‘Ceylonkaran’ -- a tale of Sri Lankans in India

By Isuri Kaviratne in India

Despite not having been to Ceylon for nearly 30 years and Sri Lanka having repatriated them to India, they still prefer to call themselves ‘Ceylonese’ but are referred to as ‘Ceylonkaran’ by the local populace.
This is a story of split families and broken hearts yearning for the country in which they were born --a country which did not accept them.Six lakhs of Sri Lankan Tamils of Indian origin were repatriated to India under the Sirima-Sastri Pact. They were resettled in Rehabilitation Plantations in Kollathupuzha, a Panchayat in Kerala; Sullia, a taluk in Karnataka and in Nilagiri in Tamil Nadu.

The repatriates were employed in rubber estates in Kerala and in Tamil Nadu. They were later joined by Tamils who fled Sri Lanka during the 1983 riots. Two estates in Kollathupuzha accommodate 7,000 people, a majority of whom still cherish childhood memories of 'Ceylon' and wish to visit the country they were born in at least once, before death.

Above, houses of Sri Lankan repatriates at a Rehabilitation Plantation in Kollathupuzha and (below) children born to Sri Lankan repatriates in India.

I. Selveraj was repatriated from Sri Lanka in 1973. He used to work in a rubber estate at Ratnapura. He said the best memories he had were of his school --Ratnapura Sumana Vidyalaya-- and his school friends.

“It was very sad to leave Sri Lanka. All my siblings were born in Sri Lanka too. That's where we grew up. And we didn't know Malayalam when we came here. It was difficult to adjust to life in India at first”, he said adding they left Sri Lanka on March 1, 1973 and stayed at a camp in Tamil Nadu for 45 days before being sent to Kerala.

“They asked us where we wanted to stay, since Kerala is very similar to Sri Lanka we chose to come here”, he explained.

Selvaraj said he remembered his school friends some of whom stayed behind in Sri Lanka. “The thing I'll never forget about Sri Lanka is the taste of tea. I'll definitely find money to visit Sri Lanka before my death”, he added.

According to the rules and regulations of the Rehabilitation Plantation Ltd --a joint venture of State Government and private sector-- the repatriates were given two options. One to join the rubber estate and the other to accept a subsidy to start their own businesses.

Shardha Singh's parents run a business they started with the compensation. Shardha, married another repatriate, living on the plantation. She lived in Kotahena and was an old girl of Good Shepherded Convent there.

“We had problems during the 1983 riots so, my parents decided to come to India”, she said adding she felt secure in India and free to move anywhere she wanted without risk of being asked for an ID to prove her identity.

The repatriates are working on estates, as well as at administrative level. Nearly 70% among supervisors who were among repatriates were promoted. Two repatriates from a family received employment on the plantation. Children born into repatriate families though, receive casual work but not permanent employment on the plantation.

Ponniah and grandson

A majority of the repatriates said they did not take sides during Sri Lanka's civil war as they couldn't identify themselves with either of the parties. One repatriate said the Jaffna Tamils never accepted them.
Another repatriate, P. Ponniah said his elder brother remained in Sri Lanka and he had not seen him for nearly 30 years. “I don't know whether I'll be able to see him before I die”, he said adding they kept in touch via letters.

He described how when they first arrived, Radio Ceylon which broadcast the names of the people killed in riots and later during the war was the only link they had with their homeland. Mr. Ponniah said he used to enjoy listening to songs of Jothipala which he still hums.

R. Balakrishnan said he used to have a lot of money when he was in Sri Lanka as he worked in gem mines. “Sometimes I ask myself what I'm doing on a rubber estate in India getting only Rs. 4,200 per month. I have friends in Sri Lanka and most of them are Sinhalese. I used to go to temple with them. I have relatives living in an estate in Mathugama. I have 6 more years to work till retirement. After that I'm definitely going back to Sri Lanka where I have a sense of belonging”, he said.

30,000-35,000 Sri Lankan repatriates live in Rehabilitation Plantations for repatriates in Karnataka
C. Karuppaiah, who lived in Puhul Oya working on an estate which belonged to MP Thondaman before leaving Sri Lanka, said the reason behind their leaving the country was the insecurity during the 'Che Guevara' period. “People were dying and we couldn't even get out of our houses after 4.00 pm without risking being killed”, he explained.

Ms. I. Sumaneshwari who lived in Welimada still cherishes memories of her friends. “We came to India when I was 19. I felt terrible leaving my friends behind. I still remember the faces of Rathnayaka Menike, Sumana, Leela and Siriyawathi. We used to meet at one person's house for lunch each day”, she said.
Adjusting to the Indian life style was difficult for Sumaneshwari. “Food, culture, language, everything was different here. I still miss my favourite dish Kollu”, she said adding they didn't have any plans of leaving the country until after the Sirima-Shastri Pact.

“My son is studying pharmacology in Bangalore and my daughter is studying nursing”, she said. She added that she often tells them stories of the new year celebrations in Sri Lanka and the taste of kevum, kokis and athirasa.

She is a Sri Lankan

The only valuable possession she carried when leaving Sri Lanka was a small statue of Lord Buddha. “I knew it would be difficult to find a statue of Lord Buddha here in India”, she said.

Jayawickramage Nyanawathi 39 was a mother with two sons, when she left Sri Lanka with her husband M. Domanathan who was repatriated to India. “My husband didn't get Sri Lankan citizenship even though we were married. So, he decided to come to India along with his siblings”, she said.

Jayawickramage Nyanawathi, 39, left Sri Lanka with her husband who was repatriated to India.

“My mother is from Dehiowita and my father is from Matara. We lived in Rathnapura. I have 7 brothers and 1 sister in Sri Lanka” she said adding she had not seen her siblings or visited her motherland since 1983 when they came to India. “We write letters and keep in touch”.

She said they faced many difficulties during 1983 riots which compelled them to decide to come to India. “My father passed away 3 months before we came here. We waited till the 3rd month alms giving and came here”, she said. “I felt very sad when we came here. I spent hours and hours regretting coming here. There's no place like home. It took me years to learn Malayalam. But later I learnt to think of my children and make up my mind. If they are benefited, that's all we need. Now I have 5 grand daughters living with me in Kerala”.

She added, though she tried to adjust to the Indian way of life, Sri Lanka was the best place to live. “Education and health are free in Sri Lanka. Even a beggar could get proper medical treatment in government hospitals with good facilities. But it's different here”, she explained.

Ms. Nyanawathi said her elder son was in grade 8 and her younger son was in grade 5 when they came to India. “'Loku putha' said that he'll take me to Sri Lanka for a visit this year as soon as he gets vacation”, she said. She added that it took a while to get her Indian citizenship after coming to India.

My family is really fond of my husband even though he is not a Sinhalese. They asked us several times not to leave Sri Lanka. If there hadn't been so many problems, we would have stayed. “My husband is very fluent in Sinhala too. We still often talk in Sinhala”, she added.

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