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'Plantation Tamil' to isle icon


FAVOURABLE PREZ: Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa felicitates Muralitharan on the final day of his farewell Test on Friday

It was probably the largest gathering of eminent Sri Lankans that Chennai had witnessed in many years. Cabinet ministers and top politicians from the island nation brushed shoulders with present and former cricketers at an upmarket wedding hall to celebrate the wedding of an iconic fellow Sri Lankan, a celebrity both in his country and in the southern metropolis. Clad in a silk dhoti and shirt, with a silk angavastram - a South Indian long towel - draped over his shoulders, Mutthiah Muralitharan wed a 24-year-old hospital administrator from Chennai that March day in 2005.

For a city that had at various times in the last two decades witnessed protests against the visit of the Sri Lankan cricket team in a symbolic show of opposition to the Sinhala state for oppressing the Tamil minority, it was a rare sight to see a multiethnic congregation from the island celebrating an occasion that was both Sri Lankan and Indian at the same time. For, Chennai was celebrating the arrival of a renowned Tamil from another country as its son-in-law.

Muralitharan's parents hail from Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu, but settled in Sri Lanka's central district of Kandy, where the future top wicket-taker was born. The political climate in Lanka from the early 1980s on ensured that the mood in Tamil Nadu remained opposed to all things Lankan, but Muralitharan was an exception. He was, and remains, much adored by cricket fans in Tamil Nadu.

Tamil nationalists and language aficionados have always steered clear of cricket when it comes to airing anti-Sinhalese views, barring some odd court case or some protest against Indian cricketers going to Sri Lanka or entertaining a team from the island nation. There was a time when Dravidian intellectuals looked at cricket as a 'Brahmin' sport - and not without reason as most players until recent times were upper-caste. Murali, on the other hand, is of unquestionable 'Tamil' credentials.

As someone who enjoys the confidence and support of all Sri Lankans, Muralitharan has a cross-ethnic appeal that's explained by his immense talent and achievement. Even among Lankan Tamils, Muralitharan has been a symbol of Tamil pride, and no one really has ever questioned whether a Tamil should be bolstering a team drawn predominantly from the majority community.

What perhaps has made Muralitharan acceptable to all sides in Lanka is the fact that he is not a 'Sri Lankan Tamil', a term that covers only Tamils in the country's north and east often generically described as Jaffna Tamils. The ace off-spinner is from Kandy in the country's central region and is a Tamil of 'recent Indian origin'. Also, known as 'upcountry Tamils' or 'plantation Tamils', this is a community of descendants of people from Tamil Nadu who were taken to Sri Lanka in the 19th and early 20th century as indentured labour to work in British-owned plantations. Some of them were economic migrants too.

Muralitharan's presence in the Chennai Super Kings' line-up is but a continuation of a long association between what used to be Madras and Ceylon. Chennai and Colombo had had long cricketing ties, with the Gopalan Trophy, a match between the TN (or Madras) cricket team and one from Sri Lanka, being an annual feature from 1952 to 1983. The year 1983 may suggest that the traditional contest ended when the ethnic conflagration broke out, but it was more because Sri Lanka, which had got Test status a couple of years before that, did not want to be seen as locking horns with a state-level team. The fixture was revived in 2000, after 17 years, as a game between the Colombo district cricket team and the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association.

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