Many middle-aged displaced Tamils who have resettled in Colombo remain reluctant to return to their places of origin in Jaffna due to personal and professional reasons. This article explains how they have reconstructed their lives in Colombo, in the wake of displacement.

The ethnic violence of 1983 in Sri Lanka forced Tamils to flee their homes as well as abandon many material belongings and seek refuge in different parts of their country and also abroad. A substantial number of the Tamils from Jaffna migrated to Colombo to escape the miseries of the ongoing war and also saw the city as an easy transit out of the country. Those who ended up staying in the city experienced myriad difficulties during their initial days as they struggled to adjust to a new environment and culture. This was particularly so as Colombo is multi-ethnic, with a community comprising of Sinhalese, Tamils, Tamil-speaking Muslims, Burghers, Malays, Bohrahs and foreigners.

Eventually, the displaced managed to survive in their new locales and establish themselves. The children of these migrants, who were very young at the time of displacement, also experienced discrimination and isolation in a new city at the beginning. However, they little by little accustomed themselves to a new hometown and people. Brought up amidst the trappings of city life, these children, who were in their mid-30s at the time of this research, are reluctant to return to life in Jaffna.

Among eleven middle-aged [i] persons interviewed in Colombo, this article highlights two interesting narratives, drawn from field research conducted in 2013 [ii], which indicates how integration in Colombo helped them to aspire for
a better future that would have never been possible in Jaffna. This has also led them to reconsider and renegotiate their relationship to their ‘home’.

The journey from attachment to detachment: ‘What was once home is a broken dream’

“Home to me is Colombo as we have been living here for 22 years now”.

Eshwari Parthasarathy [iii] is a 33-year-old Lecturer at a university in Colombo. She has been staying in Colombo since her teenage years. While speaking about her initial struggle to feel at home in Colombo, she recalled childhood memories of Jaffna:

“I really loved to be in Jaffna during those days. I fell in love with the quietness… I used to ride bicycles and roam around without any fear. Our ‘home’ was the best thing we had. We felt like staying so close to nature there. But things started changing as the military and LTTE started interfering in our daily lives. [iv] I started to hate Jaffna slowly as it became quite hard to stay there”.

According to her, having freedom and living close to nature are important aspects to have in one’s childhood. Interestingly, at present, she does not regret the fact that she is not living ‘close to nature’. There were too many difficulties she witnessed as the town turned into a violent place with the onset of fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE that took away her cherished freedom. As time went on, after coming to Colombo, her feelings of attachment to Jaffna grew distant:

“In the 90s, I really wanted to return, but as days passed my feelings also changed. In 2011, I went to see my ‘old home’ after 21 years and got really upset to see it. Once constructed by my parents, it has now turned into a broken dream”.

However, she has the desire to renovate her childhood home in Jaffna, because it is the last remaining symbol of her father. In a relaxed tone, she stated that she would not mind going to Jaffna during holidays to feel at ease, but at no point in time does she wish to return and settle there.

“If the government at any point in time asks us to leave and return to Jaffna, then I would fight, as being a citizen of the country I have the right to live anywhere within the island”. Her decision to stay in Colombo is mostly influenced by the uncertainties that Jaffna offers now.

“The last couple of decades we have grown used to living a different life in Colombo compared to Jaffna. Also in Jaffna, all the facilities that I enjoy now, are absent”. If Eshwari returns she has to start afresh, which she is unwilling to do. Her fear of not getting a suitable job in Jaffna, compared to the job she presently has, is another concern. She doubts there would be any jobs for her at all due to increased unemployment.

Several years of her hard work has helped Eshwari to achieve a certain position which she does not want to lose by returning. Moreover, all her friends and relatives have migrated abroad or are in Colombo. Without them, home in Jaffna is merely a place, to Eshwari, which fails to provide her the feeling of ‘at-home’. This kind of thinking about home has already been expressed by Mesch and Manor where they state that attachment to community enhances with the increasing number of close friends and neighbours [v] .

Her stay in Colombo and occupation has changed her lifestyle. Eshwari has grown accustomed to urban life which stands in stark contrast to her life in Jaffna; it would be quite difficult to transition back. She states that any attachment, she felt to her home in Jaffna is ‘past’; she considers it to be the place where her parents lived decades ago and which had no contribution in the formation of her present identity. In this regard, Eshwari’s situation is similar to the assumption made by Wiborg, that in today’s world, with the onset of globalisation and mobility, homes in rural areas are gradually losing their importance as they fail to create any impact on individual’s lives in the formation of their identity [vi] .

The journey from rural to urban life: aspirations for a better future

“I do not want to return. My life’s changed now…Displacement has been a hidden blessing to me”. Rajesh, a 37-year-old unmarried Tamil-Hindu man, shared his memories about his ‘former home’ in Velanai, a village 6 kilometres away from Jaffna town. He grew up amidst paddy and tobacco fields, playing with pets, eating home-cooked food and leading a life centred around the village. This adolescent upbringing created a strong sense of belonging in which nature was the key element that linked him to his ancestral home.

Life changed in 1987, when Rajesh and his family were forced to leave their home. The following nine years, he experienced suffering due to continuous displacement which finally came to an end in 1996 when his family reached Colombo and gradually settled down. Rajesh’s initial days in Colombo resembled the hardships evidenced by others of his age whom I interviewed. With the passage of time, he completed his studies, got a job, and adjusted to city life. His job requires frequent travel to many places in Sri Lanka including Jaffna. His mother returned to Velanai in 2011 which is another reason for him to return to his hometown on visits. This helps to keep him updated about the place and its surroundings.

His growing concern about Jaffna can be sensed when he opines that the town has become ‘technologically developed’, but unfortunately this development has proved to be ‘fatal for young generations’ as they are getting involved in crimes such as robbery, rape and murder.

Colombo has brought transformation to his life; for his personal perception of ‘survival’, he needs ‘air conditioning, a refrigerator, a television, a washing-machine, a computer and other electronic gadgets’. Here, he is earning a comfortable salary and leading a ‘luxurious life’. Rajesh is well aware that to maintain his life-style he needs to sustain a certain income which can only be possible if he remains in the capital. He considers  displacement as a ‘blessing’ in disguise. This echoes the story of Eshwari. In contrast to Eshwari who has no family in Jaffna, Rajesh could have opted to return because of his mother.

His mother lives alone in Velanai as their relatives and neighbors have all migrated either to Colombo or abroad. According to Rajesh, security is a big concern there, so it can be assumed that his mother is not safe. He is so determined to stay in Colombo that his mother’s return to Jaffna could not influence his decision. His feeling towards his ‘home’ has changed over these years from attachment to detachment.

This article explores the experiences of the middle-aged Tamils who were displaced to Colombo and share similar experiences at a very young age. After staying in Colombo for more than two decades and growing accustomed to the city life, none of them are willing to return to their places of origin in Jaffna. Ideally, ‘home’ is an emotional attachment to territory, and ‘return’ means a ‘feeling of relief from uncertainty, insecurity, fear and terror’ [vii]. However, the interviewees have a contrasting view upon ‘return’. They believe integrating in Colombo paved their way to aspire for a better future. This has also led them to reconsider and renegotiate their attachment to their ‘homes’. I argue that the ‘attachment to home’ that implies a ‘positive affective bond’ where an individual must maintain closeness to a specific place [viii] alters with time, place, and priority. People like Eshwari and Rajesh have practically no attachment to their homes, and thus, they do not plan to return. Each one of them has own tale to tell regarding their displacement, nevertheless when it comes to their decision to return, all of them shares the commonality of integrating to their places of displacement.

This is because they have asserted their own individual attachments to their new locations, diminishing the ones to their ‘past homes’. They view post-war return as a ‘new uprooting’ because they have to build up a life in an environment which was once familiar but has now turned into a strange place. They are now happy to be able to settle down in the urban areas. They are not likely to leave their secured life and return to a rural life where livelihood opportunities are confined to either agriculture, labour work or fishing.

Moreover, if they return to Jaffna, they would have to assimilate themselves with a community of people who stayed in Jaffna and have suffered immensely for decades due to the war that deprived them of basic facilities and economic opportunities. Therefore, there remains a high possibility that the middle-aged returnees would not be welcomed by the locals, as they could be perceived as acquiring urban values which are totally different from the values of Jaffna. This in turn may lead to an experience of ‘social exclusion’ which could affect their daily lives and present further discrimination and isolation from the locals. Besides, the experiences they gained at their present locales influence the meaning of their ‘homes’ which play a vital role in their decision to return.

They have integrated socially and economically, and thus the value and importance of their ‘past homes’ has gradually decreased with time. The urban life-style has greatly influenced their self-image and identity and has distanced them from their rural, more conservative lifestyle.

The meaning of ‘home’, and attachment to it, is changing with time and priorities, making the concept more fragile and an object of negotiation and reflexivity. In today’s globalised world, ‘traditional homes’ are losing their importance as people are more likely to be in places which offer them a ‘better future’ rather than remaining attached to a place by emotion.

[i] People in between the age of 35-45 are considered as middle-aged, and the target group of this article fall in this range at the time of my interviews in 2013.

[ii] Interviews were held during my field work in January 2013 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

[iii] I have used pseudonyms of my interviewees for security reasons.

[iv] The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was formed in 1975 by Vellupillai Prabhakaran with the aim of seeking an autonomous region for the Tamils in the North-Eastern part of Sri Lanka through armed struggle.

[v] Mesch, G. S., and Manor, O. (1998), Social ties, environmental perception, and local attachment. Environment and behavior, 30, no. 4: 504-519.

[vi] Wiborg, A. (2004), Place, nature and migration: Students’ attachment to their rural home places. Sociologia ruralis 44, no. 4: 416-432.

[vii] Chattoraj, D. , Gerharz E., “Difficult Return: Muslims’ Ambivalent Attachments to Jaffna in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka”, (upcoming article).

[viii] Hidalgo, M. C. and Hernandez, B. (2001). Place Attachment: Conceptual and Empirical Questions. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 21, no. 3, 273-281.