This is a fictional story, with fictional characters (including the narrator). But it is based on a very real calamity: Black July 1983 of Sri Lanka. In July 1983, Sri Lanka was in flames, with widespread anti-Tamil riots, murders and looting, and a blaze of destruction to Tamil businesses and institutions. However, humanity still shone through in the form of the Sinhalese who protected the Tamils from certain people who claimed to be Sinhalese but were in fact not even human.
It was 24th July 1983. I was an average ten-year old Sinhalese schoolchild in an average Colombo school. It was just like any other day. But at 3pm, the unexpected news came, and we were all jubilant. The school ended early! We had no idea why the school ended early, but we merrily left the building.
I was pleasantly surprised to see my parents’ car in the carpark. How did they know my school ended early? I went in happily. But there was no joy in my parents’ eyes. “Chaminda, get in, quick!” said my mother. “Ma, I thought I had to come home on my own. How did you know my school ended early?” There was a deafening silence as my parents looked at each other as if to say, “Don’t tell him.”
There was an eerie calm on the streets as we drove out. When when we proceeded further, I saw something I had never seen in my entire life: An upside-down car burning. “How did that car end up like that?”, I asked. Mom and dad pretended they never heard me.
Further down, I saw something else that puzzled me. A bunch of tall, large men with clubs and spears. “What is happening? Are they looking for people to beat up?”, I asked. Now I sensed something was wrong. School ending early with no apparent reason, a burning car, and now a bunch of rowdies on the streets. “They are beating up some people”, said my dad. “But they won’t beat us up”, he added. I wondered what made him so sure that they won’t beat us up. I was scared. Really frightened.
Dad then turned into a road we usually do not take. I knew he had some plan, but I didn’t know what it was. Presumably knowing that I would ask where we are going, my dad said, “We’re going to Siva Uncle’s place. Then we’ll take him to our house.”
I was old enough to connect the dots. The school ending early, the unusual atmosphere, rowdies on the street, Dad’s intention to take Siva Uncle to our house. I knew some people were in danger, and Siva Uncle was one of them. There was only one missing piece in the jigsaw: Why were some people in danger, and others were not?
This missing piece in the jigsaw fell into place when we waited at a traffic light. Another bunch of rowdies appeared. My heart was in my mouth when they came to us carrying their weapons. One of the men bellowed out a simple question. A question which slammed the missing piece of the jigsaw into my head with all the force of a sledgehammer. He hollered, “Sinhalese or Tamil?”
When my father stated the fact that all three of us belonged to the former community, the rowdies started to move away. Then one of them said, “Wait. Open the boot and show us!” My dad opened the boot. Looking in and finding no one, they charged off.
We turned into one of the streets on the way to Siva Uncle’s place. We were entering Wellawatte, the Tamil locality of Colombo. A shrill, piercing scream filled the air. I saw something burning in the distance. “Chaminda, close your eyes!” screamed mum. I immediately obeyed. As we drove through the street, I smelt suffocating fumes, heard unknown objects being smashed brutally, and listened to people screaming agonizingly. All with my eyes closed. I dared not open them. In retrospect, I wish I had opened my eyes. Because imagination is a terrible thing. In my darkest nightmares, those screams come back to me, embellished with the most horrible images that my imagination can conjure.
We reached Siva Uncle’s place. “Siva, come in!”, called my father. Siva tried to open the boot and get in. Dad said, “No Siva, change of plan, you go to the back of the car instead of the boot.” Siva Uncle said, “But if they see me in the back of the car and suspect that I could be…” Dad interrupted, “If they see you in the boot, they won’t suspect, they’ll know.” Siva Uncle got into the back of the car.
Siva Uncle was a friend of my dad. A Tamil as his name suggests. He had just to moved to Colombo from Jaffna three months earlier, so his Sinhalese language proficiency was only basic. We spoke to him in English most of the time. But my mum suddenly asked him in Sinhalese, “Are you Sinhalese or Tamil?” Siva Uncle replied in Sinhalese, “I’m Sinhalese.” Mom said, “The accent is still not perfect. Please say it again. Everything could depend on it.” He said it a few more times. Then they moved on to other, longer phrases. Within five minutes, Siva Uncle knew how to say, “Yes, I agree that we should kick the Tamils out of the country” in Sinhalese.
We proceeded. Siva Uncle said a few times, “I don’t know if Kamala is alright.” Kamala Aunty was his pregnant wife in Jaffna. He had just married her a year earlier and left for Colombo against her will, citing greater economic opportunities in Colombo. He was supposed to stay in Colombo for a few years, make enough money, send back enough of it, and then eventually go back to Jaffna. A simple plan, but it was suddenly in serious jeopardy.
Luckily, we managed to bring Siva Uncle home without any interruption or interrogation by the rowdies. Once we got home, Siva Uncle was anxious to contact Kamala as soon as possible. Our home did not have a phone (most homes in Sri Lanka did not at that time). Dad suggested, “I have an idea, but it’s a bit risky. We need to leave our house for a while. You said Kamala’s neighbour has a phone. My elder brother works nearby. We can go to his office and make the call. Don’t worry, we’ll get you there quickly and get you back quickly.”
Mum said, “No, Mahinda. Don’t take the risk. We’ve gone through so much to bring Siva home. Don’t let it go to waste.” Dad spent a few moments in thoughtful silence, and then said, “In that case, there’s only one thing I can think of. I’ll go on my own and call Kamala. What would you like me to tell her? You want her to come here or go anywhere else? Or just stay in Jaffna?” Siva Uncle replied, “There are refugee camps being established all over the country, including Jaffna. Tell her to go to one of those camps near Jaffna.”
Dad drove off to make the call. Those thirty minutes were hell. Though I was only ten years old, I could understand how it felt when a loved one was at risk. We were all quietly praying that dad would return with good news.
When dad got back, Siva Uncle asked agitatedly, “What happened? Did you speak to Kamala?” There was a deafening silence as we waited for the answer. Dad said, “No, but…” We all screamed, “But what?!!” Dad then broke the news. “She’s not in Jaffna. I spoke to your neighbour Mr Salim, and he said Kamala has taken a flight to Madras along with a few hundred other Tamils. She’s safe there!”
Siva Uncle hugged dad. We enjoyed unlimited relief. Siva Uncle then went up to a statue of Buddha we had, touched it, and then touched both his eyes.
Dad then elaborated, “Kamala is in a refugee camp near Madras. Once you go there, both of you will be safe. Now we need to get you to Madras.” Mum said, “Yes, but let’s wait a day or two for the violence to die down.”
The next day, something we dreaded happened. A couple of large, armed men knocked on our door and asked the inevitable question, “Are you Sinhalese or Tamil?” Dad gave a reply which has stayed in my mind ever since. I still give the same answer whenever anyone asks me if I’m Sinhalese or Tamil. Dad said, “I’m a Sri Lankan.”
The tragedy of Sri Lanka is that this answer has never been sufficient. These intruders were not satisfied with the answer. They kept repeating the question. My mom then asked an interesting question. She said, “You can’t tell the difference between a Sinhalese and a Tamil unless you ask them, but you still kill people based on that difference?”
One of the rowdies bellowed, “I’m not here for a philosophical discussion. Don’t quote dhammapadha (Buddhist scriptures) here. Tell me if you’re Sinhalese or Tamil.”
If my dad had told him his name was Mahinda Gunasinghe and we were Sinhalese, the next natural step would have been searching the house, finding Siva Uncle in one of the rooms and demanding what he was doing there? Was he related to us, was he my dad’s brother, or worst of all, was he a Tamil to whom we had given shelter? Sensing this, my dad did something I least expected. He said, “My name is Mahendran Gunasingam.”
Hearing this Tamil name, the two rowdies charged in on him. My dad blocked both of them with a skilful maneuvre. He punched one of them in the neck and kicked the other in the underbelly. With a series of quick, dexterous maneuvres, he battered the rowdies into submission. As the rowdies ran away, dad said, “Come to Dehiwala Karate School! I’ve been Chief Instructor there for the past eight years!”
Siva Uncle came out of one of the rooms, and cried, “Mahinda, why did you put your life at risk for me?” Dad replied, “It takes much more than those two creatures to put my life at risk. You know very well what I do for a living!”
Based on the news in the radio, we sensed that the tensions had died down over the next two days. On 28th July, Siva Uncle left our home, giving me a kiss and hug before he left. Mom told me Siva Uncle was going to Madras to reunite with Kamala Aunty. She also added that Canada had offered to give asylum to the Tamils, and Siva and Kamala would soon leave Madras for Toronto. I asked mum, “What is meant by giving asylum to the Tamils?” Mum smiled wistfully, perhaps envious of my blissful ignorance. She said, “It means the Tamils can go to a country where they will be treated as humans.”
Later, we received the good news that Siva Uncle and Kamala Aunty had made it to Toronto without any hurdles. 25 years on, they are still happy and peaceful in Toronto. They are Canadian citizens, and both their sons are engineers. They go out on the streets knowing they won’t be arrested. They go to temples knowing they will return safely. They look to the skies for the stars, not for the planes. They can safely guess that they and their loved ones will be alive in an hour’s time.
I’m 25 years older now. In 1983, I had a lot of questions. Why should we kill someone for speaking a different language or worshipping a different god? Why did we, my dad, my mum, have humaneness while others did not? How is someone treated as a human being in all countries except his own? Many things were strange to me. 25 years later, they still are.