“It is better to light a small candle than curse the darkness” – says DBS Jeyaraj ina specific message directed at the Sri Lankan diaspora.
Marianne David Interviews DBS Jeyaraj for DailyFT ….Pix by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai
For David – who regards himself not as an emigrant but as an émigré – Sri Lanka has always been home, and the hope of return is what sustained him all these years. “The hope of return loomed larger and larger after the war ended and finally it became possible last year,” he told the Daily FT in an exclusive interview after returning to Toronto, Canada last December, following a two-month visit to Sri Lanka – his first since he left in 1988.
David, who stepped into the field of journalism 37 years ago when he joined Virakesari as a staff reporter in April 1977 and moved to English journalism in November 1981 when he joined The Island, left Sri Lanka in 1988 after articles on the plight of ordinary civilians suffering in the LTTE-IPKF clashes resulted in him being arrested, detained and produced in courts. Discharged when the Attorney General’s Department cleared him of any blame after many appearances in court, he was advised to leave Sri Lanka for some time.
Selected for a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University, David left Sri Lanka for the US, certain he would return in a year. When June 1989 approached and the time for return drew near, the situation in Sri Lanka worsened. He moved to Canada, but when he was preparing to return after about six months, his friend Richard de Zoysa, who was among those advising David not to return yet, was killed.
Then, as the war escalated, he realised there was no question of returning until peace was restored so he continued to live in Canada, waiting to come back home. During this period, he reported extensively on Sri Lanka and the war, despite being a vast distance away.
After prolonged agony and anxiety, it was September 2013. Having left Sri Lanka on 14 September 1988, 25 years had passed and he was determined to return, come what may. Finally D-day dawned. The return to his motherland was filled with emotion for David, who set foot in the Bandaranaike International Airport in October 2013, with a silent prayer on his lips and a sense of relief and happiness.
During his visit David stayed away from politics and spent time with family and friends, renewing relationships, and experiencing Sri Lanka all over again – from the northernmost point of Point Pedro to the southernmost point of Dondra. He found Sri Lanka had changed considerably, particularly Colombo. “I felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up after sleeping for years to find everything changed.”
In this wide-ranging interview, he speaks of his departure, return and two-month stay in Sri Lanka, during which he visited eight provinces, and shares his impressions of Sri Lanka and its people and plans for his next trip back home.
Following are excerpts:
Q: What were your first impressions of ‘home,’ seeing Sri Lanka after a quarter of a century?
A: I was feeling rather emotional. The situation had been so complex in the past that I thought I would never be able to set foot in the land of my birth. In recent times, after returning seemed possible, I had made several plans but due to different reasons they did not materialise.
Finally it had become possible and I was arriving at Katunayake in October 2013 from where I departed in September 1988. I said a silent prayer as I entered the airport building. I felt an immense sense of relief and happiness.
My first glimpse of the changes in 25 years was at the airport itself. It appeared modernised and streamlined. Things seemed more organised than before.
A pleasant manifestation of the changes over the years was in the form of my family itself. They were all there to greet me but, apart from my brother, I was seeing all the others in person for the first time. It was very moving.
It was past midnight when I arrived and I could not see things very clearly as we travelled out on the Colombo-Negombo road. Still I was able to see the scale of development in the buildings along the road. I was struck by the number of vehicles on the road even in the wee hours.
Later my brother made arrangements for my wife and me to travel about Colombo by car and see the city in daylight. I was overwhelmed by the enormous volume of traffic as well as the parked vehicles. Road travel regulations had changed considerably.
The new or renovated buildings were an awesome sight. Several buildings that I looked for were not there. Even the ones that were familiar seemed cramped or hemmed in by the newer ones. After living in Toronto for decades, the buildings that I knew in Sri Lanka seemed smaller and the roads and streets narrower.
Initially I felt uncomfortable at this unfamiliar, new Colombo. I felt somewhat out of place in the beginning but as the days progressed I began to feel very much at home and was very, very happy and comfortable.
Q: You returned to Sri Lanka after 25 years. What made you decide to visit after staying away for so long and how would you describe the weeks in the run-up to your visit?
A: The thought of return has always been there. Please let me explain this with a little bit of personal history.
You see, I was not one who sought to go abroad seeking greener pastures. What happened was that in October 1987, I was in Jaffna when war broke out between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Indian Army known as the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). I returned to Colombo through a devious jungle route with lots of information, documents and photos about how the ordinary civilians were affected and how they were suffering in the LTTE-IPKF clashes.
The Sunday Island of 25 October 1987 went to town with the material I had brought. We announced that some features would continue too. Among the stuff we published was an interview with the then Deputy Leader of the LTTE, Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias ‘Mahattaya’.
All that was sensational at that time. The Island was sold out. The Indian diplomats in Colombo, who had hitherto been projecting an impression that everything was hunky-dory in Jaffna and that civilians were not affected, got irritated. I was arrested on 26 October for inquiries about the Mahattaya interview and detained at the fourth floor. I was told by a Police officer that the idea was to “keep me quiet until the Indian Army finishes the job”.
Fortunately for me there was a huge outcry from media colleagues in Sri Lanka and outside. Due to a combination of reasons which are too detailed to elaborate here, I was produced in court after five days of detention and released on bail. I was forbidden to travel outside Sri Lanka. The case was heard at regular intervals where the Police first said they are investigating me and later said that the file had gone up to the Attorney General’s Department. Finally the AG’s Dept cleared me of any blame and I was discharged.
Meanwhile, many of my friends were worried about my situation and felt that I should go away from Sri Lanka for some time. Since I was prohibited from travelling outside, they felt that I should apply for a scholarship overseas and utilise that as a valid reason to get the travel ban lifted. So I reluctantly began applying and thanks to the help of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam submitted an application for a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University also. I was selected almost at the same time that the courts ruled there was no case against me.
However, I decided to go to the US as the Nieman fellowship was rather prestigious among journalists. I was sure that I would return in a year. When the then Nieman Foundation Curator Howard Simons asked me whether he was to make arrangements for me to stay in the US indefinitely, I declined saying I was definitely going back. But as June 1989 approached and I prepared to return, the situation in Sri Lanka got worse and a whole lot of friends in the media including Richard de Zoysa advised me not to return at that stage and instead wanted me to stay away for some time and then come back.
So I came over to Canada and stayed with a cousin. After about six months when I was getting ready to return, Richard himself was killed. Many of his journalist pals had to leave the country. I too panicked and stayed put in Toronto. I then started a Tamil weekly with some partners and after a while began another on my own. I also got married. As the war escalated, I realised that there was no question of returning until peace returned. My wife was firmly against the idea of returning while the war continued.
After Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power and peace seemed a distinct possibility, I made plans to return, but war erupted soon. Later another peace interlude dawned in 2002, but by that time I knew the LTTE was not sincere and simply waited for war to resume on a large-scale again. So the war continued in Sri Lanka and I continued to live in Canada.
After the war ended conclusively in 2009 and presidential and parliamentary polls were held in 2010, I felt the time was ripe to return. Due to complex reasons, including concerns over my safety and security among family members and close friends, the return got delayed. Matters simply dragged on.
It was prolonged agony and anxiety for me during this time. And then it was September 2013. It was on 14 September 1988 that I had left Sri Lanka; 25 years had passed and I was now determined to return, come what may. Since the Commonwealth Summit was imminent, I felt lesser mortals like me would not attract much attention and that a low-key visit was possible.
So for sentimental reasons I bought my air ticket on the same 14 September date that I had left Colombo in ’88.
As the days progressed and my departure from Toronto drew near, I was very, very excited and somewhat tense. Details of my trip were known only to family members and a few close friends. To many in Toronto I said we were going to New Zealand where my wife’s brother is living. Finally D-day dawned and I was on the plane.
Q: What were the main memories of Sri Lanka that sustained you during the last two-and-a-half decades in Canada?
A: A myriad of memories, Marianne. Whenever I read or hear about an incident or event in Sri Lanka, my thoughts rush back in time to some related thoughts. If not for my journalism I may have simply wallowed in memories, but thanks to my being able to write on Sri Lankan developments to Sri Lankan media, I found an avenue to move away from such memories whenever possible.
However, one change that I felt after some years of being in Canada was the feeling that I missed Colombo terribly. I was born in Colombo and grew up there. I have worked in Colombo and lived there for years. I slowly realised that I loved Colombo very much, so seeing and moving about in Colombo made me ecstatic. Initially I found it difficult to adjust to the changed city and lifestyle. After a while I got used to it and began moving about easily. After returning to Toronto, I yearn wistfully for Colombo.
I hope to write about these experiences in the days to come.
Q: Did your visit live up to your expectations and memories?
A: Yes, very much. There were some shortcomings and disappointments, but on the whole it was really great. Meeting my brother, in-laws and nephews in person and several relatives and some intimate friends were the highlights that made the trip worthwhile. I was glad to find the traditional hospitality and friendliness for which Sri Lankans are famous for remains still despite the ill-effects of war and materialist notions.
Things taken for granted while I was living in Sri Lanka became lost when living abroad. I was delighted to re-live some of them. Walking at Galle face and eating isso vadais and kadalai, watching the elephant dance in the Dehiwela zoo,seeing a squirrel peeking out from plantain tree leaves, the colour contrast of a black crow atop a bunch of orange king coconuts, Mangos and Jak fruit hanging on trees, uniformed schoolgirls on cycles, egrets on a buffalo, herons standing on one leg at waterholes, ponds with water lily’s and lotus flowers, babbling of the seven sister birds, coucals pecking on snails,chameleons on a fence, geckos on a ceiling, bullock carts, a motionless iguana on a low parapet wall,a golden oriole flitting like a tossed gold coin, flocks of parrots wheeling in the sky, seeing the sun setting on the ocean horizon, glimpsing a sunset through a canopy of Palmyrah trees, eating Annasi, veralu and galsiyambala, seeing cackling hens and bleating lambs, seeing a snake slither across the road,watching Peacocks in the wild with their magnificient plumage, hearing cocks crow in the morning, walking barefoot on the golden sands of our pristine beaches, wetting feet in the frothy waves of the Indian ocean…………
These are but some of the simple experiences that I missed in the past and relished re-living them again.
Of course the passage of time had taken its toll and I was not able to move about as fast as I did those days.Though older in years my heart and mind raced back in time.I was radiantly happy.It was as if I was recharging my batteries.I felt energetic and enthusiastic.
The stay in Sri Lanka resulted in my health improving to a great extent. After I returned to Canada people tell me that I look different and seem very happy.Yes the trip to the land of my birth after 25 years has transformed me positively.I feel truly blessed and thank God for making the trip possible.
Q: You have consistently surprised readers with your many exposés and exclusive articles, particularly during the height of the war, especially given the highly detailed information in your articles. How did you do this from across the world?
A: Thank you for the complimentary words. Yes, it has been a tremendous challenge to write about Sri Lankan matters to Sri Lankan newspapers while living in Canada. Editors and journalist colleagues know how difficult this is and their appreciation along with the positive responses of the readers is what has kept me going.
The price paid for this is the state of my health and finances. I break rest daily to communicate with contacts in Sri Lanka. This dual existence of living physically in Canada and mentally in Sri Lanka extracts a heavy toll. My Doctor has said that my health is deteriorating due to my not delinking from Sri Lanka. I desisted from taking up employment in a Canadian media institution because I wanted time to focus on Sri Lanka. A just peace in Sri Lanka was and still is my ideal. Also the time I devote to Sri Lanka deprives me of added remuneration in Canada, not to mention the costs involved in telephoning.
As for the query ‘how do I do it?’ my reply is that I can’t reveal tricks of the trade. But I can say that I have been lucky in gaining access to and sustaining contact with a whole lot of reliable, informative sources. There is a lot of hard work involved as painstaking digging is required to unearth the truth.
Q: Now that you have seen Sri Lanka for yourself, what message do you have for Sri Lanka’s diaspora?
A: The diaspora is not monolithic, though a vicious minority is hogging the megaphone. I know of many members of the diaspora who are helping out with humanitarian causes apart from aiding their own relatives. May their tribe increase.
There is a lot more that can be done by truly concerned expatriates. The only suggestion I have for the diaspora is that they should visit Sri Lanka and see for themselves the prevailing situation. If they see (and I am sure they will) a worthy cause or a crying need, then they should do something either individually or collectively to support or rectify it.
It is better to light a small candle than curse the darkness.