The first guy I met in India was a Sri Lankan, an estate Tamil who’d fled after the riots. I just got off the phone with his sister. While he was hiding from the mobs in a church, she was hiding in my uncle’s house. Small world, in kindness and in cruelty. When the riots started she and her family had hid in an adjoining garden while people ransacked and looted their house. In the night my uncle came and brought them back to the house. People muttered that there were Tamils there, but my uncle was imposing and his father was a policeman and no one interfered. It was hard to find enough food until the worst times passed over, but they did. It’s history now, one we rarely tell.
1983 was an inflection point for Sri Lanka. I was one year old and in Canada, so it’s only social memory for me. People a bit older than me still remember the fires, the smells, the violence, the fear. For my parents generation it’s all too real. What a tragic situation, to be hiding your neighbors, from your neighbors. I only heard about the families that escaped, but I wonder about the ones that didn’t. It all seemed so close. So many people just died in the streets or burned in their homes. It was ‘lucky’ to just lose your home and possessions. And then so many people left the country forever.
I’m not making a political statement here. I’m pretty sure 1983 will never happen again and I think Sri Lanka has come a long long way towards tolerance and solidarity. I’m just thinking about a person I met on a train, and the threads of family and acquaintance that connect us. It’s not even my memory, I was just a child, I’m trying to remember but it’s more an act of recreation. There’s something in the social fabric that got ripped and torn, I can vaguely sense that there was something there. Now those threads are spread across many continents, they’re wrapped in politics and wired to bombs. I’ve heard 1983 used for various purposes, but I’m just trying to remember it as a year in my life.
My grandmother was coming to visit me. When the city caught fire she delayed her flight. The girl next door was a stewardess, I remember she gave me some flight wings once. I think I still have them in a box. Or that might be something else. These objects and photographs tend to become memories of their own. The family was Tamil and they hid in my grandparents house. When the mob came down the dusty lane he said there was no one there. They were cowards and turned around, but I bet he was scared. Across town my aunt was trying to feed a lot of extra mouths without drawing too much attention.
My parents and I were in Canada. Hanging on the news I suppose. Those are the threads we hang by. Those people are who I am. If I close my eyes I can get out of my body and sense the world through my blood, all the places and people we have been. All the doors that are open to me because I am my father’s son, my mother’s child. All the people that love me for no particular reason except that we’re somehow the same. Then all of the people they know, all the introductions they could make. I met a gentleman on a train to Bangalore. I spoke to his sister in Colombo a month later. Our families are connected not by blood shared but by blood spilt. But connected nonetheless. We could have been neighbors long ago. Now we’re just strangers on a train.