I was born and raised in a little community in Kuliyapitiya, a typical agricultural area with three small tanks (wewa), which watered paddy fields, within walking distance on three sides of my house. Of course, there were also three Buddhist temples, almost within walking distance from each other. It was a typical village in the North-Western province, a part of which is known as bat kooralee or ‘rice province’. Where there were no tanks or paddy fields there were coconut plantations, big and small. Not surprisingly, much of the ‘coconut triangle’ is also in this province.
Ethnographically, it was a unique village because a considerable number of Sinhalese Christian families lived there, contradicting the conventional wisdom that Christians lived mostly in coastal areas. The village was unique economically too, with a semi-industrial character due to the three coconut-fibre mills in the area. Two of those were less than a mile from my house. If you did not have paddy or coconut land, you could make a living working at those mills. In that sense, the village was atypical. But this ‘self-sufficient village’ was destroyed within five years of political violence.
My village had an intersection, where three roads met. Within a quarter-mile radius of this intersection, or handiya, were three stores. One of the richest men in the village owned the first store. It was called maha kadee (big store), simply because it was the biggest of the three. Its official name was Maheswari Stores.
Now history enters the picture. Maheswari is a Tamil name. Yes, the owner was Tamil, and he was rich: he had quite a large house, a good coconut business, three lorries, a coconut-fibre mill and some land. His name was actually Ramayya, but he was also known as Maheswari mudalali (Trader Maheswari). Maheswari is a woman’s name. How did this man acquire it? The answer was simple: he had a daughter named Maheswari. My father and Ramayya were friends, but Maheswari and I were not. She was Tamil and rich, and she lived in a big house surrounded by a high wall. But I remember her well because she was beautiful, and I was fourteen.
Ramayya was the first to bring a television to our village, as soon as that magical machine was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1978. He had a tall antenna set up on a coconut tree because the reception was not good (the coverage was mostly limited to Colombo during those early years). Soon the rumour got around that that the ‘box of pictures’ could bring movies to your living room. Before long, villagers would gather around Ramayya’s house at night; he set up the TV at the doorstep, and villagers could watch it while sitting on mats spread out in the courtyard. The TV was placed in such a way that his family could see it while sitting in the living room.
I was a regular in the courtyard. I remember movies starring M G Ramachandran as the hero. For us, it was a kind of cinema hall; for Ramayya’s family, it was their home. We could see his family moving about the house, and that was how I got to see Maheswari. Otherwise, she did not walk around much: she was rich, Tamil and a girl. She was beautiful: long hair, milk-tea-coloured arms. I remember well; I was fourteen then.
Recalling this episode now, in middle age, I cannot help being rather nostalgic about that past, a time when a Tamil could become one of the richest men in a village mostly populated by Sinhalese Buddhists. It is still not uncommon in towns, but I do not think it is a reality found in villages in the North-Western Province any longer – not after the Black July.
During the ethnic riots in July 1983, Ramayya’s house, his store and the coconut-fibre mill were all burnt down. I do not think that it was thugs from Colombo who came down to commit that crime. Perhaps some of those very people who watched Ramayya’s television turned into attackers when they heard of the riots in Colombo; when they suddenly learned or were reminded that Tamils were ‘traitors’. After all, there was already a long history of Sinhalese thugs attacking Tamils: 1956, 1958, 1977 and 1979.
None of the members of Ramayya’s family were killed in the attacks. They had fled to safe houses: they were well-connected people. And, perhaps, they knew what was coming.
My family was no longer living in that village when the riots broke out, since a family tragedy had forced us to move to a different village thirty miles away. But the sad news reached us. After the July riots, I did not see Ramayya or his daughter. His property was later sold, I heard, to Sinhalese businessmen.
The story of the second store
About a hundred metres from the Maheswari, there was another little store, which had recently been opened by a young man named Somasiri Mayadunne. He must have been in his late twenties by that time. He was Christian – a Catholic, to be specific. I was too young to remember what kind of relations he had with Ramayya, but they were neighbours.
If Ramayya had introduced television to our village, Somasiri introduced something else, something that was also attractive, at least to the youth. It was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or People’s Liberation Front.
As far as I remember, that was in 1981. A group of young men, clad in red, moved into a little house belonging to Somasiri, located right between the Maheswari and Somasiri’s store. These young men were full-time JVP cadres, and they were engaged in political activities not only in our village but also many other, more distant areas. The house was their base and resting place. I remember, though, that at least some of them were there all the time. They painted posters, read books and talked to us quite nicely. It was soon heard that they did not drink alcohol, either. My father being a terrible drunkard, the JVP ‘brothers’ became a topic my mother loved to talk about.
I was a teenager: they looked attractively different to me.
The JVP was a Marxist/Maoist party that attempted an armed revolution in 1971 to overthrow the Sirimao Bandaranaike regime. The rebellion was crushed by government forces, and the majority of its leaders were arrested, tried and sent to jail. Some were killed. But 1977 saw J R Jayewardene’s rise to power: arguably the single most important event to shape Sri Lanka’s modern political history. Jayewardene set all the JVP leaders free, and the party entered mainstream politics, putting up candidates for elections. In 1982, the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera ran against Jayewardene in the presidential election and came third. The JVP appeared to be turning into a formidable political force.
During that election campaign, the JVP ‘red shirts’ in our village were quite active. Everything they did was colourful, attractive and even theatrical.
Then came the fatal year of 1983 and its cruel month, July. On hearing that the LTTE killed 13 government soldiers in Jaffna – or, rather, seeing that news on TV, which had by then become relatively widespread – Sinhalese rioters began attacking Tamils in Colombo and its suburbs. Violence spread all over the country, and to our village.
Ramayya’s house, shop and fibre mill were all burnt down. Villagers turned into arsonists. Perhaps the ruling-party loyalists organised the attacks, as it has been well documented that the leaders of the ruling party initiated and spread the violence.
After the riots, however, President Jayewardene banned a host of political parties, accusing them of playing a part in the Black July violence. The police were ordered to arrest anyone connected to those parties. The JVP was one of those parties.
The JVP went underground. Those red-shirted brothers in our village too disappeared. Somasiri, the owner of the second store at the main intersection of our village, went into hiding too.
No evidence has been found to date that the JVP played any part in the 1983 communal violence. But Jayewardene did not lift the ban, and the JVP cadres did not surrender to the police as those of other banned parties did. Perhaps they had not really given up armed struggle, and only used the ban as an excuse to arm themselves again. They fled to safe houses all over the country, and began a vigorous campaign to get the ban lifted. Their posters, put up by ‘unknown’ people at ‘unknown’ times, read, Lift the ban on the JVP!
The government did not do what the posters requested.
So, the JVP armed itself, and prepared for its second armed rebellion. By 1987-88, it was a considerable force. The party cadres carried out daring attacks on several army camps and police stations, and captured hundreds of modern weapons. During those years, there was practically a war between the government forces and the JVP rebels, who even assassinated a number of key figures in the government.
The story of the third store
Further down the road from Ramayya’s and Somasiri’s stores was a third store: a teahouse. Its owner was Malhami, whom we called Malhami maamaa (Uncle Malhami). He was Sinhalese and Buddhist.
This store was a little restaurant, serving breakfast and lunch. Day labourers at the coconut-fibre mills ate here. Since it sold bread, sweets, candy and some basic stationery, we would stop there on our way to school. Uncle Malhami’s son was my classmate for eight years; I therefore knew the family well. They were known as supporters of the United National Party (UNP), the ruling party at the time.
When the ‘war’ between the JVP rebels and the government forces became extremely violent, the rebels began to attack pro-government people in the villages too. Hundreds of local leaders of the ruling party were killed all over the country.
One night, ‘unknown assassins’ entered Malhami maamaa’s house and shot him dead. Everyone believed that it was the work of the JVP. No one was ever arrested, however.
Let’s recall the order of events again: Maheswari’s store was burnt down in 1983; about five years later, Uncle Malhami was killed by the rebels. Things were not over yet; there was more violence to come. Barely a week after uncle Malhami’s death, the government forces captured Somasiri, the owner of the second store. A few days later, Somasiri’s family recognised his body cut into several pieces and dumped at a deserted place – a horrible spectacle that was quite common in those days in Sri Lanka’s south, with the government anti-rebel units being ruthless in torturing and killing captured rebels, or those they suspected to be rebels. In practice, they could kill anybody and call him a ‘rebel’.
It was widely believed, however, that by this time Somasiri had long broken his ties with the rebels.
By the end of 1989, it was all over for the JVP. The government had killed all top leaders of the JVP, except for one who fled to India and then to Europe, only to return home nearly ten years later.
My birthplace was a little village with a three-road intersection with three stores, where villagers gathered to buy things and sell their coconut, rice and vegetables. Five years of political violence destroyed all three stores, physically and emotionally. The village itself lost its innocence.
Even today, that intersection generates great sadness in me. The pre-1983 peace and harmony of this village are unlikely to return. The Tamils like Ramayya, living among Sinhalese, have genuine fears.
This unknown little intersection with three destroyed stores is a storehouse of history. History has created this place to make it easy for us to ‘see’ the destruction that extremisms can create. Today, people just pass by this intersection. No one is seriously reading the history stored in this place, my village. But maybe that history is not there: it is in my memory.
I am sure there are other villages like this everywhere in the country, because too many were killed and they too lived in villages with intersections and stores. People build stores at intersections: they want to meet each other.
During the last twenty-five years, I have often thought of Ramayya, Somasiri and Malhami. Many years ago, as a university student, I wrote a poem titled ‘Maheswari’. It was published in a Sinhala magazine. I am sure Maheswari did not read it.
~ Liyanage Amarakeerthi is a lecturer in the Department of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya, and the author of Atawaka Putthu (Half-moon Sons).