Longing and Belonging series: The science of planning in Jaffna

The throng of devotees and tourists visiting the Nallur festival had receded and life slowly returned to normal in Jaffna. I stayed behind to see if I could persuade others visiting from abroad to be a part of my Longing and Belonging series. I was especially interested in those that were engaging in a sustained manner, in contrast to the charming young family that I had met at the height of the festival. This however proved to be a challenge. I met many who were engaging with projects in the north, but who were uncomfortable with being open about their views, preferring instead to keep a low profile.

One man who was willing to be involved was Dr Narendran, an associate professor who had worked for many years in Saudi Arabia, and who was now back in Sri Lanka, spending most of his time here.

We talked over coffee at the famous Malayan cafe in the heart of Jaffna town about his ideas for an agriculture and animal husbandry project on the islands off the Jaffna peninsula. His plans were still in their infancy. The government had offered him large tracts of state owned land to use for his project. It occurred to me that Dr Narendran had no qualms about working closely with the government, something I knew would be unpalatable for many of the diaspora that I had met during my visits to London.

Later, we took a taxi to the arid environment of the islands, which Dr Narendran compared to the deserts of Saudi Arabia. As we talked about his plans I thought that while I didn’t agree with everything that Dr Narendran had said to me during the time we spent together, he wasn’t expecting me to either. I sensed he knew I likely held different views, but that didn’t deter him from speaking to me with respect. He just wanted me to listen. I have to be honest here – some of the things he said to me, for example, about the Tamil diaspora taking responsibility for their part in dealing with the devastation in the north made sense.

Meeting Dr Narendran and other individuals on this assignment underscored what he had told me – that the diaspora is not a homogenous entity. It is a diverse group, with myriad perspectives, motivations and experiences. Dr Narendran was positioned somewhere along that spectrum of views.

Also see From London to Jaffna for the first time, Returning lives, rebuilding limbs, and Diaspora shorts