Going Local in Jaffna
National Geographic Traveller India|July - August 2021
A Tamil-fluent Indian imposter tries to go local in northern Sri Lanka. What happens next?
AJAY KAMALAKARAN

Everything about the Colombo Fort railway station suggests that we are in another country, in another era. The neat maroon-brown trains, the wooden staircases, the dim lighting and a reclining chair coach (called a sleeper in Sri Lanka) also remind a traveller of an early 20thcentury ride in British India, or at least as it has been depicted in cinema. The 4089 Night Mail leaves Colombo at 9 p.m. and my Sinhalese friend Pavithra and I are off to Jaffna, on the northern fringe of the island. The train, which stopped functioning during the country’s civil war between 1983-2009, snakes through the lush countryside. For entire swathes, we see nothing but silhouettes of village houses and halo-shaped neon lights that frame towering Buddha statues. This night journey is meant to ensure that we get some good sleep. It is not for glancing at the enormous stupas of Anuradhapura, nor observing how shop signs that changing the language once we enter northern Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority turf. It is not for marvelling at the Elephant Pass, that stunning and strategically vital piece of land on the isthmus connecting the Jaffna Peninsula to the rest of Sri Lanka—but we go renegade and choose to grab at stray sights and sounds along the way. By 5 a.m., we are in Jaffna, 30 minutes ahead of schedule. If we’d been blessed with sound slumber, there’s every chance we’d have travelled further to Kankesanthurai, a port on the northern tip of Sri Lanka.

We step out of the spotlessly clean railway station, keeping our goal in mind to act and feel as much as locals as possible. So is this the Jaffna that the famous singer A. E. ‘Ceylon’ Manohar, of “Surangani” fame, sang to? Armed with Google maps, we walk into a teashop to get some vadas and a cuppa! Jaffnaites drink their tea with milk and not milk powder like their counterparts in southern Sri Lanka. Both of us are craving some good old South Indian filter coffee; after all, we are in Tamil land now! But at 5:30 a.m., as we hear prayers from a nearby Hindu temple, a local version of masala tea comes to our rescue.

The smell of jasmine is distinct, and the literal early birds burst into songs as we walk to the waterfront and the fort. Peace returned to northern Sri Lanka in 2009, but the armed forces weren’t leaving much to chance. Barbed wires and armed guards are visible in the heart of the city. Like other parts of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, Jaffna is definitely an ‘early to rise’ city. The area around the fort, built after the Portuguese invasion of the 17th century, reveals itself to be a hub of early morning fitness activities, and also some fun fishing spectacle. It is still palpable that we are in a small town, with a quiet and idyllic flow of life. The searing crimson, orange, and reds that accompany dawn in Jaffna indicate that the city is free of the pollution that comes with our blinkered notion of development.

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