were nowhere near as creepy as Elephant Pass, with its vast tracts of headless palmyra trees (their leafy crowns felled by bombs). This scene was so surreal that it had spurred documentary maker Anomaa Rajakaruna into mounting a photographic study of it at the recent Colombo Art Biennale. The beauty of the lagoons of Jaffna that then drifted into view only deepened my hollow feeling.

It was early evening when Pahee and I got off the bus near Kaithady village, just outside Jaffna. Soldiers stood vigil at the roundabout : I rarely saw policemen in Jaffna, I always saw soldiers. Poovi, caretaker of the Colombo-based Narendran family's ancestral property, arrived on a borrowed Hero Honda - Jaffna's favourite motorcycle. Pahee went off to meet friends.

Everyone in Jaffna has a story. While his wife Anitha prepared dinner of rice, daal, and curried squid, Poovi revealed that his mother had died in the 2004 tsunami and his father had been killed, like over 10, 000 others, in the war's final crossfire in May 2009. His tone was unemotional.

That night, I lay thinking of Poovi, and of my host, whose mother had perished in that very place during India's IPKF intervention.

After a breakfast of puttu and banana, I took the bus into town. I had time to explore before meeting my fine arts friend Bala at the University. At Jaffna Bus Stand I asked a chemist, Satish Vaidheeshvaran, where the Fort was, and he offered to take me there on his motorcycle. At the unexciting little 1618 fort, damaged by the LTTE, workers were quietly relaying the stones of empire. Satish and I got talking. "Life is good again. We no longer have to dive into bomb shelters. And, while it's unnerving to meet the army at every street corner, it's wonderful to know our children can come and go safely, " he said. "But living costs are high. Rent, petrol, fish, rice. A family of four, like mine, needs Rs 1, 000 a day to live in simple comfort. "

Among the few in Jaffna who do earn that kind of money are construction workers. They earn Rs 1, 200 a day. "And they are in great demand not only because of restoration work but also because the Tamil diaspora is busy building lavish homes on their ancestral land, " my librarian-friend Shivathas pointed out. The rub is that most of the labourers have lost theirs.

"Will I ever get my land back?" asked mason Kanagaraj. "Seventeen years ago, the LTTE, whom we supported then, came into our house in Mullaitivu and informed us that they needed it for three months. My 18-yearold brother, fire in his belly, joined them. He's dead now. My parents, my pregnant wife and I moved to Vavuniya. Later, the army seized our land. There's still no sign of it coming back to us, though my father has produced the Thombu (land deed). "

I mulled over Kanagarajan's plight as I sat by the sculpture of the poet-saint Thiruvalluvar in the Jaffna Public Library (burned down by Sinhala mobs in 1981, rebuilt by the city 20 years later). Were his lands gone forever like the library's ancient treasures?
The day brightened when Bala's friends Ajantha and Uthay took me to visit the historic Nallur Temple. Later, we traversed picturesque lanes in Uthay's beloved Morris Minor. Jaffna is a mix of comatose ruins and a living city, with neglected old bungalows, lollipop-like new houses and teenagers eating burgers "with pocket-money sent by their uncles and aunts in London and Toronto, Paris and Basel, " said Ajantha.

At Bala's ramshackle family bungalow among coconut trees, his mother had just returned from a temple festival and was preparing fish curry and string hoppers for dinner. His good-humoured artist-father, Varadharajan, put aside his newspaper, Uthaya, to sketch me, and then regale me with tales of Jaffna life: fishing in the lagoon, discussing politics with friends who held government jobs before fleeing abroad in the '90s;enjoying iftar near the 18th-century Grand Mosque, renovated in 2010 after lying abandoned since 1990, when the LTTE evicted 75, 000 Muslims from the region.

Conversations in Jaffna inevitably veered around to the LTTE. Elders turned sombre when they remembered the LTTE's abduction of youngsters (Bala was forced to skip school and help build bunkers), its armtwisting of ordinary people, Velu Prabhakaran's megalomania, his eventual loss of good will.

"Today, there's widespread relief here over the end of the LTTE and three decades of war;equally, there's collective gloom at the dearth of strong Tamil leadership, " Bala's father said. "Who will take the lead in restoring the dignity of the Tamil people?"
Most people I met did not buy into the government's rhetoric of social reconciliation and equal opportunities. Veteran artist Rasaiah was unequivocal: "Given the cynicism with which Sinhala and Tamil people view each other, we will need two generations to sort out our difficulties. "

The younger lot was, however, more upbeat, especially after India signed the UN resolution indicting the Sri Lankan government for human rights violations - exerting pressure on the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime to give its Tamil people a fair deal. As one Jaffna buddy texted me when the news broke: "Man, Mohan's done it!! Mahinda's bloody well got to deliver!"

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