I’m sitting inside a crowded salon, my tongue burning with the aftertaste of the curry I had just eaten. The sound of rapid conversation in Tamil envelops me – a constant rumble that ebbs and flows, quickly overwhelming me. If I close my eyes I can almost imagine Colombo’s sweltering sun making my skin sing. But it’s 15 degrees outside and the slow whisper of French sneaking in from somewhere reminds me that I’m 8000 km away from home, in perhaps the most surreal part of Paris I’ve visited to date.
When I first arrived in Paris, it was the unfamiliarity of everything that scared me. And now, in La Chappelle, known to the locals as Little Jaffna or little Sri Lanka, I’m almost literally driven to tears on the street, my senses rudely shocked by the smell of fresh mango and masala chai in the air, a scent as familiar to me as my mother’s voice.
I don’t know what it is that makes the tears come. Maybe it is that I am homesick- easy enough to believe.
The other explanation is survivor’s guilt. The war has been over for 6 years and I’ve pushed it out of my mind with such ease. Of course there would always be things that I’ll never forget- curfew, check points, more deaths than I can count, never switching off the radio for fear of missing a bomb warning. But I was young, and sheltered by privilege. The war will never be as real to me as it is to the people who rush by my on the street now, openly staring at this obliviously lost looking stranger. I walk past the sari shops, the shop attendants inside always, always taking a second look at my skin, darker than most Sinhalese, asking me if I am Tamil. I tell them no, but that I can understand, and that seems to be enough. We talk of home; I offer them the broken fragments of a language that I remember from childhood, knowing full well that their memories of home are so different from my own. Yes, I grew up listening to death counts and bomb warnings, but I never had to worry about waking up to the sound of kafirs, or wonder whether the mango I was about to put in my mouth was laced with cyanide, courtesy of retreating troops.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to restart your life in a foreign country, where you don’t understand the language, where you have to adopt a foreign tongue and a city that will never be home, just to survive. I’m thinking of how homesick I was in my first few days at Yale-NUS despite knowing that home was just a few hours away by flight, my family always accessible via Skype. But to live not knowing f your family was alive, to live not knowing if you could ever go back home- if home would ever take you back- this is something I can’t even push myself to imagine.
The lady in the shop is wearing a sari under her jacket. It is freezing, and the flimsy silk of the sari is obviously doing very little to keep her warm. I’m struck now by how furiously my friends and I fought to escape the clutches of our culture- seeing heritage as shameful, instead of as something to be proud of. We fought for so long against learning Sinhala- “why? It’ll never be useful anyway! I never want to live here!”- but now as I stand on the street in this city that is still so incredibly foreign to me, seeing the curvature of the letters I have grown up loathing, it feels like coming home.
I am thankful now for my privilege. For the privilege of living a life in Colombo that allowed me to escape the worst of the war, for the privilege of being at a school that allows me to do things I couldn’t even have dreamed of before. I am thankful for the opportunities that I have that so many others just like me, smarter than me, more deserving than me, have been deprived of, by war, by circumstance, by whatever you want to call it.
Standing on the Rue de la Chapelle, I can smell tea now. Strong, bitter, brewed on the highest hills of a teardrop isle. I sit on a bench by the side of the road and I allow the tears to flow.