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How a Easy Rice Dish Grew to become a Image of Resistance in Sri Lanka


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 bunch of girls to fulfill 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 an area store she wouldn’t title. By 3 p.m. the light drizzle had was a downpour, lashing down on a colourful temple, the placement of which should keep nameless as effectively. “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 concerning the location, you’ll have possible witnessed sure individuals retaining a watch on us.” Typically, they disrupt the cooking too.

Sri Lanka ranks among the many high 20 international locations with the biggest lively armies on this planet, a disproportionately massive 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 buddies — dwell. Right here, surveillance and restrictions are a lifestyle. That’s been the case for many years, however significantly since 2009, the tip of a decades-long civil struggle 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, exhibiting help 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 standard characteristic in South Asian houses. It’s a hearty breakfast when blended 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 straightforward 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 struggle, ending the Tamils’ decades-long battle 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 Nineteen 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.” Probably the most outstanding 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 preventing 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 larger. After brutal bombings, 1000’s of cease-fire violations by either side, and the killing of LTTE management, the Sri Lankan authorities introduced victory over the Tamil Eelam battle, 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 struggle, when the Sri Lankan army minimize off entry to meals, medication, and different necessities for Tamil civilians in a bid to weaken the LTTE, that kanji grew to become 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 your complete day. The weaponization of hunger led to widespread malnutrition by 2008.

“The quantity of kanji obtainable simply wasn’t adequate for the individuals. There have been lots of people inside small encampments,” says Eswari, who misplaced her husband within the struggle and raised her three kids — then ages 6 years, 2 years, and a pair of months outdated — alone in refugee camps.

In 2009, over the past phases of the struggle, a whole bunch of 1000’s of Tamil civilians had been trapped in supposedly secure zones, and bombed by the Sri Lankan army. (Either side have been accused of struggle crimes by the U.N.) Meals distribution facilities in these so-called “no-fire zones,” which gave out meals together with kanji, had been additionally focused by the Sri Lankan army as a result of they had been run by the LTTE.

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

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

On the day of our interview, the ladies are cautious, declining to be interviewed initially on account of issues of police intervention. All the ladies are members of the Affiliation for Relations 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 struggle 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 often face intimidation and restrictions all through the month such dates happen. “Had [the security officials] come to know that we’re cooking the kanji at present, they might disrupt the gathering,” Eswari says. “They inform individuals we’re exploiting their ache. They contact our kin and buddies 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 individuals,” Eswari provides. “The rice, salt and water used on this kanji represents our bravery. It has now change into an emblem 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 midst of a village referred to as Mullivaikkal, in Mullaitivu district. Right here, a crowd, largely wearing black, trickled in, strolling with garlands and photographs of their fingers.

Might 18 is commemorated as Genocide Day by the Tamils, the day V Prabhakaran, the LTTE supreme chief, was shot lifeless by the Sri Lankan army to finish the civil struggle. Final yr, after 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 had 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 struggle towards the LTTE a long time in the past.

In Mullivaikkal, a whole bunch of Tamil households gathered on a 3-square-kilometer plot of land, the positioning of the final Sri Lankan army offensive in 2009 during which tens of 1000’s of Tamils had been trapped and bombed. Within the neighborhood of this plot stood Sri Lankan safety officers; up within the skies hovered army drones. On the aspect, a bunch of girls handed out kanji in plastic glasses and coconut shells, a reminder of the struggle 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 struggle fought there — isn’t an on a regular basis affair.

Maya, who, alongside along with her members of the family, is being recognized by her first title on account of issues over their security in Canada and Sri Lanka, recollects a extra luxurious model of kanji from her childhood, one during which 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 had been compelled to maneuver to a refugee camp, however even there, they knew they weren’t secure. “In a single day, we grew to become 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 toddler, discovered to make a pared-down model of kanji. “It was sooner 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 need to 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 mother and father, in Canada. However she understands when her elders don’t wish to prepare dinner the dish day by day. “It’s due to the trauma related to the kanji. It evokes the painful reminiscences of the struggle,” 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 sturdy 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 convey the Sri Lankan authorities to trial for struggle 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 struggle 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 struggle had been too recent for us to consider symbolism instantly after the struggle. However not too long ago, we began reclaiming the symbols of the struggling of our individuals 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 individuals being compelled to eat the kanji as a result of that’s actually all that they had,” he says. “Seeing the photographs of malnutrition is actually 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 retailers and neighborhoods, since 2021. Final yr, the group was on the Homes of Parliament on Might 18 handy out kanji in takeaway bins with the recipe and a message to “share the Mullivaikkal rice kanji with your loved ones.”

Balanathan’s household had fled Colombo through the Black July pogroms, largely out of worry that the unusually tall Balanathan, who was then simply 13 years outdated, could be picked up by the Sri Lankan army for merely trying like “a Tamil of a preventing 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 opulent model of the kanji as a result of it’s consolation meals. However on remembrance days, we make it some extent 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 struggle. Vickneswaran Rajini, who’s among the many girls cooking, recollects bringing recent paddy from the temple and her mom making coconut milk kanji for the household. At house, moms and grandmothers would prepare dinner in clay pots on firewood stoves. “Even now, I prepare 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 convey out shaved coconut shells. Filling the coconut shells to the brim, they serve one another and stare out of the temple verandah whereas taking gradual 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 struggle, but additionally interact with youthful Tamils who didn’t develop up seeing the struggle. Typically, they interact 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 recollects a latest incident when some safety officers in her neighborhood disrupted kanji preparation. In response, Thangama requested the officers to sit down down with them beneath a tree and to speak. Whereas chatting, the ladies served them kanji. “The officers initially refused however we informed them, ‘We’re not providing you poison. This kanji helped us survive. If you want, you may 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 kids to the police station for carrying LTTE uniforms, and arrested at the least seven Tamils beneath terrorism legal guidelines through the remembrance occasion. Regardless of that, at night time, the Tamils gathered to recollect their battle, 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 dwell interpretation providers since 2020.





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