Jaffna- From Shell Shock to Culture Shock
My last visit to Jaffna was almost nine years ago (2004) in an official capacity as a Director of the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), an office that came directly under the President of Sri Lanka.
In a context of time nine years seems like a long period but in fact it is not. The Jaffna I saw then and the Jaffna I saw a fortnight ago seem like two different places. Of course nine years ago we had a Norwegian brokered cease-fire between the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka in place. Our movements, despite a cease-fire, were under a heavy blanket of security as the LTTE violated the very spirit of the truce with impunity.
However my recent visit to
the North was as a private citizen and therefore afforded me greater freedom of
movement and the chance to mingle and interact with the common man of Jaffna.
Of course within a short space of three days one cannot grasp much, but what I
did see and hear was a revelation in more ways than one.
From what I saw, Jaffna and her
people appear to be finally emerging from a shell of fear and subjugation. From
a distance of 30 years ago the people of Jaffna seem to have been
fast-forwarded into an alien future speeding ahead on the back of
As to be expected
with the legacy of such a phenomenon, a way of life once taboo has been thrown
to the winds by the current young generation of Jaffnites. Today these young
‘guys and gals’ of Jaffna are ‘rocking it’ with the rest of their counterparts
in the rest of the world.
Jaffna parent, however, who was caught up in the LTTE’s ‘Stockholm Syndrome’
not too long ago bemoans the rapid loss of cultural ethos amongst their
offspring and yearns for the rigidity and conformity of the past.
Today when a male
offspring turns 18 a snazzy motorbike is a must; so the parent must beg, steal
or borrow to provide their rebellious sons with one. The ‘gals’ have done away
with the traditional sari or shalwar kameez for the body hugging jeans and
T-shirt, save a few. The ‘guys’ are in trendy peddle-pusher jeans or
long-shorts, and to hell with the verti or sarong. Luminous pink or green
framed sunglasses atop their heads, gelled hair (rainbow coloured tints not
yet), chains, bracelets and, of course, the mobile phone completes the picture
of the Jaffna ‘cool dude’.
The Jaffna town
itself is a haze of shops offering a range of ‘mod’ clothing for the young
Jaffnites. A famous supermarket chain in
the South whose owners have their roots in the North have opened up an outlet
in the city centre that makes its counterparts in the rest of Lanka look like
poor relatives. So well is it stocked! Well patronized by the Jaffna citizenry
this supermarket stands as a beacon of what our brethren in the North have been
deprived of materially and what the rest of us in the South have taken so much
for granted for so long.
The Touring Jaffnite
As infrastructure development
steams ahead full speed, geographical borders are becoming less challenging and
so a people suppressed and repressed for so long are finally able to move around in order to
sample a taste of what is on the other side.
For instance, one
needs to secure a place on the waiting-list to grab a seat on a South-bound bus
from Jaffna as these our brethren, denied for so long, make their way in
hundreds mostly to Colombo. Many amongst these are the impressionable and so
far naïve ‘cool dudes’ of Jaffna who could easily fall prey to the underworld
vermin in Colombo and its suburbs. Therefore they could easily be enticed into
the dark world of drugs, alcohol, pornography et al - the downside of
One does not need
to be endowed with a vivid imagination to wonder how significant a role sexual
suppression might have figured amongst the repressed youth Prabhakaran
fostered. At an age when the male testosterone levels go through the roof,
these young men were forced to abide by a set of norms practiced only by the
non-hypocritical clergy. Therefore finally free, they hungrily lap up all
things taboo, too.
Prabhakaran’s rule if a boy was seen talking to a girl, they were forced to
marry whether the parties concerned wanted to or not, or else they had to face
the wrath of their Lord and Master Prabhakaran. So now the divorce rate amongst
these forced-to-marry victims is also on the rise.
Prabhakaran’s rule Tamil was the only language permitted; no English and
definitely NO Sinhala. And so we the non-Tamil-speaking from the rest of Lanka
travel to our long lost northern parts of our country, dreading the thought of
making ourselves understood by our Tamil-only-speaking brethren. Lo and behold,
for if you speak to them in a smattering of Tamil they reply in near perfect
Sinhala or English leaving you squirming with shame!
Yes the military
is there in Jaffna just like we in the South had them not too long ago, with
check-points and the rest. But the military presence in Jaffna appears to be
less obnoxious than we knew them. They let the civilians go about their daily
business freely while they hang around sometimes armed and sometimes not, just
as we still see them in the South.
Jaffna Goes Rock ‘n’ Roll
Amidst all the
sociological changes Jaffna and its people are experiencing there came to
Jaffna Town the ‘Jaffna Music Festival 2013’ that shook the foundations of the
traditionally conservative Jaffnites to their very core. Jaffnites of all ages,
the traditionally conservative and the ‘mod ’ thronged the Jaffna Town
Municipal Grounds, some with their very young in tow, to watch and listen to
these ‘Aliens’ who had landed on their soil with so much noise, bright lights
Day one saw a very
sober disciplined audience who remained in their seats or on mats on the sandy
ground quietly absorbing another side of globalisation they had been shielded
from thus far. This was until the vibrant performances by Chirkutt and NirtyaNandan from Bangladesh,
Indian actress Ila Arun of Rajasthani folk/pop fusion music fame and her
dancers hit the stage full throttle. Their music was so powerful that one had
to be totally deaf not to respond to it.
With this the thus far quiet
audience appeared to have reached their limit of passive participation in the
party. The rhythm of the music seemed to feed a long suppressed hunger deep
within them, and so giving way to their natural instincts leapt to their feet
and turned the grounds into a veritable discotheque for the young and old
alike. The white haired older Jaffnites dressed in their traditional Sunday
best some with holy ash on their foreheads and some with toothless grins
adorning their faces started tapping their toes or swaying to the music as the
mood caught on while the young danced their cares away in a near frenzy.
With this the thus far quiet audience appeared to have reached their limit of passive participation in the party. The rhythm of the music seemed to feed a long suppressed hunger deep within them, and so giving way to their natural instincts leapt to their feet and turned the grounds into a veritable discotheque for the young and old alike. The white haired older Jaffnites dressed in their traditional Sunday best some with holy ash on their foreheads and some with toothless grins adorning their faces started tapping their toes or swaying to the music as the mood caught on while the young danced their cares away in a near frenzy.
Some of the “unpopular” military
in civvies were also part of the party munching on boiled chickpeas and making
a picnic of the evening while highly amused and roaring with laughter at the
side acts of gymnastics performed for their benefit by the high spirited ‘cool
dudes’ of Jaffna. The obvious camaraderie between the civilians and the
military in this instance was a sight to behold.
For me personally, though, the
artistes put on a magnificent performance. The greatest joy I derived was to
sit back and watch my long denied brethren finally being able to let their hair
down and have the time of their lives. For this I say a sincere Thank You to
the organizers of this event.
Prabhakaran’s Dream in Tatters
Had Velupillai Prabhakaran been around he
would definitely not have needed any encouragement to gulp down his famous
cyanide capsule! For gone is his dream of an ‘Eelam’ where he was subjugating a
section of Lanka’s people to abide by his tyrannical word or face death. Today
those very people he held hostage to his myopic dreams appear to be finally
The current young generation of
Jaffnites now in their mid -teens to early- twenties would be a force to reckon
with if the likes of another Prabhakaran decides to raise his head again given the lackadaisical attitude of the
government in implementing the likes of the LLRC recommendations. For it is this young and impressionable generation of the North who
had their elder brothers and sisters forcefully conscripted by the LTTE as
child-soldiers and used as cannon fodder to fulfill the whim of a one man’s
The current young generation of Jaffnites now in their mid -teens to early- twenties would be a force to reckon with if the likes of another Prabhakaran decides to raise his head again given the lackadaisical attitude of the government in implementing the likes of the LLRC recommendations. For it is this young and impressionable generation of the North who had their elder brothers and sisters forcefully conscripted by the LTTE as child-soldiers and used as cannon fodder to fulfill the whim of a one man’s vision.