What is home to you? Is it a place, a person, a vocation, or something else?
Most immigrants, including myself, struggle with this question. Is home the place we were born or the one that accepted us fully or something else or someone else altogether?
Sutharsan’s definition of home is location independent. “Home is where my family is. I like to keep my close family close to me,” he says in thoughtful reflection.
He has three brothers and a sister who, like many Tamils , are not living in Sri Lanka anymore. His immediate family is a unit of four: his wife, who is from Mannar and witnessed the loss of a couple of her aunts, and two boys, one six years and the other nine. Biking, walking and long drives are some ways they spend time together. They love to travel and their last trip was to Cuba in January 2023. However, he highlights that travel is not a luxurious indulgence for his family; it’s simply an experience that’s balanced with affordability.
After his advanced level exams, Sutharsan, a 23 year old from Jaffna, landed in Montreal, Canada in 2001. Moving to another country is a challenging experience with a violent shift in culture and language and an upheaval of one’s larger support system. However, his older brother was already in Montreal and supported him through the settlement period.
He started his first degree at a university after four years of preliminary accounting programs at a night college. He put in part time and, at times, full time work hours doing odd jobs as the need arose. “Everyone at university was younger than me by about seven years and it felt awkward. But I told myself that I’m here to progress and it didn’t matter what age I started. I wanted a degree, so I don’t have to continue to work in a factory or restaurant. I had always wanted to be in accounting.”
Then as the recession was hitting North America, he moved to Toronto in 2009 because finding a professional job in the French speaking city of Montreal was near impossible. He found a job amid the recession but was laid off and got into a new industry in finance and banking afterwards. After seven and a half years in a leading bank in Canada, he is currently a tax auditor with the Federal government.
When I asked him how it was like growing up in an active war zone, he let out a long-held sigh, searching for the right words to describe the horrors enmeshed in his childhood. “It’s hard to explain. When you’re in a certain life for so many years, you get used to it. You can’t call it a happy life or a sad life. You adapt to it and try to make progress as much as you can.”
Growing up in Jaffna, schools closed down during heightened war times, sometimes six months at a time. Sutharsan and his family had to look for shelter in bunkers in the middle of the night when bombs were being shelled. He says the bombing had a timetable like in school: once at 10 pm, again at 1 am and then finally around 4 am. But the exact location of shelling was unknown to the public, perhaps due to the government forces wanting to maximize the impact on the LTTE.
Every morning, the family would sigh in relief when they confirmed that everyone was safe. He didn’t lose anyone in his immediate family but neighbors and others known community members were lost to this shelling. “War stress is unexplainable. We had to fight for our lives every day even though we were not part of the LTTE.” His emotion is palpable here.
To add to this fight for life, there was a severe food shortage; food was expensive and having mutton or chicken was a once a week luxury. His family didn’t have electricity for seven or eight years. As someone who grew up on the outskirts of Colombo, I don’t pretend to know what it feels like to be so vigilant about basic survival. Yes, our bags were searched in school every morning for possible security threats but I have never felt a fear of survival the way I assume Sutharsan did growing up.
In Becoming, Michelle Obama says that grief and resilience live together. Sutharsan proves this by reminiscing of the good times amid the bad. “Although life was difficult, we enjoyed ourselves too. We played cricket on the street, cycled with friends, played card games and invented all sorts of new games.”
He remembers a Jaffna that’s very different from today: main roads that became cricket grounds during the day due to minimal hustle and bustle, women feeling safe enough to walk outside even at midnight, no foreign exports or drugs. I’m particularly amazed by the women’s safety he mentions because I don’t ever remember being able to walk alone late at night in the heart of Colombo. There is either one man or another who feels compelled to comment on what we’re wearing or how we should smile more.
“How is that even possible?” I prod. “Well, the LTTE was very strict with their rules.” Call me a traitor or any other hate mongering word you want but as a woman who grew up in a strict childhood – strictness sourced by parents who were paranoid of the dangers plaguing girls at that time, I can’t help but ponder on how it would have been if I had lived under the LTTE reign.
One of Sutharsan’s fond memories from Jaffna is spending times with his friends at the festival in the Nallur temple; 25 days of devoted practices, the high rising golden kovil in the flamboyant Jaffna sunlight, flanked by three equally watchful towers on either side, flocks of men in their vettis and women in their bright sarees, ironically looking up at the god of war, Murugan, in the land downtrodden by war.
He barely traveled out of town with his friends because it was unsafe for a young Tamil boy to do so during the war times. “I knew that my mother would be scared and I didn’t want to put her through that. Even when I was living in Colombo, I stayed close to Wellawatte because I wasn’t fluent in Sinhala and English. I didn’t want to get stuck in an unsafe place without being able to communicate.”
The United Nations defines home as “a sanctuary, a place to live in peace, security, and dignity.” When one or many of these conditions – peace, security or dignity – are violated in our country of birth or residence, if we have the means, we leave; if not, we try our best to create the means like many are currently doing in Sri Lanka. It’s easy to know when to leave a country but it’s hard to know when to come back. Or even if we should come back.
Sutharsan went back to Jaffna in 2015 for ten days to wrap up some matters. His maternal uncle and a few friends still live in Vavuniya. “Jaffna has changed so much. I’m scared to get on the Palali road in front of my house although I lived there for 20 odd years. Lots of stores and restaurants and traffic everywhere. Back then, you can just sit down on the road without thinking twice.”
“Will you ever want to go back again?” I ask. A question I struggle to answer myself. “I will travel back within the next few years to look around and travel a bit. There are places I couldn’t visit while I was there.”
He indicates that the memories of Sri Lanka are too fraught though, the most fraught memory being of his father’s death. On a dark night in 2009, someone attacked his father at his rice mill for an unknown reason. Six months after that his father passed away from a heart attack, losing a lot of blood before receiving the required medical help.
“So, I still have a small fear of going back because randomly, anything can happen. Anything might happen. It’s like taking a risk with my life again.”
But he doesn’t forget to mention his gratitude to the Sinhalese people and the public. “People are good but politics can change some of them.” When he was a three month old baby during the 1977 riots, he recalls his parents talking about how the Army and Sinhalese neighbors helped them move to Jaffna from Anuradhapura where the family was living at that time due to the location of his father’s business store. Later as a young adult, he lived in Wellawatte for a while and his Sinhalese landlords answered all police queries and vouched for him without any reservations.
After being forced to relocate to Jaffna during the riots, his father lost his business and had to rebuild everything in Vavuniya, living away from his family who were in Jaffna. “There was a time when I didn’t see my father for four or five years at a stretch. We didn’t have a father figure at home. I’m sure he missed us too.”
We always make meaning from our childhood experiences and vow not to repeat lessons our parents learned the hard way. For Sutharsan, despite coming from an entrepreneurial background, he doesn’t want to have his own business as the workload will be high and he will have to sacrifice time from his family – something he’s not prepared to do. So, he has chosen a career with “normal” working hours but I can’t help but wonder if he’s short circuiting his life’s potential.
Let me leave you with some wise words from Sutharsan: “One of the last times I spoke to my father, he was very happy that I found a good job in my field and told me that he will move here. But then he passed away suddenly. Most Sri Lankans want to take care of our parents. I didn’t get the chance to do that or to catch up on missed time with him because of all the delays in education and finding a proper job here. This is why I tell my children that I’m here now but I don’t know for how long.”
He is very much present to the impermanence of life. How could he not be, given his life experiences?