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Independence Day

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.


The queen and her lunch companions.

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.

Not in our name, for the love of god.

There was a high table at Oxford years ago, we were passing the port to the lefI when an American professor sat to my right suddenly said to me: “Are you from Sri Lanka? Can you tell me why the hell the buddhist monks are so powerful?”

I had no idea. I still don’t, There are all sorts of theories, about how Buddhist mythology tied into Sri Lankan nationalism but come on -. Buddhism in most of the world means peace, enlightenment, calm. Occasional noble resistance to authoritian regimes. Why the hell, as this All Souls professor asked, am I from possibly the only country in the world where saffron robed monks are maniacs?

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Why I had a big wedding

I had hundreds of people at my wedding. I didn’t know most of their names and there was no chance of finding an intimate, stylish venue for the wedding breakfast. I needed a sensible, large hall with parking nearby and caterers with giant saucepans to heat up the vats of curry to serve the 400 guests. I barely got to speak to most of the guests and still, years later, meet people I don’t recognise who tell me they were there that day.

But I know why I did it. The wedding day didn’t just belong to me. A community in exile needs rituals – amateur dance concerts, birthday dinners with kids of all ages running round the house while adults gather in the kitchen to gossip _ to hold it together.

A wedding is another excuse, and the most joyous one, for a party. It’s not a day for bridezillas. Tamil women don’t worry for an instance about not upstaging the bride. The idea is to shine, as brightly as possible, while the bride looks modest and mature. She’s not meant to smile too much. I did _ but I wasn’t meant to.

On my wedding day, my young cousins dressed up to the nines, with flowers in their hair, in jewel coloured silks, carrying their Western accents and Jaffna heritage with real style and easy confidence. At times exile feels lonely, bleak and gruelling. But sometimes, it doesn’t feel too bad.


My killing fields

So. I’m watching a pathologist showing a photo of a 12 year old boy shot by someone so close he could have reached out and touched him.

He looks like all the Tamil boys I know. His torso is square, solid, he has neatly cut hair and his eyes are half shut. A bit later there is a shot of his father, with an equally share torso and neat hair, also dead. That’s Prabaharan, the charismatic, elusive leader of the Tigers who at one time seemed immortal.

What I am watching here? Channel 4’s Jon Snow sticking doggedly to a subject he could have dropped long ago? Tamils dying. David Miliband walking alongside smiling politicians.The end of a war. Bell Pottinger helping President Rajapaksa justify himself to the UN. Doctors retracting their statements.

I can’t bear this. I’m seeing Tamils huddled, terrified and alone. There are recordings of their screams for their dying children with an unbearable sound that is ripping me apart.

And the occasional glimpse of the place I was born. Red earth, lush green, a shimmering heat and waves of waves of lost people and army trucks.

I’m sitting here, watching, and feeling very far away from home.

Dentists and bombers – good jobs for women?

There is an obsession in Tamil cultures about “ a good job for a girl.” That women should be educated is not disputed. Educated women make better wives and mothers. But they should not eclipse their husbands and they should make sure their hours fit in with children. This is not as dismal as it sounds. Tamils live in extended families, so there are usually grandmothers, older cousins and student aunts and uncles around to keep an eye on a child. So the “good jobs for girls” can be varied _ dentists, doctors in specialisms that keep clinical hours, teaching in a respectable school. Good steady jobs, with good incomes.

Growing up, this calculated, sexist assumption of how women should work infuriated me. But I’m at the other side now- clinging on to a job that frequently has long hours while dealing sleepless children and school runs. I can see how much more sensible it would have been, to have taken one of those “good jobs” and lived on the same street as my mother. All around me women are giving up. Nannies cost a fortune, grandmothers live too far away to help out regularly. And child rearing itself is becoming more labour intensive. There is a huge pressure on women to become stay at home mothers, while their husbands work ever longer hours to pay rising mortgage costs and bills.

Tamil girls in northern Sri Lanka had once thought they could have it all. They went to school, applied for college, practised for dance concerts and learnt to cook. They never got the chance to see if they could multi-task, juggle and manage a household. The war intervened. At first women were still asked to be wives and mothers, sending their sons off to war and comforting their bullet- wounded husbands.Later they were asked to work in field kitchens and hospitals, sing patriotic songs and speak at rallies. As shells continued to fall, they learnt how to use guns, to join in battle. But they were always the lesser sex, and could still be raped, belittled, shamed. Those Jaffna girls in their prisine white school uniforms who should have become teachers and dentists instead became fighters, suicide bombers rape victims, widows and bereaved mothers.

It’s International Women’s Day today. Whatever that means.

Exile from Atlantis

I thought I was mythologising SriLanka too much when I came across Paul Binding reviewing Gunaseraka’s second novel, The Sandglass, saying:
“SriLanka compels the leaving of it. Not for nothing is it tear-shaped, fecund and beautiful, it is the putative site of the Garden of Eden, of the paradisiacal Atlantis, from which humanity was exiled. Even those who stay there are forced, by the uncertainties and cruelties of its unflagging war, to live a kind of exile.”

So here, in my real exiles are a few things that remind me of home.

A Kenyan afternoon, when the heat catches and the plants shake off a dusty, overpowering scent.

A small village in Kerala, with thin brown-skinned men standing at front gates, watching their brisk wives walking down the red earthed lanes.

A bus driver in Wales cheerfully holding a baby while her mother fumbles in her handbag for her bus pass.

Ethiopian food.

Freshly washed hair.

A Seychelles beach.

The formal gardens in Cardiff’s city centre.

The curve of my baby’s back.

The scent of the jasmine bushes growing wild in front of a council house at the end of my road.

The stillness of this afternoon.

Remembering Marie Colvin.

I’m late writing about this, because I was trying to find the right words.

When I heard about Marie Colvin’s death I was in the British library’s Asia and Africa studies room, reading Mark Whitaker’s biography of Sivaram Dharmaratnam, a Tamil journalist and one time rebel fighter who was murdered in 2005, when he was 44.

His body was found with severe head injuries somewhere between a hospital and the parliament buildings in Colombo. Tamils grieved intensely over his death but they were not surprised by it. He was political, literate, involved and outspoken. The wonder was that he survived so long in SriLanka’s lethal civic life.

Marie Colvin lost her eye in SriLanka. She had used her profile and her experience to investigate an unfashionable war and continued to write about  it after a military shell took out her eye as she reported from Tiger held territory in 2001.

Sivaram died telling his own country’s story. Marie Colvin died telling the story of other people.

For Tamils, who are used to being ignored, accused or told to shut up, the fact that she came under fire, survived, and continued to bear witness is a source of endless amazement, and hope.

The need for spas and chocolate

Writing about Sri Lanka is bloody terrifying after a lifetime of looking at the subject sideways. If I look at it full on, it’s too awful to bear. If I read a newspaper article, I have to stare into space for 20 minutes. If I read a book on the subject, I need an entire weekend away, in a hotel with fluffy white robes and a swimming pool. I’m writing this blog on a sea of red wine and chocolate _ anything to distract me from my reality.

It’s headspinningly hard to know what will work. Eelam in an insane dream. Total separation for a tiny slice of land on an already tiny island _ two countries jostling for room, having to share a long land border.

But South Sudan is an equally improbable country – the horse drawn plough was an innovation here ten years ago. As is Kosovo – a city that has convinced the world to recognise it as a state even though it barely has enough resources to feed its people. But I don’t think the fact that these countries exist is enough. They are still struggling to become real, accepted states.

But if not Eelam. then what? A first past the post electoral system cannot work in a country with a belligerent majority and persecuted minority. There has to be something else. A federal state? Devolution? Or some sort of multi cultural, multi ethnic state?

Sri-Lanka is amazing. Really, really amazing. It has stories and legends and history and mythology that entwine its people to the island’s topography, drawing in religion, language, music and dance. There must be a way, musn’t there, for this unique, entrancing, tiny country to survive?

Memory, forgetting and madness

What happens if you are not allowed to acknowledge what has befallen you?

Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of mental illness in the world. A report in The Lancet suggests the country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, with an average of 6000 deaths per year; nearly 100 000 people will attempt suicide every year in Sri Lanka.

Its not surprising. People have lived through three decades of a vicious civil war and a murderous tsunami _ its hard to believe sometimes that this jewelled, verdant island is not somehow labouring under an ancient curse.

Other countries have tried to confront their pasts. Rwanda’s gacaca courts and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commisison tried, in their clumsy ways, to give the victims of state repression a voice. Sri Lanka had a reconciliation commission of sorts but it fails to examine the state’s role in the mass killing of civilians in the last days of the war. But then, Rwanda and South Africa are now ruled by groups that had won their struggle against their governments. Sri Lanka’s story is being written by the victors.

In his book “The Cage” on the last days of Sri Lanka’s civil war Gordon Weiss, a UN spokesman in Colombo, speaks of the Sri Lankan government’s way of repressing memory. It will never address or admit the brutality with which it deals with dissent, both among Tamils and among its own, Singhalese communities.

I can’t help believing that the government’s refusal to acknowledge its brutality plays a part too. Yolanda Foster at Amnesty International talks about politics of amnesia – violence has been erased from collective memory as the state has refused to acknowledge disappearances and the reality of large-scale terror.

The urge to forget about the past is overwhelming. If you’ve survived the worst, why rake over it again? But without some sort of acknowledgement and possibly accountability, Sri Lanka’s jarring, traumatic recent history will haunt the people who lived through it forever.