There are the lonely figures tiny and staid, staring out of a frozen landscape. The Museum of Asian Art in Berlin, a cemented, rambling space deep in the still suburbs in the west of the city had a temporary exhibition on early photographs of Ceylon. I was feeling a little lost one grey Sunday in November, nervous about the winter drawing down, and, cheered by the use of the word Ceylon, as opposed to Sri Lanka, I heaved my reluctant children out there with the promise of soup and cake in the café afterwards. I wanted, I don’ t know, a glimpse of something familiar. The red earth, the heavy warm promise of rain in gentle skies.
I don’t often get to see pictures of the Jaffna landscape. Cameras, when I was young, were for taking photographs of people. I am constantly looking round the edges of pictures of solemn women in saris and men in suits, for a glimpse of their homes and streets. The ‘normal’ landscapes of Sri Lanka, of rolling beaches and reclining buddhas are not the ones that belong to me, the ones I recognise from childhood.
I wanted a more cheerful version of the images I had spotted on TV last week, when, during the fiasco of the Commonwealth Summit, David Cameron travelled north to meet Tamils whose lives have been so disrupted by war. He was the first foreign leader to visit Jaffna since 1948, which is progress of sorts.
It’s searing, to always see the place you were born only in disaster films. Channel Four’s Killing Fields series, clips of Cameron surrounded by people who looked like me, with outstretched hands and pleading faces, always leave me furious, sad, empty and childish. It’s not fair. Why can’t I come from a normal place. A boring place where people get sentimental about Sunday lunches.
And frustrated. Because none of these videos capture anything about how magical Jaffna is. How the deep wells and irrigation channels have helped draw a lively red and green townscape, filled with people who are resourceful, quick to laugh, adventurous and free.
I wanted to see if this Berlin exhibition captured any of this. Of course it didn’t. The map of Sri Lanka on the wall of the exhibition didn’t even mention Jaffna. The northern most town it marked was Anuradhapura. Beyond that, blank. The way old maps used to mark unknown territories with ‘there be monsters.’
The photographs too, were of Colombo, Kandy. Eerie photographs of the landscape taken by 19th century European photographers: William Louis Henry Skeen, Charles Thomas Scowen, and Alfred William Amandus Plate. All these men had taken portrait photographs of normal people, but they were not the images on display here. Here, the people were tiny, unknowable specks in an overbearing landscape. The pictures conformed to a romantic, distant view of Ceylon as a mythical isle that belongs not to the people who live their but to western fantasies. And it was an exhibition that pretended the north didn’t exist.
The gallery was empty, except for a coldly hostile guard who followed two paces behind me and my children, sighing heavily if they even pointed at a photograph (they know not to touch exhibits and run around museums. I am biased, I know, but on this occasion, they were perfectly well behaved.) I turned round to ask if I could borrow a pen to take some notes as I had to leave my bag in the cloakroom. He told me, absurdly, that note taking is forbidden.
In the end I gave up. Whatever I was looking for, I was not going to find it in this gallery. We left in search of the café, where a smiling waited served us huge bowls of tomato soup. And I watched my two children giggling together, dipping their bread and smearing their mouths with the warm soup and I thought: my life is out here, messy and real and changing every minute. Others may not tell us our story. We will tell it ourselves.
There’s a moment in Berlin when the great sludge of autumn leaves have blown away from the pavements and the snow has not yet smothered the grey slabs where you can see the Stolperstein again. These tiny, brass bricks, ‘stumbling stones’ hammered into the street outside an apartment block, tell you the names of Nazi victims who once lived there. There are usually three dates: the dates they were born, deported and murdered.
They are decorated now with flickering candles and roses. It was the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of Nazi-led murder and destruction that led to the Holocaust. Two minutes from my home, I watched as people carefully stepped round the stones that gleamed now in front of a building that houses a boutique specializing in Issy Miyake clothes, and an upmarket Turkish grocery selling tubs of fresh diced mango. I buy these sometimes: they are extravagant, but as effective a soul-soother in winter as a slice of sachertorte.
This is progress, of sorts. A small, halting, but deeply moving memorial to genocide, right in the heart of the city that once sanctioned it, surrounded by global commerce and bustle.
I’m writing about this today because I feel an inchoate fury about the Commonwealth summit taking place in Sri Lanka this weekend. It is an utter slap in the face of all those who died. Allowing Sri Lanka to host this summit is legitimizes the government and its past actions. It’s utterly ridiculous for politicians to say they will attend, but will press the government on its human rights records. You just can’t accept someone’s hospitality at a jolly (because let’s face it, that is just what this summit is) and then hector them and expect to be taken seriously. And what good will those stern words do anyway, to those who have been murdered, to those who are still frozen in grief.
All this proves, really, is that yet again, Sri Lankans must face down their government alone. The international community will not help.
A Crisis Group report out this month suggests that the Tamil National Alliance, the party that one elections on the north in September, frames its requests for demilitarization, security and democratic rights in ways “that resonate with growing unhappiness elsewhere at how Sri Lanka is being governed.”
All Sri Lankans, not just Tamils, now have now to deal with corruption, land grabs and politically organized violence, as well as the classic bad government problems of economic mismanagement and rising living costs. Muslim businesses have been attacked, as have Christian churches. Sinhalese journalists who criticize the government receive death threats.
It all goes to show what Germany learnt the hard way. A government that kills it own people is damned. A country cannot recover until it has new leaders who acknowledge what happened and create a space for people to howl, scream, write and shout about their loss. It won’t be a pleasant space, and it won’t be easy to listen to thousands of broken people and their stories. It won’t always seem that this talking about the past is progress either but it is.
Oh honestly. Now I’m getting tearful and moody over a Dr. Seuss movie and I don’t know if I’m even allowed to make these links – they seem so twee. But here they are anyway.
The movie was “Horton hears a Who” To summarise for those who don’t have seven year old boys. Horton is an elephant. One day he sees a speck of dust on a flower, and hears a noise from the speck. He hears it when no one else can because he is kind and has large ears. The noise he hears does indeed come from a person, who lives in Whoville, a town full of contented, tiny people who have no idea how precarious their existence is.
Horton is so protective of the speck of dust that the other animals, enraged at his belief that these small people actually exist, try to destroy it. Horton asks all of Whoville to make a loud noise so everyone in his world can hear they exist. So all the residents of Whoville, who had been so happy in their home, and have only just realised that their world is about to come crashing down around them, start shouting as loud as they can. “We are here. We are here. We are here.”
I’ve been invited to several screenings lately of “The Killing Fields.” I’ve not attended any of them because I’m a coward, and can’t bear to hear the screams and the raw grief and agony of those souls stranded on a blood soaked beach any more.
I try quite hard, quite often to forget about Sri Lanka. To turn my face westward and to my other, much more successful and fun life. I was at an academic lunch last week when someone asked me why I wrote about Sri Lanka. “Is it some sort of hobby?” I said I was born there and he nodded vaguely, still not understanding why I bothered to write, usually for no money, about a place I left long ago. I write just to prove that I exist.
I think that back to that time, in 2009, when the Tamil community knew what was going on and tried, desperately, to get the world to hear. The British Tamils who closed down Westminster with their massive, peaceful demonstration, the ones who wrote desperate letters to their M.P.s and the newspapers, the ones who were trying frantically to get news of their families from home.
We all live with dread, I think. Sri Lankan Tamils. We live with this feeling, deep down in our bellies, that our existences are so precarious and fragile they can be snuffed out with a careless swipe of a large beast’s paw. And in those awful weeks in 2009, all those fears proved correct. While hundreds on hundreds died in the place we had once been so happy, we stood on a tiny speck of dust, shouting over and over. “We are here, we are here, we are here.” I don’t think anyone heard.
I was walking through a Berlin street yesterday with my mother. It was her first time in the city and she was admiring the soaring architecture, the wide streets and the birdsong that makes the bare, winter dried trees hum.
I love Berlin. It’s the first city I travelled to totally alone, the city I met the man I married. I admire the way it has tried to make sense of a horrific past.
As we walked down one particularly elegant residential street in the west, past a modern, post war block, my mother fell silent.
“That looks like the Colombo eye hospital,” she said. “The children’s ward was on the top floor. They threw the Tamil children from the top floor windows in the ’83 riots.”
It was the first spring day in Berlin after a long winter. The sky was bright blue and the air was warm but I felt the old, soul-emptying chill creep back into my bones.
I’m back after a very long break. I don’t know if the two things are related, but a few months after I began writing about Sri Lanka. pulling memories and deep buried emotions out from somewhere deep, I crashed, and fell ill. The doctors never found a proper diagnosis. Two operations later, faced with a freezing English winter, I decided that if I was going to be frail, I would rather do it in a country with sunshine and better food. So I bandaged myself up and went home to Jaffna, for the first time in nine years. I had always thought this return would be significant,emotional, meaningful, but I had been so unwell that all my thoughts were quotodian. Was there fresh water for the long drive through Elephant Pass? would the pock marked, battle scarred roads be too bumpy for my still gaping surgical wound? Would we find a decent guest house with enough hot water and clean sheets? The answers were yes, yes but painkillers helped, and yes.
And in Jaffna, I didn’t think too much. But we found a lovely, newly opened hotel. with a kindly chef who made me anything I remembered from my childhood. A few days with drinking coconut water, eating tumeric-dyed curries and sitting with my kindle in the warm air and I was cured. I still don’t know if the country almost killed me or saved me. Again.
Jaffna still feels a little sad, depleted, worn out after the war. It’s gone backwards. Buildings are more decrepit, its intellectual life is muted. But people are working with a grim determination to rebuild and catch up. And it’s still as green and as scented as I remember. It was good to be home.
My local tube station has a poet, who writes up a daily poem on a white board. Today was Spike Milligan’s Eurolove. It made me think of Jaffna, the town I was born, the town I left because of the war, and it took me a few moments to figure out why. I’d never thought of my relationship with Jaffna as that of a doomed love affair but of course it is.
I’ve yearned for it for years. But now, even if we could be together, we have grown too different, been through two different lives, to ever really be compatible. There can be no happy reunion, only a wistful longing for what could have been.
I’m glad today was one of those bright autumn days I went to the river. London looked so beautiful. So like the right place to be right now, that my ache for Jaffna eased, at least a little.
I’m trying to upload a picture of the poem. But in case it’s hard to read, here it is again.
Eurolove, by Spike Milligan
I cannot and I will not. No.
I cannot love you less. Like the
flower to the butterfly, the corsage to
the dress. She turns my love to dust, my destination
empty, my beliefs scattered. Diaspora!
Who set this course – and why? Now my
wings beat – without purpose
yet they speed.
Spotting people who look like you is a game immigrants play all the time. I have always been able to spot someone Tamil in a crowd, by the frizz on their hair, the colour of their skin, the set of their face.
I was in Paris this weekend. A quick getaway to visit a journalist friend I used to travel with when we were both foreign correspondents in Nairobi. On Sunday morning we walked to her local market, to buy white peaches, little discs of goats cheese and heavy melons to eat sliced with parma ham. After shopping we stopped at a little cafe, with pastries from a nearby bakery . As soon as I looked up at the waiter, who appeared unobtrusively and quickly to take our order, I knew he was Tamil. As the Sri Lankan war went on for so long, it’s a reasonable assumption that anyone who looks like a first generation immigrant has known something of violence and loss, but people rarely talk of it. My local Tamil newsagent,who realised straight away that I was from Jaffna, always asks after my family, greets my son by his first name, and lets me pay him next time if I’ve not got quite enough change for the newspaper or half litre of milk. We greet each other with recognition but never talk about the war, or about home.
Other times it’s harder to know what to do . I would have been able to ignore the man trying to sell me faded and over priced roses as I sat with my cousin in a Venice square if I hadn’t realised, with that familiar pit-of-stomach feeling that he was Tamil, a recent refugee who looked exhausted, with a wild, lost expression in his eyes. Seeing someone look so familiar yet so haunted and unhappy, is awful. I just sat frozen, wondering what his story might be, but being a bit too scared to ask. My cousin, with more grace and presence of mind, bought the whole bouquet then gave it back to him so he could try to sell again to other tourists who would only see a hawker disturbing them as they drank their aperetif.
This weekend, I didn’t feel panic. The waiter seemed happy to talk. He was from Jaffna, he said, no he wasn’t married yet – maybe next year – and he had family in London and in Italy. He quite liked Paris, the job was fine, but in fact he was also a journalist, and edited his own Tamil language online newspaper. He wrote the address down on a scrap of paper, added his name in swirling Tamil script. I put it in my handbag and walked off, glad in an incoherent sort of way, that he’d found a life and a purpose among the fruit stalls and cafes and the Paris streets.
So. Today is the 4th of July. I’m not American but even I know it’s Independence Day. And on this day, some 216 years ago, people in a west Atlantic colony declared that actually, they were better off without their colonial British masters. They went on to found one of the most powerful countries in the world. And I’ve worked for an American company, AP, for four years now. It’s been a long slog – late nights, breaking news where success is measured in milliseconds, and very few guilt-free vacation.It’s been a great learning curve but I’ve decided that, as much as AP has to offer the world, it’s quite possible that I can offer more.
The nexus of the world is going east. Asia is a fast rising economy, and is learning how to make it’s voice heard. And Sri Lanka is part of that. And I, for better and worse, am part of Sri Lanka. So. Here I go. I’m quitting AP and the security of an American pay cheque, to write about the east. To try to explain where Sri Lanka sits in the world. To try to explain where I belong. If nothing else, it will help me explain to my inquisitive, questing children where they fit in in this world. I want them to know that there is a terrific. breathtakingly beautiful country that they have a right to call home. I want them to know that they have a story. So wish me luck please as I pick up a pen, take a deep breath, and begin to write. About home. About loss. About belonging.
Queen Elizabeth II is lunching with Sri-Lanka’s President Rajapaksa today at a Commonwealth lunch as part of her Jubilee celebrations.
Rajapaksa flew into Heathrow on Sri Lankan airlines last night, arriving to a cacophany of protests from Britain’s Tamil community, who call him a war criminal and a murderer.
There were similar protests when the queen hosted the king of Bahrain at a lunch last week ago.
The queen knows how to deal with autocrats, demagogues, dictators and still keep her distance. It comes with the job. She has managed to remain head of state for 60 years with the help of peaceful subjects, a complicated constitution that no one can quite be bothered to overhaul, and an enduring ability to say little in public.
Most other heads of state have had to be more ruthless. It strikes me that the queen’s more brutal contemporaries simply use tactics that her ancestors used.
Rajapaksa stays in power by ruthlessly supressing enemies, offering up parts of the country to wealthy supporters, and manipulating the constitution, much like Henry VIII. I only hope it does not take Sri Lanka several centuries to reach a stage when national pride is symbolised by a benign, smiling grandmother floating down river on a barge.