My first and so far only visit to Sri Lanka was in late 2009. Just a few months before, in May, the civil war that had been going on since 1983 ended. What compelled me to visit was much more complex than the soothing affirmations from family members that danger had truly lifted, that travelling from Colombo to Jaffna would be simple enough, and there’d be plenty of uninterrupted time to spend in my ancestral villages. Truthfully, I wasn’t scared anyway.
Truthfully, I didn’t know that not being scared was a sign of inhabiting a 21st century Malaysian body: war was something that happened in an amorphous and abstract “history”. Whatever impressions, ideas and images I had about wars grew out of textbooks and films and stories narrated by others. War had an unreality about it. I had been desensitised, spoilt to an extent by the pampering of a first and second generation Sri Lankan Tamil-Malaysian family desperate to carve safe never-shall-the-boat-be-rocked space in a land we, particularly my grandparents, had to memorise as home, a new home. A place to make a life in, precious stuff to be held on to, taken care of: study, make big things of yourself, grow your name and your family’s name, live prosperously. Invisibility a looming threat, education and career-building were in-the-blood tools that also voyaged on those late 19th and early 20th century steamers from ports in Jaffna and India to Penang. The migration of the Ceylon Tamils arose because the colonial government in Malaya needed administrators, a thoroughly colonial affair. Tamil men, educated in missionary schools in Ceylon, could fill that colonial hunger. An English education was a solid ticket up the social and economic ladder for men like my grandfathers (one became a malarial inspector, the other a manager on a rubber estate). “Protestant missionaries offered education,” writes Kristina Hodelin-ter Wal, “including English classes, which led to a desire among the Tamils to attend missionary schools. English language acquisition and higher education opened doors to government employment in the civil service leading the group to eventually migrate to British Malaya as civil servants of the British colonizer.”
The stock one size fits all colonial strategy that pervaded geographically distant colonies in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, was simple and cunning: gauge the social structures of the natives, locate the weak spots, the gaping apertures desperately in need of attention and care and fill them with aggressive imperial agendas. Targeting outcastes and colonising their minds through religion and education is one approach; the other equally potent tactic is to convert dwellers near the tip of the social pyramid. In Ceylon, the Brahmins were the highest caste but they could not be shaken: it would take something else altogether, most likely supernatural, to convince the gatekeepers of an ancient spiritual lineage and tradition that giving up their fertile history would be worth their existence. Next on the hierarchy were the Vellalars who were ready. Social mobility? Financial comfort? Working closely with the British? Social status? These matched up to their collective wishlist. The Vellalars attended the missionary schools, secured good civil service jobs, and left Ceylon to work as part of the colonial government.
It’s a source of pride in the Malaysian Ceylonese community—this manner of migration. I remember the narrative of how and why the first generation left Ceylon, our particular peculiar story of origination, being told casually and officially over uncountable occasions while I was a child. We came, educated. As childhood morphed into adulthood, the tale made grooves in my bones. The glory and glitter of our core disporic story has covered over things we prefer not to see. What was inevitably sacrificed and erased, for example, what got lost, what had to be hidden away so that we could survive in the torrent of other voices, other lives in the dazzling demographic of the multicultural Malaysian container; other ethnicities in larger numbers, with more influence, more impact—the struggle to stay afloat is practical and real. These we don’t talk about in (stereo)typical Asian fashion.
I’m talking here about grief, about the pain of keeping things bottled up, about the stunning longings that do not get aired. Even so—I glimpsed these, intuited them in my grandmother, Achi, up until I was fourteen years old when she passed away. Achi watched the daily 5pm Tamil news just to catch stories of Sri Lanka. Sometimes she spoke of the home she left, more by way of suggestion, nuance, stories from her days as a child. The rest of the time we focused on pressing things in the present like the status of the mangoes in the garden. As far as I can remember, the elsewhere she spoke of—her home, Jaffna, which she would call by its Tamil name, Yalpanam—felt like a place that had nothing to do with me, a place of mystery safely tucked away in the realm of narrative.
Jaffna was a word, a myth, a big baffling piece in my quest for personal and collective understanding. When Achi spoke about it and when older family members spoke about it, I sensed a throbbing globe of what could not be said, what could not be openly and boldly felt: the rawness of dislocation; the pain of leaving the land where generations of ancestors had lived and worked and loved; the continuous toil of self-definition as a minority group in a country filled with pluralities. Bit by bit, all the ineffable things that Achi could not utter directly to me but which were transmitted anyway—and which I would later recognise as inheritances already blended into my body—all of these had collected within and formed a rich mulch that would take me years to sift through, and that would find some shape in my novel Yalpanam.
Yalpanam was a haunting, a complex memory, an inheritance, a piece in my construction of home.
When I finally visited the place that lived inches behind Achi’s cataract eyes, I insisted: no photographs. It was the only time I didn’t take a single photograph while travelling somewhere. The impulse was irrational, accurate. Jaffna, Yalpanam, the place Achi came from, where my ancestors before her had lived and died, was a place I wanted to memorise, in the way Achi had memorised it, and memorialised it in the few stories she told. I felt that if I took photos, and too many of them, I would forget the smell in the air, how sharply cool the well water felt when I dipped my hand in it. I felt that memorizing the place would land me in the place where Achi lived—somewhere in memory, somewhere in an imagined realm of home. Until today, my strongest travel memories come from that visit to Sri Lanka. I remember the ancestral villages I visited sensuously, through feelings, sensations, shifts in my spirit. I felt inhabited, the images captured by my body, in my body. Achi was alive in the wind and in an imagined space she made a map of when I was little.
The next time I visit, I will most likely take photographs. I love photographs—they arrest in ways different than I have just described, which is perhaps why my most prized purchase from that trip was a picture book titled “19th Century Photographs of Ceylon: Images of Ceylon”. The photograph accompanying this piece is from that book. It’s called, simply, “Tamil Family”. There are many more old photographs in this book that I spend time looking at, imagining the lives, places and spaces clicked into a moment that hold the wonder of people like me who know that the past is an open opulently populated field.
There are multiple homes for people in diaspora—home is a complex lived reality. Claiming myself to be Malaysian includes Yalpanam. Malaysia, you see, by virtue of having a Sri Lankan Tamil community, carries Yalpanam within it, even if it is a small fragment, a piece nevertheless that belongs in the collective puzzle.
A big part of ‘homing’ especially in the diasporic consciousness has to do with being and living several dimensions at once, often paradoxical and seemingly impracticable. Mourning an impossible return, as the scholar Vijay Mishra puts it, is one example. Another I would suggest is remembering places you yourself have not experienced but that feel just as real, just as homely as if they were yours—and in a deeper, less obvious and more compounded way, they are. Home becomes a verb.
Hodelin-ter Wal, Kristina. ” ‘The Worldly Advantage It Gives…’ Missionary Education, Migration and Intergenerational Mobility in the Long Nineteenth Century, Ceylon and Malaya 1816-1819″. Journal of Interdisciplinary Economics. 31 (1) 5-23, 2019.