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‘Mother of Sri Lanka’ (Part 01)

(February 29, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) “Another news bulletin about Sri Lanka, the Mullaithivu attack. The newsreader is going on about the number of deaths in the attack. Devika stops opening the tin of cat food to absorb the news of the attack. “Nearly a thousand young men had been killed according to various sources and the Sri Lankan government is looking for terrorists and are fighting back with naval, air and the armed forces.”
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1996

“It’s going to be a hot day” Devika pulls the curtains apart to see the weather outside and mumbles to herself while getting ready to go to work.

The clear blue sky is decorated with wandering soft white clouds moving in slow motion. The street is nearly empty as it is only about seven in the morning, but would be noisy and crowded in no time.

The man next door is playing reggae music, loud as usual. Devika puts the audio tape on and goes to the bathroom. Within a few seconds, devotional songs fill the house with calm rhythmic tones.

She gets ready and comes down to make some tea. Her children are asleep in their rooms, next to hers. They were playing games with their friends until late last night and they are going to wake up late. Their cat, Josie is wandering around the room and licking her feet as is usual in the morning. The black cat is very beautiful and moves as elegantly as a well-bred young lady. The cat mews at Devika.

Cat wants her food, but the boys won’t be awake until late. “Okay Josie, come down, I’ll feed you”. Devika strokes the velvety body of the cat. She turns the radio on in the kitchen to listen to the seven o’clock news. Devika always listened to the world service in the morning before she went to work.

Another news bulletin about Sri Lanka, the Mullaithivu attack. The newsreader is going on about the number of deaths in the attack. Devika stops opening the tin of cat food to absorb the news of the attack. “Nearly a thousand young men had been killed according to various sources and the Sri Lankan government is looking for terrorists and are fighting back with naval, air and the armed forces.

The news goes from Sri Lanka to Rwanda, Burundi and so on, to give details of the third world mania for killing games. For the radio broadcaster these bulletins are just more incidents.

For Devika?

Her imaginings of the scenario are too much to contemplate. What a tragedy! Losing her appetite now, she couldn’t be bothered with her cup of tea. She turns the radio off and gets herself ready to go to work. There is a knock at the door and the post man drops the letters.

Bills, bills and more bills, a never-ending flow of bills: the water, electricity, gas and telephone. Sometimes they all come at once, like a heavy ‘flu with head and body aches. With those bills there are two blue air mail letters. Suddenly Devika feels numb in her heart. She dreads airmail letters as they usually bring bad news. That was all that had happened for the last fifteen years in Sri Lanka. She puts the letters in her work bag and goes upstairs. The devotional song is still going on, she turns to the statues of Gods and Goddesses and asks “Why, why this madness of killing in Sri Lanka?” Could she wait for an answer?


Men have taken the place of Gods in Sri Lanka and are playing the ‘war’ game with innocent people.

Devika goes to her little son Ravi’s room and says “Bye darling…see you later” although he is fast asleep. He is eleven years old but for her he is her ‘baby’. She kisses him gently and watches his angelic face for a while, and mutters “how many children like this one have died in Sri Lanka today? How many mothers have lost their loved ones? When is it going to stop, and who’s going to stop it? Is there anyone who would dare to challenge the government? Where has all the spirituality gone?”

She shuts her son’s bedroom door and hurries to the street. Josie the cat follows her up to the corner of the road. There is uproar in the next street, she can hear. The noise is increasing every second as some children are screaming as loud as possible to protect an old oak tree which the council are going to cut down as they think the tree is a danger to the shop nearby (which sells cosmetic products which are often tested on animals).

The infantile child soldiers screech and scream in their little voices, their small spokesperson saying that the destruction of that tree will damage the way of life for many birds who use the tree to perch, and there are two varieties of squirrels living in that tree which are most beautiful to look at.

There are a few children dressed in ‘bunny’ outfits to symbolise the rabbits who are some of the occupants of the bushes that surround the tree. Some five-year-olds are holding a banner saying “save our tree and the animals in it”.

There are local reporters as well as one of the TV reporters to cover the issue. This old oak tree is in national focus for the last few days as the protest is being broadcast on national TV portraying the up rise to save the tree as a ‘people’s issue and affecting the local community’. The animal rights campaigners who are against testing on animals are there too with their placards with sentimental slogans to save the animals throughout the world, and protesting against any cruelty to animals.

There were the Ecologists as well, going on about the destruction of natures green fields and rain forests by greedy men in the world. “Look at what we have got now; out cities and towns are polluted with dirty air, look our streets – they are scattered with cars and lorries, this is all based on man’s greed, they exploit everything and everybody”.

“What a world – cats, birds, squirrels, rabbits and an old oak tree have the right to exist in the world but there is no right for ordinary Tamils in Sri Lanka to live because they belong to the wrong ethnic group”, Devika mutters to herself sadly.

The girl from the corner house is just coming out to the street. An Indian young beauty in her twenties with a seductive smile, slim figure, a simple blue outfit which complements her golden skin colour and flowing long black hair. She walks in the style of a well-trained fashion model who knows how to make other people turn and admire her elegance and charm. Devika had said ‘hello’ now and then to that young lady, other than that she has nothing much to say as they both always seem to be in a hurry.

Every time Devika looks at the young lady, she thinks of her nieces’ back home. Her cousin’s daughter Savitri was almost like another girl who is just passing by, one of the most beautiful girls in that village. Devika closes her eyes as she refuses to let the thoughts about Savitri to come to her any further as those memories are too painful.

A mother with two small children from the white house near the main road is behind her. Devika says good morning to the mother as usual – they meet every morning at the same spot. There has been nothing except ‘good morning’ up until now.

“ It’s going to be a hot day,” the woman said, looking up into the blue sky.

“Mmm” Devika.

The mother of the two may have been from Ireland as her English accent was not the same as Devika’s English friends.

“You are Sri Lankan, aren’t you?” she is asking, keeping her stare on Devika.

“Yes….but how do you know?” Devika is surprised.

“Well….my husband was listening to the early morning news and he mentioned you came from Sri Lanka. ”

Devika still hadn’t worked out how he had known.

“Oh, you’re wondering how he knew, aren’t you? Mrs Patel from the corner shop told him you’re from Sri Lanka when Sri Lanka won the Cricket World Cup. ”

Devika smiles politely, partly about the world cup, and partly because she was about to be asked about the early morning news. “Oh yes, some of my country men are good at the cricket field, and some are good at the killing filed too.” She wanted to honestly say to the woman.

“ The radio said that thousands of people are dying in your country, do you still have family there?” They have reached the bus stop now. Devika can’t answer – as the bus comes to a halt, she gets on. She waves to the mother, who waits for another bus. The bus is very crowded, people waiting their turn to get in, some muttering about the lateness of the bus, others patiently followed others. Her mind is still with the question from the mother of the two. “How many are being killed?”

“Its bloody murder.” A fat man with a huge stomach trying to move into the back of the bus yells at the driver. Devika places herself between a young lady who is plastered with heavy make up, heavily soaked in a nauseating perfume and a thin lady who is coughing intermittently with a slight wheezing.

Devika’s bus journey usually takes about twenty minutes and she will read something to pass the time. She fishes through her handbag and instead of finding the airmail letters she sees a note, which is about a Tamil woman who needs Devika’s help.

A Social Worker phoned Devika yesterday and asked her to come today to do a translation for a Tamil woman refugee who is in England and has to see a psychiatrist. The refugee woman came to England four months ago, lives alone and had a baby about two months ago and is having post-natal depression. She cannot communicate well as her English is not good. The social Service is considering isolating the child from her mother as the mother is not in an appropriate medical condition to care for the child.

A Tamil refugee!

That’s the identity for about 500,000 Sri Lankan Tamils abroad; no name, no status, no qualification, no address is needed except the word ‘refugee’! Devika puts the note back into her handbag as the bus stops at the tube station. She runs down to the platform as she doesn’t want to miss the train. Within a few minutes the trains will be packed with people like the sardines in the tin. She takes the airmail letters out as soon as he finds a place to sit down. Both letters are from Colombo, one from her sister another form her friend. Her friend Geeta’s letter which Devika has opened first:

“Dear Devika, please help me, I have no-one here to turn to, my son was arrested by the police few days ago, as they think he is one of the Tamil terrorists, as you know my family never has anything to do with politics, yet, as you know, in Colombo if you are a Tamil that is enough for you to get arrested and you don’t have to do anything. They took him a few days ago, I was trying to locate his whereabouts but with difficulty; now of course they are expecting me to pay a lot of money for his release. This politics in Sri Lanka is a big business. The police will ask for money in the police station, the army takes money at the checkpoints, the politicians will earn money from any means whether that is from an arms deal or from foreign aid to feed the hungry. Renting a house is a nightmare for a Tamil in Colombo, existing is a day to day struggle here, please help me”.

Devika’s eyes welled up with tears. Geets’s life is being destroyed by the awful political situation in Sri Lanka for the last fifteen years. Geeta was living back in Eastern province very happily before the trouble started in Sri Lanka, with her teacher husband and her three boys and two girls. When the Sri Lankan government systematically arrested and tortured the Tamil youths in the Tamil area, Geeta lost her elder son. A brilliant student from a Christian college, arrested, tortured and his mutilated body found in a field day after his arrest. The the army came to look for ‘Tamil terrorists’. When they couldn’t find men………..? Devika can still hear the screams of the Tamil women who were the victims of this brutal communal violence. ‘Oh poor Geeta’ Devika says to herself silently.

The other letter is from Devika’s sister, who describing the most recent ‘round up’ by the Sri Lankan army; how many people have died or disappeared as a result, and how many have either been recruited by or joined the Tamil militants to fight the government in their village.

“Dear sister, the life here at home is like a living hell – there is no future for the poor in Sri Lanka, you can run away abroad only if you have money or if you have some one abroad to help you, otherwise the young ones have no job to occupy them, the government take poor Sinhala boys to the battlefield to be massacred, poor Tamil boys have no future, therefore they are letting them into the war as a way of ‘living’. Some of them are the same age as your little son, what else can they do? Stay home and be arrested or killed by the Sri Lankan army? The recent sad thing was that our niece Premalatha has gone with the Tamil militant after her father and a brother have been taken by the army; as you know there is very little chance that they are alive. I wonder in our country if there s any one left to fight for peace, freedom, justice and humanity at all”

“ I am going early today”. Devika announces to her colleague Caroline Simpson. Caroline used to work for one of the International organisations and she was in Afghanistan helping women and children. She got injured by a Russian missile and nearly lost her life. Now she is working for this women’s organisation and has some knowledge of the Sri Lankan situation. Caroline looks at Devika who is busy organising the names of the women who come for advice. Their work involves helping women with varying issues from domestic violence to pregnancy testing.

“Are you OK?” asks Caroline – Devika is nearly in tears – thinking about what is happening in Sri Lanka. “How can I be OK, Caroline? Will you be happy when you hear that your countrymen are killing each other in thousands?” Samantha Johnson – the receptionist- walks in and says, “It’s a shame, a damn bloody shame!” Caroline and Devika look at each other with a question in their eyes. “It is a shame that your people are killing like this in your country…you see I booked a holiday to go to Sri Lanka, and now I can’t go; why can’t your people behave themselves properly like other human beings?

(To be continued)
(Rajeswary Balasubramaniam a leading Tamil writer who lives in London)

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