Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Remember the Riots

‘Baaldhiya’ or ‘Vaaldhiya’: Two Wor(l)ds Separated by a Consonant

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.  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.



For more articles on July 1983, please click here.

  • Owlish

    Some Tamils may say “paalthiya” (instead of “Baaldhiya”), but certainly not “Vaaldhiya”.

    By the same logic, Buddha should be Vuddha, and Tamil towns like Balasamudram, Bargur, Bhavani, Bodinayakkanur, Bhuvanagiri, etc. should respectively be Valasamudram, Vargur, Vavani, Vodinayakkanur, Vuvanagiri, etc. (they are not). In most cases, “b” is substituted by “p”, not “v”.

  • Nishan

    Owlish did, very kindly, offer me the above advice before I published this article. The puzzlement that Owlish feels as an South Indian Tamil is no doubt genuine. I have, however, checked with Sri Lankan Historians as well as those who lived through the times, and they confirm the story as I have it.

  • Ekcol

    You write well. In Tamil the bucket is called Vaali – mainly used t the end of a rope to draw water or store and carry water.

    As I read I see in my mind the film with surround sound of what was happening. I know the road. But during 1958 I was studying overseas. In 1977, I had just left Colombo to work abroad. In 1983 I was with the UN posted overseas. I have heard the horrendous stories by surviving victims and witnesses. I am glad that persons like you and others are now sharing your experience with others. Although those who are like your family are small in number, in moral strength you all are as strong us Titanium.

    Families like yours give me hope that one day the fifty year nightmare will be over. How it will end is not as important as how the two communities will be at peace. No one has the answer. I hope persons like you will continue to write the brave deeds at the time of need to give hope to the decendents of the victims that their suffering was not in vain.

  • The Tamil word for bucket is Vaali – Bhaldhiya is Sinhala. Therefore it is common for Tamils to say vaaldhiya in Sinhala
    All the examples Owlish gives are of South Indian Tamil usage though Tamils in Sri Lnaka also use the sound B at certain times – The Tamil Vaali being similar to Bhaldhiya. Therefore Sri Lnakan Tamils commonly pronounced itas Vaaldhiya.
    My mother who is not terribly profiecient in SInhala says Valdhiya whilst my Sister and my self who grew up outside the North and East say Baldhiya.
    I remember my uncle narrating the vaaldhiya/Bhaaldhiya diffrence to us when he was pulled out of a bus along with fellow Tamil passengers at Kadugannawa pass during the 1983 riots. Being a proficient bilingulist he was let off unlike some of the other passengers

  • Thulie

    Last year, when we were in Sri Lanka, our car broke down in front of the market in Kurunegala. The men in the car, after checking the engine decided they wanted some cold water to fix it. A tamil gent from one of the shops brought us a flask with cold water. We were extremely grateful. He said it was nothing, and that my father who was a policeman during the black july time, along with some others stopped their shops from being burnt.
    My father says shortly after that (the black July) some other policemen came and destroyed our family run restaurant. Then my father resigned.

  • Owlish

    Thanks jiva parthipan for the clarification. I was merely pointing out that the reason could not be the inability to pronounce a word that starts with ‘b’ because Sri Lankan Tamils do pronounce Balasingham, Baskaran, Balraj, Bandaranaike, BBC…

    During pogroms and riots in India, mobs force men to strip and prove that they are muslim or hindu depending on whether they are circumcised or not. Many recent films (like Hey Ram, Mr & Mrs Iyer) and books (e.g. Maximum City) have dealt with this very sad and very complex subject. It is hard to digest as to how decent people suddenly find themselves capable of murdering their neighbours…

  • the bear

    I wonder if more of such first-hand experiences could be written and shared of what has happened and continues to take place in Sri Lanka – all told from the child’s perspective. Nishan, while you wrote this as an adult recalling your childhood memory of black July, your writing retains the “innocent” tone of the child’s perspective. I find this particularly moving and powerful. I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it’s because juxtaposed to a child’s perspective, the perverseness of hatred and violence gains perspective. Maybe it’s because stories like these make us think about the children of today and what sort of world we want to usher them into. Or maybe it’s simply that we need to be reminded, time to time, that we were all once children, able to and wanting to play together, despite our differences, and all equally deserving of safety, protection and the freedom to dream. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • John

    Thanks for sharing. I am Sri Lankan as well. I was just a baby during the riots. I don’t remember anything but I am told of the stories. I like over sea’s now and I am much older. Althrough I don’t live in Sri Lanka anymore I see what has happened to the country in the past 30 years and it saddens me. I pray that one day peace would be restored to the island and everyone would be able to put our differences aside.

  • SomewhatDisgusted

    Dear Nishan,

    Thank you for sharing. I remember my parents relating that tragic story about Baaldiya vs Vaaldiya and I was quite aghast at the time. I don’t know whether the following is a real memory or an implanted memory, for I was a small child at the time, but I can recall seeing our neighbor’s house going up in flames during the ’83 riots. Our family hid them for a while before they moved onto safety with some relatives. I remember my parents trying to reassure me that there was nothing to worry about and trying to shield me from the unpleasant truth. The truth which they explained in greater detail when I was older.

    It was horrific and I grew up with deep disgust for the racism of the “Sinhala” people. Later on, I realized that such generalizations were completely counter-productive and did great injustice to those that weren’t racist in anyway. I also realized how much a part of the human condition this was as I learnt more about the history and evolution of this conflict. I watched the equally hideous racism unleashed by the LTTE in great dismay.

    Some people will now immediately start arguing about who started it and who’s responsible etc. but at the end of the day, that’s utterly irrelevant. Such argumentation is more an attempt to justify and come to terms with why their own “community” is just as utterly racist, than a productive exercise in solving the problem. The truth is that, at the end of the day, those of us who do not view the world through a racial lens must unite to defeat the common enemy – racist nationalists – be they Sinhalese or Tamil.