“We Tamils are ever friends with you….”

An accidental encounter with the son of a childhood friend from pre-war Jaffna brings nostalgia and hope
By Lalith Gunaratne, Pix by Sanka Vidanagama

Sitting in the train to Jaffna on that August day in 1973, discovering a landscape I had never seen before is vivid in my memory. The 4th Kandy Boy Scout Troop from St. Anthony’s College headed by Scout Master Senarath Basnayake was on an adventure of discovery. It was an exciting trip, like going to another country - men in white vetties, women in colourful saris, the rickshaws, many Austin A 40s parked in a row, interesting aromas coming from the streetside vendors aroused my senses that this was all different.

Our hosts from Jaffna Hindu College guided us through the streets to the school which was going to be our home for the next few days. Each of us was assigned mentors and P. Thillainathan - wide smile and friendly - introduced himself to me. The next few days we had various Scouting activities including an early morning hike to Point Pedro. We woke up around 3 a.m. and started walking and three hours later we walked into the white sands of Point Pedro to a glorious sunrise and a cup of kitul toddy.
Lalith with Arjuna

What stuck in my mind the most was how friendly everyone was. Thillai took me to his home for a night where I got a real taste of Jaffna hospitality. I was looked after like one of their own.

I left Jaffna with a heavy heart, hoping that someday I will return. Before we left, our new Scout friends – Puvirajasingham, Vivekanandan, Yoganathan, Muruganandan, Amaranath, Balachandran, Mahes and Navaratna Rajah - wrote goodbyes in my log book, which I cherish to this date.

One from Mahes said, “We Tamils are ever friends with you”. Thillai wrote, “Hope we will meet again and again.” Thillai also gave me a photograph of himself which was my reminder of those good times.

Thillai and I corresponded regularly and continued for a few years after I immigrated to Canada in late 1973. I lost touch with him about 1977 and never heard again from him. Over the years, I wondered about Thillai and by that time the war had broken out. Yet, I yearned to meet him again, but feared whether the worst had happened during the conflict.

Intercultural Dialogue

The second Intercultural Dialogue (SITHEN) workshop organized by a core group of university students for other students was held at the MAS Institute for Management and Technology in Thulhiriya in September. The first workshop held in Polonnaruwa in April this year did not have the participation of Jaffna University students as they did not obtain Defence Ministry approval to travel south. The war was yet raging.

To our delight, in September British Council who sponsors this project informed us that Jaffna University was participating.

On day one of the programme, I wanted to talk to the Jaffna students to get some impressions of life there but found no time. On day two during afternoon tea, I found the Jaffna team sitting outside and struck up a conversation. I mentioned that I had visited Jaffna in 1973 with my Scout Troop. They all joked saying that they were not even thought of then as they were born in the late 1980s. My attention was focused on Arjuna, with a wide pleasant smile who then said, “My father was a Queen Scout at Jaffna Hindu College and he would have been there in 1973”. I asked his name and he said, “P. Thillainathan!”
Treasured symbols from the past: The log book

I choked on hearing this. Not in my wildest thoughts had I imagined that there could be a connection with Thillai here. Watching all this was Lufthi, a SITHEN team member from the University of Peradeniya. Lufthi got excited and yelled out, “Call him, call him” to Arjuna. Then I quietly asked him whether he was still around and to my relief Arjuna said, “Yes, he is a retired banker from Hatton National Bank and now lives in Manipay”. The mobile signal in Manipay was not good, but we managed to have a conversation and I could not believe this was happening. It was surreal. I later wondered as I told the tale to my wife Samantha on the phone and she said, “There must be an energy that drew you to Arjuna out of everyone else there”.

The purpose of the SITHEN workshop is to bring the different communities together, especially with a focus on the divided Sinhala and Tamil students. The Jaffna students told me how amazed they were at the way they have been welcomed by the southern Sinhala and Muslim students. Living all their life through the war in the north, their perception of the Sinhala people as oppressors was very different to the warmth and the hospitality they were experiencing here. Maran, just graduated in Bio-Science from Jaffna said, “We are so happy that our Sinhala friends accepted our side of the story”.

He was talking of the debate, discussion and a dialoguing session that formed the process of learning about each other, putting the past to rest and forging a new future together.

Maran went on to tell me that Nishanthi, the only girl in the Jaffna delegation was so fearful of coming south, but now having made some wonderful friends already, did not want to go back. As I sit here behind these 60 students from Colombo, Moratuwa, Jayewardenepure, Kelaniya, Peradeniya and Jaffna Universities, the positive energy and hope in the room are palpable.

So much so that I feel compassion for those people who live their lives with the certainty that every Tamil is a Tiger and every Sinhalese a racist. Immersed in this fear and hate, they are missing out on the richness of humanity, the understanding and love that is natural to us all and fail to see the uncertainty of our being, the feeling of oneness with the universe – being interconnected – that our own Vedic and Buddhist philosophies espouse.

Even if these perceptions were true, I see the importance of dialoguing, opening the lines of communication in a creative way, finding a middle path to enable skilful discussion in a safe environment to address the past and look to a common future. This is what the workshop offered everyone and it easily achieved its objectives. The sessions focused on dealing with the practical challenge in the universities with the polarization of the three communities and sought ways to creatively work towards bringing them together.
Picture of the Boy Scout troop in Jaffna in 1973.

After the dialogue, there was a call to shed old thoughts, perceptions, prejudices – write what you wanted to change on a paper and a symbolic gesture of throwing it into the garbage and burning it. Thushara, a Moratuwa University student came to the middle and said, “I no longer call myself a Sinhala, I am Sri Lankan” to loud cheers and then someone else wondered, “In calling ourselves Sri Lankans, do we rid ourselves of the Sinhala and the Tamil identities ?” a question that we may all ponder as no one had an answer.

Thillai being alive and well made my peace more complete as Sri Lanka as a nation works towards peace, as I often wondered whether he had been a victim of the war too. Indeed the Thillainathans were victims as their home was destroyed in the war and they lost everything, including the photos I had sent them.

I count my blessings as I never lost those seemingly insignificant symbols of the past that give me a sense of comfort, security and continuity. My photo of Thillai and the old Scout log book from the 1970s remain intact.

“We Tamils are ever friends with you.” Thank you, Thillai and friends for reassuring me of that. I did wonder from time to time, but never lost hope.

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