In his half-built three-room house at Uruthirapuram, 10 km to the west of Kilinochchi, in northern Sri Lanka, one of the headquarters of the Tamil Tigers, Vijitharan Maryathevathas, 29, is busy telling stories of the country’s civil war. A graduate in fine arts from Jaffna University, he was among the thousands of people who sought refuge in Mullaitivu, during the Sri Lankan army’s surge. He saw death and destruction at close quarters, when the war climaxed and thousands of civilians died. Those are the stories he narrates through his drawings, sculptures and installations. There is no rancour in his tellings, only the urge to testify about the experiences of his people. It is, perhaps, his battle against forgetting, his politics to keep alive the memory of a people who were betrayed by multiple actors.
So he begins. There was a huge water tank that stood tall near Kilinochchi along A-9, the highway that connects Anuradhapura in central Sri Lanka with Jaffna. When the LTTE retreated, it blasted the tank. The fallen tank was then turned into a war memorial by the state after the war ended. On 15 A4 sheets, Vijitharan has drawn stories of war with the watertank as a metaphor for the fallen Tamil people. There are tiny images of humans stacked inside the tanks, there is the ubiquitous palmyrah, the kalpa vriksha of the dry Vanni region, growing inside.
There are drawings that show in detail a people on the move, as they flee the army and live in camps and shelters. He speaks about families, including his, moving their homes on cycles. What could be carried on the cycle alone would be saved. Few utensils, essential clothes, the dosa tawa, a spade. For months, they kept moving as the army closed in and shells kept falling — on tents, trenches, camps, schools, hospitals, orphanages — until they reached Mullaitivu, a strip of sand and shrub forest, fenced in by the sea on the west and the Nandikadal lagoon on the east. He shows us a heap of sea shells, where he has drawn images — of people fleeing the war. That’s where he lost his aunt to a shell, when she had stepped out in the open to cook some food.
The spade is dear to him. “We are peasants. We work our land with it. In that sense, it feeds us. It came handy when we had to dig bunkers when shells began to fall on our camps. It saved our lived even when we were on the run,” he says. The spade, for him, is a metaphor for life. It features prominently in his art practice. So does the bicycle. When we meet him, he is working on an installation with cycle parts, pieces of a shell and few bullet cases. These few pieces of iron completes the entire trajectory of life for him.
The road to Jaffna from Colombo hugs the western coast of Sri Lanka. Palms stand sentinel, a lagoon shimmers for miles under a deep blue sky, the sea an invisible presence resonating in the dry, salty wind. The road runs smooth, oblivious to the wounds of a war that took thousands of lives, displaced lakhs of people, destroyed villages and communities and deeply split this country.
The Eelam war ended seven years ago in May 2009, when the Sri Lankan army declared victory over the LTTE, the brutal face of militant Tamil nationalism. The Sri Lankan leaders who won the war were ousted from power in 2015 and a new coalition has been in office in Colombo since. The military governor of the northern province, the Tamil area, was replaced with a respected jurist of Tamil ethnicity. The Tamil Nationalist Alliance, a coalition of various Tamil groups, is now the main national opposition. A lessons-learnt-and-reconciliation report was submitted soon after the war ended, which cleared the government of any wrongdoing and blamed the LTTE of war crimes.
Predictably, it failed to impress the international community, which has pressed for more accountability and reconciliation measures. The large Tamil diaspora continues its battle for indictment. There is still no consensus on the human cost of the war — a UN estimate puts the loss of lives in the last phase of the war between August 2008 and May 2009 at 70,000 dead and three lakh displaced. A new presidential task force is now exploring ways for national reconciliation, addressing issues of deaths, disappearances and land ownership. Constitutional redress to the ethnic divide too is being explored. Electoral politics has retreated to a matrix, where old questions are debated in a predictable language.
Beyond its tedium, however, there seems to be an undeclared contest on to define the nature of the Sri Lankan nation. The post-war nation building has not been merely about rebuilding infrastructure and reviving tourism, but also about memorialising the war and its victors, especially in the Tamil areas. The state seems to be on an overdrive to celebrate the soldier whereas the immense grief of the vanquished appears to find an outlet in cultural expressions — in art and literature. Eight years is, perhaps, too short a period to count the dead and mourn them. Or, perhaps, as Ruhanie Perera, a young theatre artist and academic, puts it: “We are still in the story-telling mode, we may not have reached the phase of comment and critique.”
The stories are many, and they are heartbreaking. The narratives, however, do not speak a common language — they expose the faultlines that, in the first place, had turned the island into a battlefield. The state narrative, read Sinhala-Buddhist, is building war memorials to the victors and celebrating its Buddhist heritage in the Tamil areas, excluding the recent history of the ethnic/linguistic minorities. The latter, in their own ways, are also memorialising their tragic fate, the battle within the community and against the Sinhala-Buddhist state. With the war too recent a history, the only truth could be the stories.
Later, Vijitharan travels with us to Mullaitivu along the same path he and his family had, some years ago, walked the thin edge between life and death. He takes us to Puthukudiyiruppu, in the vicinity of Mullaitivu, where a massive war memorial has been built by the Sri Lankan government. In the midst of a lily pond, a platform guarded by lion statues has been erected. On it, stands the bust of a soldier, a gun and the flag in his raised arms. Across the pond lies a makeshift museum of boats and “submarines” seized from the LTTE. Bus loads of tourists from the south visit the war memorial and soak in the military victory. In the past, tourists were allowed to visit the bunkers of the LTTE leadership and the residential quarter of the Tiger chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The area has now been fenced off, with armed personnel standing guard. A shrub forest has been allowed to eat away the last of the battlefields while the grey waters of the lagoon appear restless in the wind. As we cross the Vattuvahal causeway to the Vattappalai Kannagi Amman temple, Vijitharan says, “When the war ended, the lagoon was filled with dead bodies. You could not see the water.”
Across the lagoon, the tower of the Kannagi temple looms large. “The only witness to the last phase of the war,” Nilanthan, a writer in Jaffna, had mentioned. Kannagi, the heroine of Silappadikaram, one of the Tamil epics, had burned down Madurai, when the state had committed injustice. These are different times. R Cheran, a poet from Jaffna now living in exile in Canada, wrote in a 1985 poem, Amma, Don’t Weep: Spurting from your anklet/ were neither pearls nor rubies:/ There is no longer a Pandyan king/ to recognise blood guilt.
Jaffna or Yazhpanam, to the north of Kilinochchi, has always been the cultural seat of Tamils. This was the capital of the last Tamil kingdom. The Jaffna Public Library represented the Tamil cultural heritage, the university nurtured the region’s brightest minds and its many temples and churches nurtured a multi-religious community, fiercely independent and proud of their history and heritage. The burning down of the library by Sri Lankan forces on June 1, 1981, was seen as an act of cultural genocide. An iconic poem by MA Nuhman, Murder, was prescient. He wrote: Last night/ I dreamt/ Lord Buddha was shot dead/ by the police,/ guardians of the law./ His body drenched in blood/ on the steps/ of the Jaffna Library./ Under cover of darkness/ came the ministers,/ “His name is not on our list,/ why did you kill him?”/ they ask angrily./ “No sirs, no/ there was no mistake./ Without killing him/ it was/ impossible/ to harm even a fly-/therefore…,” they stammered./”Alright, then/ hide the corpse”/ The ministers go back./ The men in civies/ dragged the corpse/ into the library./ They heaped the books/ ninety thousand in all,/ and lit the pyre/ with the Cikalokavadda Sutta./ Thus the remains/ of the Compassionate One/ were burned to ashes/ along with the Dhammapada.
The majestic Indo-Sarcenic building in white has since been rebuilt. In the war years, the city’s population declined by half as it witnessed the brutality of the Sri Lankan forces, the IPKF and the LTTE. The old Dutch town was flattened in bombings, the fort on the lagoon is a ghost of its past. But this is the city which is key to the revival and restoration of the Tamil community and its culture.
At Archive, a cultural space in the vicinity of Jaffna University, the conversation has begun. On alternate Sundays, talks are held, screenings organised. The live-wire of the space, T Shanaathanan, who graduated from Delhi College of Art and Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, has a deep sense of his responsibility. Some years ago, he began an inventory of people who had lost their land. Call it art, installation or mere cataloguing of displacement, it is almost a Guernica of the Tamil experience of the war. Shanaathanan calls it The Incomplete Thombu. In 320 pages, Shanaathanan has collected testimonies and remembrances of people who had lost their homes in the war. Thombu is a Lankan-Tamil word of Portuguese origin and means a public register of lands. The introductory note to the work says it includes three related elements: ground plans of houses drawn from memory by displaced civilians (with interview notes on the reverse), architectural renderings of the collected ground plans and dry pastel drawings made in response to all the above.
One testimony reads: “It is hard to nurture a jasmine creeper in the heavy winters of Toronto. I covered the plant with a blanket and kept it inside the house. Last summer, it yielded four flowers. Their fragrance brought me back to my Jaffna house.”
Shanaathanan mentions an old lady who refused to be drawn into a conversation about her lost house. When he started drawing randomly, she slowly got involved and pointed out where the coconut and guava trees grew and the kitchen was. “My work is the only memorial to war victims,” he says. His students, including Pushpakanthan and Gajinthiran, are constantly working with war motifs like barbed wire. War widows and the disappearances of people have been themes in the works of Nirmalavasan, a resident of Batticaloa.
The war has also produced a body of literary works, especially in poetry, which some scholars classify as “trauma literature.” Poets like P Ahilan have written searing testimonials of the war that also stands ground as fine poetry. His collection, Saramakavikal (Elegies), contains poems on the last phase of the war, narrated through a mother, a nurse and a bystander at a hospital. Trauma literature may have its cathartic value, but public intellectuals like Daya Somasundaram argue that there has to be more for the victims though “art can give meaning to grief”. “There needs to be a place for people to grieve,” says Somasundaram, a psychiatrist with Jaffna Medical College and the author of Scarred Minds and Scarred Communities. The refusal to let people grieve, he adds, is almost like a war crime.
Somasundaram talks about the submission made by a few people during the reconciliation meeting that there has to be an official day to grieve. A memorandum that contained the idea of a memorial for war victims was presented to Chandrika Kumaratunga, who heads the President’s task force on reconciliation.
But grief and war victims hardly seem to be a concern of the state. Sasanka Perera, a sociologist who teaches at the South Asia University in Delhi, says a sensible victor would have allowed existing memorials to continue. Mainstream political parties are burdened by the compulsions of electoral politics and are unlikely to radically think about reconciliation. Perera says it has to come from art, scholarship, creative writing.
It has already started — across the ethnic divide — though the initiatives are by individuals or small groups. The structures of the state will have to be made use of to take them to a large audience, but whether the state has the imagination to facilitate that is a big question, says Perera.
Ahilan mentions that the new politics is all about soft power. The state prefers to focus on the Buddhist religious heritage that is seen in Tamil quarters as a proxy for Sinhalese nationalism. Scholars argue that the sprouting of Buddhist shrines and icons in the north will inevitably be seen as cultural colonisation and will hamper reconciliation efforts. The state-driven Buddhism promotion has been reciprocated by similar assertion by other religious groups. With diaspora money, an artist mentioned, temple renovations are catching up in the Jaffna region.
This proxy politics and identity assertion are unlikely to help heal the wounds of a divided nation. As Cheran once wrote:
We have all gone away;
There is no one to tell our story.
Now there is only left
a great land, wounded.
No bird may fly above it
until our return.