Tamil writer Pathinathan returns home to Sri Lanka, after documenting refugee life in India over three decades

Writer Tho Pathinathan vividly remembers the day he landed on the shores of Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu, after fleeing his home in Sri Lanka's Mannar district. It was the summer of 1990, when the south Indian state had received yet another wave of refugees from the neighbouring nation. The writer distinctly remembers seeing a decaying corpse from the boat. “He was also on his way to become a refugee, and his boat had capsized. He was buried with no relatives around, on some shore,” he says. For a teenager from Jaffna, who had dropped out of school in the tenth standard to travel all the way to a new country on a boat with four elder siblings, the experience was chilling, and life-altering. Much later, all five siblings would tread different paths — while some would shift to other countries, others would get married and move on.

“We were a huge family in which I was the 12th and the last child," Pathinathan says. They landed at midnight, and were welcomed by a Tamil film song, blaring. Even as he touched the shores in India, Pathinathan — a reasonably playful 16-year-old — hoped to return to his hometown in six months after spending some time sightseeing. When he finally managed to go back to Pasimottai, his small agrarian village in Sri Lanka's Mannar district, the writer was a 45-year-old man, and had spent a good three decades in Tamil Nadu.

In those years, Pathinathan had written three books in Tamil — all searing accounts of refugee life, and had established himself as a name to reckon with in the world of Tamil literature. Last month, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court delivered a judgement on Sri Lankan refugees seeking citizenship in India. In order to clearly understand the plight of said immigrants, Justice GR Swaminathan recommended reading Pathinathan, to learn about the "hellish conditions of the camp". “Even if one's heart is made of stone, it would still melt under the searing heat of reality,” the court observed.

 Tamil writer Pathinathan returns home to Sri Lanka, after documenting refugee life in India over three decades

Writer Tho Pathinathan

Pathinathan's first work — Porin Marupakkam (The Other Side of War) published by Kalachuvadu Publications in 2008 — was autobiographical. And he had much to tell through his story. “After spending first eight years in the refugee camp in Madurai, I sneaked out without external registration required of a refugee,” he says. Camp life was crushing his personality. For the next eight years, Pathinathan straddled two identities in Chennai.

The lack of external registration made him hide his Sri Lankan-Tamil identity, and he disguised himself as an Indian-Tamil in order to get a job. However, he pursued his education under his original identity at around the same time. “I worked at a five-star hotel, giving my name as Sudhakaran — my unofficial pet name in the family. I had also enrolled myself in a public administration course under distance education in the University of Madras, using my official name and my birth certificate,” he says.

Now, with assured food and accommodation, Chennai opened up a new and promising world of literature for Pathinathan in the eight years to come. “A roommate of mine brought books from the library. Till then, I had hardly read anything, leave alone having written something,” he recalls. But as he started finishing one book after another, the writer realised he had a compelling story to tell, which he ultimately ended up writing.

However, before Pathinathan decided to publish, he told his employers of his 'dual identity'. “I was afraid of being caught, because the book was very autobiographical, they could see me in it,” he says. Subsequently, his employers asked him to quit. Thereafter, Pathinathan aimlessly spent an entire month in Chennai, and when he could not afford even "one morsel of rice’", the writer decided to go back to the refugee camp. The officials were not very welcoming, but he was taken in.

Not many were willing to publish Pathinathan’s gut-wrenching, yet brutally honest account of refugee life. “I remember telling a publisher that I can go to jail, if it comes to that. The publisher said he doesn’t mind my going to jail, but he cannot afford to have his publication house closed,” he says. It was by accident that he met writer Murugesa Pandiyan, who not only helped edit his book, but introduced him to Kalachuvadu as well.

Soon after, his book was released. A month later, Pathinathan got married. “After that, I left the camp with due permission, and set up a house for us in Madurai.”

Pathinathan went on to publish two more books with the publication — Thamizhagathin Eezha Agathigal (The Eelam Refugees in Tamil Nadu), and Thagippin Vaazhvu (A Torrid Life). Unlike his first work, these two titles were a little impersonal — talking about living as a refugee not just in Tamil Nadu, but across the world in general.

The writer has two more books in the pipeline, both of which are "somewhat of a short story collection, and somewhat of a novel". While Kalachuvadu is publishing one of the titles, Yaavaram Publications is releasing the other.

Pathinathan's decision to go back to Sri Lanka was hardly rooted in his ‘love for the land', — it was more about getting rid of the "refugee cross" on his back, he says. “My life as a refugee was becoming a huge burden — there was economic stability, yes, but there were other issues. Even my last flight from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka was mired in issues that took time to sort out. It came to a point where I could not carry it any longer. At least twice, I had to seek counselling. No other place could relieve me of this burden," he rues.

Pathinathan's decision to go back to Sri Lanka was hardly rooted in his ‘love for the land', — it was more about getting rid of the "refugee cross" on his back, he says.

Pathinathan's decision to go back to Sri Lanka was hardly rooted in his ‘love for the land', — it was more about getting rid of the "refugee cross" on his back, he says.

The writer needed a new land beneath his feet, a new roof over his head, and a new air to breathe in freely, without feeling 'alien'. His friends advised him against relocating to Sri Lanka right after it was struck by major terrorist attacks, but Pathinathan was determined. “Refugee status was an invisible chain that kept me bound, I needed to cut it off,” he says. “Everyone has to. Only those who are in chains will know how agonizing it is. I do wish and hope someday all my people out there could cut off the chains,” he adds after a pregnant pause.

According to the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OERR), 14,869 people have returned to Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war in 2009. However, close to one lakh Sri Lankan refugees continue to reside in and outside the camps in Tamil Nadu. As for Pathinathan, life back in Pasimottai has to be rebuilt from scratch.

He is currently living at the home of one of his sisters, hoping to find a job and a place for himself soon. “But my immediate priority is to get the identity card,” he says. Unsurprisingly, his village has undergone a sea change since he left. His old friends have disappeared, so have the lakes on whose banks they spent a rich childhood, until war shattered their lives. Very few trees that he knew have withstood the onslaught of changing, turbulent times. “The trees are wounded, like they are carrying the scars of the struggle. To me, it is representative of the scars that I carry, that all of us here carry," Pathinathan says.

The writer anticipates myriad challenges ahead. Even though he can finally call the ground beneath his feet home, the feeling of rootlessness remains. Pathinathan is yet to find a job, and he doubts he can ever write again. But for now, he only wants to live his "deeply personal life, to which even the act of writing could be intrusive". “If there is some pressure, some compulsion from within, I might just yield, though I do not see myself doing it immediately. This moment...I want to savour this freedom, as much as I can,” the writer says.

Pathinathan has a million concerns to address, but back home in Sri Lanka, at least it's one less to deal with.

Updated Date: Jul 15, 2019 09:48:42 IST