In November 1983, a few months after a civil war broke out in Sri Lanka, Rajan Eswaran* locked up his house and moved to Canada with his family. Little did he know at the time that it would be thirty years before the war would end and he could come back home.
True that in those thirty years his home had been shelled into an irreparable condition, but there were still people living in Jaffna he hadn’t seen in decades, friends who had aged, school-going nieces and nephews who now had their own families, many others he knew who had gotten left behind and were just about rebuilding their lives. There were also matters of property and finance to be settled. But what drew him back to his city most of all was nostalgia.
How things must have changed, Rajan wondered. Would he recognize the old streets on which he rode his bicycle to school every day? The marketplace the British had built—was it still as lively as the mustard yellow paint on the shop walls? Did young men and women still hide out at the old fort, away from their families’ prying eyes to continue secret love affairs?
In June 2013, Rajan Eswaran landed in Colombo with his wife, prepared for grim disappointment. After their jet lag had worn off, they took the night bus to Jaffna. They got off along with everyone else at the army checkpoint before the recently reopened ‘Highway of Blood’, where their luggage was examined and questions were asked. The remainder of the journey Rajan stayed awake in apprehension.
Day was just breaking when the bus entered the Jaffna depot. As a few shops started to open and the early risers took to the streets, Rajan struggled to believe his eyes.
“I’ve never seen streets so perfect in all of Sri Lanka,” he told me one day at our boarding house on the outskirts of Jaffna town. Rajan and his wife were the only people I could really converse with at the board which doubled up as the office of the local welfare organization I was volunteering for as a teacher. Years of living in Canada had rendered the Eswarans’ English fluent, and in the city clothes and mannerisms we were used to wearing, the three of us stood out as a little too alien.
The power had gone out yet again, and the only way to not agonize over the stifling June heat was to swap engaging life stories. Rajan said he was excited to see the modern infrastructure in Jaffna. Four-star hotels had opened, old houses had been beautifully revamped; there was even an air-conditioned Food City downtown. This was all well and good. “But where the hell are the signs of war?” he asked, incredulous but happy.
* name changed
This is the first post of a four-part series on Jaffna. Read the second post here.