THE JAFFNA PUBLIC Library sits in the ancestral capital of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka (also known as Yalpanam). It was built in the 1950s and housed one of the largest archives of Tamil culture in the world. At the height of its collection, it contained almost 100,000 books and historical records about the Tamil civilisation and our presence in Sri Lanka.
It held sacred Hindu texts, old maps, ancient verses etched into palm leaves, fragile scrolls about Ayurvedic medicine, the manuscripts of Tamil writers and intellectuals, the journals of early Christian missionaries and old newspapers.
It was a place of almost mythical cultural significance to the Tamil people. I’ve described it in my first novel, Song of the Sun God, this way:
The library was not just for Tamils, it was for everyone. The people were so proud: the library contained not only their history but also their communal memory. It represented how far they had come and gave them hope for how far they would go.
In 1981, the Jaffna Public Library was burnt to the ground by Sri Lankan government security forces. The entirety of its books and records were destroyed. Some have been lost forever, and others – such as the cherished original manuscript of the Yalpana Vaipava Malai (a history of Jaffna written in 1736 by the Tamil poet Mayilvagana Pulavar) – exist only as copies now.
As an archive, the Jaffna Public Library told a story about the place of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. The political authorities of the 1980s wanted to suppress that narrative – and burning the archive was a quick and conclusive way to do it. For many Tamils, the burning of these books was the most overt act of cultural erasure in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history. This biblioclasm was the culmination of decades of laws that had disempowered the Tamil people, and it foreshadowed the war that would come two years later.
That war led to the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of Tamil people and the forced migration of Tamils to many parts of the world – for my family, to Australia.
All of us dispossessed of our homes and homeland in some way.
I was born and raised in the Tamil diaspora, my parents afraid to return to Sri Lanka for many decades because of my father’s political activism. We moved to London first and to Australia in 1977, a few years after the end of its White Australia policy in 1973. In Sri Lanka, my parents’ mother tongue, Tamil, had been a barrier to education and employment; in Sydney, my trilingual parents chose to speak to us only in English. Because of this, I have limited access to my ancestral language and its 2,000-year recorded history of literature and poetry.
Here in Australia, immersed and enmeshed in English, when I hear Tamil spoken, I can sense my parents’ language but can’t speak it. If I allow myself to think about the loss, I am overwhelmed by grief – a yearning for completeness, for someone whole that I’ll never be.
Bereft of a language, of a homeland, when the Jaffna Public Library was burnt I became bereft of a history – an archive of the past that justified my journey to where I was in the present. This cultural erasure that took place in a small corner of a small island, far away from our new home in Australia, consumed some of the bonds that tethered us to our past. It reminded us how vulnerable our place was in our ancestral home, at a time when we still hadn’t anchored ourselves to our new one. How to reckon with that fact, and in a new landscape? When language, land and history are taken from us, what do we have left but the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves?
I am a writer, a storyteller. I have travelled to Sri Lanka many times over the past five years. I have travelled to the former war zone and been privileged to interview survivors of the genocide as well as journalists, activists and lawyers who risk their lives to talk about what happened there and demand that it does not happen again. I incorporate their experiences, their memories, their observations into my work as a novelist.
But fiction does not create justice. When a country emerges from war, it is only the mechanisms of justice that can create justice – the international bodies and courts, the laws and lawmakers, the governments and the people who vote for them. Nor does war fiction provide any comfort to the survivors. The dead are still dead; the living will always mourn them. The living will carry the trauma of war, injustice and loss forever.
What fiction can do is create another space for the truth-telling that is essential to post-conflict reconciliation. It can create a space, particularly when a country is unwilling to do this itself, when political authority undermines, delays or ignores the mechanisms of justice that should provide that safe space.
ON 18 MAY 2009, Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war ended on a small strip of beach near Mullivaikkal at the far north-east of the island. During the last months of the war, it is believed that between 40,000 to 70,000 Tamil people died (some estimates are as high as 100,000) – mostly unarmed non-combatants. They were shelled by the Sri Lanka Army, their country’s own defence force, who purported to be rescuing them. They were used as human shields by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the ‘Tamil Tigers’, who purported to be defending them, and were trapped and then crushed in the middle of a conflict that had long since left the constraints of morality and the fiction of international law behind. These people were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children. Many disappeared, their bodies never found. All of them were loved.
A few months before the war’s end, all international NGOs and journalists had been ordered to leave Sri Lanka’s war zone for their own safety. The Sri Lankan government promised that its military strategy adhered to a zero civilian casualty policy, designating no fire zones within the war zone and asking Tamil civilians to take shelter in these safe havens. I also described conditions in one of these zones in Song of the Sun God:
There were over 150,000 refugees in the no fire zone. The entire population depended on the UN to eat. Farming and fishing had long since ended. The monthly UN food ration for April was enough for 60,000 people for two days. April had thirty days… [All around] people starved and shrivelled.
What would happen next was revealed through the mobile-phone footage civilians took of bombs falling on the no fire zones; the mobile-phone footage Sri Lankan soldiers took of prisoner executions and the desecration of bodies; the testimony from survivors of torture, rape and mass killings; and the testimony that the no fire zones were the deliberate targets of the Sri Lanka Army, not collateral damage.
Entire villages, communities and families were devastated.
This was the outcome of colonisation, dispossession and seven decades of cultural erasure, of discriminatory education and employment policies, of state-sponsored killings and the struggle for self-determination.
As the 2011 report of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka found, ‘The panel’s determination of credible allegations reveals a very different version of the final stages of the war than that maintained to this day by the government of Sri Lanka.’
When a 2014 UN Human Rights Council resolution (RES/25/1) requested the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ‘undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka’, the resolution was dismissed by the Sri Lankan government as ‘foreign interference’. However, in 2015 the government changed and the new political authority co-sponsored a UN resolution (RES/30/1) and committed to a process of transitional justice intended to lead the country towards reconciliation.
The International Center for Transitional Justice describes ‘transitional justice’ as referring to ‘the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large-scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response’.
According to Sri Lanka’s Centre for Policy Alternatives, transitional justice has many elements, including structural reform (both institutional and legal), redress and reparations for victims, and accountability for war crimes. Its elements work interdependently towards reconciliation between parties, after deep injustices and profound harm have been caused. Between 2015 and 2019, the Sri Lankan government initiated some aspects of the transitional justice program, but it also ignored many others. In February 2020, after another change of government, the new political authority withdrew from the UN resolution.
Transitional justice frames reconciliation as a continual, dynamic and difficult process of healing rather than a static outcome that is achieved by any one mechanism. At the same time, mechanisms such as truth and reconciliation commissions accept that ‘truths’ themselves can be multifaceted, competing narratives; that each side values their own truth; and that each must listen to the truth of others.
When people learn of my Tamil ancestry, they often tell me how they honeymooned in Sri Lanka, how beautiful the beaches are, how friendly the people. They sometimes know that the country was torn apart by a civil war – the key features of which they remember as Tamil Tiger suicide bombers, disruptions to further holidays, cancelled international cricket tours. In that order.
This is the story that the West learns, knows and remembers. For the West, the conflict was largely reported as a war for land, with little understanding of historical context. For the West, it was remembered more for the suicide bombings and brutality of the Tamil Tigers than the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamil people. The multiplicities and complexities of the stories that breathe(d) and were buried in the red earth of my parents’ homeland are reduced to short-lived and incomplete headlines.
THE HARDEST INTERVIEW I’ve ever done was with a doctor who stayed with the war’s refugees in its final months and days, when thousands were forced by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers onto a small stretch of beach. There, they were slaughtered.
This doctor amputated survivors’ limbs without anaesthetics; he used torn clothing as bandages; he stepped over the dead to protect the living. As I listened to his testimony, I acknowledged I was receiving his lived experience – and that his truth would form part of my fiction.
He stated: ‘We are not allowed to speak the truth about what happened, and without the truth there can be no healing.’ He said: ‘Fiction is an important way of telling the truth.’
In this way, fiction is always ours, not mine; fiction drawn from the lived experience of others is written so that it can be shared – and shared so that it can be remembered by everyone, not just those who lived through its story. In this way, fiction is held by communities rather than individuals – or, for that matter, authors. What authors can do is invite readers into that sacred place of remembering: in that way, fiction has the power to become a living, communal archive and storytellers have a responsibility to contribute to it.
This has changed why I write and what I write about. The storyteller has a powerful opportunity to create a space for history, war and injustice to be explored and revealed. The storyteller has a powerful opportunity to create a record of the past. But I describe my work as recording elements of our story because there are so many stories of what it means to be Tamil, so many lived experiences, so many histories that form our living archive.
SRI LANKA’S NATIONHOOD and the narrative of its formation have always been constructed via the selection of which story is told or given preference at a particular time. Waves of migration from India have mixed and merged peoples while also creating distinctions along linguistic, ethnic and religious lines. When European colonisers arrived in the sixteenth century, the island was three kingdoms. The north and the east were historically a Tamil kingdom that sometimes lived peacefully and sometimes in conflict with the two Sinhalese kingdoms of the south. Three centuries later, the island was consolidated under British rule: new boundaries drawn on old maps to enable the British to govern a new colony more effectively.
In Sri Lanka, the battle for territorial legitimacy begins with the battle of contested histories and competing mythologies, remembered and codified in conflicting archives. Who arrived first? Was it the Sinhalese Buddhists or was it the Tamil Hindus? Each side selects its creation story to construct its origin narrative.
The Sinhalese claim descent from Prince Vijaya, a warrior whose father was born to an Indian queen and a lion. Expelled from his kingdom in north-east India, he arrived on the island in the sixth century BCE with a band of loyal kinsmen who would go on to become the Sinhalese civilisation.
The Tamils claim descent from the Tamils of southern India, arriving with their language and religion – an early iteration of Hinduism. Much of the Hindu epic the Ramayana (written in 500–100BCE) takes place on the island named Lanka, ruled by the Hindu king, Ravana. A rare edition of the Ramayana was among the books burned in the Jaffna Public Library.
The dominant archival record in Sri Lanka is the Mahavamsa, a fifth-century CE Buddhist chronicle written by a monk who purports to document the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. From the late nineteenth century onwards, Sinhalese political authorities used the Mahavamsa to construct a powerful narrative that Sri Lanka was designated by the Buddha to protect Buddhism. It appointed the Sinhalese people as the rightful custodians of the religion and the country. This mythologised rendering of history was used to claim Sri Lanka for the Sinhalese and frame the Hindu Tamils as usurpers from India who arrived later to steal the country. This history helped drive changes to the country’s constitution and laws that entrenched the supremacy of one people over another.
As Tamils we have been taught a historical narrative about the development of our civilisation on the island, and that evidence to prove the ancient existence of our civilisation has been destroyed, at least partially. We’ve been taught that in the north and the east of the country Sinhalese Buddhist temples were built over longstanding Tamil Hindu ones, that Tamil historians and archaeologists have faced extraordinary pressure from political authorities to hide certain historical findings and emphasise or even contrive others.
Sinhalese people are taught a completely different history.
Each race owns their archive and denies the other’s.
Much of my fiction looks at these competing narratives in Sri Lanka, at how they created a particular national identity that excluded and othered the Tamils in their own country. The harnessing of history, its appropriation and control, was the first step towards a long and bloody civil war, spanning 1983–2009, in which people from both racial groups were barbaric to each other. The harnessing and rewriting of history that happened in Sri Lanka happens all over the world.
And it still happens here in Australia, in the place where I make my work now.
The burning of books and libraries and the destruction of temples are only two forms of cultural erasure. There are many more, none of them exclusive to Sri Lanka. These include but are not limited to the prohibition of cultural practices, the criminalisation of languages, the stealing of children and their forced assimilation, and the renaming of places. And, of course, there is genocide.
In Australia, I find myself in a country where we non-Indigenous peoples are all negotiating, editing, recording and archiving our histories. We are learning to accept the varied pasts – and sometimes violent journeys – that have determined our present identities. In a country that is still reckoning with the mythology of its colonial origin story and constructed national identity, I feel pushed to the margins by those who claim the centre for themselves. In this country where all non-Indigenous people should consider themselves ‘new migrants’, I learnt from a young age that not all migrants are created equal, and some Australians are more Australian than others.
Untethered from my parents’ homeland and not properly anchored to my new one, my work is a continual iterative narrative arc that is trying to understand, define and claim my place in the world. I am a scribe to my parents’ history of colonisation that catapulted them towards war and several rounds of dispossession. I am a scribe to their, and my own, search for home. Australia’s belated and often reluctant process of reckoning surrounds me as I work. My first novel was mostly about Sri Lanka. My most recent one, published earlier this year, is mostly about Australia. It is the inevitable place for the arc of my body of work to land because each country helps me see the other more clearly.
The public interrogation of Australia’s colonial history has informed my new work, in which I use a destroyed Hindu temple in Sri Lanka and a toppled statue of a coloniser in Australia to explore the competing narratives of dispossession that have been used in both countries to rewrite histories and assert claims over homelands.
The role of history in Australia has helped me understand its role in Sri Lanka and the way ownership over the past allows us to claim the future. The failures of transitional justice and lack of a truthful reckoning in Sri Lanka have helped me understand the consequences for reconciliation if we don’t authentically engage with it here in Australia. Sri Lanka is fractured, perhaps irreparably. Australia doesn’t have to be.
The lived experience of other countries offers Australia an opportunity to do better. The reasoning of judges, lawyers and activists in Sri Lanka who argue that each side must listen to the truth of others offer a mechanism for reckoning and the ongoing process of reconciliation. The doctor in Sri Lanka who says ‘without the truth, there can be no healing’ is offering us the hope – despite everything he’s seen – that with the truth, there is healing.
First Nations peoples tell us about the erasure that commenced upon colonisation, its continuation and its consequences. They tell us about the defensiveness of non-Indigenous Australia when it comes to understanding those consequences or acknowledging our responsibility to address them. This story of erasure is integral to the formation and continuation of modern Australia. This story is our collective shame. But if we acknowledge this archive that we’ve tried to erase, we build an archive of the past that is more honest and reach towards a future that can be more just.
The foundations of both my homes – in their modern-day nation states – are built on colonial myths, some ancient and some more recent. Such historical fictions can only be fought with historical fact. But political authorities do not ever relinquish the fictions on which they have stolen, claimed and built their power. Instead, they strive to assert them more forcefully. They strive to destroy all stories to the contrary, so that only their story remains, only theirs is remembered.
They burn libraries and destroy archives.
They dispossess and erase.
When storytellers write fiction, they strive to build a living, communal archive for the dispossessed. They generate new points of connection, accommodation, understanding and clarity that we can all learn and know and remember. To help us find our ways forward.
ON MY LAST trip to Sri Lanka in January 2019, I travelled with three generations of my family. We went to our ancestral villages and saw the ongoing effects of the war – generational trauma, poverty and disempowerment. My parents took our children to all the places they had loved and left behind while we saw how much of our history had been erased by the ‘rebuilding’ of the north. Rebuilding can hide mass graves and the evidence of war crimes. Rebuilding can raise towering memorials to the political authority which won the war, but not the innocents who died because of it. Rebuilding can hide evidence of the Tamil civilisation’s early existence in Sri Lanka. This architectural approach is an old tool of conquest and colonisation.
We saw Hindu temples scarred with bullet holes, some restored and others neglected and absorbed by encroaching jungle.
We saw new Buddhist shrines in a predominantly Hindu region.
We saw an ancient Buddhist temple, discovered and restored, cordoned off and protected as an archaeological heritage site in this same predominantly Hindu region.
We took our children to the new Jaffna Public Library, built in the same place as the old one. It is still a stately building, but its archive will never be the same. I arranged the Chandran grandchildren in front of the library, took a photograph of them and their grandparents and whispered the words ‘cultural erasure’, because although we were in the Tamil heartland, history has taught us to be afraid.
Perhaps it is too heavy a burden to give to children, the grief of their ancestors, but it is as much their heritage as the Bhagavad Gita. When we were given the privilege of living safely in Australia, we were also given the responsibility of carrying our families’ grief.
Outside the new Jaffna Public Library, standing on the hard, red earth of our ancestral homeland, I felt completely at home and completely dispossessed.
Salman Rushdie calls exile ‘an endless paradox: looking forward by always looking back’.
I came back to Australia and began a new novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, to try to tell some of the stories destroyed by the Jaffna Public Library fire. To explore the importance of archives not just in recording the past but in justifying the present and owning the future. This new work of fiction spans many things and many people – including an historian who writes a different history of the island.
A truer history, some might say.
Gordon Weiss, The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers (The Bodley Head, 2011)
Frances Harrison, Still Counting the Dead (Portobello Books, 2012)
UNHRC Resolution A/HRC/RES/25/1
UNHRC Resolution A/HRC/RES/30/1
A 2019 DFAT Country Report on Sri Lanka relied on by Home Affairs and tribunals in deciding whether Tamils seeking asylum should be deported.
A 2021 UK Tribunal ruling on the risk of persecution faced by Tamils if deported to Sri Lanka that rejects the DFAT (2019) report: https://tribunalsdecisions.service.gov.uk/utiac/2021-ukut-130