Friday, August 28, 2020

A Child Soldier Living in Toronto

I am sitting in a crowded coffee shop in downtown Toronto. I can see the CNN tower through the large glass window. It is winter but sunlight keeps the outer environment bright. The hazy shade of winter has disappeared after many days.  I see a snow removal truck parked outside. It’s not snowing and the driver may be taking a break.  

There are people in the coffee shop. Most of them are tourists. They have come to see Toronto the largest city in Canada. I see enthusiasm in them.  But I have certain apathy. I don’t know why. I have been seated for a while and looking at people with a pensive mood. I may be killing time.  I don’t want to think about my past. But I have no future. However, I live in the present moment without any specific aim or goals. Sometimes I feel like a drifter. I am surrounded by unfamiliar things. I want to go home. But I have no home. I feel like an alien in this white land.  

The outside temperature is minus eight. I felt cold and started sipping my coffee anticipating some warm sensation. But my coffee has gone cold. I needed a cigarette. I know smoking is bad and it can kill me, but I don’t care. I had faced death many times. Therefore, a fag does not scare me anymore.  

I recalled my home, my mother and sisters. We are now a scattered family. The good times had gone, gone forever. Anyway I survived. But I feel no happiness for being a survivor.  A part of me is dead and emotionless. I don’t know how I became apathetic.  Once I was a happy child but it was short lived. Nonetheless I love my early days that I spent time with my parents and my siblings. We were not very rich but had basics. Compared to other folks we were lucky. We had a brick house with several rooms. Our garden was big. We played in the garden, sang songs under the moonlight. But our world fell apart unexpectedly. Our beautiful world was consumed by an armed conflict.  

I was born in Valvettithurai which is a coastal town of Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka. My father was a government servant. He worked for the Railway Department as a clerk. He was one of the few educated and high cast men in his village. He was multilingual and spoke Tamil, Sinhalese and English. Tamil was his native language. We called him Appa (daddy). He was a kind and a jovial person. Many people liked his sense of humor. He had many friends.  

Appa was a good farmer and loved cultivating his lands. He had six children. I was the fifth. Four of my elder sisters, me and my younger brother became his universe. I know he loved us very much.  Although he was a loving father he had a terrible weakness. He was an alcoholic. He craved for Arrack-a distilled alcoholic drink which is made of coconut. He often drank with his friends sometimes alone. My mother could not stop his destructive habit. She made silent protests. But his addiction grew.  She had to live with it.  

Although my father consumed alcohol he was not violent. He never abused us verbally or otherwise. When he was drunk he became more of a child. Drunkard Appa used to cuddle me and my brother and sisters. Sometimes he used to sing Tamil and Sinhala songs while inebriated. 

We did not speak Sinhala but knew a very few words.  But Appa could speak Sinhala. He had worked in the southern part of Sri Lanka where the majority were Sinhalese.  My mother has been a kind lady. But she was very caste conscious. Being said that I do not consider my mother as a bad person.  The irony is that the caste system is deeply rooted in the Tamil society which is an absolute fact. “We are Vellalar” she said very proudly. Vellalar is the elite caste. They are the landowners and temple patrons.  

There were low caste people in the Tamil community such as Pallar, Nalavar, Karayar, Thimilar and Koviar. The low caste Tamils mostly did fishing, Palm tree climbing, Toddy tapping, sometimes working as labourers. In addition, there were a small fraction of Indian Tamil estate workers who came to the North following racial riots. They mostly worked as labourers and latrine cleaners.  They were considered as untouchables. In the later years their children became suicide bombers and got respect from the Tamil community posthumously.        

I witnessed the caste discrimination in my community. The upper-caste people ruled the society. Less-privileged castes had to bear the repression.  The caste oppression had become a day today event. For many people it became the norm.      

Although my mother had immense kindness towards others; low caste people could not come to our house from the front door. She had plastic cups and plates for the low caste people who came to work in our lands. They could not use our water well. In school Vellalar children were respected even by the teachers.  

Dasan’s father - Kanna was a fishmonger. My mother frequently bought fresh fish from him. Kanna used to come to our house with little Dasan. He was a few years older than me. Danasn and his father came to our house from the back door. There was a wooden bench for them to sit. As a little child I wanted to play with Dasan but my mother never allowed me to play with him. The reason was obvious; he was a so called low caste brat.  I noticed fear and uncomfortableness in Dasan’s eyes when he was in a Vellalar household. It was a mixture of inferiority complex, fear and disgust. But in the later years Dasan became a very powerful person in our community and he could decide the life and death of other people. Many Vellalar people had to kneel down before Dasan, who ruled our area with his pistol.  

Unlike my father, my mother was very religious. She worshiped the Hindu gods. There was a Kovil (Hindu temple) near our house. Routinely she used to go to this Kovil. But low caste people were not allowed in this Hindu temple. They worshiped near the gates without entering.    

My mother used to cook very well. I liked her cooking.  Her goat meat curry was my favorite dish. As a housewife she worked morning till night. Sometimes my elder sisters helped her. Me and my younger brother Suresh used to play in the garden. Sometimes boys from the neighborhood came to play with us. We were allowed to play only with the Vellalar boys.  

When I was nine years old once I went to play cricket with my friends. Stanly who was two years elder to me was our leader. His father was a Police officer and he naturally commanded respect in our clan. Stanly wanted to bat first. He was a good batsman. Since fielding became difficult with Stanly we allowed Dasan and his elder brother to play with us.  Stanly played very well and we could not get him out. Dasan’s elder brother Kiran was a good bowler and we allowed him to ball. Kiran’s ball went straight to the wicket. We were so astonished that we could out Stanly. However Stanly became very annoyed. He said that "it was a no ball" or an illegal delivery. But Kiran argued that it was not an illegal delivery. Dasan too concurred that it was a fair delivery.   

The debate went on and all of a sudden Stanly assaulted Kiran and Dasan with his bat. Stanly called them low caste dogs in a very derogatory manner. Kiran was older and taller than Stanly.  But he could not touch a Velalar boy. Kiran and Dasan had to suck up the beatings. They went home with utter humiliation. The cricket game was over. We went homes but never told our elders about the incident.    

I went to Valvai Chithamabara College and I was good in studies. But our education was frequently disrupted by ongoing conflict between the Tamil rebels and the Sri Lankan government forces. The rebels were fighting for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka.  The Tamil politicians spoke about a separate Tamil state. They called it gaining independence from the Sinhala Government. Some politicians wanted to amalgamate the Northern part with India s’ Tamil Nadu state.  They often instigated violence. Some politicians openly stated that the Tamil youth should take arms against the Sri Lankan Government. But when the war erupted these politicians sent their children to the Western countries in order to protect them. Only the poor who had no option were sent to the battlefield.  

There were Army, Navy and Police officers deployed in the North. The majority were Sinhalese. Some of these officers behaved disrespectfully sometimes beating civilians for minor reasons. Many policemen who came to the North did not like to serve there. A considerable number of them were transferred to the North due to disciplinary infractions. They called it “Punishment Transfers”. These men had work related stresses and projected their anger on Tamil civilians. Hence the tensions were mounting.  

The students were not happy about the policy of standardization that was implemented by the government. They said this policy would affect the Tamil students in higher education. The student protests became frequent.  

The militancy emerged during these turbulent times. Sometimes they attacked police officers. They used to burn busses that belonged to the Government Transport Board. Once I saw a group of youth setting fire to a bus. They took diesel from the fuel tank and poured on the bus. Then their leader threw a burning match stick. Within minutes the entire bus started blazing. The crowd chanted slogans. It was a fun event.  The burning of buses became a mark of protest. 

Gradually the public transport was crippled. People suffered a lot and they had to find alternative ways to find transportation. The rich people had their vehicles. The poor had to use their bicycles or go by foot.  

From the early days there were several Tamil rebel groups. They carried arms. They proclaimed that the Tamil people were being marginalized by the Sinhalese majority. Once in a way they gun downed police officers who were on duty. This led the armed forces to declare frequent curfews and increase armed patrols. They arrested suspicious people.  

The young militants sometimes visited our schools and talked to us. Public meetings were organized and people gathered to hear the rebel voices. They said that Sinhalese people are evil and they kill Tamil people. Therefore, we had to take arms to protect our people.  They requested public support.    

My father who worked in the south among Sinhalese never believed that Sinhalese people are evil or brutal killers. He had several Sinhala friends who lived in Colombo. He had mixed feelings about the newly emerging Tamil militants. He did not believe in the rebel movement that used violence. He denounced violence from the beginning. But many educated middle class people in the North liked the rebels and adored them. Many thought they were the liberators. The rebels were called “our boys” and treated like heroes. Some offered help; financially and sometimes providing safe houses to them.    

Over the years I saw the hypocrisy of the upper middle class. They became passionate about the armed youth and encouraged them to attack the government forces. They became thrilled when the boys launched attacks. But when the movement wanted more and more men power and started recruiting their children many fled to the western countries seeking a protective environment for their children.  

One university lecturer and her sister openly supported the armed youth. But after some years they became disappointed with the movement that did indiscriminate killings. But it was too late for her. The boys shot her in broad daylight.   

(To Be Continued)

1 comment:

  1. This is the bitter truth behind all those atrocities. A real eye opener for the extremists in both nationalities. I believe the last paragraph was about Dr. Rajani Thiranagama. Looking forward to read the next part.


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