Previously: Suthan puts me in touch with Barbara, telling me that she is like a mother to him. After Barbara and I meet for coffee, she emails me her thesis, Suthan’s Story. Barbara and Suthan are co-authors. The first paragraph below is a direct quotation from Suthan’s Story. Thereafter, I have adapted the material to piece together a picture of Suthan’s early years in Sri Lanka and his subsequent journey to Australia.
‘I had a brother, Umasuthan, he was the eldest, my sisters were Bramila and Kagentha and I was the second. We were all very, very good friends but sometimes we would fight in the bed. We all slept together in one big bed. If someone cried my mother would come and hit everyone with a wooden spoon and we would all run away. But really my Mum was very kind.’The beginning of Suthan’s Story
Suthan was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, in 1978. His earliest memory is sitting on the kitchen floor with his mother and brother and sisters. His mother would shape dainty balls of food with her fingers and feed each child in turn, saying, ‘This is for you, and this is for you.’ As she tried to cajole to eat a little more, they would say, ‘No, no, that is enough, that is enough.’
They lived in a big house with three bedrooms, a prayer room, a kitchen, two living rooms and a veranda. The veranda looked out to the garden, where rose bushes perfumed the air and water gurgled from a stone fountain in the shape of a lady. They had fruit trees full of buds and a king coconut tree that bore more coconuts than the family had need for. At one time, the family had thirty goats and two cows. But an uncle siphoned away the money from the milk for alcohol and Suthan’s father said: enough of cows.
From the age of six, Suthan’s father would wake him up at dawn. Suthan would moan and his father would chuckle, but Suthan still had to get up, wash his face, walk to Main Street and open the family grocery shop. There, he carried out his duties: receiving the day’s delivery of fresh flowers, lighting the candles, sweeping the floor and sprinkling turmeric and water all around.
While his father bought fresh vegetables from the market wholesalers, Suthan manned the shop. His six-year-old head was very good at remembering the prices of bread, vegetables, soap and all the big and little items they stocked. When his father returned from the market, Suthan would run home to get a cup of milk coffee from his mother and deliver it to his father at the shop before hurrying off to school. These were Suthan’s responsibilities and he carried them out diligently.
If Suthan complained that Umasuthan slept while he worked, his mother would reply, ‘The tree that gives a lot of mangoes gets hit. The tree that doesn’t give doesn’t get hit.’
Suthan’s father embodied the proverb. He was an important man in the temple, a big committee member at the library, the school, and the Hindu temple. People gave him much respect and many headaches. There was, for example, the matter of the temple priest, his caste and his qualifications. The priest was barred from performing religious ceremonies and all the locks in the temple were changed. It was most unpleasant.
In addition to school, his father paid a lot of money for special English lessons for Suthan and his sisters.
For the Tamil minority, mastery of English had been the key to securing good jobs under the British administration, which translated into success after Ceylon, later renamed Sri Lanka, received her independence in 1948.
In 1987, an Indian peace keeping force set up camp in Jaffna to oversee the withdrawal of Sri Lankan government troops and the disarming of Tamil militants. The Indians intended to enforce peace, and to end the civil war that had read like a bloody ledger – Singhalese versus Tamils – with casualty numbers varying wildly depending on whose accounts you consulted.
Tamil Tiger leader, Prabakharan, however, was dissatisfied with the peace agreement because it ruled out a separate Tamil homeland. He declared war.
As fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the Indian army escalated, Suthan’s family moved further and further away from their home near the town centre.
Each night, they tried to find a safe place to sleep – schools, temples or the homes of friends in remote areas. Heavy shelling forced them to keep moving: run, sleep, run, sleep, no time to eat. There was nowhere to bury corpses, and the living burned the dead in huge bonfires on school grounds. It was as if the entire city had been transformed into a vast funeral parlour with so many dead that consuming flames could not keep up with the demand to reduce human flesh to ash.
When the fighting diminished in ferocity and Suthan’s family finally returned home, they saw big piles of ash where their house once stood. Scrawny chickens scratched the charred remains, looking for something to eat. Stray dogs dozed in the ruins. To eliminate potential hiding places for the Tamil Tigers, the Indian army had cut down everything: rosebushes, fruit trees and even the king coconut tree. Because the Tamil Tigers had fought from Suthan’s family home, the Indian army regarded it as part of their camp and destroyed everything.
Pity the civilian caught between warring parties. Suthan’s father was detained three times. In the first instance, he went to the Indian camp to ask why they were looking for him. He didn’t return. Suthan’s mother pleaded with the Indian army, speaking English, the language of their former colonial masters, the language of authority, not Tamil, the language of insurgents and terrorists. She talked and talked and talked. The next day, Suthan’s father returned, bashed and bruised. The temple priest had conveniently settled his personal vendetta by falsely reporting Suthan’s father as a Tamil Tiger sympathizer.
The second time, the Indian army arrested Suthan’s father for harbouring a Tamil Tiger, really only a young boy, a family friend, who had been out walking at night, and who had had run into their house for shelter. Two days later Suthan’s father and the boy were released. Suthan looked at his father’s face. It was all battered and bloodied. The boy had been beaten terribly, too, a bottle rammed up his anus.
The third time, the Tamil Tigers arrested Suthan’s father for failing to deliver furniture for hire according to their request. Pleas for his release proved futile. Suthan’s father died in 1989. Pity the mango tree that bears good fruit that is hit by rocks, once, twice, once too many times, and dies.
In the early nineties, the Indian army left, the Tamil Tigers assumed control, and Suthan’s family experienced a measure of peace. Umasuthan hated the Sinhalese and was a strong supporter of the Tamil Tigers. Every day he attended meetings. One night, he left for evening class but didn’t return. No one would tell the family what happened to him. He was not even nineteen.