Written by- K.S.SUTHAKAR
Translated into English by KATHIR BALASUNDARAM
Human rights activist and writer Kathir Balasundaram, B.A., S.L.E.A.S., is a former Principal of celebrated Union College in Jaffna, Sri Lanka and now living in Canada.
Those of us selected by the Engineering Faculty to attend the celebrated Peradeniya University found rooms in either the James Peris (J.P.), Hilda and Obryasekara men residence halls or the Sangamitta and Ramanathan Residence Hall for women.
Our studies began well, and we threw ourselves into them enthusiastically. Each residence hall had a cafeteria, and we found entertainment by pulling pranks on the cashiers and servers.
The J.P. residence hall was situated on a hill and looked elegant from any angle. Only two tracks went up to the residence hall there, but travelling a bit higher on the hill, stood the Marcus Fernando hall of residence. This housed cooking facilities where experts, capable of cleaning rice or dhal using a sieve, worked. They typically ate while they cooked and they belonged to the arts faculty.
Vijayananthan—nicknamed Uncle Vijayam—and Spencer were my roommates. Spencer had the roughest time there. Some of the seniors had been caught by Professor Sivasegaram bullying Spencer and were subsequently suspended for a year from the university. Angry friends of the bullies would often come to our room and give Spencer a hard time.
Another friend, Rajeevan, used to visit our room and say to me, “Hey Machan, let’s have bonda and soosiyam, okay?” With our sarongs rolled up to our knees, we went to the canteen together where Rajeevan would stand like a fuming wild buffalo. I, fearful of being caught, hid from everyone else’s view next to a wall. To those inside the cafeteria, only Rajeevan would ever be seen.
To divert their attention from what he was really doing, he would demand things that were not available for sale while he stole soociam sweets and passed them on to me. He would even ask for goat-intestine curry or betel and areca nuts. I would slip every stolen item into my rolled-up sarong through the small space at its hanging top. We even managed to filch some beeda-betel! We would return to our room laughing. Our friends would be awaiting our arrival to share in our haul.
Once, years ago, I learned that a young woman had stayed in room 13 of the J.P. residence hall when it had housed female students. She had committed suicide as she was unable to endure the hazing and pranks played on her. She had set herself on fire. Later, the room had been relabelled as 13A, a storage room for furniture. It was said that the crying voice of the deceased woman could still be heard in the room even after her death.
The Engineering lecture halls and labs were built some distance from the J.P. residence hall. Someone travelling from the residence hall to the facility would get to enjoy the natural beauty along the Galaha Road. The road passed the Senate Building and crossed a bridge that spanned the Mahaweli Ganga. The bridge, supported by a single pillar, was constructed with the help of Professor Durairajah. While passing the Senate, our eyes would automatically fix upon ‘Lovers’ Lane,’ where we watched embracing couples enter the park and walk down the road hugging and pushing each other merrily.
The Akbar Residence Hall was close to the Engineering Department, so we went there for our meals between lectures. That was where we learned to eat goat-intestine curry. We were all familiar with Akbar Residence Hall since we had all lived there prior to attending the Engineering Department to finish our excruciating English prerequisites. Hardly any girls ever came around, much to our disappointment, but those who lived in the dorms that faced the university on the other side of the river were lucky. Returning to their rooms after the evening lectures, they would gather at the windows to watch the girls. They would compete with each other to see who could first get the girls’ attention with a whistle.
The performing arts theatre of the Engineering Department was located in the E.O.E. Pereira Building. Almost all of the performances by the Tamil Society used to be held there. During our stay, we staged three plays: ‘People Without Shadows,’ and two other plays titled, ‘Thiruvila’ and ‘Oh! Calcutta,’ by Mavai Niththi.
I remember once, the moment our play ended, we took off, climbing more than eighty steps to reach our residence hall. Normally, we would relax once or twice on the climb, but not this time. We knew that a bunch of girls, returning from the theatre, would be passing our residence hall on their way to either Sangamitta or Ramanathan residence halls. And we had a plan.
We went to the toilets and filled up shopping bags with foul-smelling body waste. When we returned to the slope of the hill, underneath which the girls would have to walk, Basil was sitting there on a bench watching along the Galaha Road. Suddenly, he shouted, “They’re coming! They’re coming!”
Someone yelled, “Throw, man! Throw, man! Throw at the target!”
Vasee began his catcalling, “Hey girls! Hey girls! Catch!” We began throwing the bags of urine at the women below in the ‘Kissing Bend.’ Drenched in the foul smelling rain, they started running towards the Sarathsanthira open-air theatre. It was so funny. We will never forget this hilarious experience in our lives.
But that all came to an end.
Any incident regarding ethnic unrest or violence that broke out in the North-East of Sri Lanka set off tension at our university in the central hills of Sri Lanka.
On the evening of May 11th, trouble found the students at the Hilda, Mars, and J.P. Residence Halls simultaneously. We received a telephone call from the Hilda Obeyasekara residence hall that some Sinhala thugs had entered the dorms and assaulted some of the Tamil boys. They advised us to be watchful.
We later came to know who those hooligans were. They were Sinhala undergraduates from our own residence hall. They didn’t assault us because they went to the other residence halls to assault Tamil students there. A few of them stayed back to identify Tamils for other Sinhala students that came from the other residence halls to attack us.
Susantha Tennakone of our residence hall was the “hero” who pointed out the Tamil undergraduates to the angry Sinhala thugs. His face full of thick acne scars, he spoke with a peculiar English accent and lisp, using a very long rhythm that helped him to decide the next word. He seemed to suck in his nose every time to identify a room with a Tamil in it.
Many of us were severely battered that night. It grew worse when more ruffians arrived from the towns of Hantane, Udaperadeniya, and Rajawatte. They did not appear to be undergraduates, but like drunken people, ran about screaming and waving clubs around. Basil, Mannar, Sri, Vijayam Mama, and I were in our room. One of us watched through the window while others of us stood at the door, trying to keep it closed. We could hear the cries of pain from our friends and fellow students in nearby rooms as they were being beaten.
We heard Susantha outside demanding us to open up. The door moved back when he kicked it and slammed shut as we shoved it back into place. Though we were on the verge of panicking, we laughed at the thrill of the danger. The kicking stopped, and I glanced through the keyhole to see what was going on. I saw a gnarled hand that looked like crocodile skin had been stretched over it. Certainly, this was no hand of a student. This had to be someone from outside of the university. The man finally left, muttering, “It’s a strong door.”
I then went to a small hole in the wall and looked nervously out. A short man dressed in a blue sarong ran by quickly, his legs bowed outward as he ran. He walked like a lion returning after a successful hunt. Three other people rushed along behind him shouting something. I also saw the short man with crocodile like skin holding a spade and a long curved knife used for cutting grass.
The tense situation finally came to an end after two hours, and those Sinhala undergraduates who had gone to the other residence halls to attack Tamil students returned, walking lightly and laughing.
Some of our fellow students sneaked away that night, jumping from the tops of the hills and rolling down the slopes in an effort to reach either Kandy or Colombo. They intended to stay with their relatives or friends. Some of them left with only the sarong they wore and nothing else.
Vikky, a fellow student, however, was missing. Throughout the night, we stayed awake, shivering and praying to the god, Krunchi Kumaran, of the university.
Those of Hilda Residence hall were forced to stand by a wall while someone demanded over and over again, “Will you stage a drama in the future? Will you publish a book?” The Handana Hill slopes at the rear of our residence hall echoed their reply, “No!” over and over.
At that time, we had not yet picked up even a few Sinhala words. We just started to utter, “Ekkai, thekkai”—one, two. Their anger was against Balasooriyan, a first year student like us and a friend of ours. On that morning, he had received by post from the North of Sri Lanka four copies of a magazine titled, ‘Puthusu,’ of which Balasooriyan was one of the editors. On the front cover, there was a picture of a dove chained inside a cage. It made them suspect him to be a ‘Tiger,’ a member of a Tamil insurgent group. But they were not aware that the magazine criticized the Tigers and their dealings.
Sinhala students who went there succeeded in seizing Balasooriyan after a chase. A fellow Sinhala student, Bandara, identified him to the angry mob. They hit Balasooriyan with broken legs of chairs. Fernando, another student, was the one who hurt him most severely. After midnight, the residence hall supervisor of Hilda Residence hall, Dr. Darmadasa, took charge of Balasooriyan, and since Balasooriyan claimed that he knew well Professor Sivasegaram, Dr. Darmadasa took him to the Tamil professor. With him went Professor Thillainathan and Dr. Kasinathar. All three talked to the Vice Chancellor, Professor Panditharatne, but the Vice Chancellor said he was going to hand Balasooriyan over to the police.
That night, they kept Balasooriyan in the Marshall’s office. To look after his wellbeing, Professor Sivasegaram stayed there that night. Unfortunately, it came to an end when they took Balasooriyan to the notorious Fourth Floor in Colombo, the Criminal Investigation Department of the police.
The next day, the university closed indefinitely. In the morning, we received a phone call from Vikky. He said he had managed to escape, reached Kandy, travelled by train to Colombo, and had arrived at his uncle’s house—all in the same clothes he had left in.
We packed all our belongings, placed them in the storage room for safekeeping, and travelled to Kandy under police protection. All we could take was a small bag. From Kandy we went either to the north or to the east.
After four days of severe interrogation, Balasooriyan was released in Colombo.
This crisis didn’t take place all of a sudden. It had been building up for some time, a result of the politicians who, for their own benefit, had instigated the public against the Tamil students. There was no evidence to establish that the students themselves rose up in defiance of their own accord. Had this incident not taken place, we all would have been trapped in the notorious 1983 Black July ethnic massacre.
When the university reopened, Balasooriyan, Spencer and some other students did not return to continue their studies. A few of the Engineering faculty lecturers also failed to turn up.
The university owned some upstairs apartment buildings, named simply ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C’ along the bank of the Mahaweli Ganga River. As one moved towards the town of Kurunthuwatte along the Upper Gampola Road, located by the university campus, one can notice the ‘C’ apartments. Every block of buildings contained three adjoining upstairs apartments. Piyasena, a security guard working for the university, lived in one of the three buildings.
According to university rules and regulations, second year engineering students had to find their own accommodations. Piyasena rented out the upstairs portion of the building to us, all second year engineering students, and he resided in the ground floor with his family. We lived on the second-floor, two in each room. Piyasena had two daughters and one son. At night, Piyasena and his wife slept in the kitchen while the girls occupied the room on the ground-floor and their son slept on a single bed in the sitting-room. It was in the sitting-room that a staircase had been built leading up to the second floor. The eldest daughter stayed at home to help her mother, whereas the son and other daughter attended school.
The adjoining two houses were not rented out. It was our second morning in the house when I heard the sound of sweeping in the front-yard of the adjoining building. I pulled the curtain of our window aside to look down. A small girl of about fifteen years of age was sweeping. I rolled up a piece of paper and threw it out the window in her direction.
My friend, Mohan, still on his bed, inquired, “What’s wrong? You look like you drank some neem oil.”
I kept quiet, not wanting to be disturbed from watching the girl. Seeing that I wasn’t going to respond, he came up quietly and looked out the window. He too began throwing pieces of papers out the window. Our competition soon had the already swept segment of the front-yard filled with strips of paper. The girl, after completing her sweeping, put her hands on her hips and looked back. We ducked out of sight. Shocked to see the state of affairs left in her wake, she cried, “Mom!” and dashed into her house.
Grinning, we finished getting ready for the day. The toilet and bath were in one room situated in the backyard. Having them together made us uncomfortable, but we managed. After bathing, we returned to our room where Piyasena’s eldest daughter came up to our rooms with cups of tea. When we left for our classes, we looked out of the corner of our eyes at the front yard of the adjoining house. It appeared completely clean and devoid of any trash.
As soon as Piyasena’s son came home from school, we learned that the girl next door was named Ganga. We did not show interest in the names of the occupants of our own house, only of the girl next door. That should tell you how beautiful this girl next door was. The boy, Piyasena’s son, whom we called ‘Mally,’ younger brother, told us that he and Ganga went to school together in the tenth grade.
That connection made Mally a constant companion in our room. Apparently, this had been his room before we had come. One night, he pointed to the lights far away and said, “That’s Ramanathan Residence Hall.” He started laughing. “Do any of you have a girlfriend among the young women there?” While waiting for our reply, Mally began unfixing the window to remove it from the frame.
We began wondering what he was up to, and after he got it out, he jumped through the hole to the roof of the adjoining house and knocked on the window there. In a moment, it opened, and he immediately sneaked into the room across the way. This must have been going on for some time, I thought. Having watched this performance, our dream of Ganga vanished. After a while, Mally came back, fixed the window and walked away like a conquering hero. In spite of our threats to tell his father, he continued doing this once or twice a month.
One day, after watching the movie, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’ we returned home by bus, got down at the Krunthuwitte bus stop, and made our way to our room. On seeing Ganga walking in front of us, we began teasing her, “Ganga should take a bath,” we teased.
She froze for a moment and angrily removed her two shoes. Holding them in her hands like she was going to throw them, she gaped at us. We stood still. Luckily, the young girl didn’t throw her shoes at us. I couldn’t guess what was in her mind. She put her shoes back on and hastened away, grumbling.
Mally got up early in the mornings, saying, “I’m going to get some exercise.” He used to go out somewhere, and once he whispered to us that he was taking self- defence training and in a few months he was going to take up weapons training. On some days, he would stroll around the streets without attending school.
My friends and I recently began bathing in the Mahaweli Ganga River. Since we did not know how to swim, we started out by taking a ‘crow bath,’ but we were improving our skills in the river.
It was a Saturday. We enjoyed climbing onto the rocks above the Mahaweli River and jumping into the water, making chugging sounds as we fell. We jumped into the water like frogs, got out of it, grasped the rocks and climbed back up to do it again.
At some distance, some Sinhala women wearing garments across their chests and two males were bathing. For a long time, they gazed at us attentively. Then one of them, a male, swam over near us and inquired, “Are you Tamil?”
“Yes,” we answered.
He pointed at a spot in the river and warned us, “Don’t go there. There is the spillway.” We thanked him and continued to enjoy jumping into the water.
The water level of the Mahaweli Ganga changes often when the gate of the sluice is opened or during a torrential rain. One can be fully aware of it by watching the garbage floating along the water. If one sees that, one needs to get out of the water without delay or face the possibility of being carried away by a flash flood.
I looked in the direction of the man had indicated and spotted a cement structure. Gazing at it, I jumped into the river without thinking. It happened so quickly that I lost my bearings. Since I didn’t know how to swim, I cried, “Aiyo!” My natural instinct to thrash around in an effort to stay afloat failed. I was drowning. I could hardly speak and a frantic thought crossed my mind, “Didn’t anyone else see that I was drowning? Oh! My god! Where have they gone?”
Soon I began swallowing large amounts of river water as I thrashed about. I began to sink. I couldn’t imagine anything except death. I thrashed, trying to keep my head above water. I clawed frantically, shouting and swallowing water. My body touched the river bottom, and I floated weightlessly in the water. My life was about to end.
Suddenly, rough hands grabbed me and hauled me out of the water. I gasped, hacking up water. I looked at my rescuer in amazement. He uttered something in the Sinhala language and began swimming towards the bank of the river. My friends, standing at the river’s edge some distance away, watched like statues.
I lay in his arms like a child. Finally we reached a spot where he could stand and I got my first good look at my rescuer. He was short, and his legs were spread far apart as he pulled me to the bank. When he laid me on the bank, I got a look at his hands. They were the gnarled, crocodile looking hands I had seen once before through a keyhole in the Residence Hall at J.P. during the ethnic violence.