In the veranda of the large courtyard house in Jaffna sat the 84-year-old Mrs Subramanium, who has worked as a secretary at Uthayan, Jaffna’s most popular newspaper, for the past 17 years. I had arrived early for my appointment with Uthayan’s editor, so Mrs Subramanium gave me a quick tour of the offices. Large archaic machines rattled as the newspaper went to press.
Mrs Subramanium was a one-woman hive of activity. Even at the end of the day, her starched sari was crisply in place, and there was a neatness and compressed energy in her movements. Our conversation was interspersed with her manning the phones and typing up letters. We spoke about the newspaper’s painful history with violence. ‘We have been going through a really terrible period,’ she said. ‘Because we had to undergo problems from the LTTE, EPDP [Eelam People’s Democratic Party), then TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation) … Not only that, we also had to undergo problems from the army.’
The media has long been a target of intimidation and violence in Sri Lanka, and this has been especially so for the Jaffna press. On 2 May 2006, unidentified armed men stormed the Uthayan offices and shot and killed Rajaratnam Ranjit, a 25-year-old employee, as well as the marketing manager, Bastian Sagayathas. For their safety, a policeman at the gate now provides round-the-clock security, but Mrs Subramanium is not impressed. ‘Even if the police is here, if somebody wants to do something – somebody wants to throw a grenade, he will do it because he is determined to do it. Police will only shoot at him after he leaves the place!’
On my way to the office of Mr Kanamylnathan, the editor, I passed a wall with photographs and newspaper clippings of the two killed staff members. As a tribute, the bullet holes had not been plastered over – a reminder that the threat of violence still loomed large. For the last five years, Kanamylnathan had not left his office, even though the war ended in May 2009. He feels it is unsafe for him to venture out of the office compound and lives here with his wife. Kanamylnathan fears that there might be another attempt on his life. He was badly injured after what he believed was a hit-and-run incident in 2001 and was evacuated to Switzerland for treatment, where he has permanent residency. Despite the pleas of diasporic family members to stay away, he returned to Jaffna to his role as Uthayan’s editor.
It is not only Kanamylnathan’s life that is at stake, but the newspaper’s very existence. During the embargoes of the 1990s, the Colombo government restricted fuel, medicines and food items reaching the north and east of Sri Lanka, fearing that these would fall into the hands of the LTTE. Eventually, the ban extended to newsprint, and Kanamylnathan’s team had to be innovative in seeking out a substitute. ‘We went into the market to buy any paper and printed the newspaper on that. This included cardboard, brown paper, even [lined] paper used to make exercise books for schoolchildren,’ he said, showing me the various coloured and textured papers that they had used during the ban.
The newspapers from that time were only about ten or so pages long, and mostly carried photographs of civilian casualties of war. Kanamylnathan believes that the real reason for including newsprint in the bans was to curb the functioning of papers such as Uthayan, which was openly critical of the government. ‘When they are not bothered about the essential items of a common man, do you think they are bothered about newsprint?’ he said. ‘They don’t want a newspaper to come out from Jaffna!’
I left Uthayan thinking how remarkable these stories of resilience were. Both Kanamylnathan and Mrs Subramanium have neither resources nor family connections, but they are committed to stay. So, I returned to make Paper, a short film about the story of Uthayan overcoming scarcity and violence to deliver news to the people of Jaffna. But as I discovered on my return visits, people such as Kanamylnathan and Mrs Subramanium were not unique. Circumstances of the times brought out courage and innovation in surprising ways.
J Jegatheeswaran, or ‘Esan’, a 50-year-old taxi driver, drove me around Jaffna. ‘No petrol, no batteries. There was nothing,’ the usually quiet and composed Esan said as he described the situation in Jaffna during the embargoes, echoing what Kanamylnathan had said. He became the inspiration for my second video portrait, Kerosene. Curfews were strictly enforced and without petrol, batteries or spare parts, driving taxis, or for that matter any car, was a real challenge. But then man adapted his machine to the new environment. Coconut oil, or illupennai, widely found in Jaffna, replaced engine oil, and kerosene was used instead of petrol.
Even so, not all cars could be converted. It was only the old British makes, such as the Morris Oxford and Austin Cambridge, that could be modified to run on kerosene. These older cars could even use spare parts fashioned out of scrap iron, and so could travel where the newer Japanese cars were not able to go. Esan and his trusty Morris Oxford had once taken 20 people to safety. ‘My Morris Oxford was the only car running in the area,’ he said. ‘In the nights I had to drive the sick and take the women in labour to the hospital. It was difficult those days.’
These stories of everyday, utilitarian aspects of a survivor’s life are in fact narratives that drive home the nature and experience of war. My films, supported by Groundviews, a ‘citizen journalism’ website, were all shot in Jaffna, where the current political climate and restrictions on the media made filming a challenge. So I decided to use a smaller camera and a ‘guerrilla’-style approach to filmmaking, keeping a low profile. My visits to Jaffna, over a three-month period, were serendipitous – the mechanic who pioneered the conversion of engines to run on kerosene worked next door to the house where I stayed, so I was able to visit his garage often and film him at work.
When I first met Mrs Subramanium, she had told me that death comes only once, not twice. I have heard that sentiment repeatedly in Jaffna. At its core is an acceptance of the dangers that comes from living in a conflict zone, and a deep-rooted conviction to remain there. Despite the fear and insecurity that led others to emigrate to join the growing Tamil diaspora, they chose to remain. I was born in Jaffna but grew up in England, since the age of six. So for me, my journey in making these video portraits felt almost like a tribute to those who continue to dedicate their lives to Jaffna when so many others have left for safe havens abroad.
Text by Kannan Arunasalam (journalist originally from Jaffna)
This piece was published in Himal Southasian magazine (August 2011 edition) under the Tapestry section. Tapestry, offers stories that arise in the course of the ongoing work being done by Himal’s two sister organisations, Film Southasia (FSA) and the Hri Institute for Southasian Research.