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Lost In Translation:
Memories Of A More Dangerous Language Barrier

When the Sinhalese military were in control of Jaffna, a linguistic mix up could end in physical violence. Thankfully today, the same thing in Colombo just results in shame and anger.

02.10.2017  |  
Students in Jaffna walk past a building ruined during the civil war. Source: Dushipillai

There are no Sinhalese speakers here. Though English is taught in schools, we communicate in Tamil. It is always embarrassing to speak to someone not familiar with our native tongue. We manage with body language sprinkled with simple words like yes, no, go and come.

There were once Sinhala speakers around but they held guns in their hands: Military personnel whose voices sounded strange when they arrived in Jaffna, filling the roads with their voices. At first, their language was unfamiliar but then, over time, we grew to fear it. Eventually we wanted to scream and flee. That is how the hatred and fear of Sinhalese began in the generation of the 1980s.

When there is love and kindness, language is no longer a barrier.

By the latter half of the 1990s, the military took control of Jaffna entirely. Small and large camps were set up in the main streets and junctions. Some areas were declared High Security Zones.

After school let out, the military questioned teenagers in Sinhalese, many of whom remained silent because they could not understand the officers. Then the military men would begin speaking in limited and broken Tamil.

“Where are you going?”

“Going home, sir.”

“Where is your home?”

“In Semmani Road, sir”

“What do you have in your bag? Do you have komba?”

Komba is Sinhalese slang for bomb.

Eventually the students learned the meaning of komba and answered by vigorously shaking their heads.

Thangarasu was the only person in town who could climb trees and pick coconuts. His service was very much in demand and he ran a rather successful business.

He would often be seen pushing his bike while smoking a cigar, with a bag containing a knife and some other climbing tools hanging on one side of the handle bars and sometimes two or three young coconuts on the other.

One day as he was pushing his bike along, he was stopped by the army. He threw away his cigar, opened his sarong to show that he was not hiding anything and said maththaya, or sir.

The military men may have thought that Thangarasu knew Sinhalese and they asked whether or not he had a komba. Thangarasu, however, had not understood a word. He scratched his head with a smile. The military men frowned at him and repeated their question.

He only understood the word komba, which means coconut shell in Tamil. Thinking they might be asking him something about his profession he said: Yes, I have some at home, shall I bring them?

The soldier must have frowned. Realizing something was wrong, Thangaransu tried again with body language. The response from the army was a thundering slap across Thangarasu’s face and he was taken to the army camp and thoroughly beaten.

After hearing about the incident, Thangarasu’s wife ran to the neighbours and cried for help. A few villagers who could speak Sinhalese went to the camp and spoke to the officers, who said that Thangarasu had answered their questions with a sharp tongue.  The villagers explained Thangarasu’s job and the tricky translation, and they managed to get their neighbour released. But after that incident Thangarasu limped for some time afterward, and had to give up his job of climbing trees and picking coconuts.

In 2009, after the end of the war, northern Sri Lankans could easily travel and stay in Colombo. And while these northerners had professional skills, they could only speak Tamil. Their knowledge of English was limited to writing.

The Wellawatte area of Colombo is full of Tamils, some call it “Little Jaffna”.  There are several businesses there run by Tamils and Tamil-speaking residents live in a tightly-knit community. Naturally, when northerners migrate to Colombo, they immediately look for a place in Wellawatte. But living in this area makes it even harder for Tamils to learn Sinhalese – and moving around in Colombo without Sinhalese, can be difficult.

Take a simple interaction on the public bus, for example. If the bus driver asks for coins or change he will get irritated if you speak to him in English. There are many northerners who pay a hundred rupees and leave the bus without getting the correct change. They simply walk away because they don’t speak the language.

I recently visited the Jaffna Teaching Hospital for minor surgery. After my operation, I was surprised by the kindness the nurses on the ward extended me. I could hear in their accents that they were Sinhalese, but they spoke in clear Tamil so that every patient could understand.

When there is love and kindness, language is no longer a barrier, rather a form of communication, a medium of emotions. Once you understand that, you can learn any language.