I tell the driver where I’m headed and step into his red tuk. Inside, pasted on to the interior to the left of me is a picture of a kitten, to the right is a photo of a cherubic white child with the words “cute baby” written above it. What? Before I’m given a moment to figure out what compelled this 30ish year old man to decorate his vehicle in such a way, the game of Sri Lankan 20 questions begins:
Do you speak Sinhala?
Where are you from?
Wait, you must be Indian, right?
You’re from Canada but you’re Sri Lankan?
So your parents are from Sri Lanka?
Are they here?
When did they leave?
30 years ago! Have they come back to visit?
Is this your first time here?
Where in Sri Lanka are they from?
Ah, Jaffna – you’re Tamil?
Reading between the pauses of this typical interaction, I can sense them connecting the dots as they attempt to place me in Sri Lanka’s history, calculating when my family left and realizing why. A brief interlude. So, you’re working in Sri Lanka? Shifting away from personal details, we swiftly move on to the weather and when the best time to visit Kandy is.
In many of my interactions with people here, when the topic of the war comes up, I become guarded and delicate with what I say. Sometimes I don’t speak at all. There is a nagging feeling that I will be judged for having an opinion because I am not from here. So I stay quiet. We need to move on, declared the young woman. People in Jaffna need to change their thinking, explained the 40-year-old Tamil man. These stories are overdone, she said.
My self-imposed silence in these moments is unbearable. I have my own experiences I cannot ignore. My father’s decision to leave in 1983 and mother soon after in 1986 changed their lives forever and resulted in mine. I am tied to this country in another way, a different way, and it is jarring to suddenly feel less than.
There is so much unsaid. Let’s just move on. With the 33rd anniversary of Black July having just passed, I can’t help but think about how far Sri Lanka still needs to go to fix what ails her. This refusal to treat the wound directly is a symptom of Sri Lankan people as a whole and is evident as the country continues to fumble with it’s reconciliation efforts.
My aunt in Colombo is quite old but her memory is sharp. She recounts her youth in astonishing detail. Between the hellish moments of the riots there was joy. ’56, ’58, ’77, ’83. She places these dates in her stories like punctuation so that she does not forget what happened and so that I won’t either. These and the many other terrible events experienced by all people in this country need to be recognized, acknowledged and discussed openly to give people the chance to truly heal.