On the train
As we travel North the water disappears. When we leave Colombo at sunrise mist covers emerald green rice patties, a delicate rose sky reflects in pools around the crops. The air hangs heavy with water. Along the road to Jaffna the water recedes, slowly at first, but suddenly you look up and palm trees are replaced with stubby palms, and gnarled plants cling close to sandy earth. A swamp devoid of water. I sit in the door of the train and let the girtty air play across my face. Air is unfamiliar without the clinging embrace of moisture – feel alien.
Money, too, drains like water from the landscape. Houses cobbled together from sheet mettle, or half finished with one wall painted or plastered and rest crumbling and forgotten looking. We pass wells for the whole town, and NGOs advertising their landmine clearing services. Though I know all this is here, I am shocked to see it. My first tangible evidence of the war. If in Colombo war hides in the shadows, here it covers the landscape like dust. I lose count of the empty shells of houses we pass.
Jaffna is a place of picturesque destruction. From remnants of empire, to remnants of pre-war prosperity, everything seems in ruins. Even the nicest streets are pockmarked by lots empty except for collapsing concrete and the occasional cow. I am torn: do I capture the crumbling beauty in my camera, or turn away, leave the emptiness to the ghosts. How strange to find the remains of destruction and violence beautiful.
But our third day in Jaffna was one of life. We went to the Nullar Kovil Temple for a Pooja, or worship service. As we neared the temple we were greeted by a cacophony of bells, which I thought must have come from a church, but realized hung from one of the many great towers of the temple, looming in great pyramids above the white sand and alive with carved demons and grinning faces. As we drew close, the bells were replaced with drums and the winding call of a horn. The priests, shirtless and striped in holy ash, lead us with a crowd or worshipers from shrine to shrine around the vast temple. The drummer hammered a beat that the horn player wove in and out of while the priests opened door after door to reveal the God hidden behind, and offer incense. The people around us held up their hands or knelt in prayer as their favorite God was revealed. As we circled around the temple the horn player began to break away from the repetition of his song, soaring above and around and then returning to his rhythms in a way I have only one word for... it was Jazz.
A Buddhist monk once told me that sees the world as infused with kindness. That behind every object, machine, or place, is the kindness of hundreds of people who helped to create it. Kindness of those who built the building we stood in, kindness of those who made the carpets, kindness of those who changed the lightbulbs and swept the floors. In what we in the west call “self interest” and “profit motive”, he sees a sacred network of interconnected individuals working to help one another. I don't know if I can fully subscribe to this kindness theory, but it is a worldview I like to fit over my own from time to time, like tinted glasses. As I left, I realized, you can do something similar for Jaffna. You can concentrate on the shells of homes, mourn their emptiness, gnash your teeth at the slow pace of reconstruction. But, for every abandoned house, there are a dozen full ones. Jaffna was completely empty for years during the war. The residents fled to squalid camps or hid and starved in jungles. Everyone over the age of 12 remembers. But still, they come back. Open shops. Rebuild their homes. Go on dates. Love. Fight. Mourn. Have children. In Jaffna you can see tragedy in everything. Or, if you choose, a world infused with hope.