Friday, April 20, 2007

Vignettes of a Tamil Refugee

This is my delayed response to Sambol’s evocative post on the pain of those who are forced to leave their strife-torn countries. [Link via Desipundit]. It brought back the memories of one such Sri Lankan Tamil family whom I had known during my stay at Madurai.

The family consisted of a couple and their three daughters in their prime of youth. The youngest one had the loveliest oval face with big communicative eyes and a skin that was unusually fair and flawless for those south of Tropic of Cancer. Unfortunately, she had some problem with legs and could walk only with a limp. Fate seemed to have some cruel grudge on them.

The lady taught me Tamil. I was in fifth grade and the school, like many in Tamil Nadu, required me to study Tamil. I, then, barely knew the alphabet. So bad was my Tamil, that my parents eagerly waited to read my answer scripts for my unintended wit and humour.

Instead of writing “Kandhai aanalum kasakki kattu” [Even if it is a rag, wash thoroughly before wearing it], I wrote “Thandhai aanalum kasakki kattu” [Even if it is your father, wash thoroughly before wearing it]. Thanks to her, I just failed only in my second monthly test and by the end of the year, I always managed to get above 60%.

India in the pre-Manmohan Singh era provided little employment avenues for residents, let alone refugees. And of all the places, Madurai, a very sleepy town which my uncle often calls as a mega-village, gave them a very slender chance of resurrecting a living that was as respectable and as secure as they had in Sri Lanka.

The lady taught in a neighborhood school and a few students from there came to her home for tuitions. Except me and a few others, most of the students were Sri Lankan Tamils. They were pretty close to each other. Probably, they derived some kind of emotional coziness from each other. I used to find their accent very different and funny. Yet, I must confess that it had an element of rhythm and purity embedded in it. When compared to regular rustic Tamil of Madurai, even their angry spews appeared sweet.

The lady was very professional at her work and ensured that the time we spent there was used only for academics. Despite this, when the some student made an odd statement about someone who returned recently or some news from Jaffna, she would become both nostalgic and hopeful. Nostalgic about the past and hopeful about the future, though she knew that there was not much to hope.

Whenever, I see Kannathil Muthamittal, I wonder if she too fled amidst shelling. The song Vidai Kodu Engal Naadu empathetically captures the pain, agony and the uncertainty of being uprooted not just from your town, but from your country.

kaN thiRandha dhesam angae
kaN moodum dhesam engae?

There is the land where I was born.
Where is the land where I will die.

Of course, development always led to displacement. But the displacement a refugee faces has uncertainty written all over his future. People displaced due to development lose their home. But refugees lose their homes, their claim for compensation, their land, their identity. You begin to live on someone’s mercy. A family uprooted from a river basin confidently settles down at the nearest urban slum. But a refugee is often thinking about a piece of land for him to stand. Overnight, landlords like my tuition teacher, who owned a home in Jaffna, have to think about a place to even sit.

I was there for just one year. We later shifted to Hyderabad. A few summers later, I watched her walking past my grandfather’s home, where we went for our annual summer vacation. She was now giving home tuitions to one of my erstwhile friend. She was just same. Square face with prominent cheek bones and eyes securely rested in their deep sockets. She spoke to my mom with the same cheerfulness and wished me good luck. As she walked away, my mom recollected her travails. My mom was scared to touch upon sensitive issues like daughters’ marriages. In a small town like that we could always learn from others and if there was anything very encouraging, she would have definitely shared with us. I never heard of them again.

Some years back, when I applied for the TNPCEE exam, I was glad that there reservations for Tamil refugees. However, it seems that since 2003, these children are being denied admission into professional courses due some Madras High Court order and subsequent dilly-dallying of the center. The refugee camps, which Thiru says are equivalents of open-air prisons in Kannathil Muthamittal, are going to be worse with rising conflict in Sri Lanka.

When I read Sambol’s post, I felt how lucky he and some of those who left comments were to go to a western country. There were only two occasions when I could see a gleam in my teacher’s eyes. One, when she discussed about their joyful Jaffna life. Two, when she learnt how someone in a similar situation could migrate to western countries.

I hope she too got a chance to move out to greener pastures.