Claiming the Land


Organizing my office, I find a document

written in three language: English, Tamil, Sinhalese.

A deed to land, bought by a proud new father

for his baby girl.  A promise for the future.


We always intended to go back.  Emigrating

to America, the idea was to earn money,

go home.  Home to fresh mangoes plucked

from the tree, long stretches of sand dressed

in fisherman’s nets, piled with ocean bounty,

home to bougainvillea-draped houses, crimson

and orange, humid air thick with jasmine,

home to sisters and brothers, mother and father,

cousins, nieces, and nephews — the move

was always meant to be only temporary.


Working abroad is more often a one-way street

than people anticipate; the waters are wide,

and hard to cross.  Your children grow up, go

to school, make friends, and the ordinary days

fill up, speed by.  You put down roots in new land,

draw nutrients up.  Blue onionskin letters come

and go, and now, your father has died, far away.

You bring your mother to you, take care of her

until the end.  There is less reason to go back now.


And then the war.   Thirty years of war, and one

by one, all the relatives flee as refugees.  The threads

are being snapped, twisting vines that once linked back

across an ocean, a silver net that bound us

to a distant island drenched in sun.  And then

it ends, finally, the war.  My father doesn’t want

to go back, but I am grown now, so he gives

me the papers.  He isn’t sure when or how I might

make use of them, but he’s getting old now.

He wants me to have them.


My mother calls, a few years after the war.  A great-uncle

has gone back, to claim some land abandoned when

they fled.  She sends me the newspaper article.  His throat

has been sliced open, his blood gushing out, soaking ground

already blood-drenched.  The case will never be solved.

Soldiers have claimed a lot of the land in the North, land

that used to be ours.  It may be desolate now, weed-choked

where gardens once grew — the ground seeded with

explosive mines, instead of jackfruit, woodapple, papaya –

still, they fought for it, and they will not give it back.


I own my own house now, my own land in America.

Good land, quiet.  My children run across it, bare toes

digging in the dirt.  I grow flowers that would never

survive in Sri Lanka, cold-hardy roses, lilac trees.

I do not need this piece of paper, or what it represents.


The situation back home (and yes, though I left

when I was two, more than forty years ago, when the

country was still mostly called by a different name,

independence still too fresh for the new name to stick,

I do still, somehow, think of it as back home) is getting

worse, not better.  This morning, I read a report on

funding cuts to government services in the war-ravaged

north, where Tamil women’s risk of sexual assault is

increasing, where more people slip into poverty daily.


I doubt I will ever be able to claim this piece of land

I theoretically own.  I will never go there and survey it,

build a house there – not for a permanent home, but

somewhere I, my white husband, our mixed-race children

might visit.  Spend summers, the way I did as a child,

amidst the bougainvillea, the mangoes, the cousins.


Still.  I fold the paper carefully again, slip it back

into the folder marked ‘legal,’ put the file box back

on its shelf.  Let is live there, my claim on the land,

its claim on me.  Someday, I will tell my children

about it, tell them their grandfather bought

a piece of land for us, and if they wish it,

they may choose to claim that connection.

If not, they can let it fade away.