Jaffna returns

Moolai house with Mr Gopal.

Moolai house with Mr Gopal.

One can understand Tamil as a language group that is predominant in regions of South India and the North and East of Sri Lanka. Although my first language, I stopped speaking Tamil as a child when I began school in Australia. I grew up in the north-west suburbs of Sydney—often referred to as the Bible belt—and apart from a few relatives and close family friends I had little to do with the Sydney Tamil community. Nevertheless, I was raised as being Tamil.

The mass exodus of Tamils in the aftermath of the war, their appearance on the Australian borderscape and consequently subject to nationalistic political rhetoric, could be said to have triggered an ‘ethnic consciousness’ which compelled me towards acts of solidarity with these asylum seekers and to partake in post-war discourses concerning Tamils. As I was already active in refugee activism, border politics and art, I was able to participate in a strand of Tamil studies intersecting with my advocacy for open borders. In this process I found myself performing a Tamil identity that had little to do with language or cultural practice, but was rather forged as a challenge to white cultural hegemony and the ‘postcolonising’ aspects of multicultural Australia; a perspective that I describe as being ‘theoretically Tamil’.

In November 2014 I began a residency at the University of Peradeniya, Faculty of Arts supported by the Australia Council for the Arts Literature Board and Arts New South Wales. My proposal was to re-visit the house that my Thatha (my mother’s father) had built in the village of Moolai on the Jaffna peninsula in the North of Sri Lanka that I first visited in 2011 and to discuss the issues arising when ‘another generation poses a return’. This peculiar phrase alludes to local anxieties about elements of the Tamil diaspora returning to their ‘ancestral homes’ after the war, to reclaim property and purchase land as part of a trend that might be described as being re-colonial.

The Moolai house is for me a architectural marker and a physical trace of my family’s ‘routes’ or rather our history of migration. It functions as a historical monument and point of departure, signifying a decision to leave and to never return. It was a decision made after my Thatha attempted to return to the village of his youth with his family after living for decades in Malaya. Their migration pre-empted the troubles that were to come and the struggles that befell our more distant relatives who stayed on in the Jaffna peninsula. I sometimes think of my recent visit to this once grand but now neglected house as a pilgrimage to honour that decision and what it took to be able to make it; an English education, a particular citizenship, professional qualifications and acquired wealth. I never knew my Thatha, but I imagine that his proclivity to move is re-inscribed in my own tendency to travel and to pursue the opportunities that arise on the road. As such, the house may serve as a referent by which I also orientate a sense of continuity and of self in pursuit of personal sovereignty as an educated, mobile and privileged child of a globalised Tamil-identifying community. This is a trajectory of middle class migration, mobility (encompassing aspects of economic, geographic and class) and settler colonialism.

The house also calls to mind what has been left behind in that decision and what has been lost. My mother has vivid memories of her childhood in the once ‘beautiful and peaceful’ home, as she recalls in a recent email:

The house used to be full of visitors from morning to night. The wood carvings above the windows were beautiful and the house was bright and airy. People from around used to come for the well water as it was clear and tasted good (not salty). It was also well maintained with fencing all around and stone columns on either side of the front gate. It is disappointing to see the ruinous state of the place.

Property (and nostalgia) aside, for me it is language that registers the greatest loss and the connections, interactions, histories, understandings and concepts that another language enables. Alternative ways of worlding and particular analytical positions are for me are no longer accessible. One intention of my short stay in Jaffna is to situate myself in a Tamil-speaking society and be required to communicate as such. Another is to escape Australia’s hegemonic ordering by which I forged my own Tamil identity and, with issues of ‘whiteness’ at a distance, re-shape this ‘structuring of the self’ by working in the heartland of (Lankan) Tamil nationalism. Which leads to another question; by posing a return to recoup some of what has been lost, what can I offer in return?

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