On Sal Mal Lane A Novel Online - Ru Freeman

On Sal Mal Lane


In 1976, on the fifth day of the month of May, a month during which most of the people who lived in the country celebrated the birth, death, and attainment of nirvana of the Lord Buddha, with paper lanterns, fragrant incense, fresh flowers, and prayers mingling with temple bells late into the night, in the remote jungles of Jaffna, in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, a man stood before a group of youth and launched a war that, he promised, would bring his people, the Tamil people, a state of their own. The year before, this man had shot another Tamil man just as that other man, the mayor of Jaffna, was about to enter a Hindu temple in Ponnalai, desecrating the temple and the minds of the faithful alike. Therefore, nobody saw fit to contradict what he had to say on that day, that fifth day of the month of May in the year 1976.

Before that day this island country had withstood a steady march of unwelcome visitors. Invaders from the land that came to be known as India were followed by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and finally, British governors, who deemed that the best way to rule this new colony was to elevate the minority over the majority, to favor the mostly Hindu Tamils over the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese. To the untrained eye, the physical distinction between the Sinhalese and the Tamil races was so subtle that only the natives could distinguish one from the other, pointing to the drape of a sari, the cheekbones on a face, the scent of hair oil to clarify. But distinctions there were, and the natural order of things would eventually come to pass: resentment would grow, the majority would reclaim their country.

So it was that after the British had left the country behind, when what was said of them was that there was no commonwealth, there was only a common thief, the left-behind majority decided to restore pride of place to the language of the majority, which, among other things, meant that all children would be instructed in their mother tongue: the Sinhalese in Sinhala, the Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers in their language of choice but, in the end, not English, not the language of colonialism, which would now be taught only as a second language. And this policy, along with the corresponding policy of conducting all national business in Sinhala, with translations offered in the newly demoted English and the official Tamil language, created a disruption of order that would forever be known as the Language Policy. As though the Language Policy was itself a period of time and not a policy, debatable, mutable, and man-made, unlike time, which merely came and went no matter what was done in its presence.

If the policies of the British and the politics of language were the kindling, then rumor was the match that was used by men who wanted war to set them ablaze. These rumors were always the same: pregnant women split open, children snapped like dry branches, rape, looting, arson, mass graves, night raids, and other atrocities all happening “before their eyes,” that is, “before the eyes of sister, brother, father, wife.” The kinds of eyes that ought to be blinded before having to see such things. The kind of sight that once heard of necessitates an equivalent list of atrocities to be committed, in turn, before other sets of eyes. Eyes that also deserved no such sight, for who did? Which of us, taken aside, asked privately, would believe it not only possible but practical and desirable that any other of us ought to witness such acts?

Yes, a man addressed a gathering of young men and women on May 5, 1976. And though the clearing in which he stood was two hundred miles away from the neighborhood where our events take place and its people, his story would become their story, his war, theirs.

Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened, including Lucas and Alice, who had no last names nor professed religious affiliations, the Tamil Catholics and Hindus, the Burgher Catholics, the Muslims, and the Sinhalese, both Catholic and Buddhist. Their lives were unfolding against a backdrop of conflict that would span decades involving intermarriage, national language policies, births, deaths, marriages, and affairs—never divorces—subletting, cricket matches, water cuts, power outages, curfews, riots, and the occasional bomb. And while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history