Groundviews

Sabiya Mahal: Commemmorating 25 years of the Northern Muslim eviction

Picture courtesy SriLankaBrief

Excerpt from an IDP’s diary – 22nd August 2003

I am worried and mad at my Mum. Why is she doing this? Is she insane or greedy?

She says it is foolish to keep something that will be soon taken over by “them”.

I cried “Mum, it is our home. We have to keep it for our kids. Maybe they will not live there but this is the only connection we have got. After all, Mannar is our home town”.

My mother sounded very determined in her stand; she continued justifying her decision “Look, you think it is going be your home again? People say that they have even changed the name of our street, they now call it Murugan [i] Street. What a day dreamer you are – and I don’t even want to imagine my grandchildren stepping in there.” She added “I have decided to get rid of this house before the war starts again”.

I begged her to give me few days to think, wishing furtively to lobby my brothers for support.

My brothers looked as if they had already discussed this well in advance. They shouted out questions one after the other “why are you so possessive of this ruined house? It was shelled twice and haunted. Who would even want to step in there again, let mum sell it off”.

My second brother added his input cautioning me “Remember, we sold our shop for peanuts when we had to rent a house in Colombo. Come on, it is time to sell all we have got and invest. Who knows when they will start the fight again?”

My youngest brother, in an effort to make light of the situation said with his usual playfulness, “you know something sister, mum is smart and you should let her do what she wishes. After all it is her property?”

That night I felt mystified. “Can anyone put monetary value on this house that preserves those myriad happy memories I still want to hold on to? The feeling of belonging that was taken away at gun point on the cold morning of October 24th 1990.

Talking about us- the Northern Muslims – a friend of mine came up with this instinctive phrase “you guys were swimming in a pond before eviction and now you have the ocean”.

“It is true that we have the ocean, but it is also easy to get lost in it. Besides we don’t want to be in an ocean,” was a reply I didn’t dare to tell him given that it would bring about a discussion which I feared. In fact, I get very uncomfortable at the very mention of this unfortunate incident, let alone discussing it.

My brothers were too small to feel the way I felt about being thrown away. They are simply angry about bearing the ‘IDP stamp’. For them the easiest way is to get rid of everything that reminded them of being displaced. This way they can wipe away the bitter past and build up a new identity, as Colombo Muslims.

It is hard for me to stay disconnected; indeed I want to deal with the past because I am hurt and ashamed. My wounds need to be healed and it can be done only by returning, finding answers to my questions and if possible renewing relationships. It is tough to explain this to my brothers. After all, they have been forced to think that our homes are in enemy territory. Who would want be connected to their foes? Well, it is time to use my last resort. This will work because they all love me. I begged them with tears “Look, what is on sale is our dignity. This is a real disgrace to our grandfather and daddy”.

That was the last conversation about selling the house. I know they didn’t understand what I meant but they stood by me because of my tears and that is how I stopped (or should I say postponed?) the sale of our ancestral house- Sabiya Mahal [ii].

I wondered why my mother didn’t feel the way I did about this house. It was my mother’s birth that brought prosperity to my grandfather’s business, and he built this house for her. She and her seven siblings grew up in this house and my mother’s dream wedding took place here as well.

Our next door neighbor, Thevi aunty used to tell stories about mum’s wedding; how my grandpa decorated the street that led from the railway station to our home with coloured lights so that all his friends who visited Mannar for the first time would not get lost (this didn’t make any sense to me because we lived in such a small Island and I wondered how anyone could really get lost here!).

She said it was like a Thirukaitheswaram Thiruvilaa [iii] with Thoranums [iv] on both sides of the road, and how my uncles and her brothers, Sivam and Shakti, covered up a well in our front garden to make a stage for musicians to play Nathasvaram [v] (if they only knew that they were sitting on top of a 36 feet deep well they would have caught the next train to Jaffna!)

She told me the fuss mum made when she had me, the first grandchild and how the whole house was babyproofed. She pointed out to me the nail marks on both sides of the walls where my father had nailed down wooden panels to keep me away from the steps and uneven surfaces.

“Mum, how is it possible for you to say that you don’t want to go back there any more? Why do you hate this house so much? Is it because you too don’t want to deal with the bitter past, like my brothers?” These are questions I never asked her fearing that I would re-open the deep wound of daddy’s untimely death triggered by displacement.

I have been to my hometown many times in the last couple of years, but never had the bravery to step into Sabiya Mahal. In fact, I stayed with friends or relatives and avoided even passing by. Nevertheless, this time, after all the commotion I made to stop the sale, I thought of going back to visit.

I can remember how nervous I was that day; it was like going to see my long lost dear friend. I reached out for the best dress I had in my travel-case. Thirteen years – that is very long time, isn’t it? As I entered Moor Street I glimpsed that safe haven standing strong as it used to be. As I got closer to it, I noticed something different – it had lost its air of affability. Years of negligence and war had cast plenty of scars. The porch and parapet walls looked as if they had been stripped naked.

During the war this house brought hope and reassurance. For many of us this was the only safe haven that pulled all of us together – my aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors – this place reminded me of festivals and weddings.

Usually after a fight there would be curfews. I loved curfews because our house used to be full of people – people of different age, class, caste and faith. Grandma borrowed big pots and pans that were used only for Kanthiries [vi] from our Mosque and cooked in the back garden using stone stoves stoked with piles of wood. Christi uncle- an amazing story-teller, a political science teacher and a superb cook- assisted her. Sivam anna [vii] and Mustafa (who worked at the nearby grocery shop- Myillvahanam Kadai) challenged each other’s masculinity by cracking huge chunks of firewood in one strike.

We gathered the chopped firewood when they took breaks and brought them to Christi uncle in anticipation of the usual bribe. Christi uncle always gave us rewards when we did something good. Most often these rewards were funny stories of his childhood and growing up together with my father in their village Vidathaltheevu [viii].

I loved these stories, which portrayed my father as a sturdy yet very mischievous boy. Occasionally smoke would engulf the whole house and we all coughed endlessly with tears in our eyes, but I loved those days and the tears too.

All of us sat on the floor and ate whatever grandma served on banana leaves. The food tasted so good, in fact I secretly wished for long curfews. In the evenings Nimmi and Ranjini joined me in rehearsing the songs Sister Lourdes taught us on our last scout camp. We often forgot that we were in the middle of a bloody civil war.

I still stood in our front garden trying to bring the nerve to step inside. Suddenly everything became hostile and I felt numbed. The sharp memories of war and the last few days engulfed me – emotions of sorrow, loss, tension, fear, atrocities and distrust. Memories that still kept me awake most nights.

God, now I can smell only death and pain here.

My best friend Ranjini became a freedom fighter and later that year she was proclaimed a Martyr. Uncle Christi became a traitor and his body was hung on a lamp-post with a bullet in his forehead.

I became the “other” in my school and even among some of my closest friends. Myillvahanam kadai got bombed one night and Mustafa too since he slept there. Thavi aunty and her only son Kumar disappeared at a military check point when they went to see their relatives in Adampan [viii]. Sivam anna, a brilliant and devoted mathematics teacher was taken for an inquiry to Thalladi army camp [ix] and no one saw him afterwards. Since then, maths became a bitter subject to me. Shakti anna who was admitted to Jaffna medical college opted to join the struggle for a homeland, his choice for guns and cyanide capsules came as a last resort of survival. If he had stayed with us, who knows, he may have also disappeared like his brother.

I saw Shakti anna only once after he became one of “the big boys” [x], that was when he came to alert my father the night before they attacked the Mannar police station. It reminded me of our endless attempts in preventing my brother from his growing interest in “Al Jihad” and how he ended up being wanted. If not for our friends, neighbors and Shakti anna he would have ended up hung from the lamp-post too. The last few days in this house were like living in a hellhole, the azaan [xi] (call for prayers) became a sign of tension and fear. Every time mosque’s loudspeaker came alive at odd hours our hearts stopped beating – the thought that something dreadful had happened killed us minute-by-minute.

When at last on October 24th the same loud speaker announced that we had 24 hours to vacate our homes, I knew neither our friends nor Shakti anna could rescue us this time.

My numbness turned into humiliation and distress.

God this is making me sick. I ran out and walked back quickly to my friend’s house. My head felt so heavy I thought it would blow up. I ran to the bathroom and sat beneath the tap. While the cold water poured on me I cried- yes I cried for the first time to wipe clean the memories of living in Sabiya Mahal.

That night I called mum and said “lets get rid of this ghost house”.

Glossary:

[i]Murugan – A Hindu God

[ii] Sabiya – My grandma’s name

Mahal – Arabic word for a place of rest

[iii] Thirukaitheswaram Thiruvilaa – Famous Kovil festival celebrated in Mannar.

[iv] Thoranum – Kind of decoration mostly done by the roadside with young coconut leaves

[v] Nathasvaram – A musical instrument played by Tamils in their festivals and weddings.

[vi] Kanthiries – Muslim’s annual ritual in which the entire Muslim community gets together and prepares meal for the whole town in a mosque.

[vii] Anna – Elder brother in Tamil

[viii] Vidathaltheevu and Adampan – Small towns in Mannar mainland

[ix] Thalladi Army camp – Infamous for detaining and torturing young Tamil men in Mannar.

[x] Big boys- Denotes Tamil Tiger rebels

[xi]Azaan – Call for Muslim Prayer (05 times a day on a regular schedule)