Eight years ago: Batti 2012 Divided by Date Trees, United by a Net Café

Batti, 2012: Another insight into the beyond-Colombo life of Srilankans by the forthright Sandya Salgado 

 

SANDYA SALGADO:

Batticaloa District, in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka is an ethnically diverse city with a population of approximately 490,000. The three decade old civil war wreaked havoc in this beautiful coastal town where the majority of the people are Tamil (74.5%) with a smaller Muslim (23.5%) and a Sinhala (1.3%) community living amidst some amount of tension over their ethnic differences.

 Driving into Batticaloa town was a pleasant surprise for me after almost ten years. The bustling town was visually coming alive with the excellent road network that made the long drive from Colombo a real pleasure. Well-constructed roads, the new and gleaming centre median lamp-posts and the ongoing construction work painted a very positive feeling about the overall development of downtown Batticaloa, which was a welcome change for me. Batticaloa town’s landscape was surely changing. Needless to say I was wowed!

Manchanthoduvai, a village passing down town Batticaloa was my destination beyond Ariyampathi and Kaaththankudi. As I passed Ariyampathy, I was suddenly struck by a unique landscape. I drove through an arch in the middle of the road and the rows of center median lamp posts were replaced by beautiful date trees from this point onwards.

I must confess it took a few minutes for me to digest this unexpected and unusual ‘treescape’. The downtown shops on either side of this tree lined road were also more modern and different to the rest. A little bit of Dubai in the middle of Batticaloa? That was my initial reaction.

I was on my way to visit the ‘humble’ office of an organization which we had funded to carry out a development project in Manchanthoduvai. This office was situated on ‘South Boundary Road’ in Manjanthodurai and was housed behind a Net Café which was patronised by the youth of this area. This Net Café didn’t appear special or unique until I learnt the town’s dynamics…

What I learned was amazing! The road from Ariyampathy to Manchanthoduvai which sandwiched Kaaththankudi had created a clear ethnic divide and a special identity. The Muslim community who lived in the sandwiched town of Kaaththankudi had clearly demarcated their territory. Kaaththankudi was the Muslim town which marked their identity with the date trees. The other two towns on either sides of Kaaththankudi where the Tamil community lived had the regular centre median lamp posts! According to my sources, there was constant tension between the towns’ people.

The ‘South Boundary Road’ was literary ‘the boundary’ of the two towns where the two communities lived. The Muslims and the Tamils of these three towns hardly ever mingled, except in the Net Café which was housed along the Boundary Road which seemed to be an ‘all man’s land’.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Tamils and the Muslims who lived on the Boundary Road in fact lived quite harmoniously! The Net Café on South Boundary Road was special. It is a modest and basic ‘shed’ with just five computers, nothing fancy and appealing. It obviously lacked the usual hi-tech trappings found in a café in the city. But this was a common ground, a meeting place, a kind of an oasis where kids from both communities came together in perfect harmony. It was an open house to shed their differences and open their minds to a wider world. Races didn’t seem to matter here. Differences didn’t seem to exist. They were all coming in to experience something fun and exciting – the virtual world!

Chatting with friends, interacting via Facebook, downloading music, checking out internet sites of interest, especially the Tamil sites and spending time playing computer games seemed common place in this café. One boy had as much as five thousand Facebook ‘friends’ from the world over and he lost no time in adding me to his already oversubscribed list of friends! What was also unique was that most of them could only speak and understand Tamil, even though they used the Net freely. Here was a wonderful inter-ethnic potpourri. The kids seemed oblivious to any date tree divide. This seemed a wonderful display of unity and harmony that the adults in the neighbouring towns could take a lesson from.

I left this unique experience thinking that the Net Café down Boundary Road stood as a symbolic mediator to a man made divide, which should ideally be resolved by the two ethnic communities amicably before it grows into something permanent beyond just the date trees!

This was first published as a World Bank blog

Sandya Salgado is Former CEO of Ogilvy Action Colombo and Senior Communications Officer at World Bank. She never retires but gets involved in diverse projects which keep her inspired. 

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