Remembering in Jaffna

nallur kovil
Nallur Kovil, Jaffna (2013)

The only thing apart from a small makeshift shrine in this room is a cot; a good, old-fashioned baby’s cot made from sturdy wood. The cot is stuffed with photographs; mostly black and white photographs, presumably old photographs, in their frames. The cot is almost overflowing with these photographs, artefacts from the life and history of the family that once lived here. Eerily, a missing tile in the roof gives way to a beam of sunshine which pours directly on to this cot. Someone says, ‘Life imitating art’ and she is right. We’re all thinking something of that sort. It seems disarmingly like we are looking at a carefully constructed art installation; all the titles, the captions spring to mind, something about the terrible pain and loss caused by war. But this is no art installation; here it is. Old photographs stuffed into an old cot, left here in this abandoned home.

And this story, in varied versions, is one you encounter again and again. Though Jaffna town is seemingly bustling, as you drive through sweeping plains and lagoons large and small and into the quieter more rural areas of this Northern province, you start arriving at the homes which have been left behind. Many of the families which once occupied these homes now live in other countries. In some instances, they pay a caretaker to stay there. In some instances, other people live there, having discovered it in their moment of need. In some instances, the families have  come back to ‘settle matters’; these homes are relatively well-kept, sometimes with shiny new toilets – there is some idea that the family may return, even if just for a holiday. And in some instances, the sheer extremity of the moment of abandonment is clear; photographs still hang on the wall, everything remains more or less like it was left, just dustier.

You will also find that strange, unique thing of truly abandoned houses, allowed to fall into ruin, just structures with bullet-holes taken over by vegetation. This phenomena, visible all over Sri Lanka’s North and North East, is especially striking in Jaffna. It contests, so dramatically, the reality within which we all live: a universe in which property and land and houses mean something, are worth something. In our world, when you decide to leave a home, you ‘take care’ of it. You demolish it and sell the property. You sell the property with the house on it. You don’t just leave; leave the house, leave it for so long that it becomes nothing more than a skeleton, an outline, and eventually one with the natural landscape of the area. But this is a different kind of leaving: the kind that ensures you never come back, you never want to come back, that the coming back would be so difficult or impossible that nothing else matters more than getting away. I suppose that is war.

This is a place to which I had never been, not in my living memory. My mother says she brought me here to Rajini Thiranagama‘s funeral, in late 1989. I was just over a year old. I don’t remember it, of course. But that was the first and until now, last time I had physically been in Jaffna – this erstwhile Northern capital, hub of knowledge and Tamil culture, once, long ago, home to a centuries-long medieval Kingdom and its royalty, a place who’s story now is inextricably linked with that of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Yet Jaffna, like all of Sri Lanka, is only privy to one kind of remembering: the kind that is thrust upon you in the form of the rare Army outpost or the bullet-rigged home. There is no room here for the kind of remembering in which we choose how and what is important to remember.

You’ll see Alfred Duraiyappah’s name in several places, on buildings and on plaques on buildings; but there will be nothing to tell you that he was assassinated by the LTTE in 1975, for his liberal politics and pacifist ideology; nothing to say that this man was one of the first in a long line of lives lost along the way. You can walk in and walk around the beautiful Jaffna Public Library, with its iconic white dome high in the sky, but there is nothing there to tell you that in 1981 it was destroyed completely in a fire lit by members of the Sri Lanka Police force and government-sponsored paramilitary groups. There is a town, a surprisingly underdeveloped town, but nothing there to tell you exactly why this is so; nothing to say that this town has changed hands several times over, from oppressor to oppressor to oppressor over the last 30 years. Nothing to say anything about the violence, the killing of innocent civilians, the disappearances, the displacement; a violence that was whole and absolute and complete, that destroyed everything from the tangible, temples and homes and offices and schools and hospitals, to the intangible, culture and hope and optimism and civility.

And yet, on the other hand, much of Sri Lanka is full of signs, visible signs, that it was once a part of a war; we have monuments to the dead of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces everywhere – rows upon rows of names at which families can lay flowers and civilians can give thanks for their bravery and sacrifice, we have monuments erected to celebrate the Sri Lankan Army’s victory over the LTTE.

Will this be our legacy, all that we have been forced to erase and all that we are forced to remember? Is this what we will leave behind; in the place of memorials, commemorations and monuments to civilians, even just a line, a moment to say, ‘This is what we lost, and we are sorry’, we have instead silences and voids and huge statues depicting military glory being erected in these voids.

A legacy of a certain kind of remembering, but not the other kind; where some of us get to mourn our losses and not others, some of us get to have our monuments and not others, where some of us get to move on, and not others.

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