Foreign Doors Closed?
Five years after the war the situation for the Tamil in the North-East has few bright spots. We older folk do not matter. The young do. The schools in Sri Lanka are better built but bereft of the teachers who taught the older generation. The level of English has collapsed. Few Tamils from the North-East will get the required English scores to enter western universities. Even if they did, western universities that my generation had access to now have prohibitively high tuition fees. Migrating as a refugee is no longer an option. The Tamils who can most easily escape from Sri Lanka are those with family members who have already made it and whose sponsorship under family reunification will ultimately bear fruit. If they do manage to migrate, what awaits them?
So those who are left behind in Sri Lanka are best off making the most of what there is. The universities are in a parlous state. The lucky ones, who get into Moratuwa, Colombo and Peradeniya, still have to contend with communalist teachers. For example, there are those who teach in Sinhalese after admitting Tamils to a so-called English medium course. Then there was the student at Peradeniya who topped his class of some 324 students and had difficulties getting postgraduate admission in the West. It turns out that a Peradeniya colleague of mine was asked to write a confidential reference to the university, and wrote that he did not think this batch-topper was capable of finishing his doctorate (I came to know through my colleague at this end who could not believe his eyes and took the student into his group).
The students who do not get admission to the big three universities do not have adequate staff to teach them. These students, however, are still among our brightest, so with a good transcript and the appearance of a firm foundational education through the syllabus, they are enabled to leave the system for foreign studies. Western nations, ever looking for clever Third-Worlders trained at other people’s expense, always have provisions for these people to stay on after postgraduate studies. I often wonder if these other students are not better off going to India for their higher studies (For more on this, await my upcoming article “The Expansion of the Sri Lankan University System: Good if Properly Done.”) In Sri Lanka they will study with other bright students but not in English and under teachers who are so poorly qualified that they will not learn much. Indeed I have had students at our new engineering college asking for help with homework on Skype. The tutorials were in poor English and designed more to challenge than to teach – for example having to invert a 4×4 matrix rather than a 3×3 which teaches the same principles without the hard, error-prone labour of a 4×4. In India they would have studied in English, and also by living in a cosmopolitan environment, could study without the stress or fear of being attacked because of their language or religion.
But what is there for the rest, the vast majority of Tamil youth of Sri Lanka? Roadblocks, censorship, having to say “Sir, Sir!” to soldiers who were likely involved in the murder and rape of other Tamils, or the very least silent observers. I see them abjectly smiling at and greeting military men and the highest persons of the land knowing they are involved in the murder of thousands of fellow Tamils. School children and even university students are taken by their Principals and Vice Chancellors for these rites in obsequiousness. They have no choice. It is the life they need to live. Those who have the livelihoods to obviate such prostrating cannot understand the internal conflicts that face these poor souls.
How do the people left behind make common cause with those who deny that thousands were slaughtered? In the Bar Association, Tamils were given no choice but to vote to reject the UN resolution without even having seen it. In such a state, can there be a dignified future for Tamils in Sri Lanka?
Life in the West
Five years after the war, even for those of us in the West, the prospects as Tamils are dim. Prospects of returning home are dimmer as there are fewer and fewer jobs back home even if we are offered the jobs. Even an apartment here, carefully furnished with second hand things that go cheap, gives us a seemingly luxurious life. A decently running used Toyota can be bought for a weeks’ salary. Spending just a small fraction of our salary, we can support relatives at home and in Indian universities. We could buy land at home and be extravagant on holidays.
But many of us increasingly find that for the sake of convenient work and the pressing need to sponsor relatives, we have taken on new citizenships. Now with dual citizenship curtailed by Sri Lanka we have fewer prospects of returning and are prohibited from buying land by exorbitant taxes. Visas on arrival at Colombo are restricted to a month. And there is always the prospect that some EPDP or TID goon at the airport will mistake even the apolitical among us and carry us off for special treatment.
So our trips home are fewer. The chances of our community grow fainter. I have retained my accent and so I find myself having to repeat myself so many times. Even when I say my first name is Samuel I am asked how to spell that. Men in my family having three given names, my son too has three. Without even asking, institutions including the licence bureaux cut off one. I use my second name but it is forced to be my middle initial because here the first name is what is used. My son’s best friends at high school are all immigrants, one from Africa and another from Turkey and the rest all Indians. These are but a tiny measure of the fact that we are isolated from the mainstream (except when we can afford high school fees to send our children to elite private schools). We need to fall in line, despite the claims to multiculturalism. With these pressures will we continue as Tamils?
It is unlikely that our community will survive even two more generations. Divorce rates are high. Hindu cultural values like abstinence from beef and female abstinence from alcohol are gone. Teenagers dash away from a sumptuous Hindu wedding vegetarian lunch to eat cheap two dollar beef burgers. Like Hitler there are vegetarian Tamils who still argue that massacres of Sinhalese and Muslim civilians were a good thing. (With the LTTE gone they are less vocal but if provoked, this view comes out).
Children increasingly marry outside the community. Arranged or cousin marriage? “Chic!” they say. As children grow up and educate their mothers on how “dowdy” they look, aging mothers abandon their saris and switch to sleeveless dresses, crew-cuts with hair dyed golden brown or occasionally blonde, and shaven limbs. Cheap talcum powder gives way to translucent foundation. Even as a Christian in a Christian-majority country my faith is difficult to preserve and pass on, as both conservative and liberal churches disregard the Bible to gain relevance to sociopolitical trends like divorce or homosexuality. Christian Theology, with faith standing on the three-legged stool of Bible, Church Tradition and Reason, once provided a vigorous mental exercise through the test of reason. The reading and the discussions I benefited from as a boy on the important thoughts that made and split the church, children here are no longer privy to because religion is now passé.
But all that aside, most in the next generation – with the exception of those who live in Tamil communal neighbourhoods – do not speak Tamil. The higher the wealth and the higher the education, the truer this is. While Tamils in Sri Lanka face one kind of genocide, those who have escaped that genocide face another devastation here.
Resenting the State
I am determined to return to Sri Lanka. But even my children who were trained with Tamil as their first language and love Sri Lanka as their home now plead “Do not go back Appah. Think about us.” I know that I have lost all. Not just my Tamilness but also my Jaffna Tamil Christianness. I resent the Sri Lankan state for all that it has deprived me of. And the more I resent it, the less the chances that my children will ever return. My loss then becomes greater as we – our faith, our way of life – can no longer survive through our children long after we are gone. It becomes an evil cycle in which we are all trapped. Five years later, we remember the loss of life in the war. But a few years from now, will there be anyone left to remember?