The Jaffna connection

My Thatha’s house is now occupied by an extended family of fisher-people. I believe they moved to the village some years ago during the war. When I visited nets were strung out across the veranda. A road leads through the village of Moolai and out to where rice paddy fields segue into a palmyrah fringed coastline. A golden Hanuman statue and a Sri Lankan Navy post mark one end of a long straight causeway that extends across the Palk strait. Colourful nets, small boats and the occasional thatched roof shelter mark an array of fish farms that fan out from the road and across the shallow water that connects the peninsular to Karainagar island. I visited that area again yesterday when the glare of a hot afternoon sun rendered the fishermen, like bicycles, as thin black silhouettes.

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A relative in Colombo expressed some disapproval to the current occupants of my Thatha’s house, possibly because of caste prejudice or disputes over land-ownership. The title of the house is in my Aunt’s name, but she has conveyed little interest in either selling or maintaining it. The property itself is large, but the house is in a poor condition. I understand the current occupants are paying rent, but perhaps only a token amount. When I first visited with my mother we were taken to visit the man we believed to be the rent collector. Was he someone known to my Thatha? He refused to speak to us. My mother recently discovered her father had bought some land in her name also, but we were told that in the ensuing sixty years or so that the local records had been lost and that the boundaries may well have changed.

My mother is now retired and has no thoughts of returning to Jaffna, she was happy enough to have visited once after the war. Having ‘staged a returned’ I cannot see a place for me there either. It might have been different had I the language to develop more meaningful relationships with the villagers, but that would take a lot more time and effort, and for what? The area is picturesque, fertile and productive, and I have enjoyed my excursions past ancient tanks, landmark temples and shady coconut groves but what is there for me to do here? My relative in Colombo seemed relieved when I confirmed the date of my departure, more pleased than when I first arrived.

My mother occasionally sends money to a young couple we met on our visit in 2011. Back then they were newlyweds, now they have two young sons. I spent some time with them on Christmas, three years to the day that we first met. Their eldest son is a cheerful and inquisitive child who entertained us for hours with his toys and antics. They rent a house directly opposite my Thatha’s and there is a curious symmetry to this arrangement. Once distant relatives have become the ones we are closest to in this relatively distant village in Jaffna. The encircling continues as their relatives in Australia connect with my mother, they even saw in the new year together in Sydney. It is as though I have become an unlikely family field reporter who sends photographs and files the occasional updates. My mother is surprised — growing up in Australia she never expected I would be the one to make the Jaffna connection.

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I was bicycling through these villages yesterday afternoon, trying to familiarise myself with the roads. An absurd task as I would be leaving Lanka in a few days with no clear plans to return. Nevertheless, I felt a compulsion to right the wrong turns I had taken the last time I passed through. I was somewhere near Vaddukoddai heading back towards town, when I received an email from an old friend I had been meaning to catch up with over the last year. He had sad and unexpected news. His younger brother had taken his own life in the days leading up to Christmas and there was to be a memorial in Brisbane in a few days. The family were ‘pretty awfully messed up’.

One scenario spills into another. A carefree ride through the backwaters of my grandfather’s youth leads back to another tangle of connections, loyalties and responsibilities with the pull of a dear friend’s distress. The notice of the ceremony suggested attendees to wear bright colours to celebrate the deceased’s life rather than mourn his passing. I was reminded only days before that I had not cried since I was a child, not even when my father died. The brevity of life filters through the brilliant afternoon light.

I stopped by the edge of a fishing village that I had first encountered when lost a few weeks ago. At that time a line of blue-black crows jostling for position along a telegraph wire drew my eye to mounds of garbage below. Sea hawks and other scavenger birds swooped in over the heads of dogs patrolling the scrap heaps. Their barks and caws punctuated the pungent atmosphere that was made more surreal by the glow of the sun setting over the water behind. I held my breath to slow down and look closer, but did not stop to photograph. I was tired having ridden around in circles all afternoon. It was still some distance to town and I did not want to be out in unfamiliar territory after dark. I re-stage this scene in mind as I pass by the same location today. Now the garbage is not so high and the crows and seabirds are fewer. I recall three or four straggling cows and overlay them onto the landscape; empty plastic water bottles had been cut-off and affixed to their muzzles, preventing them from grazing along the road. The sun is brighter today. I quickly snap a some shots of the gathering crows and passing traffic that might one day trigger invariable memory loss, then push on. I am late to make a Skype call back at the guesthouse.

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What drives one to ‘connect’, to reach out as well as to make sense or render meaningful? To meet and attempt to befriend others? To meet people with whom one may hold things in common, even if the only thing in common is family, strikes me as a simple matter of networking. It follows a logic that connections pre-empt opportunities. I came here because of connections and now I have returned to Moolai to connect with my family history. My being here is, as another old family friend that I re-met recently in Colombo put it, ‘like completing a circle’. It brings a sense of closure.

My ‘Tamil heritage’ was something irrefutable but obscure, hidden within a language and religious practice that was at times impenetrable or unreasonable. However it is also an aspect of my cultural make-up I had come to mobilise in response to the politics and cultural hegemony particular to Australia. This led me to connect with others also at the margins of the diaspora and Tamil culture. In the confusion of the aftermath of the war we all wanted to know, ‘what does this mean for us?’. Making a connection to Jaffna required I get to know some of my family history, think about its consequences and find a position in the present post-war context. Whereas initially I had proposed to intervene, my stay in Lanka has coincided with the campaign for the 2015 presidential election and the real possibility of change, so it seems my task has been to observe and slowly learn.

Yesterday I felt as though I had stretched my time here to its limit. I had cycled along the causeway and veered off to the side before the causeway met the island. I felt no need to go further. Out here in the ‘homelands’ I did not feel any deep connection to place, however I became acutely aware of distance.

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