My first week in Jaffna was over and my fellow lodging house guests, the Eswarans, having taken care of the vestiges of their pre-war life, returned to their adopted home in Canada. Now that there was no one left to talk to at the end of the long schooldays, the daily encounters with the soulless children of war had begun to take a toll on my mind. I had begun to wonder if there was any point to my weekly visits to the four hapless schools, if I was at all helping things along. The welfare officer did not welcome my ideas about having the students unwind as a starting point, and instead signed me up to teach a fifth school in Chavakachcheri, a town twelve miles east of Jaffna.
A fifth dose of distress would’ve been unnerving, but at the school in that distant town I was glad to find that things were looking up. The English teacher greeted me with genuine conviviality and the students, though not quite able at homework, were eager for classroom interaction and responded with alacrity to my preferred way of teaching. They were quicker on the uptake than the students in the Jaffna school. But why did they never do their homework, I asked Alli*, their amiable teacher. “Many of the boys and girls don’t have their real parents anymore,” she said. “They have been given to childless couples or those who lost their children in the war. The family members are still getting to know one another. Most of the children study on their own.”
It wasn’t difficult to connect the dots. The road to Chavakachcheri is long and scenic for miles. Swathes of open country lie on both sides and the sea wind is cool and refreshing. Herds of cows while away time grazing on sodden fields by the ocean’s backwaters. But soon the scenery makes a drastic shift. Uninhabited ghost towns take the place of the peaceful tableaux; desolation is all around: remains of houses, roofless and gutted, pockmarked by bullet holes, home now to untended wilderness. One has to take the dirt roads off the highway to find civilization, but it is a pathetic picture. The homes are made of mud and dried palmyra leaves and the largest building is a formidable ruin—once the town’s library, now a hollow brick shell without a roof standing amidst a stretch of no man’s land, the stuff of dreary dreams. No, the tsunami never made its way to Chavakachcheri; this is the legacy of war.
In its final years, the war had mostly moved south to Kilinochchi, but Chavakachcheri, though a part of Jaffna district, lay too close to the A9 Highway to escape the relentless onslaught. Four years after the LTTE’s defeat, the population of the town remained greatly reduced, and outside the school grounds the place seemed enveloped in an eerie stillness. How was it then that the people here were not as numbed and apathetic as the ones I had met in the almost fully rebuilt city of Jaffna? I found a part of the answer in Kala*.
Every Thursday after I finished teaching at the school in Chavakachcheri, Alli would take me on her battery-powered bike to Kala’s house for lunch. Kala had been living abroad with her husband who had moved for work during the early war years, but after he died of a sudden cardiac arrest she had no choice but to return to her hometown. Luckily this was during a brief ceasefire, but the house Kala returned to was not quite the same—LTTE militants were using it as a hideout.
Perhaps it was the many calamities of her life that had made Kala so adept at taking challenges head on. Widowed and with her only daughter settled in the US, Kala seemed frail and spoke in near-whispers. Her skin had wizened prematurely and her face was plaintive, but in truth she had taken matters into her own hands. Immediately after the war she began heavy repairs on her battered house. Friends and relatives occasionally came to help, but in Chavakachcheri the people she used to know had left for better or for ever. Everyone around her had lost loved ones, and it seemed the town was doomed to miserable solitude. So Kala called for the neighbourhood women to gather together a few times a week. They started to meet regularly in one of their houses, spending the days doing things they enjoyed. Some sewed, others crafted things, and Kala herself painted. Soon they were teaching each other their skills, and when I met Kala, she told me that some of the women had started to sell their wares. Kala continued to paint, as was obvious from the numerous oil paintings and watercolours that filled the walls of her living room. An orphaned girl now lived with her and the two of them got by well on the support of Kala’s daughter and her husband’s savings.
“I’ll miss you,” Kala said on the phone as I waited at the Colombo airport to board my flight back to Calcutta. “Write to me. Send me the photos you took here.” I told her I couldn’t thank her enough for her lovely company and the delicious Bengali meals she cooked for me so that I wouldn’t miss home too much.
Two nights before, as my Colombo-bound bus moved smoothly down the erstwhile Highway of Blood, I had tried to go over the experiences of my month in Jaffna to piece together an account I would have to narrate to my parents and friends soon. They were eager to see me, relieved that I had made it through without any mishaps.
It was true only in a manner of speaking. I had spent my month in the city of Jaffna that had risen anew and better than before, and in spite of the distress of the first week and the difficulties in communication I had slowly forged a bond with my students, and now it seemed that the goodbyes had come too soon.
But if my folks thought that this was an experience without misadventures, they were somewhat mistaken. In the cracks of the new and improved city, the intangible wreckage of the war was all present. I saw it in the way the children had become, too blinded and debilitated by all the light they were now seeing, after spending many of their growing years huddled up in the darkness of their houses. I understood the need for them to learn English and the various other professional skills prioritized by their teachers. But how were these children to adjust to their utilitarian education system when they lacked the very skills to live?
In Colombo for a day before my return flight, I decided to revisit some of my favourite parts of the city. Getting my fill of crab wadés at the city’s lively waterfront, I settled down on a rock to watch the famed sunset over the Indian Ocean. As the tourists and the locals pointed their cameras at the brilliantly twilit horizon, I turned mine on to go through my photos of Jaffna. It had been a challenging four weeks and I wondered if it was foolish to hope for better things. The sudden trill of my phone broke my train of thought. It was the welfare officer. “We’ve found the next volunteer!” she said. “For the first time it’s a Sinhalese boy from Colombo. He will start teaching in September. Will you have time to meet him tomorrow before your flight? Maybe you can give him a general idea of what to expect and the things he can do as a teacher.
I will, I promised, as the water engulfed the last tip of the sun.
* name changed
This is the last post of a four-part series on Jaffna. Read the first post here.