Going Down Memory Train

Dec 2, 20156 min read

We are one country, one nation, one people. Now we can travel by train from Matara to Jaffna like we used to do till 1983. Today Omantha is a small railway station and another calm little town on the A9. Let it always remain so, from now on. We do not need any more barriers or border check points within one country. Though we talk of the A9 now, a few decades ago very few would travel by road to Jaffna as the train journey was more convenient. All we could notice then was the 'Jaffna junction' in Anuradhapura. Still, even if A9 is popular now, the train is a more convenient, and greener way to travel to Jaffna.

One instance where we meet the culture of Jaffna which remains unchanged is where the Jaffna people prefer to travel at night, by train or by bus, so they sleep on the way, reach Colombo by morning, attend to their work and return the same night. This way they save two working days which they would have to use, to travel during the day, and also probably having to spend night in Colombo.

In November 2015, I traveled by the Yaldevi leaving Colombo at 6.25 a.m. to Kankesanturai (KKS), which reached Jaffna at 3.45 p.m. It used to leave Colombo at 5.45 a.m. in 1968 and reached Kankesanturai by 1.30 p.m. sharp. A little less than 8 hours to travel the 400 km. Today the return journey took 9 hours 30 minutes.

This was perhaps the first difference I felt. Four or five decades ago we could set our watches by the train schedule. People living close to a rail track did not need an alarm clock in the morning. They could time their early morning program by the trains passing by. I could take the Yaldevi from Colombo with the confidence that I could reach the cement factory at KKS for the 2.00 p.m. work shift. But then, who are we to complain about a little delay, when we are able to travel by train once again, to the other end of the country.

On this journey I saw the people of Jaffna, once again as the same people I had met 47 years ago. I would like to call him the Pragmatic Jaffna Person, because I have not come cross a term to their identity, and Jaffna Man would be doing an injustice to the more pragmatic Jaffna Woman.

I would like to repeat, people in Jaffna have not changed. At least the people from the north who I met on the train and in the town. The poet and academic who greeted me with his welcoming smile on my arrival in Jaffna, another great poet who writes in sinhala, who peddled his way to meet us in the rain, still using the Jaffna persons' most popular form of transport, and the bilingual writer who made arrangements for our most comfortable stay in Jaffna, who kept on checking with me from Batticaloa, all of them renewed my confidence in humanity, convincing me once more that we are all sisters and brothers, children of Mother Earth.

I had the good fortune to meet a group of students from the Jaffna University, who were studying Translation Methods. We need these bilingual, and some of them trilingual, students to narrow the gap which has continued to widen between us in this country, ever since we burnt down the only bridge which had kept us together, the English Language. It is not only their obligation, but their duty, that these students use their knowledge to bring the two cultures together, by translating from one language to the other. This is the only way we can understand, and thus appreciate, the culture and the values of the people using two different languages, but still remain as one family.

In the south we are now trying to encourage our farmers to give up using killer chemicals on their food crops, poisoning themselves very fast and poisoning the rest of the people slowly. What we could do is to forge a link between the farmers from the north and the south, so we could learn how to grow our food free of poison. This is one area where we can learn on a priority basis from the Pragmatic Jaffna Farmer.

Since our renewed social and cultural association has to work both ways, what we in the south could contribute is to give all our support for the people in Jaffna to retain and maintain their pragmatism, their strength and ability to face hardships, deprivations and suffering, even if their lot is much better today. We could also learn from the people in Jaffna, how not to be enslaved by consumerism, how not to let consumerism be our religion.

A change I noticed was the grand statue of God Hanuman on KKS road, towering over the gopuram of the temple behind and the Subramalai temple, in Jaffna now. This development could be the reaction of the people in Jaffna, who were forsaken by all their leaders, religious, social and political. However their faith, their beliefs kept them going, and keeps them going even today. While we admire them for it, this could be a golden opportunity for our academics to study the new religious trends in our country. One more path to better understanding.

My journey began simply as a journey down memory lane, but I have realized how much I could still learn from this journey of just 35 hours that brought back memories of 47 years. And I would have many more to write about.

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