01 August 2013

The resilient glory that is Jaffna

‘Where are you from?’ is a common question that follows greeting when stranger encounters stranger.  Place is important because place marks person.  At least, that has been the case for centuries and still provides one of several clues or insights into an individual. 

It is valid for inquirer because it is valid for respondent.  Even today, where the distinctions between urban and rural, city and village, are blurred or at least problematic in sociological inquiry, one’s village is important.  It tells things.  Even those who have never lived in a village or grew up in the city, would speak of father’s village and mother’s village; ‘my father is from such and such a place, my mother is from such and such a place’.   If either of the villages comes up in conversation, the natural response is, ‘my mother is from there’. 

A ‘Middle-Income Country’ we may be, but there’s a lot of ‘village’ in our hearts.  Solidarities and collectives still matter.  We still call those who are older, aunty or uncle (in English). We still have such relational equivalencies for other categories in Sinhala and Tamil.  The association of ‘idiot’ with ‘village’ is a well-crafted lie that is not ideologically or politically innocent; it speaks of privilege, privileging and insecurities too. 


This is why there is no place more precious than ‘home’, i.e. in the extension of the metaphor, meaning ‘village’.  Come Aluth Avurudda time, the question is ‘game giyaada?’ (did you go visit your village; meaning ‘family’, ‘home’), implying that where we are on account of vocation or preferred place to raise children is a default option. 

To each such ‘villager’, his or her village is glorious.  Larger entities may be better known and even considered better places to live in, but that does not take away anything of how precious and glorious one’s village is.

Jaffna is ‘home’ to many.  It is larger than a ‘village’, but its urban dimensions don’t rob or rub away the ‘village’ element that is recognized and celebrated by those to whom it is ‘home’, not even in the harshest of times, and not in the difficult rebuilding aftermath.  ‘Jaffna’ is recognized not just for the glories that tend to accumulate on a city’s overall edifice, but for obvious political reasons.

Those fascinated with the political will interpret the word ‘glory’ as it is associated with Jaffna, in different ways.  Remembering place in terms of a grand past is a fashion that is not peculiar to Jaffna.  Affirmation and embellishment are both utterly human pursuits.  Take away the political trappings, however, and what remains is no less glorious.  It is that glory that Tharindu Amunugama and Sunela Samaranayake have captured in ‘Glorious Jaffna’, the surviving, living, resilient Jaffna of people and trials, impediments and overcoming and all those other things which, again, are not Jaffna-peculiar. 

Jaffna may have been ‘another country’ or even ‘another time’ to a lot of people for several decades.  It was not a must-go place for those who did not have historical or familial ties.  It was associated with violence and destruction, uncertainty and threat, fear and foreboding.  For years.  With the conflict coming to a close, it became a must-go place.  There were accusations of cultural invasion and insensitivity, both not without substantiation.  Curiosity, however, was probably the most compelling push when it came to visiting Jaffna. 

The photographs in this book are ‘post-conflict’, but the people are not post-conflict for several reasons.  They were pre-conflict birthed and while-conflict nurtured. Some grew up surrounded by men and women in uniforms, guns and gunfire.  Through it all, ancient things survived.  Not just the realities of parenting and growing up, schooling and worship, contending with the vicissitudes of life, but color, form, food preference, and other ways of being, and even tortured but unbowed landscapes which no war however brutal can totally eliminate from memory and being.

The book captures that living Jaffna in all its glory-facets.     There are people.  There is life.  There is life written on faces and etched on the inanimate.  There is purpose in the choice of color and the bend of a brush or pen tipped with pigment, in architectural curve and the multiple signatures of time on all implements, whether intended for easing task or pleasing the senses. 

Through the harsh years there were times that people were forced to depend on charity.  Livelihoods were lost.  Skills, however, die slow.  In the Jaffna that Amunugama and Samaranayake have seen, loved and captured in part, there is work and the dignities therein.  There is faith, for some the ultimate and final line of defense against all manner of intrusion, all insults and deprivations.  It has not grown old, those of the earlier days who still survive will probably confirm. 

Politicians and politics there will always be, with or without gun, with or without lie, but commonalities by and large outweigh difference.  ‘Glorious Jaffna’ is not just a painstaking capture, but a gathering motivated by a celebration of this other glory, that of shared humanity.  It is a call made on behalf of children who now have the opportunity to experience school and childhood, children whose dreams are less fantastic and most importantly considerably less nightmarish. 

But in this Jaffna, we all recognize not just Jaffna-specific glory, but reasons for celebration that are found all around us; so too, the privileges of being out of that ‘zone’, living in not just a must-go place but a relatively more can-go destination.  One recognizes in face and vocation, faith and artifact, color and line, sensibilities that are quintessentially fraternal.  

‘Glorious Jaffna’ was published by Asia Capital PLC in 2010, but all proceeds will go to the ‘Glorious Jaffna Foundation’, an organization which tries to ‘put a bit of Jaffna into your life by empowering the next generation through the expression of love’.  Love for children, love for education, and love for the commonness that is ‘village’ among most Sri Lankans.  The Foundation is convinced that ‘it is not possible to be communal if you truly appreciate culture and find joy in the other community’s culture’.    You can get more information from www.gloriousjaffna.com or write to infor@gloriousjaffna.com if you wish to be part of the larger exercise of solidarity.












sajic said...

Totally agree!