Being one with Jaffna

An ex-GA’s wife recalls life in Lanka’s northern capital in the 1970s

By Ranji Amarasekera

When my husband Wimal said he had been offered the post of Government Agent of Jaffna and asked me whether to accept it, I was unsure as to what decision we should take. That was way back in 1970. Our elder son was 2 1/2 years old.

Most of the previous Government Agents lived there alone while their families lived in Colombo or elsewhere. I never believed in being separated from my family and had always enjoyed life in the outstations. I have never regretted my decision.

Pottus and garlands

From the time we stepped from the plane, we were welcomed with open arms. The pottus and the garlands were there in abundance. Throughout our five years in Jaffna, we never felt that we were away from home.

Wimal Amarasekera

When I saw the Residency though, I got a little panicky wondering as to how we were going to maintain it. The Residency apart from its own bakery, the underground tunnels, the place where the personal staff of the GA were mustered in the morning and paid in the evening, in the past had 27 acres of garden land called the Old Park. This place had its own history. Percival Ackland Dyke who had been the Government Agent of Jaffna for more than 36 years had bought the place with his own money and bequeathed it to his successors on an irrevocable deed of gift through Queen Victoria.

The Old Park had some of the rarest trees. Apart from the giant Mahogany, Nedun, Ironwood, the inevitable Mango and the Tamarind, both of which brought some revenue annually for the upkeep of the garden, there were the Baobub and a tree from South America which had lovely blue flowers throughout the year, growing just outside our bedroom window. This tree was supposed to be the only one of its kind in Sri Lanka.

The prisoners who were serving simple sentences were brought twice a month to the Old Park. They cleaned up the under brush and cleared the garden of the leaves that had fallen from the numerous trees. These men apparently liked this outing for I heard them laugh and joke while at work. We often provided them with tea and something to eat in the morning and also supplemented the lunch which they brought with them.

Wimal and his family attending an event in Jaffna

The Kachcheri was just opposite the Residency and Wimal walked to work. I too got involved with his work and whenever I could accompanied him on his visits to the field. I particularly liked to visit the youth schemes in remote areas. One such scheme which I liked was the Mirisuvil girls’ scheme. The girls did chilli cultivation as their main occupation and with the money they earned they bought sewing machines and made children's clothing etc.

This was also a favourite place where I took wives of diplomats and other visiting foreign delegates. They were quite impressed with the work the girls were doing.

Wimal also started a large number of small-scale industries, e.g., workshops to repair water pumps which is a must for the Jaffna farmer and also a large number of projects based on the produce of the palmyrah tree which serves the people of Jaffna as much as the coconut tree serves the people of the south. The making of jaggery, bottling of palmyrah toddy, and making of baskets and other handicrafts were some of these projects. He set up about 70 jaggery-making centres which were a boon to the people and particularly to the youth at the time.

The Buddhist priest, the Hindu priest, the Bishop and the Muslim priest were all alike to us. Every week I visited the Nallur Kandasamy kovil and Nagadeepa Buddhist shrine. During the period I was in Jaffna I would have visited Nagadeepa more than thirty times. It was a must for all relatives and friends who visited Jaffna and I had to accompany them most of the time.

Our younger son was born in the Jaffna hospital. He was a premature baby. The nurses very obligingly accommodated me in their rest room. There were no incubators and my son, along with 30 other premature babies, was kept in a special sterilized room on a tray of straw with a solitary electric bulb hanging overhead for warmth. Many people came to see me, some whom I had not seen before. They brought gifts like gingelly oil, baby clothes, soap and even eggs. Subsequently my husband made representations to the authorities and obtained an incubator for the use of the hospital. Our son, 27 years later, worked in the Jaffna Hospital as a post-intern. He says that he met a few who knew his father and remembered him as an officer who was loved and respected by all.

Our elder son attended the Montessori class conducted by the sisters of the Jaffna Holy Family Convent. The sisters were quite fond of him. He learned to speak quite fluently in Tamil. In fact he spoke even better than Wimal who engaged a retired school master to teach him Tamil in his spare time.

We made quite a lot of friends, too. Muhandiram Rasiah who represented practically all social service organizations, Mr. Ponnambalam, Mr. Joseph, the Additional GA Mr. Murugesupillai and Anton and Mangalam St. George, that dear couple who ran an open house for all their friends, were some of them.
Brigadiers Sustace Rodrigo and Tissa Weeratunga, Ananda Silva who then was the Commanding Officer at Karainagar, Mitra Ariyasinghe who then was SP, all of whom Wimal met in his official capacity became our friends. During weekends or holidays when Wimal was free, we gathered a few friends and went to Thondamanaru or the Kashurina beach or visited the shifting sand dunes at Manalkadu off Point Pedro.

Wimal Amarasekera with the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike when she visited Jaffna.

I had the occasion to visit almost all the islands too. Iranativu, Analativu, Eluvativu and Delft. We visited the then disputed island of Kachchativu several times during the festival. It was a veritable marketplace where Sri Lankan and Indian traders came and bartered goods. Wimal told me how he located an old Dutch map in the Kachcheri showing that this island formed part of Jaffna which he sent to the authorities in Colombo.

We also visited the Chundikulam sanctuary situated north-east of Elephant Pass where we watched the beautiful flamingos and the Russian ducks as they were called which used to migrate in thousands during the season. On the way we used to pluck the big dark purple and luscious madan, a kind of berry that grew in abundance.

But all good times have to come to an end. The time came when we had to think of our children's education and Wimal got a transfer to Colombo as GA. I will never forget the farewells given to us. For over a month we were invited for farewell dinners and lunches and when we could not find time anymore, for breakfast too. Wimal was honoured with garlands of onions, chillies, and grapes especially at the agricultural and youth schemes.

At the farewell given to us by the citizens of Jaffna, hundreds from all walks of life were present. We were taken in procession to the St. Patrick’s College grounds where the farewell function was held. The most heart-warming was the presence on the stage of the Chief Incumbent of the Sri Naga Vihara, the Hindu High Priest, the Bishop of Jaffna and the Muslim High Priest to bid farewell to a Government Agent whom they loved and respected and who lived and worked with them for about five years.

Girls and boys sang farewell songs in Sinhala, Tamil and English. Farewell speeches were many, everyone wanting to say something on this occasion. That day I cried when I heard what they had to say and realized how grateful they were. I was sad and happy too. Sad because we were leaving these dear people and happy because I felt that there still were people who are grateful and who appreciated what Wimal did.

May this article be a tribute to the people of Jaffna whom we loved so much.

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