Home » Angelique Richardson | Crying Shells · LRB 24 January 2023 – London Review of Books

Angelique Richardson | Crying Shells · LRB 24 January 2023 – London Review of Books


The Sinhala word for hunger is badagini. It means ‘fire in the belly’. According to UNICEF, 2.3 million children in Sri Lanka are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 56,000 suffering from severe acute malnutrition. The World Food Programme warns that 6.3 million people – 28 per cent of the population – face acute food insecurity. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, children under five and people with disabilities are among the worst affected. The country is deep in an economic, political and humanitarian crisis.

Colonialism has long dictated the lives of Sri Lankans. Its after-effects and capitalist reconfigurations are felt in visceral ways. Women were raped and tens of thousands of people were killed – by state terrorism no less than insurgents – or went missing in the civil war that raged for 26 years from 1983.

The Donoughmore Constitution of 1931 introduced universal suffrage – unique in the British Empire – but did not guarantee minority rights. After independence in 1948, the first Sri Lankan government disenfranchised a significant section – close to a million – of the Tamil community, including the descendants of those who had been brought to Ceylon from India to labour in coffee and tea plantations, ensuring Sinhalese dominance by a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Sinhala Only Act of 1956, which made Sinhala the country’s only official language, marginalised Tamils in all areas of civic life from employment to higher education.

In 1979 four policemen were killed, allegedly by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). A week later, parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Modelled on British legislation, it included the authority to imprison individuals accused of involvement with terror for up to eighteen months without a trial and gave security forces virtual immunity from prosecution.

Minoli Salgado’s recent book Twelve Cries from Home: In Search of Sri Lanka’s Disappeared includes interviews with civilians who provide testimony of torture, bombing, shelling and extrajudicial killing. One of them, Vadivel, describes visiting his son Sanjeevan at Kalmunai police station. His body was swollen and disfigured. His O-level results arrived after he died: he had excelled at Tamil and maths.

The Office on Missing Persons set up by Sri Lanka’s coalition government in 2017 has been woefully inadequate for the thousands who have filed cases. Chitradevi is a single mother with six daughters. Her husband has been missing since he went back to get schoolbooks and clothes for the girls after they were displaced. One of her daughters is a teacher, a government servant, which means they are not eligible for government support.

Chandrika and Nissanka, Sinhala musicians, sheltered Tamils during the conflict. In 1989, the most violent year of the JVP insurrection, the Sri Lankan Army declared it would take twelve lives for every one taken by the JVP. In December that year Nissanka was abducted in Kandy by the Special Task Force, and taken for interrogation by the CID in Colombo. ‘He hated injustice and loved people,’ Chandrika told Salgado, ‘that was all.’ Chandrika, holding their five-month-old baby, watched him disappear into the darkness.

My father left Sri Lanka in 1953, when he was 22. He speaks of childhood days in the 1930s playing in the street outside his home in Colombo, and of friends and neighbours who were Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Of swimming in the sea at Mount Lavinia, riding bikes through Colombo, watching Westerns at the Empire Theatre and the Savoy, and working for the Americans in Jaffna after the Second World War. For seventy years he has been sending letters ‘back home’, across religious, cultural and geographical divides. First to his best friend, and, when his friend died, to his friend’s wife and children.

When the Second World War came to Sri Lanka, and air battles were fought between the Japanese and British over Colombo and Trincomalee, my father’s family left for Matale and my father lost his father. In 1953, when Britain needed migrant workers to rebuild itself after the war, my father arrived at Tilbury dock on RMS Orion which had been decommissioned from wartime service.

When my brother and I were growing up west of London in the 1970s and 1980s with an English mother and Sri Lankan father, boys at school would lie in wait for us with racist chants, inflicting bruises, unchecked – even endorsed – by their families and the authorities. Letters to the teacher from my mother didn’t help. If you were black, Asian or mixed race, if you looked – or your name sounded – different, you were fair game in the Britain I grew up in.

‘What to do?’ my Sri Lankan friends and family say in face of adversity. The failures and misuses of authority that Sri Lanka has witnessed have long marked the UK. When racial tensions flared up in my home town, a policeman came to my school to talk to each class. He leaned forward in assumed collusion, lowered his voice and said: ‘At least you’re all white.’ I was sitting at the back and he had missed me. We were seven.

But the people you remember most distinctly are the ones who spoke up for you in whatever way they could. In Britain today the fastest growing demographic is mixed race, overthrowing racial categories that have no basis in biology, and throwing binaries and the polarities they underpin into a rightful disarray.

I first met Azra, the daughter of my father’s best friend, in 2000, during the civil war, when my father and I visited the house in Colombo that her family have lived in since before the Second World War. We drove along Galle Road, though an urban palimpsest by turns religious, secular, colonial and capitalist. She and her brother were playing Elvis. It was before 9/11 and the airports were easy. One of my great-aunts, the daughter of a romance that had ended in rupture, living with her daughter in another part of the city, was fast approaching a hundred.

During the pogroms perpetrated by the Portuguese during their colonial rule, the Sinhalese ruler King Senarath of Kandy (1604-35) gave refuge to Muslims. Azra is Muslim. She is a teacher. When she talks about the civil war she doesn’t take sides. Now she gives me first-hand accounts of the queues for food and fuel, and a loss of dignity in labour.

In the lagoon that’s crossed by Kallady Bridge, Batticaloa, on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, there are singing fish. They are known as oorie coolooroo cradoo, which is Tamil for ‘crying shells’. Their underwater song, said to have stopped during the civil war, caught the attention of fishermen and passersby for centuries. Now it is diminished by overfishing, pollution and climate breakdown. Sri Lanka may no longer be at war but it is reeling from both the climate emergency and economic crisis, with potentially devastating consequences for the island and its inhabitants.

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