Jaffna relatives


I am not related to Vēluppillai Pirapākaran however distantly. Stories by friends of relatives that Vēluppillai Pirapākaran once served them dinner doesn’t count. My Jaffna connection is a branch of the family tree that broke off in a pre WW2 elopement (shocking no?). Jaffna Brahmins of that era didn’t take the elopement of offspring lightly. Running off with a non Brahmin amplified the shock. Hearing about the marriage certificate being signed in a dingy government office in distant Colombo was the point of no return. To make matters worse (murphy is everywhere) the young couple were an ungrateful pair of anti colonial intellectuals (clearly corrupted by that Gandhi fellow). It was a slap in the face of the family’s proud achievements in the colonial civil service.

The scandalous twig was lopped off the family tree with a swift disownment. The intergalactic distance between Jaffna and Colombo prevented uncomfortable encounters. I head stories of uncles who secretly kept in touch. But that did not last long.  Things had not gone well up north by the time WW2 broke out. Most of my relative’s elders had passed away in rapid succession (supposedly of broken hearts) by independence. The younger generations sold everything and moved to the UK some time in the 60s.

As a child, I was confided with stories of growing up upper class in early 20th century Jaffna. Stories that gave Shyam Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens a familiar ring. The Victorian attitudes, the merciless emphasis on education. A world of missionary educated parents running a very traditional Hindu household. The men despite their stratospheric achievements, had a habit of dying just past middle age. Perhaps wearing suits in the Jaffna heat wrecked their fragile constitutions. They were outlived by formidable women who really ran the show.

Each “story” I heard was a description of a very human moment of these many characters. Mostly domestic scenes both mundane and beautiful as Vameer’s Woman pouring water. They were also exotic snapshots of daily life in a long ago world. Each anecdote a  piece of a vast incomplete mosaic. I filled in the gaps with images of stiff postured sepia tone photos. Serious looking people scrutinising the camera with determined gazes. The sort you’d expect to see in a sprawling living room. Sternly judging the dutifulness of their decedents from ornate gilt frames. 

There must have been such a room. The “big house” was a constant character, if not the setting for practically all of the stories I heard. Its many many rooms marinated in family history. The kitchen: imperial territory of the grandmother whom none messed with. The study: domain of the very serious father (who characteristically died not so old). The free spirited uncle who let children scribble on his walls – something unthinkable elsewhere in the house. It seemed a place pulled out of “Gamperaliya” and given Jaffna specifics.

An aunt claims to have seen the place as a child. Supposedly when she was taken along on an ill fated peace mission. Her fuzzy references are of a sprawling decaying mansion in Chavakacheri. Roof tiles missing like a balding bitter peon at in an irrelevant government office. I doubt the place would have survived two decades of war. It was supposedly sold off by when that end of the family upped it to England. Relatives of my father’s generation have been building incremental bridges.

The high point so far was a low key dinner a few years after our “connecting elder” passed away. It was held at that aunt’s who knew how to cook up delicious “Jaffna” fare -vegetarian of course. Started with Vadi straight off the oil and ended with a divine Payasam made by people who knew how to let sugar do its thing without going over board. Somewhere in between there was a Pongal curry and a wonderfully textured Uppuma (Upma). The perfect thing to dance with the Idlis that just kept coming out of the kitchen. Admiring their precise flying saucer like shape didn’t stop me from stuffing myself. Recollection of the meal waters the mouth as I write.

It was the first time I have met my Jaffna relatives. Smooth lush Oxbridge accents and distinguished grey hair. Civilised colognes and tasteful jewellery. Children now married, successfully employed and globally scattered further away. I’m sure the ghosts in those old photos who have been please and perhaps smiled with satisfied pride when no one was looking.

Always interesting to meet the names I have heard about in passing conversations among parents, uncles and aunts. The war was not discussed. There is the usual catching up on mutual friends and relatives. The web of connections is vast in typical Sri Lankan fashion.
Kinship terms of three languages glide effortlessly through the aromas of dinner. Around the table the conversation dances very friendly, very informal and very family.

22 comments

  1. “Kinship terms of three languages glide effortlessly through the aromas of dinner.” Beautifully phrased. The imagery and detail in your post is wonderful!

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  2. Yes interesting. It can be interesting to meet disconnected branches of the family, provided of course that they are interesting people and in your case, they seem to be.

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  3. Brilliantly written Cerno. Made me homesick for my family with the line “Kinship terms of three languages glide effortlessly through the aromas of dinner.”

    And all that talk of Uppuma and Idlis… *sigh*🙂

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  4. 😯 quite the crowd! Unexpected but welcome🙂

    Jack: Interesting in deed. Turns out my parents and my other relatives have been keeping in touch with them for years. Not a easy thing to do when they are on another continent.

    Vindi: Thank you🙂 Yeah that was a mouth watering meal all right

    T & Scrumpulicious : Thank you😀

    pandithaya :😈 I think it was also in respect for the Hindu/vegetarian facotr and in memory of our common relative.

    Sean : Happy you liked it🙂 its amazing where you find those old photos popping up. Found a particularly interesting one in the dark corner of the Tangalle resthouse a while back. I’m just amazed people were able to walk around the Sri Lankan heat wearing twead suits.

    RD: Thank you🙂

    Jerry: Lucky you😀

    maf: Thank you🙂 Good to see you commenting around again.

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  5. […] Our view of government in feudal monarchial terms does not diminish the principles of democracy. I am certainly not suggesting that we uncivilised darkie primitives can’t govern themselves. Sri Lankans have long since adapted to living amidst feudal politics. It is our reality and we have survived wars, rebellions and other farts of history. No matter whatever shit that hit the fan, we are better off than Somalia, the Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, and other hell holes. Subconsciously I think we know accept the rituals of our politics into the rhythms of life. Fits in with the rambutan season, the “traditional” new years, and our interlinked families. […]

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  6. wow.. who wud have thought there were so many ceylonese out there… each no longer in sri lanka n yet still so connected to it. good to know

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  7. […] Its heartening that our kids get along so well on the rare occasions we meet. Yet seeing them run around had only emphasises a sense of drift and disintegration. Which I’ve [blogged about before in a bout of new year realisations]((https://cerno.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/sri-lankan-new-year-thoughts/). I used to blame that disintegration on the war. On the stupidity and the greed of the politicians who caused it. A lot of negative energy spent on futile rage. None of this is new. Our parents’ generation went through something similar with their Jaffna relatives. […]

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