By Suryamithra Vishwa/Harmony Page/DailyFT
November and December are months that are coolest in the North of Sri Lanka, and 2019, the year that just ended, saw these two months being quite damp, with intermittent heavy rains.
One thing that never fails to impress this writer, who has lately developed the habit of spending especially the Christmas holidays in the North-East with friends there, is the laidback tranquillity and culture of the place.
The focus of this particular reflective article is on Jaffna.
The unfortunate and bloody war is a thing of the past, although the scars remain deep within many people. Whatever the changes happening in the macro political theatre, for the ordinary people of Jaffna, each day is yet another day to strive for their own economic wellbeing. The welcoming smile for the visitors of the South, be it Sinhalese or Muslim, is heartening, as one witnesses zero racism.
Talk of politics is shunned by most people, who turn the focus on day-to-day work, which they point out is what will keep them able to provide for their families. Irrespective of political identity or ethnicity, the people of Jaffna continue to be magnanimous and kind to outsiders who come to their district.
Below is a typical scene witnessed in a restaurant in Jaffna town towards end November. A group of Jaffna residents were having their lunch. The next table was occupied by five Sinhalese, who had come on a business visit and were speaking in English, thus the ethnic differentiation was not clear. When asked if they were from the South and one of them answering yes, there began an enthusiastic discussion where soon details of their education, schools and employment backgrounds were shared. Phone numbers were exchanged, and even the possibility of meeting in another district regarding the renting of two houses owned by the Jaffna origin residents in the South discussed. A young waiter meanwhile joined in as well, stating that he had been born in a ‘Sinhala district’ and could speak Sinhala well. Thus was a glimpse into the everyday unravelling of peace-building, without the machinations of any NGOs.
Later on in the Jaffna town, the same beauty of human interaction was observed as some Sinhalese purchasing some brass puja lamps were given special discounts, after they laughingly asked for a price reduction because they had come ‘all the way from the South.’
“War and racism are abominations. Every human being should stand for peace and understanding each other,” stressed A. S. Roy, manager of one of the most popular bookshops in the country, especially for academic books, the Quency Bookshop.
“Each human being can contribute to preventing the seed of racism from sprouting in the human heart,” opined Roy, who is an active member of the Don Bosco Mission. He recalls how he once was tasked by a Catholic priest to take the church-owned vehicle to the Buddhist temple, where a well-known Buddhist monk resided, and drive the monk back to attend a function. Having gone to the temple and after approaching the said monk, the then much younger Roy soon realized that he had not addressed the monk in the way he should a Buddhist priest as culturally practiced, but had been stunned when the monk smiled and said “Putha, don’t worry, even if you abuse me, my mind is trained not to react. We monks are trained not to be attached to anything, including how people address us, and not to activate our ego.”
That reaction from the monk had had a lasting impression on Roy, as any positive or negative reaction from any individual would have on us, and make us associate the person’s social position or ethnicity with that reaction.
Meanwhile, at the Jaffna University, amidst a detailed discussion on books and the potential of contemplative knowledge dissemination to bring people together, Dr. Kalpana Chandrasekar, who holds a doctorate in Library Sciences and is a librarian at the Jaffna University, recalls an incident that left her with a lasting impression.
“This occurred around 1999 in Colombo University, at an IT workshop I was nominated to attend from Jaffna with another colleague. I had never been to Colombo, and had never seen any Sinhalese civilian. The LTTE had brainwashed us about the Sinhalese, and what they told is what we believed. Therefore it was with much trepidation that I travelled to Colombo to attend the workshop. I did not understand a word of Sinhala. My friend and I were wondering how we will understand anything that is taught, if the workshop is fully in the Sinhala language, as the main instructor and all those involved in organizing it were Sinhalese. Some friends in Jaffna, who had never had a chance to interact with the Sinhalese, put more fear in us, saying that the Sinhalese instructor would likely purposely do the workshop entirely in Sinhala because two Tamils were attending. What happened was the opposite. This instructor asked at the outset if we, the two Jaffna participants who were the only Tamils at the workshop, understood any Sinhalese. We said no. Thereafter we were stunned when he proceeded to do the entire lecture in English, occasionally asking us and the others if they were following what he was saying, and if we all needed further explanation. From beginning to end, that Sinhalese instructor did not speak a word of Sinhala, because two young people from a war-torn region could not understand the language. Gratitude for speaking in a language that we understood welled in our hearts, and we returned to Jaffna with a very high opinion of that instructor in particular, and the Sinhalese in general. Because that single individual acted with humanity, we developed a high opinion of the Sinhalese,” said Kalpana.
This above example shows an ordinary Sinhalese civilian’s respect to the concern of language of another ethnic community of our country. In contemplating on the above two examples, we can imagine what would be the impression if the reaction was opposite to what is described.
Later on, at the Sri Sathya Sai Baba centre in Jaffna, the only place I have witnessed where the statue of Jesus Christ, the Lord Buddha, and symbols of all spiritual traditions such as the cross of the Christians and star and crescent moon of the Muslims are under one roof, a group of youngsters singing devotional songs were soon joined by senior members of the organization.
One such member was Dr. S. Sivakonesan, an MBBS doctor who also has educated himself on the Ayurveda Siddha tradition of indigenous medicine. In the discussion, he opined what one would probably not hear often from an MBBS doctor: that over 90% of the malfunctioning of the body begins in the mind. Prejudice of another human based on his religion or ethnicity, and allowing one’s attachment for one’s own racial or religious identity to become fanatic at the cost of deriding or irrationally condemning others based on their faith or identity, are all part of the larger mental ill-health of a person, no doubt.
“Wrong thoughts, wrong emotions such as prejudice, jealousy, anger, and inability to purify one’s mind, and consuming the wrong type of foods, are the main reasons why a human becomes unhealthy, and finally when these all culminate, there are diseases such as cancer that take over the body,” said Dr. Sivakonesan.
About 7 kilometres away, located at Bankshall Street in Jaffna, is the Ashram of Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi saint who lived from the 1930s to the 1980s, and who was an influential Sufi saint in Sri Lanka, as well as the United States. The Jaffna ashram has been kept in order for decades by two Hindu females, who are now aged and feeble but continue to reside at the premises with their medication attended to, a kindness sanctioned by the current main trustee of the ashram, Mohammed Pichei.
“Only in the world we have religion. For God there is no religion,” said Pichei, who had been the student of Bawa from a very young age.
Kingsley Jerome, the security guard at the premises, had a Rosary and Catholic Bible at his table. “This ashram is a holy place. A place where a holy man once lived. His things are preserved as it is. I work long hours, and I read the Bible and say the rosary when I am here,” said Jerome, who is a Catholic of Burgher ancestry. He had a basic understanding of the Sufi Islamic philosophy, which he considered ‘very peaceful.’
Further away, in a small bookshop called the Sri Lanka Book Depot, was the manager Aiyadurai Kandasamy, a self-taught man who recalled his early days as a labourer at the Highways Department in Ratmalana in the 1980s, before he left for Saudi Arabia for employment. His inability to get academic qualifications was the poverty of his family. Having amassed sufficient funds to educate his children and live a healthy retirement, today he is both a reader and manager at the bookshop where he works. Located in the vicinity of the Nallur area, the bookshop sells mostly Hindu spiritual-oriented books, alongside those pertaining to disciplines such as agriculture. The conversation shifted to the true purpose of education, and he opined that it is to ‘bring purpose, joy and wellbeing to the self and others as well as the planet.’ “If one is educated in the conventional sense and has hate in the heart, that is then not true education,” said Aiyadurai.
We will continue the North-East narratives next week to include narratives from Batticaloa and Kattankudy.
(The picture at the top shows the Sai Baba Center in Jaffna which has symbols of all major religions)
(Suryamithra Vishwa is the founder of the thought movement Earth Life Water Knowledge Trails Lanka and has a keen interest in comparative spirituality and indigenous knowledge).