Letter from a Father to my Tamil-Canadian Children

Yes, your parents too were once children just a few decades ago. The most acute issues facing them were political disarray and ethnic discord,  all caused by the misjudgements of their parents, grandparents and their forbearers.

Yes, your parents too were once children just a few decades ago. The most acute issues facing them were political disarray and ethnic discord,  all caused by the misjudgements of their parents, grandparents and their forbearers.

The country we came from, Sri Lanka, had managed to meet many of the world’s social indicators in raising life expectancy, decreasing infant mortality, decreasing poverty, improving literacy and empowering women to participate in the economy.

Yet although the country had managed to level many of the prevailing social inequalities, issues related to caste, religion and ethnic identities were left to fester. Yes, it was a beautiful house but with a rotten foundation. It was on the cusp of becoming an economic tiger like Singapore. But it all unraveled in an abyss of murder, rape, war and displacement.

From this cataclysm sprang the seed of a people who traversed the world in search of refuge. Many died along the way. Others found their moorings as tenacious refugees. They hung on for life and built a society like lichens in the middle of the ocean. The focus was survival and taking care of family and friends.

Now let’s see who your parents are. Some of them were child soldiers. Others were displaced a number of times, driven from their comfortable homes into jungles and strange lands. A few would have seen mass murder through their own childhood eyes. Some were tortured themselves. Others would at least know of a close friend or family member who was gruesomely impacted by the long running civil war and its macabre ending.

These are children who saw society as they knew around them break down. They saw fellow human beings who should protect children turn into wild beasts. Most were victims. Others may have been perpetrators of violence themselves. Either way, they won’t talk about these issues. Even if they did,  you as children wouldn’t have the capacity to relate to it. Even as young adults, growing up in safe, comfortable, placid Canada does not prepare one to understand the realities of a country reverting to its sordid elements.

Even if your parents don’t talk about their mental health, its impact is just like the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that afflicts returning soldiers from war. PTSD also impacts the children of those who are suffering from it. In fact, it could be a generational malaise if we are not careful in identifying and dealing with it.

What was our culture like before it was brutally torn apart ? We called ourselves Sri Lankan Tamils. Most of us were either physically or emotionally invested in a political struggle and a war fought and lost for Tamilness.

But what are our origins and how similar or different were we to the Tamils of India? If you want to find the roots of our culture, one has to look not just within Sri Lanka but also the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where most of our culture’s basic elements were formed.

We also need to look into the lush green of God’s Own Country state of Kerala as well, a place where women once ruled supreme and the Tamil language was widely spoken. It was a matrilineal society where land, property and political power rested with the female line. Brothers managed the ancestral homes and property in the name of their sisters.

We have many vestiges of this female-centric familial system, both in Jaffna and Batticaloa, even to this day. It still survives with Eastern Sri Lankan Tamil society moreso than in the North. Our forefathers were matri-local; after marriage, they settled in their wives household. Such a practice would be an anathema to our more patriarchal Indian Tamil cousins. Just imagine a new husband meekly settling into the household of his wife, which likely belonged to her mother and so forth. Guess who wore the pants in our society?

Sri Lankan society historically accorded high status to women, although colonialism was slowly but steadily eroding those concepts and Eurocentric patriarchy was making inroads. Many of our great grandmothers attended English medium schools and were educated as early as the 1890’s.

Of course, this opportunity was not accorded to all Tamils. Some castes were denied entry to proper schools for many years – for both boys and girls and alike. That’s the dark side of our culture that we should be ashamed of.

So a group of refugees from a culture undergoing gender differentiation and violent disintegration finds itself in Western countries that have (at least on principle) radically undone patriarchy. But it must have been strange for them to still see wage disparity for women, and boys not doing as well in school and in life in general. They were and still are dropping out of schools early, with many dying earlier than their parents.

Your parents are men and women whose mental health is suspect. They are not culturally equipped to deal with it other than to lose themselves in work and in the physical (not mental) well-being of their children and family. They don’t know how and when to hit the reset button with respect to their mental health and their relationships with their significant others and their children. Many are now reaching a point of retirement and eventual death. Their best days are long gone, and retirement homes and geriatric wards await them sooner than later.

This leaves their children high and dry. Many don’t understand their culture, don’t have a clue as to why their parents are so unglued from the reality around them. Many develop a contempt for the society they sprang from.

Yet this, too, is normal. The impact of war lasts for generations. A study revealed that genocide lingers in the DNA of survivors permanently. They were not equipped to deal with the complexities of Western society.

You are the children of imperfect parents who came from a society in peril. You are inheriting a world in danger and a society in transition. Please have some empathy and look forward. They did the best they could, and it’s time for you to take charge of your society with the choices you have.

If you want to be parents, try to make yourselves better parents than how their parents and grandparents were to them – and perhaps how your own parents raised you. Leave your children a world from which they don’t have to run away for mere survival. No matter what, the globe will keep on rotating. In 20 years, your own children may, too, complain about you. Or hopefully, they’ll compliment you on how good a job you did in raising them.

-This article was submitted by a TC reader who has requested to remain anonymous. Featured image from Dilani Bala's 'Ode to our Parents'.

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