Living with the Other in post-war Sri Lanka
I often have to remind myself that I live with a Tamil.
My housemate, Vanessa is a Tamil, married to a Sinhalese and I have been living with her and her husband for almost a year and working with her for over two. She is also one of my closest friends.
She is Tamil; I am Sinhalese. But even as I write, it’s hard to think of the two of us along those lines, because I can’t figure out what defines our identities. Even if I can define what makes her Tamil, I still can’t define what makes her different from me.
Is it colour? She is darker than I am, but we are both brown skinned.
Is it accent? She sounds no different than me, except for a tiny, pleasant lilt in her voice.
Is language? We both speak English. She speaks better Sinhala than I do, and fluent Tamil, or which I do not know a word.
Is it culture and customs? She married a Sinhalese, much to the horror of some of her relatives. But she is happy with her choice.
Is it dress? She dresses just like me and we are endlessly in each other’s wardrobes.
Is it in name? She kept hers. “I like my own name”, she told me simply, by way of explanation.
Is it in political affiliation? Her political views are as vague as mine. We are not for the leadership, nor are we for those who wish to topple it. If she doesn’t find today’s politics suited to her, I could say the same for myself. We both hope instead for something in between â€“ something more palatable, more honest. Something we cannot see today.
Is it in parentage? Her parents voted for Mahinda. Mine for Sarath.
She and I went to school together too. We were the same age and in the same grade, but we didn’t know each other at all. She was in the Tamil medium and I in the Sinhala medium. Even then I remember her being tiny and thinking she must be a quiet little thing. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Once, while travelling in a trishaw to her parent’s home, she was stopped by a policeman who searched the vehicle and would not stop harassing them, especially when he looked at her identity card and saw she was Tamil. A barrage of questions followed, all of which she patiently answered, in Sinhala. He refused to believe she was married to a Sinhalese, even when she showed him a wedding photograph she kept in her wallet. After trying to reason with him, she lost her temper, managed to call him a ‘racist bastard’ in her faltering Sinhala, and proceeded to give him a good verbal walloping which resulted in her promptly being hauled off to the station until her husband collected her.
It was only when she regaled me with this story the day after that I thought to myself, â€œGosh. She’s Tamil”. And when I say ‘Tamil’, I don’t exactly mean her ethnicity. I mean that it is only during these odd instances that I realize that she lives as a minority in this country and is sometimes denied the same freedoms as I am allowed simply because I have a Sinhalese name.
â€œIt’s funny”, she mused to me that day. â€œThat policeman was surprised when he saw that I was Tamil â€“ he only knew it when he saw my identity card. If I had taken my husband’s name, none of that wouldn’t have happened”. I sat back, stunned and more than a little ashamed, realizing that she had hit the nail on the head.
To Van, the incident was a one-off, a little mis-adventure and a good story to tell her friends. To me, it indicated something a little more sinister. Sure, the policeman in question could have just been one bad egg, but we all know this sort of harassment happens on a daily basis. Apparently there are a lot of bad eggs around. I was talking this over with a friend of mine during the last few months before the war ended and he said he had a Tamil friend who literally tried to fold into herself when they passed any checkpoint. â€œShe just wanted to hide. I feel really bad for her, especially since I know that I don’t have to worry about it”, he said.
We never have a reason to worry, do we?
We get stopped at checkpoints too. We get asked similar questions. It’s no big deal, right? It can’t be that bad for them, what are they complaining about? All they do is complain. This is a time of war â€“ these things must be done.
I’ve heard the above from so many people that I know â€“ and in a range of different contexts: from checkpoints to the civilians trapped in Mullaitivu during the final stage of the war. No matter how many times I hear these things, I never cease to be rendered speechless by them. With one casual sentence over a drink they can talk away lives. With a shrug of their shoulders they can excuse and even justify murder. Some spit out the words ‘Tamil cause’ as if it is a bad word or worse, a synonym for terrorism. Despite being intelligent, thinking people, I am not sure they even understand the poison behind what they say, and continue to be struck by the ease with which they deliver the lines.
These moments make me painfully aware of how deeply entrenched this sense of the ‘other’ is in our society. My inability to see much of a difference between Van and myself seems quite an alien concept when I’m confronted by these situations. To me she is not part of a ‘they’. She is simply herself, and those things about her that I do not understand only intrigue me. She knows so much about my culture and tradition. I barely know anything about hers. She was telling me about the rituals she had to perform for her wedding and the strange and wonderful things she told me had me enthralled.
It has been a year since the war ended but how far have we come? Instead of translating the lack of fighting into real and meaningful peace, the year has been filled with competitions for supremacy. Maybe now that the contests have been won and our eyes no longer have propaganda posters to distract us, we can start looking at each other instead. Looking, communicating and really understanding. As much as it’s easy to blame history, politicians and authorities for leading us down the wrong road, it was still our choice to take it. If a change is to come, it should come from us â€“ because we want it; not because somebody told us to want it.
By ‘us’, I don’t mean just the Sinhalese. Even our lingo has to change: from ‘us’ and ‘they’ to simply â€“ ‘us’. It is a case of building relationships â€“ but it has become so politicized, so complicated and so ugly that it seems to have transformed into something else altogether. Power. Possession. Jealousy. Fear. All fused into our systems and mixed with our blood. It is this that we all have to rid ourselves of.
Knowing Van has quite literally changed my life. She is the first close friend I have had who is Tamil and has made me recognized insensitivity in both myself and others that would never have registered had I not known and cared for her. And I guess that’s where we need to get eventually: we need to care.
If I have one hope as we celebrate a year since the end of war, it is that we pitch ourselves headfirst into a new one. One that will be bloodless, but still harder to fight for many, because it will rage against long-held beliefs and expose secret prejudices. One that will prove all the more challenging because it cannot have bribes thrown at it to make it go away or be defeated by brawn. A body is more easily killed than a mind changed.
If we win that war, our celebrations will not be tainted by guilt for being at the expense of others’ pain and loss.
In that victory, we will all be heroes.