Down memory lane with Nishanthini | Sunday Observer

Down memory lane with Nishanthini

11 November, 2018
Refugees returning home to Sri Lanka  from India await clearance at the Bandaranaike International Airport.
Refugees returning home to Sri Lanka from India await clearance at the Bandaranaike International Airport.

Feeling a stranger in her homeland she treads lightly on life undecided, even confused at times. Young and exuberant, her heart pines for the place she grew up in, where she spent most of her life. This is her story, as well as of many other youth like her.

We met her at Uthayapuram, a small village in Pesalai, Mannar. Neighbours say that she has a strange way of speaking Tamil, she tells us. This is her motherland. However, now, she feels a stranger here (in Sri Lanka), for she has more memories of the neighbouring country where she had spent most of her life, in a refugee camp. Nishanthini, a lovely young woman of 20, walking along memory lane gave us a glimpse into her life in another land .

It was the July 23, 2006. “I was five-years-old then. I remember all of us children getting into the boat. We were enjoying it. Then, my parents, four brothers, my sister and another group of people got into the same boat. We were too small to take anything seriously and everything was child’s play to us. We travelled by boat from Talaimannar to Dhanushkody. I remember walking in the shallows from that point.

“My mother was carrying me. On the way she dropped the bag of medicine she was carrying and I remember her walking hither and thither, trying to get hold of the bottles and containers. However, I thought it was another game that she was playing with me and I remember screaming in joy and laughing my head off,” she says with a smile.

Nishanthini had no clear memory of the separatist war, the reason for her family to leave their motherland and escape to another country. She has a faint memory of someone telling them not to stay near the seashore as a gale force wind was coming in, and she suspects that this might be the time of the tsunami. Children like Nitshanthini and many others left their motherland from time to time by boat, in an era where socio-political calamities left them no option, except that of leaving everything and escaping in order to save their lives. However, children such as Nishanthini who were too young to understand the happenings of the vicious world around them had experienced the journey as a time of enjoyment.

In Rameswaram

Nishanthini explained how the group including their family was taken to the Mandapam refugee camp in Rameswaram, India. Once the Indian Navy served them food and looked after their immediate needs, there was the registration process providing information about who they were, where they were from and how they came to India, said Nishanthini. While the males and females were separated, photographs were taken and fingerprinting and special identification features if any, were recorded. After three days, they had been given food and clothing and taken to the Mandavam camp.

“The camp had ‘line’ houses. One line had 12 houses. We were in one of the line houses. It had one room, a kitchen and a hall. Each line got a public toilet. We received Identity Cards and each family got a coupon to purchase food items. We met some families who had been our neighbours earlier in Sri Lanka. They had gone there before us. Some had been there since the 1990s. Everyone at the camp was from Sri Lanka. All had had to leave because of the war,” she said.

Males who went to India as refugees had the opportunity to engage in some kind of employment. Nishanthini’s father had been able to find employment as a masonry helper at various construction sites. His meagre earnings had been sufficient to provide for the family, as they spent very little on food items bought from the welfare shop. Perhaps, the cost of living was much lower there than in this country.

“I was admitted to a school close to the camp. From grades one to five, they had separate classes for children from Sri Lanka. From grade six we studied together with local children,” said Nishanthini happily immersed in the memories of her school years. “When friends asked why we came to India from our country we said that there is a war there (Sri Lanka) and we came here (India) to escape the war.” The children and the teachers were kind to them, said Nishanthini. She had passed her Ordinary Level examinations and had been studying for the Advanced Level examination in the Bio Science stream.

Delightful memories

Some of her memories of camp life are delightful. One of them was the shooting of ‘Rameswaram’ a movie about refugees from Sri Lanka. “It was our story. Indian film stars played the main characters. Those at the refugee camp were given supportive roles,” she said with a glint in her eyes. She had also had an opportunity to watch the shooting of the movie Soora in Rameswaram, with Indian film star Vijey as the main actor.

The playground close to the camp was also a place etched in her memory. “That was the landing ground for helicopters bringing visiting politicians to Rameswaram. The children used to climb the wall to take a look at the happenings. I remember seeing President Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Modi there. When Abdul Kalam died, his body was brought there and we paid our respects.”

Laughing, she reminiscences the time Indian film stars visited them. She was happy to receive a gift of sarees and vestis when one of the stars, Vijeykanth was distributing them at the camp. Though no significant personalities from Sri Lanka visited their camp, they had heard of some Sri Lankan stars visiting other camps.

Though she had studied for the Advanced Level examination in the Bio Science stream, she had not sat the exam as they had been preparing for their journey back to Sri Lanka. “Refugees do not get admission to Indian universities. They are not allowed to get a driving licence and cannot be employed in the government sector. However, they could be employed in the private sector,” she said.

It was on January 23, 2018 that Nishanthini and her family arrived back in her home town, Mannar. She says that she feels a stranger in her own village, as she had left the country when she was a small child. Further, she finds it a little difficult to get used to the systems and culture. “There our houses were close to each other. It was a close knit community just like one big family. It is different here, the houses are far off, spaced out from each other. There the surroundings were familiar. I knew the roads and could find my way independently. However, I need someone else’s assistance here as I’m not yet familiar with the surroundings. My parents do not allow me to go out alone as well,” she compares her experience in the two countries.

Marriage proposal

Nishanthini had also met her fiancé at the camp. A friend of her brother, his family is from Trincomalee, she beamed. Both their families had been sheltering in India as refugees for some time. Though they had met each other at the camp, the marriage proposal was brought in only after coming back to Sri Lanka. The groom had contacted her mother and had got her blessing to propose to her.

Though Nishanthini had studied in the Science stream for A/Ls she was confused about what she should pursue in Sri Lanka. She likes to study computers/information technology, she said. However, the cost of living in Sri Lanka could become an obstacle.

Life has become challenging without the concessions they received at the camp. Her father struggles to make ends meet. He is still trying to find employment as a mason.

“The most part of my life was spent in India. I’m not used to the environment in Sri Lanka. It is totally different. All my friends are in India. I phone them often. There are many Sri Lankan families there. They don’t want to come back. If I get an opportunity to go back, I would. I know we can’t go back to the camp. But, if I get a chance of living there, purchase or rent a house, I would love to live there,” said Nishanthini.

As a member of the third generation in Sri Lanka, Nishanthini is one among many such who left the country as a preschooler or a toddler during the war, now returned to their homeland. More than 11,000 returnees are estimated to have settled in the North and the East since the end of the war in 2009.