Remembering Jaffna

We board a plane and fly to Bangkok, then again to Phnom Penh. I pick up a newspaper and I am no longer thinking of this trip. I am all day thinking of Jaffna.

The article reports more bad news, more fighting in Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers are trying to reclaim Jaffna. The city is cut off. More than 40,000 people have fled. Aid workers worry there is no food or water for the civilians who remain.

And I am thinking of Jaffna, of Mr. K, our taxi driver who quickly became our friend, shuttling us around the peninsula many, many months ago. We were there in Jaffna on the cusp of war, amid a ceasefire that to this day still exists — though only in words, not actions. Jaffna, when we saw it, was already bombed from 20 years of war; already bracing for more. But life was still living, people rebuilding, working through the messes. They were selling fish and butchering goats. They were keeping the prettiest little vegetarian market I ever saw. The people of Jaffna were getting on.

I am thinking of the man with a 1955 BSA motorbike, and his kind family who invited us to their home. Jerry had spotted the bike and wanted a photo, but the family wouldn’t stop at just a photo. They led us first through their courtyard, then to the front stoop. They fed us sweet milk tea and gram-flour snacks and they asked me so many questions about our lives, testing their English to its limits. I learned there were 12 people living in that little wooden home — two brothers and their families. Of me, they learned my birthdate, my age, my nationality, the hotel where I stayed and the fact that I had at that point been in Sri Lanka just five days. And knowing only those things, they invited me back to their home, to drink more tea, the next time I returned to Jaffna.

Those were the sorts of people we met. Real families, regular people. Women and young girls who gathered each twilight at the neighborhood spigot, filling buckets of water. Men who rode bicycles with durian fruits tethered to the back. People unaffiliated with war.

***

Two nights later, as the sun began to dim, we stopped at a bar aptly named Liquor Restaurant #01. We met an accountant who welcomed us warmly. He had worked for Mobil in Singapore, then moved to Saudi Arabia. He returned to Jaffna with all the Arabian materials to build a beautiful house in the Jaffna Peninsula. Seven days later, he said, the Sri Lankan Army kicked him out. “I didn’t have a chance to enjoy it.” That was 13 years earlier. The Army had occupied his house ever since.

We chatted awhile longer, and we were invited to the back of the bar, to a dank room with tables. We were given free beer. I was told that women did not visit these places; these places were a bit off-color. In fact, one man said, “It is not our culture.” Hindus don’t drink. Yet dozens of men stood at that bar, swilling whiskey, smoking, exchanging money. I was most welcome to partake, though I only sipped my beer.

***

I am thinking of breakfast on the second floor of the guesthouse where we stayed: piles of string hoppers, pungent curry, spicy sambol (the coconut kind), fresh bananas, hot coffee. We ate at a table in a wide hallway, gazing outside toward a mango tree whose leaves overwhelmed a decrepit patio. An ancient pool lay barren in the backyard. We were surrounded by homes that had been shot and bombed.

***

When we visited Jaffna, the Palm Beach Restaurant, with indoor seating and air conditioning, was about the fanciest in town. We ate there almost every night. The proprietor came to expect us. We once missed a night and he worried what had happened.

I don’t even recall his name right now; I remember him by his curry, his dhal, his Indian breads. He came from India, to open a business (perhaps too soon). But business was no better at home. I remember the smell of his restaurant, of fried onions and ghee. I remember his joy when we told him we like our food hot.

“Oh, you like too much spicy?”

“Yes, very spicy.”

“Oh! You like TOO MUCH spicy!”

And everything came as we liked.

I remember returning to our guesthouse after those meals, at 9 or 10 o’clock, Mr. K driving us in his three-wheeled taxi. It was not far, just a couple of miles, but the streets were black as the sky. Soldiers hunkered in the shadows and on some lonely streets, I felt fleeting instances of fear. Always, the weight of war pressed upon Jaffna; the question of when and how it would return.

***

It has now. It has returned, just as everyone we met had predicted. And now, it is hard to stomach the delicious memory of coconut sambol and string hoppers and Sri Lankan curry near a mango tree.

“Do you want too much spicy?” Jerry and I used to ask each other with a grin. But now, my gut feels hollow when I hear those words.

I am too afraid of what might have become.

Click here to read more about Sri Lanka’s ongoing violence.

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