On the 4th of February 1948, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) gained independence after the British left. Since Independence, the Tamils were treated as third-class citizens overnight as the British left the power in the hands of the Singhalese. In 1969, my parents met and married. My mother is of mixed Singhalese and Burgher heritage and my father is Tamil. He was the only one of his 12 siblings who married a non-Tamil.
In July 1983, Sri Lanka had a systematic form of genocide after thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers were killed. It is commonly referred to as the riots or, by the Tamil diaspora, Black July. The riots were rooted in ethnic tensions between Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil population. A government official provided electoral lists of homes where Tamil-identified people lived, along with transport to young men of Singhalese ethnicity. It was organized by the government and it is what began the country’s civil war which lasted over twenty-six long, bloody years.
Tamil shops and houses were singled out and looted and burnt, while many Tamils were murdered. It is reported that the death toll was over 4,000 and displaced 150, 000 Tamils. I remember seeing burning houses, factories, shops, cars and even tyres with people inside as we drove to my uncle’s house. I was five years old. The pungent smell of burning flesh and hair was stronger than the smell of burning tyres.
In 1984, my family and I migrated to Australia. Because my mother’s two sisters were already living here in Perth, we were able to migrate quite quickly and easily. In high school, I had a friend called Lakshmi. Lakshmi was also Tamil, but she was of Indian origin, born in Singapore. Her mum taught Bharatanatyam and her dad played the tabla around Perth at various concerts. Lakshmi was cool and popular at school.
Lakshmi one day invited me to come to the Hindu temple with her for the festival of Navaratri. I thought this was a good opportunity to find out more about my dad’s religion, as he was Hindu after all, albeit not practising. I dressed up in my pavarda, which is a traditional outfit worn by teen girls and is a two-piece dress consisting of a top and a lehenga or skirt. Why I even had one I still have no idea!
The visit to the temple was frankly, in my fifteen-year-old mind, boring. I did not understand the songs or bhajans we were singing or why we were even singing them. Then, I saw this good-looking young guy and my interest moved onto him. After the bhajans, I managed to talk to someone who knew him and well, the rest was history. Harry & I had a secret relationship for about three months, but I was made to feel conscious of the fact that his family (namely his mother) would never accept the relationship as I was only half Tamil. This made no sense to me as I was bought up in a household not knowing different ethnicities. I just knew my dad was Tamil and my mother was Singhalese-Burgher and they were both active committee members of the WA Sri Lankan Association.
One afternoon, I rang Harry up – on his home line because there was no such thing as mobiles. His mother picked up the phone and I automatically hung up. A few seconds later, our land line rang. I knew it was her but had to pick up the phone as I was right next to it. She screamed down the phone at me, telling me to leave her son alone and we cannot be together as I was not Tamil, and I am sure other stuff which I cannot remember or probably just blocked out. My mother saw my face and probably heard the screaming on the phone and asked what happened. I reluctantly told her. My mother was furious… which further confused me.
What did this all mean? My father was Tamil, so I was Tamil, right? We had returned to Sri Lanka on holiday four times since coming to Australia at that time, so I felt a very strong connection to my birthplace, but why did I feel so disconnected? Why had my parents never explained the different ethnicities to me? Or taught us the different cultures? This begun my quest, hunger and passion to learn about who I am.
When I was twenty-six, I decided to go to Canada. Many of my father’s family had moved there after the riots in 1983. I thought this would help me in finding out more about my Tamil heritage. I met two aunts & one uncle and about twenty cousins and loads more distant relatives. While I was amazed at how the Tamil diaspora had their own identified community in Canada, and it was nice to know that I had such a large family I never knew before, strangely I felt even more disconnected. I could not read or speak the language or relate to their hardship in settling in their new country and definitely not their experience in traveling from Sri Lanka to Canada which had been via illegal means.
With the help of my oldest aunt, I drew a family tree to help me understand who was who and I came to realise that my father, being the eldest brother, choosing to marry outside of the Tamil community was in fact quite unthinkable and would have been quite a heartrending time for my paternal grandmother. While my dad’s family loved and accepted me for the blood line we shared, I was an outsider to them.
I returned home having more questions, frustration and resentment towards my parents. Why didn’t they teach me more about the ethnic and political tensions in Sri Lanka? Why did they not continue to speak Singhalese, even Tamil, after we moved to Australia? My father became quite sick shortly after I returned. He had three minor strokes which led to him being diagnosed with dementia.
My husband and I got married during this time and I made the decision to keep my maiden name as I felt I needed to do this for my father, and also for myself in maintaining the link to my father’s heritage. The next few years were a real struggle for my mum as my father deteriorated in his health and mental capacity, my husband and I being the main form of support. In November 2016, my father passed away. When I wrote his eulogy, I realised that my father was a great man who will be remembered for his integrity, compassion, wisdom, courage and character – not his ethnicity.
On April 21st, on Easter Sunday, my island homeland transformed into a war zone after Sri Lanka had six bombings by a cowardly terrorist group. As I speak here today, the death toll has reached almost 300 people.
The whole world was shocked, saddened and disgusted by the despicable acts of barbarism on a day meant for reflection and celebration globally. The difference is, thirty years on from Black July, people are coming together to help their fellow Sri Lankans in whatever way they can – mothers volunteering to breastfeed orphan babies, thousands of people donating blood within a few hours of the bomb attacks, Buddhist monks saying they don’t need Vesak celebrations and instead will help to rebuild the bombed churches, the Muslims opening up their mosques to Christians to pray until their church gets rebuilt and the Senior clerics in Sri Lanka’s Muslim community have declared that they will not accept the bodies of the suicide bombers, nor will they be farewelled in mosques or buried in Muslim cemeteries.
You can take our hotels but you cannot take our hospitality, you can take our churches but you cannot take our faith or values, you can take our people but you cannot take our humanity. We are one country, one nation. Today we cry together, but tomorrow we will again rise up together because we are Sri Lankan!
My name is Anju Devi Sivarajah. I am Tamil, Singhalese and Burgher. I am Christian and Hindu, a follower of Buddhism and Islam. My motherland is the pearl of the Indian Ocean, the paradise island called Sri Lanka. I am today and always will be, proudly Sri Lankan born and Australian raised.