I don’t think I had the slightest inkling of a problem between the sinhala and tamil people in Sri Lanka, until July 1983. But I should have.
In the heady days of the 1977 election, a good 13 years before I could vote, I remember my father quite nonchalantly relating a story: at some time and place in Sri Lanka, strangers accosted people on the street and forced them to pronounce the sinhala word Baaldhiya (meaning “bucket”). The tamil language wasn’t familiar with the “B” sound as a starting consonant. So a tamil person would say Vaaldhiya. Tamils, thus identified, were beaten or killed. They were, literally, condemned by the difference of a consonant.
What I don’t understand, even now, is why I have no memory of being shocked or distressed by this story and why it didn’t make me acutely conscious of a deep malaise in Sri Lankan society – in my world.
The story of an LTTE landmine killing 13 soldiers in the north of Sri Lanka, on July 23, 1983, entered my consciousness in the same matter-of-fact way – as a story that stirred neither cheers nor outrage, neither joy nor sadness. It was simply something that had happened, in a world “out-there” from which I was thoroughly protected – the way that floods happened in Bangladesh or famines happened in Ethiopia, in the days before television.
On July 25, 1983 the two stories came together. They broke through the dikes of my insulated life and flooded my world. But not all at once. It was still many more years before I understood what had happened. I was still able to live for the moment, without having to worry about the future or the past – the extraordinary privilege of being a child and not being poor.
The first news I got that morning was good news: I didn’t have to go to school. My mother and father had pitted their particular extremes of anxiety and nonchalance against each other and come up with a compromise: Sohan, my older brother, would be the only one sent to school. Nilhan, my younger brother, and I would stay back. I didn’t dislike school, but I never liked waking up early morning. Sleep overtook the irrelevant concerns about why I was being allowed this indulgence.
By the time I woke up Premalal, our sinhala driver, had gone to fetch Sohan back from school. The household was in agitated conversations about sinhala mobs setting about burning tamil shops and houses. A little later, when the Morris Marina returned home with Sohan it had a clubbed bonnet. Sohan had seen many of the familiar local shops in flames as they drove through the chaos of streets over-run by violence. The mobs had stopped all the cars and demanded petrol for their arson. But the Morris Marina was a diesel vehicle, and Premalal could say Baaldhiya.
Shortly after, we heard that the mobs were moving in the direction of our house. I took up position on the balcony, curious and nervous about what would happen. We lived in Wellawatta, a locality in Colombo inhabited predominantly by tamil people. We had two sinhala neighbours; every other home and establishment surrounding us was owned by tamils. Because of this, what I witnessed from the safety of my “sinhala balcony” was all the more terrifying. The thirty foot wide lane that was Ramakrishna Road was chock-a-blocked with threatening people wielding clubs, iron rods, and knives, of various shapes and sizes. Even before we saw them we could see the signs: plumes of smoke rising from the tamil homes that had been set on fire further up the road. As we heard the eerie sounds of people screaming in fear, my mother started crying uncontrollably.
Our house, No. 35 Ramakrishna Road, was a hundred yards away from the sea, two doors from a small hotel called Hotel Brighton and opposite the front gate of the Ramakrishna Mission (a hindu religious institute spanning a large expanse of land). Like a disorganised army of ants, the tamil people on our road began running into the Mission and to the hotel to take refuge from the impending mobs. At some point I saw the Mission close its gates and padlock them. Hotel Brighton had locked its doors much earlier. But people were desperate. I watched a pregnant woman crawling under the one foot or so gap between gate and road to get in to the Mission. Suddenly, the gates of our house were pushed open and a middle-aged woman came running in with her teenage daughter, desperate for protection. My mother quickly escorted them to a back room in the house.
I remember these events from 25 years ago with a dream-like unrealism. I still can’t quite believe that they happened and that I was there, a passive observer, safe on a balcony, while my neighbours’ houses were being broken, looted and burned. “What happened to anyone who was found in the house?” I didn’t even dare to think. The mobs surged past our house. The domestic staff shouted “meka sinhala geyak” (This is a Sinhala home). It was the protective mantra which spared us the collective fate of our neighbours. To be able to present oneself as credibly sinhala – the gaping divide between the wor(l)ds of Baaldhiya and Vaaldhiya – was once again, on that day, a matter of life and death.
My father returned from office. His car had somehow been stuffed with 11 people whom he had daringly driven to safety. In true fashion, he was to say that his main fear was not about being stopped by the mobs, but that the half million rupees in his glove compartment (from a business deal) would be stolen by one of the passengers.
He quickly made enquiries about several of our neighbours. We knew that many of the houses around us were empty and the residents had taken refuge elsewhere. “What happened to the Subramaniams?” he asked (they were our neighbours living two doors away). Donald, our immediate sinhala neighbour, spoke from his balcony to ours: “I didn’t see them leave their house,” he said. Â My father hot-footed it to the Subramaniam’s house.
The mobs had already been there. The house was broken and looted, but it had escaped being set on fire. His repeated calls of “Mr. Subramaniam, Mr. Subramaniam” drew no response. But my father was never known to give up anything easily. When he returned to that house for the third time in half an hour, he heard a slight movement inside a small broom cupboard. He went close to it and explained who he was and that he had come to help. The door opened slowly and fearfully to reveal nine traumatized people spanning three generations, a third of them my age or younger. These nine people were to spend the next weeks of their shattered lives in our home.
The simple and portable possessions of the Subramaniams were moved into our house surreptitiously: first from their house into the house of our sinhala neighbour; then from his house to ours. All this over neighbourly walls, to avoid detection.
The mobs were now thinner on the ground with most of their monstrous work accomplished; but looting and burning was still an active sport and the street was as chaotic as ever. Directly facing our balcony was the home of Mr. Murugananthan, and it had been burning for many hours. Nilhan was feeling bad about an old prank of shooting a catapult on to his house and ducking under the balcony. Mr. Murugananthan’s house burnt ever so slowly. Its catapult-tested roof and walls would hold out till late the next morning before finally succumbing to the insatiable flames. A stream of thick black smoke from that house enveloped our sky: an artificial dusk and a visual testimony of the human depravity that unfolded beneath. Later, this would be known as “black July”.
One of the many paradigm altering observations for me that day was watching how the police and the army waded in through the thick of the mob, in uniform, and stood by comfortably as the carnage was being unleashed. On that day they had perverted their professions to preside over the en masse persecution of the innocent and the protection of the criminals. There they were, providing at best only lenient boundaries for the sinhala mobs, between the atrocities that were “permitted” and those that weren’t. Their orders “from above” seemed to have been minimal. On Ramakrishna Road, only the sinhala houses, the residential parts of the Ramakrishna Mission and Hotel Brighton were “protected”.
Sonny was one of the young Subramaniams. He was old enough to know better. But traumatized and dazed by the events, he ventured out on to the street, to take another look at his house and personally recover belongings. He was accosted by the police. My father strode out into their midst. The policeman turned his anti-tamil venom against my father. How dare we hide tamil people he asked? My father was too clever to claim the moral high-ground in front of perverted police power. He shrewdly cited his helplessness in the face of neighbourly obligations. “These people,” he said in sinhala, “when you give them an inch they will try to take a yard.” The policeman was slightly appeased by this show of disdain for tamils. Sonny was rescued. Nevertheless we were soon to receive a message from the police: our house had just crossed the dividing line between being “protected” and “permitted”.
On July 25, 1983, in the midst of all the atrocities being unleashed around us, it was my father’s characteristic lack of respect for danger that enabled us as a family to show a modicum of humanness.
For years before that day Sohan and I had been playing cricket with tamil children scattered through the neighbourhood. On Ramakrishna Road cricket had joined us together, as we commandeered the streets, inconvenienced motorists, and occasionally sent the ball hurtling through the window of an irate resident. But on that day, I didn’t and couldn’t know what had happened to those with whom I had so happily bowled and batted. On that day, in July 1983, all the young cricketers of Ramakrishna Road grew up very suddenly and found ourselves in different worlds – “us” in the world of Baaldhiya and “them” in the world of Vaaldhiya.
We never again played cricket.
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