Forever branded | Daily News

Forever branded

A minority reflects on the Easter mayhem

In the predominantly Muslim Colombo suburb in which I live, the mood is sombre, the air heavy, the tension palpable, at the supermarket on Saturday (27) afternoon, just a week after the deadly Easter Sunday bombings.
The faces I scan show, if not fear, then consternation; not just one group of faces, but all – no matter the race, the age, the social class. Terrorism, is then, a deadly equalizer. And there is, above all, an air of resignation, a demeanour that gives away that this is no new demon, but a nemesis ever shadowing Sri Lankans.
Not surprising then that staples such as milk and ‘tinned fish’ (as in local parlance) have been cleaned off the supermarket shelves, so used to ‘stocking up for an emergency’ are we Sri Lankans.
Just a few weeks ago, it was the searing heat and relentless power shutdowns that we were preoccupied with, that dealt a body blow to the economy; how that pales in comparison to the diabolical Easter Sunday bloodshed.
As I stand in the supermarket queue among a multiracial, multiethnic, multi-religious group, a middle-aged Muslim lady greets a young Muslim man she obviously knew, with the familiar Arabic, “As Salaam Alaikum.” He responds, “Wa Alaikum Salaam.” They then proceed to speak in my mother tongue; so I understand their conversation, although I’m sure they don’t think I would.
She complains that after the Easter Sunday attacks, the supermarket has temporarily suspended accepting phone and utility bill payments. Dialog has cut her mobile phone connection as this is the end of the month and she has reached her credit limit. He replies that she can try the Dialog customer care centre a kilometre away, and then they both realize that it would close soon, as people hurry home before curfew.

Self-imposed curfew

Veritably, even if the government hadn’t ordered it, there was a self-imposed curfew among the people last week – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher, they wanted to be home before dusk, not willing to take any risk, what with search operations ongoing countrywide and the grisly pictures of what began as a seemingly innocuous Easter morning indelibly printed in their minds. For, whether ‘the Mother of Satan’ or an RPG, a bomb does not discriminate – the victims of the Easter bombings included locals and foreigners, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims apart from Christians, and saddest of all, some 45 children, even toddlers.
As I went about my errands in my neighbourhood last weekend, I looked at my Western clothes and sent a silent ‘thank you’ heavenward. For, I’m often thought to be Sri Lankan Moor or Malay, both of which I’m not.
Relief mixed with guilt mixed with sadness mixed with empathy.
Relief not to be the targeted ethnic group as we once were; the guilt of one who did not face the terror attacks; sadness at the unimaginable suffering of the victims and their relatives; empathy which stretched like a silent bond as I pondered the fear the Muslims in my neighbourhood must feel, a fear I’m all too familiar with.
For I’m a minority thrice over – of race, religion and gender. My identity is then like a mosaic, a kaleidoscope of ever-changing patterns, one I understand so well, yet that seems strange to others.
A few weeks ago, on a late evening commute from work, the familiar fear I knew as a young girl and a young woman coursed through my veins, as a group of young boys boarded the rather empty bus and proceeded to taunt and mock a middle-aged Chinese couple. How thankful was I, and I’m sure the Chinese couple, as more passengers got in.
How well I remember the day when I was very young, when my cousin, playmate and best friend, whom I lost to cancer 25 years ago, announced to me that we were Tamil; I vehemently disagreed and insisted we were English, and so a rare dispute arose between us. We decided to settle it by asking Akka, my older and wiser elder sister; it was a moment of truth indeed, when she did confirm that we were Tamil, which drastically changed my seven-year-old worldview. So dejected was I that day, that the library of Enid Blytons, annuals, and more was not something intrinsic to my culture. One of the greatest gifts my parents bestowed me was the love of books and indeed, names of iconic London landmarks such Tottenham Court Road and Paddington Station evoke  similar sentiments as would enjoying Vesak pandals or the Vel festival.     
Therein lies the contradiction in terms, the oxymoron if you like, that I am, English-educated, English-speaking, Catholic, and Indian Tamil, or as our particular community is euphemistically categorized in the Census, Bharatha. I however, would have it no other way and wear my peculiar identity as a proud badge, as I’m sure every Sri Lankan does. I just skirt those with an insular, parochial mindset and enjoy what I like to think are very intellectual discussions with those with whom I share a meeting of the minds, no matter the demographic. With Sinhala Buddhist friends at work, for instance, we discuss everything from movies like Ginnen Upan Seethala to Asandhimitta, to the state of the nation, to tips on dieting, mindfulness and workouts, over lunch or tea.
So as a Sri Lankan Roman Catholic of Indian Tamil origin, I studied in the English medium, then reserved for the ‘mixed’ and so my friends were all from minority groups – mostly Muslim and Burgher. How sad that the latter are an ever-dwindling number in the Census, most opting to migrate to Australia.
I was first introduced to curfew and overflying SLAF aircraft as a very young child during the first insurgency, and then it only meant the happiness of ‘no school’. I was perplexed when I saw Tamil shops attacked after the 1977 General Elections, unable to understand why. That paled however in comparison to the horror of 1983, and the war years.
Before 1983, race was not the focus of identity, as it undeniably is now. I was regarded as Burgher, for I thought and felt in the English language, it is and will ever be for me, my first language. Not really of my choice alone, but of a confluence of circumstances, perhaps.
After 1983, and to date, no matter where, whether in a three-wheeler or at the bank, one of the first questions is, “Miss Sinhala nevai, neda?” or “Miss, gama koheda?” And when I reply, all I get in return are downcast eyes, implying ‘second-class citizen’ or ‘marginalised’. Forever branded.
And then, as circumstance would have it, towards the end of the war, I decided to join the bandwagon of migrating colleagues at my then workplace. Why I say ‘bandwagon’ is that unlike they who had made a commitment to settle overseas, I, when in Canada, who had regarded myself as very independent, ever wished to return to the blue skies and green trees back home, the lushness that always hits me first as I return home from the BIA after an overseas trip. And I did, with little regret.
Of course, to Canadians, such a friendly people, with whom I was ever so comfortable, so cosmopolitan were they, I was merely ‘brown’, the peculiarity of the mixture of my nationality, race, and religion escaping them. As ‘brown’, I did feel excluded, but then, all I have of that brief period with them are of very warm memories, such lovely people were they.
Then, quixotic and impulsive as those close to me know me to be, I chose, after returning home as soon as the war ended, primarily because job opportunities in my very narrow field are few, to live and work in India.
As Tamil, and having studied there earlier, I thought I could fit in like a ‘hand in glove’ as it were, only to find to my chagrin that my mode of speaking, dressing and thinking, in those years immediately after the war, made my colleagues wary of me. They just couldn’t see me as Tamil, and chose to believe otherwise.


Low profile

Ironically, I was branded ‘Sinhalese’ – in that part of the world, a second-class citizen indeed, one who didn’t belong there. Anytime there were tensions about events related to the recent war in Sri Lanka, even my friends would caution me to keep a low profile, no matter how much I told them that I was Tamil. Very soon, I learnt not to air my views on Sri Lanka and to adopt the low profile of a minority, in office and elsewhere. We just couldn’t understand or gel with each other.
I loved the jobs I had in India, but my heart was ever in this gem of an island, and thankfully, now, some years after I returned, it seems I never left Sri Lankan shores. How grateful I am for that feeling.
Racism is something I abhor; I enjoy the diversity of people, and as getting ready for work on Sunday (28) morning, exactly a week after the terror attacks, my heart warms as I hear Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith espousing the richness of diversity during the televised Mass held at Archbishop’ House as Sunday services were cancelled for security reasons. So proud am I to be Catholic at that moment. Indeed, so proud was I to be Catholic, as after the Easter bombings, Catholic leaders entreated their flocks that hatred be returned with forgiveness, appealing for peace for every Sri Lankan citizen. As did New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after the Christchurch massacre, local Catholic and Christian leaders set the tone for reconciliation, unity, and brotherhood, after the unthinkable tragedy.
So, no matter who brands me as whatever, I am comfortable in my own skin, in the land of my birth that I love so dearly and am so very glad God brought me back to. May His name be praised forever.

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