Rarely do we have relatives who live anywhere near a hundred years. And it is a greater miracle to have a grand aunt – Louisa Arulamma Thambyrajah, born on 6 February 1911 and a relative of both writers – who survived one of the most brutal episodes of war in her late 90s. On 13 February 2009, as the battle between the military and the LTTE raged in the Vanni, in northern Sri Lanka, Arul Aunty and her close relatives were rescued from Suthanthirapuram by the advancing forces. Before this, the Vanni population had been moving deeper into Mullaitivu week after week in search of shelter. Tens of thousands of people, pulled by the threats of the LTTE and pushed by the firing of the advancing army, dug bunkers for shelter as they made their way eastwards. Hearing of the countless people suffering from starvation or succumbing to injuries, news that Arul Aunty and her relatives had escaped the war was unbelievable to us. It was merely good fortune that helped them escape the horrors of the last two months of the war, a period of even greater brutality than the previous decades.
As we contemplate the years of suffering the Vanni people endured under the repressive power of the LTTE, not to mention the bombing and the onslaughts of the military, Arul Aunty's life is a reflection of the great challenges that ordinary people have experienced in Jaffna and the Vanni. Listening to her, one gets a glimpse of Jaffna society of more than half a century ago, as well as life in the Vanni in the years before the 'final war', as the daily existence was usurped by the prominence of the LTTE. Life in Jaffna, or the Vanni during the war years – in its social makeup, means of earning livelihoods, the development of the region and the struggles of the people – is far more complex than publicly portrayed.
Coming from a lineage of converts to Christianity by American missionaries, Arul Aunty was the daughter of a priest. Her later childhood and formative years were spent at the Uduvil Girls College, a boarding school in the Jaffna village of Uduvil, founded and run by American missionaries. At the time, boarding schools for girls brought together Christian and Hindu girls, and consisted not only of formal instruction but also compulsory cleaning and work in the kitchen. Many of the girls went on to become teachers and educationists, and Arul Aunty, on finishing school, went back to her hometown of Chavakachcheri to help in the church and teach Sunday school.
It was during this time, in 1927, that Mohandas K Gandhi, on the invitation of the Jaffna Youth Congress, visited Jaffna. Gandhism and an all-Ceylon nationalism, propagated by the Youth Congress, was in the air. Credited as the first anti-colonial movement in the country, Gandhi's values caught the imagination of the younger generation. Arul Aunty recalls our grandparent's wedding, where our grandmother wore a kathar, or handloom, sari at the insistence of our grandfather. Simplicity was the demand of a community that had previously emphasised and subsequently reverted to cherishing extravagant weddings. Gandhi's visit to Jaffna would tax our grandmother, Arul Aunty's older sister, as she parted with her gold bangles in response to Gandhi's request for donations for the empowerment of the oppressed castes.
Like her sister, and many others of the time, Arul Aunty was no stranger to forfeiting luxury for simplicity. In her 20s, around this time, she married Thambyrajah, a reverend the same age as her, in a union arranged by her brother-in-law. Educated at the Central College in Jaffna, Thambyrajah had worked in Colombo as the warden of the Boys Industrial Home for two years, and returned to Jaffna after having completed seminary education in India. At the time of their marriage, he had told her of the sacrifices she would be expected to make as the wife of a minister. "What does one do but follow her husband?" she said. For the next 20 years, they moved as his profession required, beginning at a small church in Usan near Mirusuvil in rural Jaffna and continuing on to numerous different parishes of the Church of South India. For Arul Aunty, this was also the time of the birth and growth of her eight children. Overall, the years were difficult for both Arul Aunty and her husband, working as they did in the Christian communities also coloured by caste and feudal structures.
In the late 1940s, Thambyrajah had already begun experimenting, attempting to implement his progressive values and projects. As pastor of a church in Karainagar, some 20 km from Jaffna, he attempted to change the system in his church, which had separate seating for the upper and oppressed castes. This was also where he began experimentation with community farming, convinced of the importance of physical work and critical of the Jaffna Tamils' singular emphasis on white-collar jobs. His experimentation with farming failed and, as the Church Council did not approve of his attempts at reform, he was transferred to another church.
The mid-1950s saw the government move on land reform in the Vanni, in an effort to develop the area. Thus came the opportunity for Navajeevanam, a boy's home. Having grudgingly received leave of absence from the church for his project, Thambyrajah got hold of nearly 15 acres of land that had been part of the larger land distribution by the government. On 29 April 1959, Thambyrajah, Arul Aunty, their eight sons and Sister Elizabeth Baker, a Methodist missionary from England, arrived in Murasumoddai, north of the town of Kilinochchi. This famous initiative would subsequently consume the lives of Thambyrajah and Arul Aunty.
Not meant for proselytising, Nava-jeevanam provided refuge for boys with physical and mental disabilities as well as those from troubled homes. Everyone was expected to work, as the home attempted to become financially self-sufficient through farming. It had the challenges of overcoming the caste, class and religious divides with its broader vision of a progressive community. Navajeevanam continued after Thambyrajah's death in 1982, with Arul Aunty and her son Kirubanantharajah taking charge during the decades of war. Despite bouts of displacement, Navajeevanam continued until the last phase of the war in early 2009, months short of the institution's 50th anniversary.
Today, Arul Aunty's reflections and reminiscences traverse those 50 years, so full of unimaginable challenges. In its early years, Navajeevanam withstood a cyclone, floods and even ethnic violence. With the Vanni then a wild jungle and cut off from the rest of the country, setting up the institution came with innumerable physical and economic challenges. In addition, considering Thambyrajah's socially progressive values and his commitment to changing caste practices, Arul Aunty faced pressure and scorn from upper-caste relatives, friends and the broader community on a daily basis.
Among Arul Aunty's stories about the early years of Navajeevanam is a particularly harrowing one. A young boy residing with them was bitten by a poisonous snake, and she has not been able to forget the horror of his screams that evening. Though they rushed him from medicine man to medicine man, all the way to Jaffna, he died the following morning. The funeral, the arrival of the boy's family and the sorrow remain etched in her memory. And even though Arul Aunty saw much suffering and the pain during the subsequent years, the many boys she lost to the unimaginable brutality of the war has not lessened her grief over the death of this one boy, decades ago.
Arul Aunty remembers the slow, brick by brick building of Navajeevanam. As the years passed, the institution grew, gaining new structures and seeing its fields flourish and host numerous people. From simply tending fields, the home expanded to poultry and dairy farming, to community-development programmes through an offshoot centre named Canaan. By the 1970s, the annual celebrations of the founding of Navajeevanam would bring visitors from all over the country, especially Jaffna. This tradition continued till 'the troubles' began.
The courage and the inspiration that led to the building of such a marvellous institution is perhaps emblematic of the strength of Tamil society. But with militancy gaining force, the manipulation of institutions and the appropriation of everything towards the war effort became the norm. Militarisation would take an immense toll on Navajeevanam, as with society in general. Arul Aunty recalls the constant fear for the safety of her sons and the other boys, whether it was being stopped by the army or the intimidation and demands of the LTTE. Yet the daily challenges of living under the repression of the LTTE did not for her diminish her social relationships, which continued during the war years. Those who were forced to flee from Jaffna during the exodus in 1995 and move to the Vanni spoke gratefully of the shelter they found in Navajeevanam. To the end of those brutal weeks of the war, before she escaped with her family, Arul Aunty felt there was immense human compassion around her.
During her emotional and articulate conversations with us, Arul Aunty expressed a desire to talk – to speak out, to get the disturbing memories of those decades off her chest. She says, she is not sure whether that brutal war will return to haunt us again. And behind her bright, alert face, and in her continued discipline of reading every morning, those myriad memories must race through her head. She said with sadness that, recently, she heard that the buildings of Navajeevanam had been destroyed due to the war, and that their belongings, accumulated over the decades, had been looted.
Indeed, one thing becomes inordinately clear in talking to Arul Aunty: the irreparable destruction of war. Such heart-rending tales of loss, displacement and violence constitute the lives of most Tamils, caught between the brutality of the LTTE and the armed forces. We hear of the human suffering, and we see the destruction and devastation as we drive through the Vanni. And yet, for many, these stories and images may fade from memory with time. But for others, like Arul Aunty, they remain etched in living memory. For those who felt and survived the devastation, the losses are irretrievable – the loss of loved ones, of an institution, of farms ploughed over decades, of fifty years of toil and work.
~ Niyanthini Kadirgamar is a researcher based in Colombo.
~ Ahilan Kadirgamar is a Contributing Editor to this magazine.