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Anju Sivarajah

Backstories was a one day multi-sited storytelling festival located in the suburbs of Western Australia. Funded by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.

Funded by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, Healthway, Act-Belong-Commit, the City of Mandurah and the City of Bayswater, Backstories was a one day multi-sited storytelling festival located in the suburbs of Western Australia held on March 14 2020.

Anju Sivarajah is a storyteller born in Sri Lanka and predominantly raised in Australia. Anju was a witness to extreme violent genocide in Sri Lanka when she was 5 years old. In her story, she reflects on the effects of Sri Lanka’s civil war, and her mixed Sinhalese, Burgher and Tamil heritage.

[Transcript]

On the 4th of February 1948, Sri Lanka became independent from the British. Since Independence, the Tamils were treated as third-class citizens, overnight as the British left the power in the hands of the Sinhalese.

In 1969, my parents met and married. My mother is of mixed Sinhalese and Burgher background and my father is Tamil. He is the only one of his twelve siblings who married a non-Tamil.

In July 1983, Sri Lanka had a systematic form of genocide after 13 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed. It is commonly known as Black July, it was ethnic riots basically. The riots were rooted in ethnic tensions between Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil population. It was systematic. The governments were behind it. They provided electoral lists to what we refer to as “The Thugs” to go and loot and kill people that were living in houses and owned business in Colombo that were identified as Tamil.

It was organised by the government and it is what began the country’s civil war which lasted twenty-six long years. Tamil shops and houses were singled out and looted and burned. Many Tamils were murdered. It is reported that the death toll was over 4000 and displaced 150,000 Tamils. So, 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. Even though, I have told this story so many times it still gets me.

The pungent smell of burning flesh and hair was stronger than the smell of burning tyres, just to give you a visual of what it was like for me.

In 1984, my parents and I migrated to Australia. As my mother’s two sisters were already living in Australia. So, we were able to migrate quite quickly because we had family here.

In high school, I had a friend called Lakshmi. Lakshmi was also of Tamil background, but she was of Indian origin and from Singapore. Her mother taught Bharatanatyam, which is like a really traditional Indian Sri Lankan dance and her dad played the tabla around Perth at various concerts. Lakshmi was cool and popular at school. I guess for me, growing up Sri Lankan but not really identifying, in the same way, was something… I kind of looked up to her, I guess. I went to the Hindu temple one day with Lakshmi for this festival called Navaratri. I thought it was a good opportunity for me to find out more about my dad’s religion, as he was Hindu after all. I dressed up in my pavadai, which was like a traditional outfit which young girls wore at that time. It was like a two-piece dress. It was like a mini sari, is what it kind of translates to. And actually, I don’t know why I even had one in my wardrobe because I never wore one until then really.

The visit to temple was frankly what my 15-year-old mind found really boring. I did not understand the songs or bhajans that were being sung or why we were even singing them. Then I saw this really good-looking guy and my interest moved onto him. I managed to find out who he was and well, the rest was history. Harry and I had a secret relationship for about three months. But I was always made to feel conscious of the fact that my family, namely his mother, would never accept the relationship as I was only half Tamil.

This made no sense to me, as I was brought up in a household not knowing different ethnicities. I just knew my dad was Tamil and my mother was Sinhalese, Burgher and they were both committee members of the Sri Lankan Association.

One afternoon, I rang Harry up on his phone line because there was no such thing as mobiles back then. His mother picked up and I just hung up because it was a secret after all. A few minutes later, our landline rang. I knew it was her. I knew it was his mum, but I had to pick up. She screamed on the phone telling me to leave her son alone and we could never be together as I was not Tamil and a lot of other stuff, I am sure, but I can’t quite remember what exactly.

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 all of this mean? My father was Tamil. We had returned to Sri Lankan for holiday like four times by then, so I felt a very strong connection to my birthplace.  But why did I feel so disconnected? Why had my parents never explained to me the differences between ethnicities or taught us the different cultures or my language or different languages? This began my quest, my hunger, and passion for who I was.

When I was 26, 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 a lot of family, something like 36 cousins I think I counted on my dad’s side. It was nice to have such a large family which I never knew before. Strangely, I felt even more disconnected. I could not read or speak the language or relate to their hardships and settling in the new country and definitely not the experience in how they travelled from Sri Lanka to Canada. All of them had been via illegal means because of the government in Sri Lanka.

With the help of my oldest aunt, I drew a family tree to help me understand who I was and where I fit in. I came to realise that my father being the oldest brother and choosing to marry outside of the Tamil community was, in fact, quite unthinkable. It would have been quite heart-rendering for my paternal grandmother, at the time. While my dad’s family loved and accepted me for the bloodline we shared, I was an outsider to them, and I felt it.

I returned home back to Australia having more questions, frustrations, and resentment towards my parents. Why didn’t they teach me more about the ethnic and political tension in Sri Lanka? Why didn’t they continue to speak Sinhalese or even Tamil after we moved to Australia?

My father became quite sick shortly after I returned. He had three minor strokes which led him to be diagnosed with dementia eventually. My husband and I got married during this time. I made the decision to keep my maiden name which is Sivarajah as I felt I needed to do this for my father and also for myself for maintaining the link to my father’s heritage.

The next few years were 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 my father was a great man who will be remembered for his integrity, his compassion, his wisdom, his courage, and his character, not his ethnicity.

In April last year, on Easter Sunday, my island home transformed into a war zone yet again after Sri Lanka had six bombings by a cowardly terrorist group. At this point still, the death toll is still unknown, but they predict that almost three hundred people that had died. The whole world was shocked, saddened and disgusted by the despicable acts of barbarism on a day meant for reflection ad celebration, as it was Easter.

The difference is that thirty years on from Black July, people came together to help their fellow Sri Lankans in whatever way they could. Mothers volunteered into breastfeeding orphaned babies. Thousands of people donated blood within a few hours of the bomb attack. Buddhist monks saying they didn’t need the Buddhist celebrations that happen in July normally, instead helping to build rebuild the churches. And the Muslims opening up their mosques to Christians to pray until the churches were rebuilt. And the Sri Lankan clerics in the Muslim community declaring that they would not accept the bodies of the suicide bombers nor will they be farewelled in the mosques.

You can take away our hotels, but you cannot take our hospitality. You can take away 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 Davy Sivarajah. I am Tamil, Sinhalese and Burgher. I am Christian and Hindu, a follower of Buddhism and Islam. My motherland is a pearl of the Indian Ocean, the paradise called Sri Lanka. I am today and always will be proudly Sri Lankan-born and Australian-raised.

Thank you.

Photo of Anju Sivarajah, Zoe Warwick, and Holden Sheppard at Backstories in North Perth

Copyright © 2020 Anju Sivarajah.

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by Anju Sivarajah. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.


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