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Sabiya Mahal (from an Muslim IDP’s Diary – 22nd August 2003) – Shreen Saroor

I am worried and mad at my Mum. Why is she doing this? Is she insane or greedy? But she says it is foolish to keep something that will be soon taken over by “them”. I cried “Mum it is our home, we have got to keep it for our kids, may be they will not live there but this is the only connection we have got. After all Mannar is our hometown”. My mother sounded very determined in her stand; she continued justifying her decision “Look you think it is going be your home again? People say that they have even changed the name of our street, they now call it Murugan Street, what a day dreamer you are and I don’t even want to imagine my grandchildren stepping in there” and she added “I have decided to do away with this house before the war starts again”.

I begged her to give me few days to think, wishing furtively to lobby my brothers for support.

My brothers looked as if they had already discussed this well in advance. They shouted out their questions one after the other “why are you so possessive of this ruined house? It was shelled twice and haunted, who would even want to step in there again, let mum sell it off”. My second brother added his proficiency to our conversation and cautioned me “Remember we sold our shop for peanuts when we were compelled to rent a house in Colombo, come on, it is time to sell all what we have got there and invest the money here, who knows when they will start the fight again”. My youngest brother, with his usual playfulness, in an effort to make the situation light said “you know something sister, mum is smart and you should let her do what she wishes after all it is her property?” That night I felt mystified “can anyone put monetary value on this house that preserves those happy, myriad memories I still want to hold on to? The feeling of belonging that was taken away at gun point on a cold morning of October 24th 1990, talking about us- the Northern Muslims, friend of mine came up with this instinctive phrase “you guys were swimming in a pond before eviction and now you have the ocean”. “True my friend we have an ocean to swim but it is also easy to get lost in it, besides we don’t want to be in an ocean anyway”- a reply I didn’t dare to tell him given the fact that it would bring about a discussion which I feared the most. In fact, I get very uncomfortable at the mention of this unfortunate incident leave alone a discussion on it.

My brothers were too small to feel the way I felt about being thrown away. They are simply angry about the IDP stamp on them. For them the easy way is to get rid of everything that reminded them of being displaced, this way they can wipe away the bitter past and submit to their new identity- Colombo Muslims. Well it is hard for me to stay disconnected; indeed I want to deal with the past because I am hurt and ashamed. My wounds need to be healed and it can be done only by returning, finding answers to my questions and if possible renewing relationships. It is tough to explain to my brothers why I want to stay connected, after all they have been forced to think that our homes are in an enemy territory, in any case who would want be connected to their foes? Well, it is time to use my last resort in rescuing our home. This will work because they all love me. I begged them with tears “look what is on sale is our dignity and this is a real disgrace to our grandfather and daddy”. That was our last conversation about selling our house. I know they didn’t understand what I meant but they stood by me because of my tears and that is how I stopped (or should I say postponed?) the sale of our ancestral house- Sabiya Mahal.

I wonder why my mother didn’t feel the way I felt about this house. I was told it was mum’s birth which brought lots of windfall to my grand father’s business and he built this house for her. She and her seven siblings grew up in this house and my mother’s dream wedding took place here as well. Our next door neighbor, Thevi aunty used to tell me stories about mum’s wedding; how my grandpa decorated the street that led from the railway station to our home with coloured lights so that all his friends who visited Mannar for the first time would not get lost (it didn’t make any sense to me because we lived in such a small Island and I wondered how anyone can really get lost in there!).She said it was like a Thirukaitheswaram Thiruvilaa with Thoranums on both sides of the road and how my uncles, and her brothers, Sivam and Shakti, covered up a well in our front garden to make a stage for musicians to play Nathasvaram (only if they knew that they were sitting on top of a 36 feet deep well they would have caught the next train to Jaffna!). She told me the fuss mum got when she delivered me, the first grandchild and how the whole house was turned child friendly. She pointed to me the nail marks on both sides of the walls where my father created blocking to keep me away from the steps and uneven surfaces by nailing down wooden panels across. “Mum how is it possible for you to say that you don’t want to get back there anymore? Why do you hate this house so much? Is it because you too don’t want to deal with the bitter past like my brothers?” These are questions I never asked her fearing that I would dig into her deep wound as it connects to daddy’s untimely death triggered by displacement.

I have been to my hometown many times in the last couple of years but never had the bravery to step into Sabiya Mahal. In fact, I stayed with friends or relatives and avoided every possible ways even to pass by. Nevertheless, this time, after all that commotion I made to stop selling it, I thought of seeing it. I can remember how nervous I was that day; it was like going to see my long lost dear friend. I reached out for the best dress I had in my travel-case. 13 years- that is very long time isn’t it? As I entered the Moor Street I glimpsed the sight of that safe haven standing strong as it used to be. As I got closer to it, I noticed something eccentric- yes it has lost its affability. Years of negligence and war had cast plenty of scars on it. The porch and parapet walls have shed all their covers and looked as if they had been stripped naked. During war this house brought hope and reassurance. For many of us this was the only safe heaven that pulled all of us together- my aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors, those days reminded me of festivals and weddings.

Usually after a fight there would be curfews, I loved curfews because our house use to be full of people- people of different age, class, caste and faith. Grandma borrowed big pots and pans that were used only for Kanthiries from our Mosque and cooked at the back garden on stone stoves with piles of wood in it. Christi uncle- an amazing story teller, a political science teacher and a superb cook- assisted her. Sivam anna and Mustafa (who worked at the nearby grocery shop- Myillvahanam Kadai) challenged each other’s masculinity by cracking huge chunks of firewood in one strike. We gathered the chipped pieces of wood when they took breaks and brought to Christi uncle in anticipation of usual bribe. Christi uncle always gave us rewards when we did something good. Most often these rewards were him telling us funny stories of his childhood and growing up together with my father in their village Vidathaltheevu. I loved his stories because it portrayed my father as a sturdy yet a very mischievous boy. Occasionally smoke would engulf the whole house and we all coughed endlessly with tears but I loved those days and the tears too. All of us sat on the floor and ate whatever grandma served on banana leaves. Food tasted so good, in fact I secretly wished for long curfews. In the evenings Nimmi and Ranjini join me in rehearsing the songs Sister Lourdes taught us on our last scout camp. We often forgot that we were in the middle of a bloody civil war.

I still stood in our front garden trying to bring the nerve to step inside. Suddenly everything became hostile and I felt numbed. The sharp memories of war and last few days right there – sorrow, losses, tension, fear, atrocities and distrust. The memories that kept me awake most nights. God, now I can smell only death and pain here. My best friend Ranjini became a freedom fighter and later that year she was proclaimed a Martyr. Uncle Christi became a traitor and his body was hung on a lamp post with a bullet on his forehead. I became the “other” in my school and even among some of my closest friends. Myillvahanam kadai got bombed one night and Mustafa too since he slept there. Thavi aunty and her only son Kumar disappeared at a military check point when they went to see their relatives in Adampan. Sivam anna, a brilliant and devoted mathematics teacher was taken for an inquiry to Thalladi army camp and no one saw him afterwards. Since then maths became bitter subject to me. Shakti anna who got admitted to Jaffna medical college opted to join the struggle for their homeland, his choice for guns and cyanide capsules came as a last resort of survival. Who knows if he had stayed with us he would have also disappeared like his brother. I saw Shakti anna only once after he became one of “the big boys”, that was when he came to alert my father a night before they attacked the Mannar police station. It also reminded me of our endless attempts in preventing my brother from his growing interest in “Al Jihad” and how he ended up being wanted. If not for our friends, neighbors and Shakti anna he would have ended up on the lamp post too. Last few days in this house were like living in a hellhole, call for prayers (azhaan) became a sign of tension and fear. Every time mosque’s loudspeaker came alive at odd hours our hearts stopped beating – the thought of something dreadful has happened out there killed us minute-by-minute. At last when on October 24th the same loud speaker announced that we are given 24 hours to vacate our homes, I knew that this time neither our friends nor Shakti anna can come for our rescue. My numbness turned into humiliation and distress. God this is making me sick, I ran out and walked back quickly to my friend’s house. My head felt so heavy I thought it would blow up soon. I ran to the bathroom and sat beneath the tap. While the cold water poured on me I cried- yes I cried for the first time to wipe clean the memories of living in Sabiya Mahal. That night I called mum and said “lets get rid of this ghost house”.

Thirukaitheswaram Thiruvilaa – Famous Kovil festival celebrated in Mannar.
Thoranum – Kind of decoration mostly done by the roadside with young coconut leaves
Nathasvaram – A musical instrument played by Tamils in their festivals and weddings.
Kanthiries – Muslim’s annual ritual in which the entire Muslim community gets together and prepares meal for the whole town in a mosque.
Big boys– Denotes Tamil Tiger rebels
Vidathaltheevu and Adampan – Small towns in Mannar mainland
Azaan – Call for Muslim Prayer (05 times a day on a regular schedule)
Anna – Elder brother in Tamil
Thalladi Army camp – Infamous for detaining and torturing young tamil men in Mannar.
Sabiya – My grandma’s name
Mahal – Arabic word for a place of rest
Murugan – A Hindu God

–  By Shreen Saroor


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