A Journey of a Friend
Yapanaya...Yalpanam...As a Sri Lankan born when the stage was being set for an exhaustive 30 year
battle, this word brought terror to my mind. The elders spoke of it with extreme emotions of anger
and sadness. I really don’t remember what I thought about it then but my childhood mind was
probably filled with confusion. As I grew up and could put together the words in newspaper
headlines to sentences and thoughts, I began to understand, though not fully. The town in the north
was always spoken of either with blood or tears.
I grew up with the war...snippets of it is still and will always be fresh in my mind. Many bombings
and killings in the north and closer to home, the black July, the bomb in Pettah, the Central bank and
much more. I do remember the despairing tones of voices that I heard, the talk of two countries and
two languages. They were a part of my growing up years.
Having grown up in a full Sinhala, Buddhist family, neighbourhood and school, my knowledge of
Tamils, their religion and culture came from books. My first contact with a fellow Tamil was not
inside my home country. In 1990, my father accepted a job in a university in South Africa and we all
relocated. There was a Sri Lankan Tamil community living there and it was there that I had my first
contacts with the Thurairajahs, the Selvarathnams , the Ramakrishnas, the Kanagarathnams etc. It
was South Africa going from apartheid to democracy and even unknown to me; my mind was taking
the same route.
As the Sri Lankan community was very small, we all met at various gatherings of lunches and dinners
and conversations freely flawed. It helped my pre-teen mind to understand that we were from the
same country. They had the same problems that my parents had, how to build a house or buy a car,
how to save money for their childrens’ education and the general uncertainty of the future. Only for
them, they were not sure whether they could return to the land of their birth. During these
gatherings, I glimpsed into their life in the towns of the North and the East, their customs and
traditions, the land with the palm and the kovil, of chillie and onions, of sarees and vettis. What
really left me with a lot of sadness, was when they talked about their kith and kin, whom they
haven’t heard of in years due to the war. Surprisingly, it was a Tamil girl who helped me to settle
into school over there and patiently helped me while I settled into a different education system in a
The two and a half years were gone like a rocket and soon we were back home. A teenager returned
with a different mind and purpose. I would help to break down the barriers and one day, I would
visit the most famous town in the north.
For many years that dream was hovering in the periphery of impossibility. As the fighting escalated,
the grounds got bloodier, the distance seemed too vast to bridge. People disagreed and argued over
many agreements and opinions as I slowly entered the senior years of school.
My dream became deeper when I studied poems by Tamil poets for English Literature and took a
fresh perspective when I went to University in India. I felt that I was an unofficial ambassador for my
country. The end of my university years brought what seemed like a silver lining in the form of a
cease-fire agreement. However, this did not fully do away with the fear and distrust.
Back at home, after graduation, I accepted a temporary teaching appointment at my old school and
rejoined the Girl Guide Movement as a Warranted Leader. As a Movement that does not accept any
caste, creed or religion, I had the chance of interacting with young leaders from the Tamil speaking
community at trainings, camps and meetings. When a group of trainers went to the North for the
first time after many years to conduct training, I longed to fulfil my dream but professional
commitments prevented me from doing so.
I had switched jobs by this time and had the opportunity of working with Tamil colleagues who really
added flavour to my life. It always pained me when they could not go often to visit their families as
security measures prevented frequent travel.
There were many moments in the ensuing years when I wondered whether I’ll ever get there as the
fighting intensified again. At times, I put it off my mind completely. At times, it was back on my list.
Then, on one fine day, everything was fine! The war was over! Yes, it was officially over. I couldn’t
believe it as I listened to the news repeatedly. My dream was permanently back on my list of must
The Year 2010 is the Centenary Year of the Girl Guide Movement. The Sri Lanka Girl Guides
Association planned a trip to the North as part of its centenary celebrations with 100 girls and
leaders to build and equip a library in a school. It was the “Journey of A 100 Friends”. I will be one of
Due to professional commitments, I couldn’t travel with the others by train but decided to go by bus.
I simply cannot describe neither what I felt when I held the bus ticket in my hand nor when I got on
the bus at night several days later. I needed little preparation as I had been preparing for more than
half my life! I was still wide-awake when I got off in the Jaffna town nearly ten hours later and dived
right into the middle of the action. I was taken directly to Ampan, about two hours from the town, to
the school and passed through many towns that had made headlines over the years. The girls were
already working with their sisters in the North in painting the school and planting trees in the
garden. I helped a group of students from the school arrange the books, computer and furniture in
the newly constructed library building. We didn’t speak each others’ languages yet we got the job
done in record time. Smiles and gestures helped where words failed. We handed the library over to
the school in a simple yet elegant ceremony the next day. The innocent smiles, hearty handshakes
and humble vanakkams just added something more to our already elated minds.
For one whole day, I walked around Jaffna town savouring in the sights that I had waited a lifetime
to see. The famous library with the lotus pond to its side, the majestic fort with the shoreline close
by, the kovils... while tasting the grapes and the vaddai from a street vendor. Wow and wow! was
what my euphoric mind kept repeating.
As I boarded the bus that night, laden with many gifts of Jaffna, none compared to the feeling of
hope and achievement that was inside me. I have not seen enough as this is a vast area with many
hidden treasures but this will have to do for the first trip. I silently added a promise of return as the
bus pulled away from the centre of the city.