(published in an earlier form in South Asian Review , volume 27, #3, December 2006 )
NOTE: This is an excerpt from Arbitrary Passions, a book in progress.
Chapter Three: Revised Itineraries
"Don’t worry — you can pass," she said, her voice low, her hand reassuring on my arm.
It was a few months before my trip to Sri Lanka. I’d just finished reading from my new book at SALA, the South Asian Literature Association, an academic group meeting in Philadelphia. A pretty dark-skinned woman walked up to me; her nose was pierced, and she looked much like many of the women I had seen the last time I was in Sri Lanka, nine years before. Of course, she could have been South Indian instead. I couldn’t tell the difference between Sri Lankan and Indian on sight. We started talking about my upcoming trip to Sri Lanka. She hadn’t been back since she was a little girl; she was Tamil too. Her family had emigrated to India during the troubles. As a teenager she’d wanted desperately to get her nose pierced, but her father would only allow it if she promised him she would never go back to Sri Lanka. With her nose pierced, she could never pass for Sinhalese.
My own father had worried about my upcoming trip to Sri Lanka, had told me over and over again to stay with the white tourist groups, with the hotel guides, to never go anywhere by myself. Not even temples, not even in the daytime. The cease-fire between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese government had lasted for two years now, but the memories of two decades of civil unrest, the ‘troubles,’ lived vividly in the minds of expatriates like my father.
When I was a child, we went back to Sri Lanka every few years to spend idyllic summers there. Lounging under fans with my aunts, sipping cold passionfruit cordials or hot sweet milk tea. Running, sun-speckled, underneath the vines in my grandmother’s vineyard. Wandering the streets of Colombo, the paths of smaller villages, watching village women draw water from the well and carry it home, balanced easily on their heads. I had tried to balance books on my head, but never made it more than a few steps before they came tumbling down again.
Back in 1983, I was twelve, and was going back by myself, to spend a summer with my grandparents. A few days before I was to get on a plane, my father received a telegram from Sri Lanka. Don’t send her; there’s trouble coming. He cancelled my flight. At the beginning of July, there came word of major riots in Colombo, the capitol. Of thousands of Tamils, dead. Killed by their Sinhalese neighbors.
Trouble had been coming for a long time, had erupted in violent incidents. But that month marked the start of almost two decades of civil unrest, when many Tamils, those who could afford to, abandoned their homes, their friends, their country. They flew to India, Canada, England, Australia, America — wherever someone might be willing to speak for them, to take them in. My aunts started arriving, one after another. My mother was the oldest of nine children; it wasn’t long before each and every one of them had come to America or Canada. To the hope of safety for themselves and their families.
My uncle went back to Sri Lanka to marry in 1995; not everyone had left, and there was a beautiful woman waiting for him there. We travelled there for the wedding, cautiously. I was twenty-four then, but obedient to my father’s warnings, I stayed with the family, only venturing out once to visit a museum, with a hotel guide. Soldiers patrolled the beach in front of our gracious hotel, carrying long black rifles. When we travelled in the hill country, climbing to World’s End, visiting the elephant orphanage, riding a rickety train over high hills to tea plantations, the younger generation, those raised in America, could forget that we visited a country under siege. My father couldn’t forget. He knew that he could not return to the north, knew that his mother’s home was a fire-bombed shell, the vineyards destroyed. Knew the streets he’d bicycled as a boy were no longer safe to walk.
In 2002, after extended peace talks in Oslo, mediated by the tireless Norwegians, a cease-fire was negotiated between Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, and President Kumaratunga. The cease-fire had held, unlike others before it, and so in 2005, I planned to go back to Sri Lanka. To research, to remember. I had written and published Bodies in Motion, a book of linked stories that started in 1939 Colombo, and came forward to America in the present day. Had written that book based on facts gleaned from dusty library texts, books that had sat unopened for decades, faded memories, photographs. I had tried to get things right, as right as I could. I worried that it wasn’t right enough.
Now that the cease-fire had held for a few years, I’d persuaded my father that it would be safe enough for me to go back. To be honest, I thought his concerns overstated and overwrought. I was a permanent resident in America; I had lived there for thirty-one of my thirty-three years. My parents were Sri Lankan Tamils, true, members of the minority group. But I couldn’t speak Tamil, couldn’t tell a Tamil from a Sinhalese on the street. My Tamilness was a thin, patchy layer of identity, composed of scraps — a few words of the language, a few spicy dishes that reminded me of home. I’d insisted to my parents all through my teenage years that I was an American, first and foremost.
And yet here was this woman, at an academic conference in Philadelphia in winter. On December 26th, 2004, I had flown through the cold, had had my flight delayed by snow and ice. I’d received an odd phone call en route — a worried friend, who knew that I was planning to visit Sri Lanka over the holidays, wondering if I were already there and safe — apparently there had been an earthquake, some flooding. In transit, I had heard nothing of this, but reassured her that I was fine, that I wasn’t planning to visit Sri Lanka until February. I arrived safely in the birthplace of America, home of Ben Franklin and the Liberty Bell, a city I had once lived in, in which I had felt tremendously proud to be an American.
But here was this stranger’s hand on my arm, her eyes intent, telling me that I could pass.
What did she mean? Was it my light skin that would protect me? Some features of my face — a curve of cheek, a pointed nose — that wouldn’t reveal me as Tamil? I couldn’t tell the difference myself, though either of my parents could often tell with a glance at a face, by hearing a few words spoken, not only whether someone was Tamil or Sinhalese, but which city or village they were from. I was blind and deaf to such nuances; raised in America, I could tell a Southern accent from a Boston one, but that wouldn’t be much use to me in Sri Lanka. Did it matter? I was just going to be there for a few weeks, as a tourist.
I protested, explained that I couldn’t even speak Tamil or Sinhalese. I was an American, I wanted to say.
She just insisted, You’ll be fine; you can pass. Just keep your mouth shut, and smile.