(Srilankamirror) – It was a dull and a gloomy morning. Curfew was lifted early at 04.30 am for the first time after it was clamped from “six to six” following a delayed 48 hour initial curfew. We left from the Government Clerical Services Union (GCSU) head quarters opposite People’s Bank head office. It was Parson’s Road when these tall buildings were first constructed. It was Sir Chittampalam A. Gardiner Mawatha, when we walked along and past the Regal Cinema hall, round the Lake House corner and Lotus Road junction, to the Fort Railway station. We two, that’s late H.N. Fernando, General Secretary of the “Ceylon Teachers’ Union” (CTU), younger of the two elder brothers of Chitra, wife of Rohana Wijeweera and me, Kusal, were not going to miss the first bus that was to leave for Jaffna.
A few days before, we decided we should visit the displaced teachers and other government employees who were sent along with thousands of other affected Tamil people to Jaffna by the government, after the ’83 July pogrom. We therefore had our scanners on, looking out for the first bus that would leave Colombo, to Jaffna.
“Rajeswaree Hotel” the popular, Tamil vegetarian restaurant opposite the Fort Railway Station on Olcott Mawatha, which previously accepted bookings for “KG” (K. Gunaratnam) buses plying between Jaffna and Colombo, wasn’t open yet after shops, restaurants, groceries and “lodgings” were broken into, looted and some set on fire during the first two days of the July pogrom. We were keeping an eye on “Rajeswaree Hotel” to see if a bus would brave its way to Jaffna, one morning. One evening, the clerk cum typist in the union office, also the loyal adjutant of HN, diminutive Dharme brought us the news given by a “runner” who loads private buses in front of the railway station, that a bus would leave to Jaffna the next morning, at half past five.
“We can not miss that bus, if it ever leaves Colombo to Jaffna”, said HN. It was good timing too. A large gathering of affected public servants had been called by the joint trade union front in Jaffna, to discuss the issues of salaries, leave in absence, future placements and transfers, all major issues that were piled on them without answers. It was said, the Jaffna Government Agent (GA) – was it Dr. Nesiah ? I wonder – would also address the displaced public servants, at Weerasingham Hall. This was two days ahead and if the bus leaves next morning we, would be there in time.
We knew there would be no more “KG” buses going to Jaffna. In Colombo, all assets of K. Gunaratnam, his cinema halls, “Star” toffee and “Cial” pen factories and his house, were all looted and burnt during the pogrom. There were Tamil businessmen, big and small, who were selected targets, to be completely destroyed. The guess was, a C. Jayasinghe’s (CJ) bus that previously alternated “KG”, may thus take over the run. The day of departure was 14th August, 1983, if memory does me fine.
We were there a few minutes past 05.00 in the morning, after a hot “plain tea” from a pavement cart. Few large private buses parked in front of the Fort Railway station were to leave to Anuradhapura, to Puttlam and Chilaw, as hours rolled by. It was the “CJ” bus parked towards the railway station in the row, that was to leave to Jaffna. HN, a news paper addict, went round the shops, fetched some news papers and we were seated comfortably in the bus, waiting for it to leave the stand. Meanwhile the time ticked off, from 05.30 to 05.45 in the morning. Then to 06.00 and to 06.30, while a few with us sat impatiently.
There was about a dozen in the bus that should load at least 46 passengers to Jaffna. The conductor, a sturdy young man, dark in complexion, one who looked both Sinhala and Tamil all in one glance, hopped in to count the numbers. He then announced in good Tamil, the bus would leave by 07 am. But the fare would be 120 rupees to Jaffna he said. It was only 45 rupees, till the day before the July pogrom, on 24th July.
Few got off. Meanwhile, as time ticked off anxiously, another few had boarded the bus. They were those who wanted a quick ride to Ja-ela, Negombo, Wennappuwa and Chilaw. We decided to make the trip despite the high, almost unaffordable cost. They were not days of affluence and comfort to us, involved in trade union work. The Weerasingham Hall meeting of displaced public employees including a fair number of teachers as well, was one we did not want to miss. We were certain, our friends in Jaffna would help us if we really needed support for our return journey. The bus finally pulled out of the stand with not more than 14 or 15 in the bus, including the two of us.
We were nearing Wattala and the conductor was collecting fares. A commotion at the rear of the bus, pricked me stiff. The conductor called the driver to stop the bus and was forcing a stubbornly reluctant, middle aged person, to get off the bus. I was compelled to intervene by no one, but my own disturbed conscience and my emotions.
And here is where MY STORY, really begins.
He was seated glum and solid at the very rear of the bus, all alone. Looked bruised on the face, with a dark patch under one eye. I asked the conductor what the issue was.
“See Sir, this man is giving 02 rupees to go to Killinochchi. We can’t even run for Rs.125 to Jaffna…..see, how many are there to Jaffna ?” said the conductor, in a venomous, hissing tone.
“How much do you want to Killinochchi ?” I asked. In a reflective feeling I thought this person should not be dropped off in Wattala, with Sinhala moods still running oppressively victorious.
The conductor looked surprised. After some hesitation and the driver keeping the bus halted on a running engine, he said he wants at least 70 rupees to Killinochchi. I gave him 20 rupees and HN joined with another 20. Then a young person seated behind us, gave the balance and we were on our way.
The bus stopped for tea in Chillaw town and almost all in the bus got off, for the break. All except this one person at the rear. I was curious. I wanted to speak to him. I used my crude Tamil to strike a conversation that took some effort to coax him to speak. But let me leave his story to the end and talk about the other young person who was seated behind me and HN.
It was past 02 that afternoon when we stopped for lunch in Rambewa, a small town past Medawachchiya. I had the cynical habit of avoiding the hotel the bus crew patronises and crossed over to a small shanty type eatery, on the opposite side of the road. Two of us, HN and me were getting set for our meal. The young person who was seated behind us, came and sat opposite us, at the same rickety wooden table. Though obviously disturbed by his encroachment, as on pre-agreement, we pretended we did not notice him. He knew too that his intrusion was not our best taste. He tried to make his presence justified and excused himself. He then had a question for us, after an explanation.
“ I was upset….felt guilty when you two contributed to settle that person’s fare. I know you are both Sinhalese. We should have paid his fare, before you…..you know, we should have been the first.” He said in a very apologetic tone. “Why are you going to Jaffna…..at this time ? What’s your interest there ? He then asked.
We told him we represent a teachers’ trade union and most of our Tamil members in Colombo and in other towns, have been badly affected. “We have a responsibility to look into their problems” HN told him. “And tomorrow, there’s a meeting at Weerasingham Hall, about these issues….” I chipped in.
He then told us his story. He is the eldest son of Dr. A. Thiagarajah, who led the Jaffna
district UNP list for the District Development Council (DDC) elections held in June 1981. Dr.
Thiagarajah, a very popular medical practitioner in Karainagar, was shot dead in his residence in Karainagar, a fortnight before the June elections by unknown gunmen, suspected to be PLOTE cadres.
“My father thought it was best to work together with Sinhala people. That is why he accepted UNP nominations” the young person seated in front of us and sipping a tea, told us. “When he was assassinated, I thought these “boys” are wrong. But now see.” He looked round.
He was an Engineer who had qualified himself in England, but had opted to come to Sri Lanka, his homeland. He said he was employed by the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) and was stationed at the railway workshop in Ratmalana. Stayed down Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya, in a common boarding house. He had escaped all brutalities that broke out on 25th July and spent over a week at the Ratmalana Hindu College refugee camp. He was going to Jaffna to make arrangements to take his younger brother and sister to England.
“I don’t think we have any life here”. He said in a broken voice. “My father was wrong, I feel. The Sinhalese don’t want us”.
The other person, whose story I left for now, was himself going to Killinochchi, in search of his wife and 02 year old daughter. He was employed at the “Nava Jeevana” studios in Wattala. Stayed in a rented room in a Sinhala house, with his wife and infant daughter. That fateful day, he could not get to his rented room. Was obviously anxious about his wife and infant, with all the massacre on the roads. Next day was clamped with a 24 hour curfew. When he finally managed to reach the rented room of his after 02 whole days, his wife and infant wasn’t in there. The land lord had told him it was difficult to keep them with all the riots and therefore were sent to the Wattala police station. He had since gone searching for them for over two weeks. From one refugee camp to another. In between he himself had been beaten up. Finally he had ended up at St. Thomas’ Preparatory School, Colpetty, where he had heard, his wife and infant had been shipped to Trincomalee by the government, along with those who wanted to go to Jaffna. Some one had given him 05 rupees and told him about this bus.
He got off the bus at Kilinochchi, past the district hospital. Was in a hurry, but stopped near our seat to say “Nendri…” with a very grateful smile, glittering in his eyes. I wouldn’t know if there was ever a God, who had enough love to re unite him, with his wife and infant daughter.
We reached Jaffna town late in the evening, much after six. The young person bid us farewell and wanted us to visit him in Karainagar, before we left Jaffna.
“We should meet again before you leave Yaalpanam.” He told us. “ Or else, we may not meet at all…… I don’t think we would have the chance of reunion….. I mean the Sinhala and Tamil people.” His voice was damp and dull.
Next morning we went to the Weerasingham Hall, with our Jaffna District Secretary, Thiagarajah, a Science teacher from Maathagal. The hall was almost full, some talking in small bunches of concerned men. It may have held about six hundred or more public servants, both male and female. Those were all who had lost all their belongings, were assaulted and looted, their houses set on fire and some who had narrowly escaped death at the hands of Sinhala goons. The meeting was on and the Jaffna branch union Secretary of the GCSU was addressing the gathering. I was honestly not sure, whether we could go in and sit among them. For such a badly and inhumanly treated Tamil people, displaced from their lives, we need not be anything better than all other Sinhala men. I felt HN too, hesitantly moving behind Thiaga. We were introduced to the gathering that was told, we had come from Colombo especially to meet the affected people and take their issues to Colombo. I could not believe the warm welcome that filled the hall, when HN stood up to address the gathering. After the meeting, while we were walking to the Jaffna town in the afternoon, I told HN, this would never happen in the South, the other way round.
We could not make it to Karainagar. We sure could not meet again. I wonder whether we would ever meet again. The last I saw of Thiaga too was when he left my place in Dehiwala to assume duties in a middle East country in 1984. Unless they contact me if they ever get to read this, from where ever they are. But they can not afford to loose, or erase these memories. Nor can I.
(originally written to http://serendibinc.com and refined with woken latent memories for “My Thoughts”)