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.