Driving into Batticaloa town was a pleasant surprise for me after almost ten years. The bustling town was visually coming alive with the excellent road network that made the long drive from Colombo a real pleasure. Well constructed roads, the new and gleaming centre median lamp posts and the ongoing construction work painted a very positive feeling about the overall development of downtown Batticaloa, which was a welcome change for me. Batticaloa town’s landscape was surely changing. Needless to say I was wowed!
Manjanthodurai was my destination passing Ariyampathi and Kaaththankudi. As I passed Ariyampathy,
I was suddenly struck by a unique landscape. I drove through an arch in the middle of the road and the rows of center median lamp posts were replaced by beautiful date trees from this point onwards.
I must confess it took a few minutes for me to digest this unexpected and unusual ‘treescape’. The downtown shops on either side of this tree lined road were also more modern and different to the rest. A little bit of Dubai in the middle of Batticaloa? That was my initial reaction.
I even noticed a special ground pipe irrigation system that was laid in place for this individually numbered date tree plantation. After a fair distance of driving, this ‘treescape’ came to an abrupt end and the lamp posts took over once again. I was quite bewildered with this strangeness which I had never experienced in any other part of the country.
I was on my way to visit the ‘humble’ office of an organization which we had funded to carry out a development project in Manjanthodurai. This office was situated on ‘South Boundary Road’ in Manjanthodurai and was housed behind a Net Café which was patronised by the youth of this area. This Net Café didn’t appear special or unique until I learnt the town’s dynamics…
What I learned was amazing! The road from Ariyampathy to Manjanthodurai which sandwiched Kaaththankudi had created a clear ethnic divide and a special identity. The Muslim community who lived in the sandwiched town of Kaaththankudi had clearly demarcated their territory. Kaaththankudi was the Muslim town which marked their identity with the date trees. The other two towns on either sides of Kaaththankudi where the Tamil community lived had the regular centre median lamp posts! According to my sources, there was constant tension between the towns’ people.
The ‘South Boundary Road’ was literary ‘the boundary’ of the two towns where the two communities lived. The Muslims and the Tamils of these three towns hardly ever mingled, except in the Net Café which was housed along the Boundary Road which seemed to be an ‘all man’s land’. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Tamils and the Muslims who lived on the Boundary Road in fact lived quite harmoniously! While the name board of the Boundary Road was in four languages, namely Tamil, Sinhala, English and Arabic, for some unknown reason the Arabic name was over painted and covered. I thought this was significant and kept wondering why but never found an answer.
The Net Café on South Boundary Road was special. It is a modest and basic ‘shed’ with just five computers, nothing fancy and appealing. It obviously lacked the usual hi-tech trappings found in a café in the city. But this was a common ground, a meeting place, a kind of an oasis where kids from both communities came together in perfect harmony. It was an open house to shed their differences and open their minds to a wider world. Races didn’t seem to matter here. Differences didn’t seem to exist. They were all coming in to experience something fun and exciting – the virtual world!
Chatting with friends, interacting via Facebook, downloading music, checking out internet sites of interest, especially the Tamil sites and spending time playing computer games seemed common place in this café. One boy had as much as five thousand Facebook ‘friends’ from the world over and he lost no time in adding me to his already oversubscribed list of friends! What was also unique was that most of them could only speak and understand Tamil, even though they used the Net freely. Here was a wonderful inter-ethnic potpourri. The kids seemed oblivious to any date tree divide. This seemed a wonderful display of unity and harmony that the adults in the neighbouring towns could take a lesson from.
The only unfortunate factor that I noticed here was the gender bias that prevailed with regards patronizing the Net Café. Sadly this unique opportunity to mingle as kids was out of bounds for girls. This bias was not imposed by the Net Café owners, but through a pure social norm that was mostly prevalent amongst the Muslims of this town. I further learnt that the girls were completely barred from surfing the internet and was severely dealt with if found indulging in this pastime.
This ethnic divide of Kaaththankudi vs Ariyampathy and the gender bias haunted me no end, especially when we had just about come out of a much larger issue, in this part of the country. Was this an apparition of larger things to hit us as a nation, I wondered?
I left this unique experience thinking that the Net Café down Boundary Road stood as a symbolic mediator to a man made divide, which should ideally be resolved by the two ethnic communities amicably before it grows into something permanent beyond just the date trees!