A suburban New York teenager pushes her Sri Lankan father to reveal a past he had struggled to forget.
The chair screeched against the hardwood floor as the waitress pulled it out from under our table. I sat down across from my dad at René’s Cafe, a small diner in our standard suburban hometown of Fairport, New York, about a five-hour drive north of the city. The weathered-but-still-cozy restaurant hummed with conversations shared by old friends reuniting and old couples maintaining their Sunday morning rituals. Sunlight poured in through the window beside me, forming a blinding rectangle on the scratched wooden floor. The air was warm and smelled like toast, a little bit burnt. I stared at my coffee-stained menu as I thought about how I was going to start this conversation with the man sitting across from me.
A few days earlier, I had asked my dad to meet me for brunch here. I was working in Fairport as a rising college junior for the summer, writing for a local newspaper. He and my mother were temporarily living in Ithaca in order to care for her ninety-one-year-old father, who was still living alone in her childhood home. He savored the hour drive he had to himself, turning the volume of NPR up to an ungodly level, and relished the brunch as one more opportunity to lecture his daughter about achieving her dreams. He has a way of directing any conversation—whether it be about the growing holes in my holiday socks or how I shouldn’t let a man dictate my path in life—towards aiming high and winning against all odds. But I had different ideas for this conversation. For me, it was the chance to finally learn about the one thing he was never eager to discuss: my Sri Lankan heritage.
I had tried bringing up the subject in the past, but there was always a reason to end the discussion. “Oh, I don’t remember,” he’d say, or “Let’s not talk about it here,” or even, “Just go do your homework.” Clearly, it was a time my dad did not want to broach, and for the first nineteen years of my life, I had mostly let it be. But I had recently discovered more about the Sri Lankan civil war in an anthropology course that had left me yearning to know more. I had listened to the stories of victims who were strangers, who had fled the turmoil in their own country, and was ready to finally hear the story of my own father.
Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island just south of India, has a long and violent history. It is primarily rooted in the conflict between two separate ethnic groups—the Sinhalese, who occupy the western and southern half of the island, making up almost three-quarters of the population, and the Tamils, who reside mostly in the north and east, accounting for only twelve percent. Both groups have their own account of who populated the island first, but a lack of primary historical records and an abundance of myth and legend leave this question unanswered. However, it is probable that both cultural populations developed a presence on the island somewhere between the first and third century B.C.E. While the two groups differ in religion—Sinhalese are mostly Buddhist and Tamils are mostly Hindu—it is language that separates them the most.
In the nineteenth century, British colonizers established English as the national language, and throughout their occupation, actively favored the minority Tamil population as part of their divide-and-conquer strategy. To cause conflict, the colonial rulers gave civil posts exclusively to Tamils living in the north and east, which angered the Sinhalese population. Tamils had better access to education and earned a better living compared to their western neighbors. Therefore, when the British granted the country independence in 1948, the Sinhalese community quickly asserted their authority and took over to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. When Sinhala was named the official language of the island in 1958, the rift between the two ethnic groups grew even further apart. During the era when my dad was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, Tamil speakers were systematically excluded by the fact that all government documents were written in Sinhala. Many Tamils began to participate in “satyagraha,” which roughly translates into nonviolent resistance. My dad remembers how his family friends would join large public groups in his hometown of Batticaloa to silently protest the government’s decision to enforce Sinhala as the country’s official language. Some wouldn’t even eat in order to assert their disapproval in the government’s actions. My dad stressed that they were all very peaceful demonstrations, yet tension between the two groups quickly escalated.
In 1972, the Tamil Tigers militia was formed to fight for the independence of Tamils in the north and east. Conflict gradually escalated, erupting into civil war in June 1983, which marked the beginning of a terrible month of bloody riots known as “Black July.” Over the following years, Sinhalese groups massacred thousands of Tamil civilians while the Tamil Tigers attacked army patrols in the north. Both groups laid an incalculable number of land mines across the northern fields, which are still threatening the lives of civilians today. The Tigers militia soon became the only representative group for Tamils, even as their methods grew harsher— to strengthen their ranks, they began recruiting young adults and even kidnapped teenagers from schools. They also began using suicide bombings. Between 1983 and 2001, approximately 60,000 Sri Lankans were killed, with an additional 20,000 missing. Since then, the death toll has climbed to nearly 100,000. Hundreds of thousands of citizens have been displaced due to this lengthy and savage war.
My father, Natarajah Yogachandra, is a Tamil from eastern Sri Lanka, where some of the war’s bloodiest battles were fought. Until now, he had never offered up his experiences to his children or wife. Even my mother had given up after several idle and fruitless conversations. We all just accepted that it was a subject he would always avoid.
* * *
“So what’ll it be?” our waitress asked. I squinted at her as she stood in the bright rectangle of sunlight.
“Um, I’ll have the French toast, please,” I said.
“I’ll just have the breakfast omelet,” he said, clapping his menu together.
“What kind of bread would you like?” the waitress asked.
“Uh, wheat is fine,” he said, turning towards me.
“Sausage or home fries?” she asked.
“Sausage, please,” he sighed with a hint of frustration.
“Fruit or orange juice?”
“Fruit’s fine.” He wrung his fingers, cracking the tired joints.
She walked away. He breathed a sigh of relief. “Always too many choices,” he mumbled.
I unfolded and refolded my paper napkin as I thought of an appropriate way to start the
conversation. How do you talk to somebody about something they’ve avoided for more than
twenty years? I went with the blunt option. That’s the way dad does it, so that’s what I chose.
“Dad, can you tell me more about Sri Lanka and why you left when you did?”
He smiled in a way that broke his hard exterior.
“I did some research on the civil war,” I said. “But I just want to know your personal experience. I’m almost twenty now; I’d like to finally know.”
“Well, you know I left when I was seventeen…” he started, dismissively.
“Yes, I know, but why?” I pressed. “Did you leave because of the war?”
I knew he didn’t want to talk about it, but I pushed him. This went against the advice of everyone in my family; a cousin had previously warned against shedding light on the past.
“I think maybe your dad has tried to protect you from it,” Rupon told me in an email. “He doesn’t want you to know the bad things about Sri Lanka, just the good, which to be honest, I understand.” Rupon, a London native, had heard plenty of stories from his mother—my dad’s sister—and his father, who is from Jaffna, the war’s central battlefield.
What he said made sense, especially since our family’s mantra has always been “keep moving forward.” The past is painful and all that matters is the future. Life is different now, things can be forgotten. “I’m sure he has a few things he would never want to tell you,” Rupon said. “Dads always want to be protective over their little girls.”
I didn’t want to be protected, so I kept pushing, staring at my father even as he didn’t talk.
“Well, you see, I don’t remember all too well,” he eventually got out, before looking aimlessly down at his plate. When he looked up, his deep brown eyes widened behind the black frames my mom and I forced him to upgrade to earlier in the year. I gently waved my hand in front of his menu to break his focus. He smiled, wrinkles cracking the smooth dark skin of his cheeks and forehead. This was a not uncommon routine for us. His intensity discomforts those who don’t know him, but I know how to maneuver around it.
“I guess I did move before the war broke out. You know the Tamil Tigers, right? They were just starting to form their group against the Sri Lankan army,” he said. “My parents thought I would be better off leaving the country, so I went to Thailand and started working for Eastman Kodak.”
I knew that part of the story. I knew all the miles that he had traveled with Kodak, from Thailand to Dubai to Greece to New York, then to Hong Kong and Colorado and finally back to New York, steadily climbing the occupational ladder. His first job in Thailand put him on C120 planes as a photofinishing representative, clutching his seat from one American base to another during the Vietnam War. Kodak had made an agreement with the U.S. government to provide photofinishing services to the American soldiers, so at each base, a photo counter was installed. Someone had to look after them, so Kodak assigned the job to a bright-eyed eighteen-year-old Sri Lankan. After many moves, he eventually settled in Rochester, New York, to serve as worldwide director for business development for the Kodak Express Business Unit. He traveled the world with his work. Each time he arrived home, I ran into his arms as he pulled out gifts from a new and foreign country. And each night he was home, he sat down with my mom and I as we recited our Bahá’í prayers. But even between all the directing and managing and long flights, he found the time to write four books: three on marketing, and one on the status of women in Asia. His drive was, and still is, incredibly resolute. Now I wonder if it was to fight against the memory of his past. Or to prove something, to manage and shape his own identity.
“A lot of Tamils had mixed feelings about the Tigers,” he continued. “You like them because at least they’re fighting for the rights of your own ethnic group but you hate them because what they are doing is completely wrong.”
I nodded. I was scared to say anything in fear of stopping him.
“The Tigers were getting quite large when your aunt was young, after I had left home. Being the youngest, she was still there living with my parents. People around the world started to hear about them, so everyone assumed that you were a ‘Tamil terrorist’ if you were from Sri Lanka.”
I suddenly remembered all the times my dad had told strangers that he was born in Malaysia when I was younger, hushing me when I, confused, authoritatively stated his true birthplace.
Sonia Das, one of my professors at New York University, told me this is not unusual. During her research within the Tamil population in Canada, Das found that many Sri Lankan exiles don’t want to talk about their past, or reveal their identities, even within their own community. Within Tamil communities in Western countries, politics is a forbidden subject, and many do not know who among them was part of the Tigers, and don’t care to.
“After I left the country, Gandhi, your uncle, had some experience with the Tigers, but I don’t think he will publicly talk about it because they were all living in fear,” he continued. He fumbled with his words. “They would come and kidnap people and demand money. If you had a big house and a big business, you had to pay money. So they demanded lots of money from him.
“He made lots of friends in the military to ensure his safety. We all feared for the people who lived there, but Gandhi was smart enough to survive.”
“How come you don’t tell mom any of this stuff?” I asked with a full mouth of syrup-drenched French toast.
“Tascha, it isn’t good to focus on the past. Plus she wouldn’t understand,” he said, agitation leaking from his fingers as they pressed into his forehead and forced out the wrinkles in his summer skin. I knew I was reaching his threshold. But I wanted to know more.
“Have you tried explaining this to her?” I pressed.
“Yes, yes, there are just some things she will never understand,” he responded, swatting away my question like a blistering fly. He stuffed a bite of omelet into his mouth. I stared down at the bright rectangle again, searching for a different angle.
“Is it because she’s white?” I timidly asked.
“That’s a part of it,” he admitted.
“I understand, I think,” I said. Skin color had never been an issue in our family—I was brought up to think of it as simple as a mix of chocolate and milk, making me chocolate milk. My young peers didn’t care about the color of my skin, they just cared if I could kick a ball on the playground. The only time I felt Sri Lankan was when I dressed up for the school’s cultural day.
But I grew up, and realized that wasn’t quite so. Over that summer, I started living alone and working in the predominantly white, affluent town where I grew up. For the first time I felt out of place because of the color of my skin, in a way I never did as a child. I started to feel the curious, almost questioning stares when I walked into a room to cover events. I sensed that the color of my skin generated discussion for strangers.
He started up again. “Before I became a U.S. citizen, I had a Sri Lankan passport that I used while working at Eastman Kodak.” His pace slowed. “When I traveled with my American colleagues, I was the only one stopped and questioned at immigration while everyone else passed through. It was always embarrassing, even though I traveled business class and was treated well by Kodak,” he pushed out. “See how a man’s identity can cause so much pain and embarrassment?”
It is incredibly difficult to see one’s parent in a vulnerable position. I began to understand why none of this was ever revealed.
I asked him if he ever wrote about these issues for his local Sri Lankan newspaper when he was younger. After my declaration that I wanted to be a writer at the ripe age of seven, he always took pride in showing me the old Tamil newspaper articles he published while he was still living in Sri Lanka.
“I never wrote anything because I was always concerned that the government would misconstrue my argument,” he said. “I did not want to discuss politics or ethnic violence. Even today I never write about what they do, I never say anything to anybody, and I don’t want to associate myself with the any movement or group. I just want to stay away from politics.”
He looked at me for a while. His eyes told me that this was what he was trying to protect me from. He looked at his princess, his daughter who would achieve all of his dreams and more. He looked down and gathered his thoughts.
“That’s why we have to work even harder. I had to work hard to be on the same level as my white colleagues. In order for me to rise above, sometimes I had to hide my Tamilian identity—I did, and I survived.” His words tripped over each other. “Every time I mentioned I was Sri Lankan, someone would ask me, ‘Are you a Tamil guerilla or a Sinhalese?’ It would break my heart.
“I don’t trust many people, but I trust you,” he said.
In the end, my father had no dark secrets to reveal, no tragic episodes or violent past lurking beneath the surface. But he did have an entire cultural identity that he was forced to run away from for the sake of his career and future family. And up until this point it was an identity that he felt he couldn’t even share with the loved ones in his life.
I looked at him for a while. I looked at this sixty-four-year-old man, the one I loved wholly and thoroughly, the one who could make me red in the face in the snap of a finger. I marveled at him, a man who pushed his children forward while he pushed his own memories back.
The waitress returned and asked if we were ready for the check. I nodded at her, unable to process my dad’s pain. She walked away.
“I don’t think anybody has shown an interest in my past and asked these questions in my life,” my dad said. “I can now talk to somebody about it.”
I looked down and tried to blink back tears. Of happiness or sadness, I was not sure. All I felt was gratitude.
* * *