Friday, March 22, 2013

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 globalisation.

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.

The conservative 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 globalisation! 

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.

Under 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.

Also under 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 and colour.

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.

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 free.  

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.

It is also this generation that was deprived of all the luxuries and comforts their counterparts have been enjoying throughout the rest of Lanka. And it is this generation that has amidst them the future leaders and decision makers on behalf of the community they represent. The ‘old and the wise’ today will be well advised to handle this generation with caution as they hold the key to future peace and stability of a united Lanka.

Let them not be burdened by our mistakes of today and yesterday. Let us make the changes here and now so that this generation of our Lankans will have a new beginning with less baggage to cloud their vision.

As witnessed by the sociological impact of the ‘Jaffna Music Festival 2013’it is now obvious that all people of Lanka can no longer preserve and protect one culture in isolation in an environment where culture is moving beyond borders and boundaries with one shared meaning of a ‘culture’ however alien it may be. It is this common ‘alien’ culture that will initially lead to interconnectedness amongst the youth of Lanka irrespective of their ethno-cultural background.  

If we are to aspire for a united Lanka we all need to cast aside majority superior attitudes as well as minority superior attitudes and move forward with the times in both spirit and deed as well as find the courage to let go of the comforts of the familiar and embrace the ‘unfamiliar alien’ such as the cultural fusion portrayed through the ‘Jaffna Music Festival 2013’. 

This will not only serve as an icebreaker for one to accept customs, languages, attitudes and values of the ‘other’ but also to eventually create a sustainable and lasting intercultural relationship amongst Lanka’s multi ethno-religious society.

At the end of the day though we all are of such different backgrounds and weighed down by diverse prejudices we all have one need in common - to be respected, accepted, loved and the freedom to live a secure and peaceful life. Is that too much to ask? 

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