Photograph courtesy Colombo Gazette. A version of this article appears on the author’s blog.

The Yarl Devi was a train. A hulking pile of metal on wheels, just like any other train. It began its run around 1956; neither the first train to make the trip to the North of Sri Lanka, nor the only train to operate along the Northern Line, but definitely the most iconic. Like most named trains, the “Yarl Devi” came to symbolize more than just this one train, but the line itself.

It’s fair to say that the war took a scalpel to it pretty fast.   The trains stopped running past Vavuniya in 1990, when fighting broke out in the region. Since then, the Yarl Devi has been silent – or dead. When the war ended, private bus lines began sweeping in the cash.

But now the line is back up. In a well-publicized October 2014 launch (some would say rather astutely timed to build momentum for the election), the President of Sri Lanka ceremoniously declared the resurrection of the Yarl Devi.  The India Railway Construction International had completed the restoration of the track from Palai to Jaffna at a reported cost of Rs 58 billion. The train began roaring its way to a reconstructed Jaffna station. Photos were taken. Smiles were exchanged. The cultural significance of the thing was harped upon. Indeed, many here saw the train as a very symbolic re-connection with the Lost North.

But what do people up North think about it?  

“Cheaper than the bus!”

I travelled to Jaffna towards the end of October, and stayed there for three days. Among the other work I had there – it was a business trip, and not purely for leisure – I had planned to inquire about the importance of the Yarl Devi, for here in Colombo I had seen a great deal of pomp and ceremony about this train. To us, it seemed like yet another arm extended to the long-inaccessible North, bringing things one step closer towards a more culturally united Sri Lanka.

I confess myself disappointed at first. Many, when I asked, first listed the practical value they see in the Yarl Devi.  “Things that are manufactured in Jaffna are cheaper to transport in a bag on the train as opposed to in a van. Take two boxes of thal hakuru: what would have cost you a thousand bucks on a bus would cost only 350,” said one.

“When the train started, travel was made so much easier,” said another. “We were so happy. Children clapped and danced in the streets. My sisters’ daughter came here from Moratuwa to see us. She came in the morning yesterday and took the night train home to get back to work soon. This couldn’t have happened if we had to rely on buses.”
“Will you ever take the train to Colombo?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Maybe,” she said. “There are many people who go, I think. Some for family, some for business. But many of us don’t need to go. I have nothing in Colombo. Perhaps my sister’s children will all come here to visit for a while.”

“The buses are losing money,” said yet another. He wasn’t too happy about the Yarl Devi. “It’s important for Jaffna, but now we must find other jobs.” The train was his competition – he was a bus driver who regularly made the trip for one of the 30-odd bus lines that had operated profitably before the Devi re-emerged.

During the three days of my stay, my work took me to the Jaffna Town, the Thiyahie Charitable Trust Hall and the Jaffna Library; as we worked, I began collecting opinions from people in these places as well, forming a very rudimentary sample space with no clear definitions or restraints. Anyone who I could convince to spare a few minutes was fair game.

One of such interviewees was the woman who ran the supermarket embedded in the TCT Hall. She, like many, was quick to remind me of economical advantage: cheaper, faster transport. It made sense: a large portion of her stock – especially a rack of what seemed to be chocolates from the Middle East – bore import stickers from companies in Colombo.

Culturally? Again, a dead end: “It’s a train,” she said. “It doesn’t need a name. We just need more trains like it.”

Sabaranathnam Galdiskumar, a sixty-year-old man who works as a janitor, caretaker and on-demand waiter at the canteen nearby, saw a slightly different angle to it. Born and raised in Ragama, Sabaranathnam migrated to Jaffna in 2005. He’s married; his wife’s family lives here. When he first set eyes on the station, it was a ruin – with weeds growing over it, tracks long gone. He’s glad that the train is operational.

“The Devi draws Colombo and Jaffna together,” he told me as he doled out huge amounts of gravy onto our plates. “In my head I see it as a line connecting the two places. It’s not about getting to Colombo fast but about ideas. People in different places think differently. People here think differently from people there.

“How do I put this? On the train, it doesn’t matter what language you speak. Sinhala people are exposed to Tamil language and vice versa. When Sinhala and Tamil people travel together, there is an exchange. First language, because we all have to understand each other. Then ideas. The Yarl Devi is a platform for the common man to exchange ideas.”

The line from here to there

I never encountered that same perspective again: perhaps Sabaranathnam, who lives in Jaffna but has lived elsewhere for much of his life, saw things both ways – as the insider looking out and as the outsider peering in. Everywhere I went, I heard from people who were happy to speak about how they can use the Devi to improve their businesses and get in touch with relatives living further south – but few willing to discuss the cultural impact of it, if any. The universal answer seemed to be a shrug.

Perhaps, I kept thinking, we romanticized it too much.  Our perceptions had turned the train in our minds, into a giant handshake headed North at the speed of public transport. These people saw for what it really was – yet another means of transport. They had three lines to Jaffna: now they had four.

Some – especially young students just about to finish school – did not really care after the initial buzz. “I don’t see myself travelling to Colombo, and anyway, we had the buses,” said Yathusha Ulakentharan, a student of the Seventh Day Adventist International School, Vavuniya. “Why should I care? It’s just a train. We had trains before and we’ll have more trains in the future. If the trains stop, we have buses. It’s not like we need to go to Colombo every other day.”

Others that I met agreed that yes, the Yarl Devi was important, but perhaps not enough to be culturally significant. “I hear it’s booked till Thursday,” complained one. “Even if you wanted to get to Colombo, it’s not easy. You might as well take the CTB.” And save for Sabaranathnam, that was as far as it went.

Until I met B. Balasubramaniam, a dapper, well-dressed, well-spoke gentleman, around 61 years of age. He had come to watch his son pitch his project at the Yarl Geek Challenge, a program trying to instill a rudimentary IT economy in Jaffna.

I never learned his first name, but Mr Balasubramaniam spoke flawless English. He’d graduated from the University of Colombo in 1978, and had lived through both famous and infamous conflicts in the region. He recalled the troubled of 1981, after the Tamil-Muslim conflict in Ampara, and in 1985, and again in 1987, when he and his family had lost their homes in Jaffna to the Indian army. They moved to Mulativ, eventually circling back to Jaffna.

“This place was damaged not just by the LTTE, but by the people,” he reminisced. “I remember 1990. Trains were running, even then; then the fighting broke out and the LTTE removed the tracks. The people did the rest of the damage here: there was no security in those times, nothing to protect public property, and the station was a source of material.

“And Yarl Devi? Yarl Devi is late,” he told me. “They should have done it earlier. If they wanted to complete that, they would have completed it years ago. After the war, 2009 – they took five years to do this. This is a small track, Vavuniya to Jaffna: 90 miles. It takes five years to build something that small?

“It is not even the Yarl Devi as it was. I am a graduate of the University of Colombo, class of 1978: I’ve been travelling in the train for a long time. Before 1990, we didn’t have to go through Vavuniya, or any of these interims: we went straight to Colombo. If we wanted to transport goods, we could straight away send them to Colombo. Every Friday we would buy a ticket and just go straight to where we needed.

“For a young person this small connection from Vavuniya to Jaffna may be special, but for us old people – we expect them (the govt) to return transit to the way things were in 1980. Before the disaster in 1990, there were 7 trains – 5:45, 7:00, 11:55 Yarl Devi, a special train at 6 o’ clock in the morning, another one in the evening at 6′ o clock; and then a special express at 8:45 in the night. Now they only have four. The demand far exceeds capacity. They say 10,000 people use this line. I think even more get left behind.

“I think it will be difficult to restore that connection again. It’s not just about transport, people also have to change their minds. Before, in 1980, we didn’t think twice about going to Colombo. Now for people it’s a faraway place with security checks in between. The biggest damage done by the war was to separate this, to make Jaffna and Colombo different countries even on the same map. We must not just build new tracks, we must change our minds as well.”