‘I can’t remember my sister’s face’ – the story behind ‘Stranded’ by Sivasubramaniam Kajendran


Stories find you and not the other way around sometimes—Siva Kaja’s story just burst on me without warning. It was not a by-the-book introduction. He sent me a photo of his exhibition STRANDED on FB and I asked him to send me a write-up that I could share with my friends in Sri Lanka.

‘Call me and I will tell you the story behind my exhibition’, he said, and – little realizing that he would find it hard to convey the meaning in written English – I insisted that he write something first.

Stranded 3Sivasubramaniam Kajendran did. Introducing himself, he, sentence by sentence, narrated the multiple displacement during childhood, the loss of mother and sister in the Tsunamis, that his life was controlled by the LTTE, the loss of his other sister during the Mullaivaikkal battle and how he does not have a single photo or image of his family. He carries their images around in his head and paints them constantly, on hundred of paintings.  They are still alive in his mind’s eye, without any photos, but he finally found a visual language: ‘The four-year Fine Arts degree in Jaffna University helped me to find this’ he says.

‘Do you know Sanathanan of the Jaffna Uni?’ I texted back – feeling ashamed that I had been ‘on the point. ‘Thamotherampillai Sanathanan?’

‘He is my lecturer’, said Siva. ‘He is my support to do this exhibition’.  And not only in this exhibition, in everything.

It is not hard to imagine that Sanathanan is much much more than that to Siva and perhaps to many others. He has been the guide, the inspiration, replacing all who they lost. He has taught a language of therapy, healing and interpretation through Art to those, who have as Siva says ‘nothing but my body’ and ‘keeping my body safe’ was all that mattered.

Most of all, they who have no photos or mementos of their parents and family have now a powerful medium in the arts to bring them back to life. Siva mentioned a supportive lady who wants to exhibit his work in Colombo.

Satisfied, I skyped with Siva today on a surprisingly good connection with no interruptions, (except by my son, Daniel). Siva’s spoken English is adequate to narrate another layer to the Sri Lankan epic of the displacement, trauma, loss, displacement, pain, loss, displacement, survival, interpretation that future generations will find incredulous, even unimaginable. The most incredible element that endures is what we often do not hear of in the official record that is written into the history of a nation: the superhuman resilience and renegotiation of the human spirit and human courage to prevail.


I don’t remember my sister’s face. For years after the Tsunamis, we lived in different ‘Homes’ and I never met her again. The young people didn’t want to fight in the LTTE, but they forced us. I escaped, but my sister was recaptured and I heard that she had been injured in her spine and so, went back to the LTTE area dressed in their fatigues, in dark glasses, trying to find her. I never did.

Finally, he said, when the army were in front of me, I was not even capable of sensing what was going on around me, war made us that way. We climbed over the shell-blasted bodies and made our way forward. We had no sensation left. When I had to strip down for the Army I did for I was a third person and no longer in my body or mind. Or else, how on earth could I have stripped down to show them that I didn’t carry explosives?  He laughs infectiously and his hair, not unlike Lionel Ritchie’s, frames an animated, intense face.

Siva has no fixed abode at the moment. He lives on rent, with his growing collection of paintings that he says he is compelled to continue.

I went back to Mullaitivu where my home was, two weeks ago, he said. They told me, go to that tree, look in that direction and that was where your home was. I found a small piece of my boundary he says placing his hands a little apart. My mother had just brought us back to our home, and rebuilt it during the ceasefire. It was the first time I was in my own home and I was 16 years’ old. We were just 50 yards from the sea; we had no chance. Since then, it was Children’s Homes and the LTTE and being forced to go forward, go forward. We didn’t want to fight. I stood and looked at the place that was my home. I cried. But, no one knows, because I went there alone.

Stranded poster

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