Being the other

On crossing the language barrier in Jaffna

The first thing that struck me about Rajachandran was the way he spoke: pausing between words and raising his voice when he emphasised a point.He watched my face to make sure I followed what he was saying. There was no difficulty understanding him; even some of the unfamiliar Jaffna Tamil words were intelligible.

Our first meeting was in May 2013, outside a fish auction centre in Karainagar, a small Sri Lankan island off Jaffna peninsula. Fishermen would bring their catch to the fisheries cooperative that Rajachandran led.

A month after moving to Colombo to report for The Hindu , that was my first trip to the Tamil-majority north.

Cosmopolitan Colombo let me survive with English mostly. To the average tuk driver or cop, however, I was an obvious “other” with a general air of cluelessness. I kept hearing a lot of Sinhala, which sounded nothing like my mother tongue Tamil or the little Hindi that I know.

In that sense, Jaffna gave me a sense of odd familiarity. The sound of Jaffna Tamil was novel, but not distant. I was excited that we could communicate without an interpreter or my desperate repetitions of questions in English.

But the comfort was short-lived. “You” — meaning Indian Tamils — “are the main problem!” is how Rajachandran began speaking. “If you come early in the morning, you can actually see the Indian trawlers very close to our shore,” he said.

The fishermen who spoke to me sounded angry and helpless. Their catch had fallen drastically. They spoke about the Sri Lankan government abandoning them, the indifference of Sri Lankan Tamil politicians to their plight, and the irony of having to battle their “brothers” from Tamil Nadu who compete for fish in the Palk Bay.

I have met Rajachandran at least a dozen times. Long discussions at his office about the “latest” on fishermen’s talks became part of every visit. He would weave in post-war socio-economic realities and political challenges into his analysis. He would serve soft drinks and biscuits; sometimes a sumptuous meal. During my subsequent visits he would observe how I had picked up some Jaffna Tamil. “Your fishermen haven’t stopped coming to our sea, okay,” he’d tease me. “You keep coming and we keep discussing the same thing but nothing has changed. I am going to put you on one of your trawlers and send you back to Tamil Nadu.”

Notebook, a weekly column to appear on Wednesdays, has stories from reporters’ files

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