Kartheeswaran can’t recall precisely where he was when the call came around eight months ago. The voice on the other side was a familiar one. He had known Ravindra Pushpakumara, the former Sri Lankan fast bowler, from his earlier coaching assignments. But Pushpakumara had an offer Kartheeswaran wasn’t quite expecting.
“There is a revolution underway in Jaffna, and we want you to head it,” Pushpakumara told him.
The Sinhalese call it Yapanaya. The Tamils, Yalpanam. The world simply knows it as Jaffna, a town tucked away in the northern corner of Sri Lanka that became the nerve centre of a bloody war.
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But the revolution Pushpakumara was talking about was not about sacrificing lives in the quest of separation, but shaping young lives with the help of a cricket bat. Sceptical at first, Kartheeswaran finally accepted the post of cricket development manager for Jaffna district.
Kartheeswaran had been to the city once before, in January 2009, days after the civil war had ended. He and a few others had been flown in by an army helicopter for a cricket coaching clinic. His memories were of a city living in dread — shops opening at 9 am and shutting by 12 pm and soldiers manning the streets.
The Jaffna he came to this January was a bustling city with shops open till 9 pm, hotels, restaurants and resorts in place of remnants of war, a multiplex showing Tamil movies, and at least one KFC outlet.
Driving past the weathered arch with a faded ‘Welcome to Jaffna’ sign — in English, Tamil and Sinhalese — on the A9 highway that connects Kandy and Jaffna, you can be forgiven for mistaking you have landed in Tamil Nadu. It’s 4 pm, and the bustling KKS Road resembles Chennai’s T-Nagar junction. On either side are shops, with names in Tamil or English, selling utensils, footwear, clothes and jewellery. Tuk-tuks and cars jostle for space with tempos, with people weaving their way through them.
At the US Hotel guest house, Sun TV blares at the reception. If it is the most watched TV channel in Jaffna, Rajinikanth only has Bob Marley for competition as the favourite idol. The reggae legend’s face stares out from the rear of most autorickshaws, while the Tamil film legend is on everyone’s lips. The dialect of Tamil may not be the same across the Palk Strait, but the language of Rajini needs no translation.
Kartheeswaran is at the Jaffna Central College grounds watching schoolchildren go through their routines. The college, right at the heart of the town, is backgrounded by the historic Jaffna Public Library — burned down in 1981 but now a thriving centre for learning. One must remove shoes before entering. “It’s a mark of respect to how we rebuilt this after the atrocities. Not a single book or relic had been left undamaged,” says attendant Kalpana.
The Central College ground was often used to detain people during the LTTE years, and sometimes as an army base. But children on the grass today have only one ambition — playing cricket for Sri Lanka.
“It’s still early days,” says Kartheeswaran. “A few kids have made it to the 30 probables list for the U-19 team. There is a lot of talent here but it will take time to come through.”
Cricket was always a big part of Jaffna, thriving even during the war years. But local heroes were not allowed to travel South to the mainland to showcase their skills.
Karthreeswaran says that’s set to change. “The children here are stronger than those in the South. The climate here makes them rugged and athletic. If not for the war, Sri Lanka would have had many fast bowlers from the North.”
There are at least three other major centres in the district — at St John’s and St Patrick’s schools, and Jaffna College — where children are learning cricket, all under Kartheeswaran’s supervision.
On the Jaffna College ground, a massive green with an under-construction pavilion, Kartheeswaran runs his girls’ cricket camp. The college is down a jagged, narrow road, a 30-minute drive from the city, past paddy fields and glistening blue waters. Casuarina Beach is a big tourist draw, and Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil a revered Hindu temple.
St John’s and St Patrick’s are convent schools. St Patrick’s recently hosted Lankan cricket star Kumar Sangakkara, while Muttiah Muralitharan is a regular in these parts — his Murali Cup tournament promotes talent from the northern belt.
Passion for cricket is reflected in the long-standing school rivalries. St John’s and Central play out the Battle of the Blues; the Battle of the Golds is between St Patrick’s and Jaffna College. The latter has been suspended for three years since a fan was killed in a post-match brawl.
At the St John’s ground, two teams are embroiled in a serious contest — oblivious to the cricket-ball shaped shelling holes on the parking shed behind them. Not far away is a mural with children playing various sports and bearing the slogan ‘The Light Shines in the Darkness’. The two structures, side by side, speak for Jaffna.
It is easy then to overlook the vacant houses on the outskirts pockmarked with bullet holes, their Tamil occupants having fled at the height of the war, including to countries such as Canada and Australia. Many of those who returned found their houses intact from inside.
As you go past Dambulla and enter the Northern Province, to a landscape suddenly not all that scenic, and near Vavuniya — the gateway for the army to penetrate into the LTTE strongholds — the efforts to put the war behind are even more visible. Banana is being grown in what used to be death fields. The road running in the middle is raised, for beneath them lie landmines.
At Kilinochchi, where the final battle of the war was fought and won by the army, a massive plaque with a metal bullet piercing its heart has a lotus at the top, symbolising the end of terror. The water tank the LTTE destroyed on the outskirts has a board that reads, ‘Say no to destruction ever again’. A headstone at the entry to Kilinochchi says ‘The Heart of Peace and Hope’.
Other signs of the war have proved more difficult to erase. Every few kilometres is an army camp or a checkpoint. At the biggest checkpoint, at Omanthai, every vehicle has to present its papers and, if asked, state the purpose of visit to Jaffna.
The only time apprehension is seen in the eyes of the locals of Jaffna is when they see an army vehicle drive by. Normal life pauses for a moment, if only out of habit.
“It will take at least a generation for this inherent fear to vanish,” says the receptionist at US Hotel.
In the cacophony of city life, in the crack of willow on leather — the city’s new soundtrack — it is not difficult to believe that.
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