20 January 2015

A separate state called Delft Island

It is not the only Delft in the world.  Utter the name in the Netherlands and you’d probably find a few people who would say it is a city in the province of South Holland, located north of Rotterdam and south of The Hague.  There are other places named Delft too in different parts of the world.  That’s one way in which those who would be emperors stake claim.  Who knows, it could be a less sinister reason, such as nostalgia of the invader for ‘home’. 

Of all such names given to islands off the Jaffna Peninsula, ‘Delft’ alone remains.  Well, it is better known by its Tamil name Neduntivu in the North of course, but ‘Delft’ still has some currency.  Delft is an island in the popular consciousness of Sri Lankans and this is true.  Delft is about ‘horses’, wild ones – that’s the immediate association. 

There’s a Delft story that’s not hard to find.  Wild ponies figure in it.  There is the giant Baoab tree with a hollow at its base big enough to house several people, a local story about a soldier found dead in it probably bitten by a snake while taking shelter on some rainy night, the growing stone, the ‘giant’ footprint with the inevitable mention of a ‘twin’ in Nainativu (Nagadipa), the dove cote, remains of a colonial past, the fort, ruins of a Buddhist temple, the churches, statue of scholar priest, kovil and of course ‘relevant’ numbers for length and breadth. 

All of this is fascinating.  As interesting, for those who have eyes for such things, are other life forms including birds, spiders and snails. All of it can be obtained in a day-tour of the island.    Any time of the year.  This however was a wet December trip.  The storm, which had flooded Anuradhapura and made it difficult for vehicles to pass Rambewa on the A-9, had passed.  The skies retained a threatening look.  Overcast.  It was mild even at noon.  The island was watered.  In excess. 

Much of it, though, was hidden behind the solid-looking walls made of coral chunks neatly laid one on top of the other, surrounding almost every property.  In Delft one walks between walls and if you peep over there are so many empty plots of land that you might wonder who actually put them up and for what reason.

Perhaps security but probably not of the kind envisaged in the walling of the splendid architecture one finds in Colombo, especially after 1983.  There was of course the same kind of threats.  The islands of Jaffna ‘belonged’ to a particular group of gun-toting thugs and as such was contested territory.  A part of the war zone, certainly. 

But these walls were made more for aesthetic value and protection of vegetation by stray cattle and goats.  The walls could not and did not keep away other creatures, the wilder, untamed and hate-filled kind.   Some stayed behind and fought one way or another, but those who had the means, fled.  Land prices have hit rock bottom, unsurprisingly.  There are few takers, though, although there is hope that the island’s potential as a tourist resort would be exploited at some point. 

Delft is spoken of often as though it is as barren and un-peopled as implied in the clinical description of soil composition and vegetation: coral, arid, palmyrah and coconut.  It’s all that but so much more as well.  There are areas where vegetables are grown.  There are strong cultural traits that rebel against leaving soil idle, however.  They grow whatever they can even if it is only a few chillie plants.  And nature is not idle either.  There are entire tracts of the highly valued komarika.  Abandoned walls are covered with the potent velpenela.  There are large trees too.  This last December, just after the rain, Delft was greener than usual, the residents say.  It all turns dry and brown and dusty when the weather turns, they caution.

Through all seasons, one thing remains unchanged.  People.  They struggle. They reflect. They live.  They make the unwritten Delft story.  They’ve lost a lot, like many in Sri Lanka and especially in the Northern Province.  Every family, almost, has known of an unnecessary death.  Through war and peace, they lived from the sea even when there were fishing restrictions.  When the seas are benevolent, they catch.  Some of it they consumer and some they sell. 

The people of Delft know that the ocean is not always kind.  So they get ready for the harsher months well ahead.  They dry some of the catch.  Visit the wadiyas which serve as ‘operational headquarters’ for the fisher folk and you will find entire households chipping in.  Even children as young as three would be out with older siblings, armed with a scissor, snip-snapping at small fish to remove head and tail, slit and part so that they can all be laid out to dry eventually.  

The water, naturally, is brackish but there are parts of the island where the residents claim it is better than anything you can find on the mainland.  For the most part, though, people depend on water transported from the mainland by the Navy.  Waiting in line, cans in hand, is part of the daily chores. It is a has-to-be-done thing and therefore people do it.  No complaints.

Sri Lanka is an island and is considered ‘small’.  The kind of place where everyone knows everyone or knows of someone who knows someone who knows the particular ‘stranger’ they’ve just met for the first time.  Delft Island is just 8km long and 6km wide.  Everyone knows everyone.  People walk in and out of their neighbors’ houses.  The doors are not locked.  There’s always someone home.  They don’t talk about their woes.  They don’t dwell too long in the past.  The present is challenge enough but they smile through all their moment to moment engagements. 

Delft Island is made of builders.  The people are like the walls.  Made of uneven but beautiful chunks of coral.  You wonder how they stand without cement or clay, but the harshest winds and worst storms don’t bring them down.  None of them are ‘marked’ in brochures and websites that describe  the ‘to be seen’ in Delft Island, but even if you junked your to-do list you’ll still take away a rich harvest if all you did was sit and let yourself be blessed by their company and hospitality. 

Delft is the name of an island.  It is made of people.  It is a separate state of being.  Enchanting in many ways.  

Pics by Rasika Kotudurage