How a Easy Rice Dish Turned a Image of Resistance in Sri Lanka

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The plan for a surreptitious assembly had been within the works for weeks.

On the morning of November 7, Mariyasuresh Eswari obtained in contact with a gaggle of girls to satisfy her at a clandestine location in Mullaitivu, a district situated within the northeastern nook of the island nation of Sri Lanka. Because the darkish, unpredictable monsoon clouds loomed within the skies, Eswari picked up an enormous cooking pot from a neighborhood store she wouldn’t identify. By 3 p.m. the light drizzle had changed into a downpour, lashing down on a colourful temple, the situation of which should keep nameless as properly. “It’s due to the pressures we encounter from the [Sri Lankan] intelligence division,” Eswari stated. “In the event that they got here to know in regards to the location, you’ll have possible witnessed sure folks preserving a watch on us.” Generally, they disrupt the cooking too.

Sri Lanka ranks among the many prime 20 nations with the biggest energetic armies on this planet, a disproportionately giant chunk of which is stationed within the northern and jap components of the nation the place nearly all of the nation’s Tamil inhabitants — girls like Eswari and her pals — stay. Right here, surveillance and restrictions are a lifestyle. That’s been the case for many years, however notably since 2009, the tip of a decades-long civil warfare between Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese populations. Because the minority ethnic group — at the moment, there are an estimated 2.5 million Tamils in Sri Lanka, in comparison with 17.2 million Sinhalese — the Tamils are monitored, surveilled, detained, and interrogated for actions the federal government considers treasonous or, in different phrases, displaying assist for Tamil separatism. Typically, that features one thing so simple as cooking kanji.

A woman wearing a bright blue sari holds a handful of dry rice

On the temple’s verandah, between conversations and laughter, the ladies place firewood between sections of bricks and set it on fireplace. They pour mounds of rice right into a plastic blue tub and sift it for stones and bugs. After this, they wash the rice in faucet water within the temple backyard. It’s strained and at last dumped within the cooking pot with some salt. Because the rice simmers, the ladies get nearer and preserve watch.

Kanji, or rice gruel, is a typical characteristic in South Asian properties. It’s a hearty breakfast when combined with coconut milk, or a fast lunch or dinner if sprinkled with greens. It’s additionally a consolation meals for these with gastrointestinal misery. However in Sri Lanka’s northern and jap districts — the stronghold of the Tamils — the easy dish assumes a extra political type.

Almost 15 years in the past, in 2009, Mullaitivu was the positioning of the ultimate battle of Sri Lanka’s bloody, 26-year civil warfare, ending the Tamils’ decades-long wrestle for an unbiased statehood. The neighborhood traditionally confronted violent persecution, exclusionary legal guidelines and insurance policies, and pogroms within the Sinhalese Buddhist-majority nation. By the Seventies, a number of Tamil liberation teams gained management of the north and east to create a semblance of a homeland of their very own, a “Tamil Eelam.” Essentially the most distinguished of those was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), established in 1976. The LTTE ran a parallel authorities in Sri Lanka till, in 1983, the state launched a army offensive to finish the assertion. The combating continued for years — leading to between 80,000 and 100,000 casualties, in accordance with the United Nations, though Tamil rights organizations say that quantity is probably going increased. After brutal bombings, hundreds of cease-fire violations by each side, and the killing of LTTE management, the Sri Lankan authorities introduced victory over the Tamil Eelam wrestle, and the Tamil Eelam’s LTTE was designated a terrorist group by a lot of the West, together with the U.S.

It was within the thick of this warfare, when the Sri Lankan army reduce off entry to meals, medication, and different necessities for Tamil civilians in a bid to weaken the LTTE, that kanji turned a determined supply of sustenance. Rice, although scarce, was simple to make. For a lot of, one bowl of kanji dunked in salted water was the meal for the complete day. The weaponization of hunger led to widespread malnutrition by 2008.

“The quantity of kanji accessible simply wasn’t enough for the folks. There have been lots of people inside small encampments,” says Eswari, who misplaced her husband within the warfare and raised her three youngsters — then ages 6 years, 2 years, and a couple of months outdated — alone in refugee camps.

In 2009, over the last phases of the warfare, tons of of hundreds of Tamil civilians have been trapped in supposedly secure zones, and bombed by the Sri Lankan army. (Each side have been accused of warfare crimes by the U.N.) Meals distribution facilities in these so-called “no-fire zones,” which gave out meals together with kanji, have been additionally focused by the Sri Lankan army as a result of they have been run by the LTTE.

Murugesu Thangama, a 69-year-old grandmother and warfare survivor, remembers witnessing a queue of kids who have been ready for kanji to be served, being bombed by Sri Lankan army shelling. “I’ll by no means, ever neglect it. The youngsters died there after which,” Thangama says. “The ache that we stock can solely be understood by those that endured it. For this reason it’s so essential for us to cross on this reminiscence from technology to technology.”

The aftermath of the warfare introduced in sweeping army presence and restrictions within the north and east, even because the nation opened up entry to the north for warfare tourism in 2014. Since then, easy acts of remembrance like cooking and serving kanji have grow to be a harmful type of resistance, usually inviting police surveillance and motion.

On the day of our interview, the ladies are cautious, declining to be interviewed initially attributable to issues of police intervention. All the ladies are members of the Affiliation for Kinfolk of the Enforced Disappearances, a civil rights group that fights for justice for the Tamils. The wariness is compounded by the upcoming observance of Maaveerar Naal, a day for Tamils to recollect the combat for his or her homeland. To the Sri Lankan state, observing the date is an endorsement of terrorism; Tamil memorial occasions are prohibited within the nation and locals normally face intimidation and restrictions all through the month such dates happen. “Had [the security officials] come to know that we’re cooking the kanji immediately, they might disrupt the gathering,” Eswari says. “They inform folks we’re exploiting their ache. They contact our family members and pals to intimidate us.”

A large pot of shot from above. A large spoon holding a pile of rice is held aloft above the greyish, purplish liquid.

“[The kanji] symbolises the genocide of our folks,” Eswari provides. “The rice, salt and water used on this kanji represents our bravery. It has now grow to be a logo of the Tamils.”

Because the rain will get heavier, children from the neighborhood present up on the temple neighborhood, ready for the kanji to melt.


I first encountered the politics of the Tamil kanji final yr, on Might 18. Within the searing spring warmth, I drove previous empty streets to a small sandy open floor in the course of a village referred to as Mullivaikkal, in Mullaitivu district. Right here, a crowd, principally wearing black, trickled in, strolling with garlands and pictures of their fingers.

Might 18 is commemorated as Genocide Day by the Tamils, the day V Prabhakaran, the LTTE supreme chief, was shot useless by the Sri Lankan army to finish the civil warfare. Final yr, once I was in Mullivaikkal, the nation’s first-ever public acknowledgement of Genocide Day passed off within the capital metropolis, Colombo, throughout mass anti-government protests that have been triggered by extreme financial disaster. It was a uncommon unifying second for Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities. The protests additionally led to the ousting of the federal government of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose highly effective household had led the warfare towards the LTTE many years in the past.

In Mullivaikkal, tons of of Tamil households gathered on a 3-square-kilometer plot of land, the positioning of the final Sri Lankan army offensive in 2009 wherein tens of hundreds of Tamils have been trapped and bombed. Within the neighborhood of this plot stood Sri Lankan safety officers; up within the skies hovered army drones. On the facet, a gaggle of girls handed out kanji in plastic glasses and coconut shells, a reminder of the warfare when displaced civilians used the shells as bowls. Amid the warmth and heavy feelings, I relished the nice and cozy rice gruel and its mild, savory style.


The rice-salt-water kanji, or the “Mullivaikkal kanji” — referencing the final stage of the warfare fought there — is just not an on a regular basis affair.

Maya, who, alongside along with her members of the family, is being recognized by her first identify attributable to issues over their security in Canada and Sri Lanka, remembers a extra luxurious model of kanji from her childhood, one wherein the boiled rice meets the nice and cozy embrace of creamy coconut milk. “It’s rice, coconut milk, water and salt,” says the 65-year-old chatting with me on Zoom from Toronto. Her fingers mimic the gestures of cooking as she provides, “You garnish it with onion and inexperienced chile. That is the kanji I bear in mind from my childhood.”

Maya spent a lot of her youth in Colombo, the place her father, Raj, labored as a civil servant for 35 years. The Tamil household led a cushty life within the capital metropolis till “Black July” of 1983, a month that witnessed violent anti-Tamil carnage throughout the nation after a landmine laid by Tamil rebels in Jaffna killed 13 Sri Lankan Sinhalese troopers. The pogroms killed over 600 Tamils, in accordance with authorities estimates. Raj and his household have been pressured to maneuver to a refugee camp, however even there, they knew they weren’t secure. “In a single day, we turned refugees in our personal nation,” says Raj, who’s now 100 years outdated.

They moved to a small village near Jaffna, which was ruled by the LTTE. Each Tamil family had underground bunkers, the place households would flee when the shelling by Sri Lankan army began. That is when Maya, then a baby, discovered to make a pared-down model of kanji. “It was quicker to make too. When the shelling began, we might make a fast pot of the kanji, and transfer to the bunkers,” she says. Nobody knew how lengthy they’d should be down there.

A woman, shot from the waist down, holds a coconut shell full of kanji in one hand and a pitcher in the other

Women sit and eat kanji

Even in its most simple type, kanji is wealthy in vitamin B12, protein, and carbs. Sinthu, Maya’s niece and Raj’s granddaughter, joins the Zoom name to recall her model of the kanji. She was 4 years outdated when her household fled to Canada, and kanji is kind of a reminder of house, along with her dad and mom, in Canada. However she understands when her elders don’t wish to cook dinner the dish day-after-day. “It’s due to the trauma related to the kanji. It evokes the painful reminiscences of the warfare,” says Sinthu.

The Tamil diaspora from Sri Lanka has been essential in bringing worldwide consideration to the genocide at house. They’re estimated to be 1 million robust internationally, with the biggest inhabitants — of practically 300,000 — in Canada. Influential Tamil advocacy teams have been calling for a Nuremberg-like worldwide court docket to deliver the Sri Lankan authorities to trial for warfare crimes and genocide. Final yr, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked Might 18 because the Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day, the Sri Lankan state issued a denial of the genocide and referred to as the civil warfare a “terrorist battle perpetuated by the LTTE.”

The political symbolism of kanji emerged in Tamil rights activism solely in the previous couple of years, says Dr. Thusiyan Nandakumar, a London-based physician and journalist. “The injuries of the warfare have been too contemporary for us to consider symbolism instantly after the warfare. However lately, we began reclaiming the symbols of the struggling of our folks as highly effective reminders that we gained’t neglect the genocide.”

Nandakumar was simply 19 when he joined the rising abroad humanitarian motion to reply to the hunger disaster. His household had escaped the Black July bloodbath of 1983 and moved to London, the place he was born.

“We heard about folks being pressured to eat the kanji as a result of that’s actually all they’d,” he says. “Seeing the photographs of malnutrition is really my first affiliation with the kanji. It wasn’t a staple in Tamil households till the starvation and desperation led to its making on a widespread scale.”

A boy runs with a coconut shell full of kanji in one hand on a path between a barbed wire fence and a brightly painted turquoise wall

Ara Balanathan, a London-based scientist and part of an advocacy community referred to as British Tamil Alliance, has been distributing kanji in London’s public areas, together with Tamil outlets and neighborhoods, since 2021. Final yr, the group was on the Homes of Parliament on Might 18 handy out kanji in takeaway packing containers with the recipe and a message to “share the Mullivaikkal rice kanji with your loved ones.”

Balanathan’s household had fled Colombo throughout the Black July pogroms, principally out of worry that the unusually tall Balanathan, who was then simply 13 years outdated, can be picked up by the Sri Lankan army for merely trying like “a Tamil of a combating age.” The variety of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka ranks among the many world’s highest, with Amnesty Worldwide estimating as much as 100,000 disappearances for the reason that Nineteen Eighties.

Balanathan remembers a candy kanji variation, cooked with jaggery, from when he was a child in Jaffna. “Even proper now, many diaspora Tamils like me, we make an expensive model of the kanji as a result of it’s consolation meals. However on remembrance days, we make it a degree to eat the Mullivaikkal kanji — boiled rice, salt, and water,” he says. “It’s custom now.”


Because the rice involves a boil on that November morning in Mullaitivu, the ladies bear in mind the times of abundance earlier than the warfare. Vickneswaran Rajini, who’s among the many girls cooking, remembers bringing contemporary paddy from the temple and her mom making coconut milk kanji for the household. At house, moms and grandmothers would cook dinner in clay pots on firewood stoves. “Even now, I cook dinner in clay pans and pots as a result of that is how the kanji is probably the most scrumptious,” says Rajini.

The rain begins to peter out as the ladies deliver out shaved coconut shells. Filling the coconut shells to the brim, they serve one another and stare out of the temple verandah whereas taking sluggish sips of kanji. November will get very hectic for the group. Mid-November, they obtained collectively to commemorate Kanji Vaaram, every week the place households serve kanji in public areas to not solely inform the story of the warfare, but additionally have interaction with youthful Tamils who didn’t develop up seeing the warfare. Generally, they have interaction with those that won’t agree with them.

A woman holding a multicolored umbrella stands in front of the gates of a temple. She is holding a grocery bag full of rice and looking over one shoulder.

Thangama remembers a latest incident when some safety officers in her neighborhood disrupted kanji preparation. In response, Thangama requested the officers to take a seat down with them below a tree and to speak. Whereas chatting, the ladies served them kanji. “The officers initially refused however we advised them, ‘We’re not providing you poison. This kanji helped us survive. If you want, you’ll be able to have the kanji,’” Thangama stated. Listening to their tales, the officers drank the rice porridge.

This story is a uncommon one.

On November 27, Tamil Guardian, a London-based information portal that focuses on Tamil points, reported that the Sri Lankan police obtained a court docket order to cease Tamils from marking Maaveerar Naal. They tore down flags bearing colours of the Tamil Eelam flag, summoned youngsters to the police station for carrying LTTE uniforms, and arrested no less than seven Tamils below terrorism legal guidelines throughout the remembrance occasion. Regardless of that, at night time, the Tamils gathered to recollect their wrestle, with kanji.

Pallavi Pundir is an Indian journalist who has been masking the intersections of politics, society and gender for over 10 years throughout South and South East Asia.
Steephan Sansigan is a seasoned freelance photographer and unbiased filmmaker since 2012, specializing in documenting the landscapes and tales of North and different areas of Sri Lanka.
Gowthami Thillainathan is a contract mediator and translator who has been successfully bridging language gaps between Tamil and English by meticulous doc translation and personable stay interpretation providers since 2020.



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