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House hunt in Sri Lanka: Seeking the place my father once called home

As Dakshana Bascaramurty was growing up in Canada, her father would reveal almost nothing about his past life in rural Sri Lanka. So when fate took her to the island country, she knew she had to search for the place he left behind

My family on my third birthday, Toronto, 1989.

My father holds me up on my third birthday in 1989.


My father never read to me when I was a kid, but could sometimes be persuaded to tell a bedtime story from memory, drawn from a stock of Sri Lanka-ified versions of Aesop’s Fables.

In the original parable of the crow and the fox, the fox flatters the crow, who is holding a piece of cheese in his beak, into singing for him. This prompts the crow to drop the cheese, and the fox catches it. My dad’s version was pretty close to Aesop’s original, except that the hunk of cheese was actually a vadai – a popular Sri Lankan snack that looks like a donut but is savoury and made from lentils.

A crow eating vadai. To a five-year-old growing up in suburban north Toronto, this was an absurd image, and one I added to a patchwork of others in an attempt to understand Sri Lanka, where my parents were from but rarely spoke to me about. I understood a rough outline of why they and many other Tamils had left their troubled country and made Canada their home. I know their history in a meta sense, but few of the details.

My dad’s life, especially, was a mystery. I remember lying in bed reading Baby-Sitters Club books on Saturday nights when my parents had friends over for meals of pittu (a dish made of steamed ground rice and coconut) and prawn curry. When the after-dinner drinks flowed, my dad’s booming voice would always rise above his friends’, his anecdotes winning out over theirs through a combination of charisma and sheer volume. But I was never able to glean much from those conversations – usually about politics or what so-and-so’s son back home was up to – to fill in the holes of his past.

Although my parents spoke Tamil in the house, enrolled me in bharatanatyam (classical Indian dance) classes as a child, and made regular pilgrimages to a Hindu temple near Pittsburgh, the only tangible evidence of my dad’s life in Sri Lanka were a few wallet-sized black-and-white portraits that had been preserved in yellowed envelopes or stuck into the crook of a disintegrating photo album.

Cathiravelu Bascaramurty, at various stages of his life.

My father, at various stages of his life before he moved to Canada.


The younger version of him looked nothing like the man I knew. Who was this stern-faced stranger whose jaw was narrower, lips were plumper and hair was more lush than that of my father, 46 and half-bald when I was born? Was he good at sports, or a klutz like me? What did his bedroom look like? His neighbourhood? How did he get to school every day, and did it look more like mine or the one on Little House on the Prairie?

How far removed from my world was his, on that mango-shaped island surrounded by the Indian Ocean nearly 14,000 kilometres away?

My dad never responded to my probing questions in a satisfying way. Like so many of those who even now are heading to Canada in the hope of a better life, he looked forward rather than behind. When I was in grade school, there was wistful talk of a possible family trip there one day, but it never materialized. The enormous expense was one obstacle, safety a much bigger one. Government forces, representing the Sinhalese majority (who are mostly Buddhist), had been at war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam since before I was born. I learned from watching the people around me that the right response to the question “What are you?” wasn’t “Sri Lankan” but “Tamil.”

Back then, my dad was always glued to BBC News reports about peacekeeping missions in Northern Province, where he and my mother grew up in tiny villages near the city of Jaffna, and I’d often overhear phone calls he’d have with his tight-knit group of fellow immigrant friends about editorials in Britain’s Tamil Times magazine. But by the time the war ended, in 2009, my brother and I were working adults, living thousands of kilometres away from our parents. Sri Lanka faded off my list of travel destinations. Maybe I’d never see it, and maybe that was okay.

Then, this fall, I found myself in my parents’ homeland for the first time – without them. One grey afternoon, as I walked down a dusty road in Sri Lanka’s south, scooters zipping by, I spotted a large black house crow jauntily strutting toward me, clutching a vadai in its beak.

A week later, after making the 10-hour journey to the northern tip of the country, I would find myself at a deserted Hindu temple in the boondocks, searching for clues to lead me to my father’s childhood home.

Point Pedro, the northernmost point in Sri Lanka.

Point Pedro, the northernmost point in Sri Lanka.


My husband, Anis, is half Sri Lankan and has family in the country’s south. His cousin Tamarih was getting married this past October, and so we booked a two-week trip to the country. My long-buried interest in my so-called homeland was suddenly awakened – not least because the last leg of our trip would be a three-day sojourn to the north, organized by Anis’s mother. My dad’s house became the prime destination of the journey: In finding it, I hoped to understand him better.

Would the Sri Lanka my parents remembered even resemble the place it is today? I thought back to the odd sense of loss I felt as a child, driving past our house in Toronto years after we’d moved to Winnipeg. The new owners had replaced the rose garden in the front with gaudy annuals. In Sri Lanka, the stakes were much more dramatic. What if the war had transformed the village? What if all the landmarks had been wiped out, a new civilization in place of the old? I was nervous about what I’d find, and of what I wouldn’t.

My parents left Jaffna many years before the civil war began in 1983. In the late eighties, as the hostilities intensified, my grandparents, aunts and uncles began arriving in Canada, some sponsored by family, others claiming refugee status. At one point, before I was born, there were seven members of the clan squeezed into my parents’ two-bedroom apartment in Toronto’s High Park neighbourhood.

My mother, Saro, in Jaffna. FAMILY PHOTO

Today, according to Statistics Canada, 131,000 Tamils live in Canada; academic experts put the figure even higher, at close to 200,000. So many settled in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough – opening up an extensive network of shops that sell 22-carat-yellow-gold wedding jewellery or imported spices – that some affectionately call it Little Jaffna.

Before the war, before the outflow, my dad recently confessed, he had fantasized about returning to his farming village of Atchuvely. Soon after he married, he suggested this plan to my mom, and she agreed to it.

“When Sri Lanka was in good shape, it was pointless wasting your time in another country,” he recently told me, though, as usual, he held back on any details about why his homeland was so great. Although years ago he made one short trip back to Sri Lanka, his plans to settle in Atchuvely never materialized. A few of their friends who, over time, had made the journey back said they hadn’t felt secure travelling the country as Tamils; I’d heard about some who’d found hostile squatters in their former homes. In a way, I was secretly relieved the big trip with my parents had never materialized.

My mother's childhood home in Urelu in 1985. after it was raided by the Sri Lankan army and set ablaze. FAMILY PHOTO

My mother was only slightly more forthcoming than my dad when it came to her history. One of the few bones she ever threw me was the story of how her father was almost killed by the Sri Lankan Army a few years after my parents came to Canada.

Having heard that soldiers were on the way to Urelu, their village, my grandfather had hid the family down the road. When he sneaked back later in the day to feed the guard dog, three troopers stormed into the house. It didn’t take long before they found him – hiding, rather comically, under a pile of burlap sacks. Two of them pointed guns in his face while another brandished a knife. He pleaded for mercy, and they let him go – but set the house ablaze. With the help of neighbours, my grandfather drew water from the well to put out the flames.

Soon after that episode, he and my grandmother moved to Toronto, living with my parents until they found an apartment of their own.

My mother delivered this story in the same perfunctory style she uses to describe her doctors’ appointments. Its emotional resonance, and that of her other memories, had faded over time – as if they were someone else’s. When I sent her an e-mail recently asking about my grandfather’s narrow escape, she replied with a casual mention of something I’d never heard about before – that her cousin was once shot by the Indian Army (which went to Sri Lanka in the late eighties to keep the peace but wound up fighting the Tamil Tigers). Without providing any details, she abruptly signed off the way she always does: “Love, Amma.”

Two weeks before we left for Sri Lanka, Anis and I visited my mother’s mother in her tiny north Toronto apartment. It was in a seniors’ building, and 96-year-old Ammamma had likely outlived every tenant who’d been there in 1990, the year she moved in. She opened the round biscuit tin from her pantry and offered us some Peek Freans.

“We’re going to Jaffna! What should we see?” my husband asked, using that loud, slow voice he reserves for her alone.

“Oh, I don’t know, I have not been there in so, so many years,” Ammamma said.

“But I hear they have lots of hotels there and all the facilities!” It was a line she kept repeating throughout our visit, suggesting her hometown had become a booming metropolis.

Not quite.

While downtown Colombo is a 21st-century city – luxury hotels along the coastline, stationery boutiques selling overpriced Japanese notebooks, electric cars on the roads – history seems to have pressed pause on Jaffna. In the 10 days before arriving there, we’d travelled from the hubbub of Colombo to the tidy Portuguese-built streets of Galle, from Kandy’s steep hills to the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya. But the area in and around Jaffna was by far the most primitive part of the country.

Jaffna Fort, built during the Portuguese occupation of Sri Lanka. During the war, it was controlled by the Tamil Tigers until 1995, and then taken by the Sri Lankan Army. Now, it's mostly a historical site locals and visitors come to and one where cattle are brought to graze.

Jaffna Fort, built during the Portuguese occupation of Sri Lanka. During the war, it was controlled by the Tamil Tigers until 1995, and then taken by the Sri Lankan Army. Now, it’s mostly a historical site locals and visitors come to and one where cattle are brought to graze.


A donkey eats a coconut outside Nallur Kovil in Jaffna.

A donkey eats a coconut outside Nallur Kandaswamy Temple in Jaffna, one of the most significant
Hindu shrines. In 2011, after the end of the war, a major gopuram (tower) was added to the temple.


Children in Jaffna.

Children in Jaffna.


The roads were rough and ridden with potholes, suggesting they’d been built for pedestrians, bullock carts and cyclists – and ignored after the rise of the automobile. Passersby gawked at our 18-seater bus, with a decal on its side of a buxom blonde dressed as a sexy firefighter.

The Sri Lankan government has spent serious capital on reconstruction here since 2009, but signs that this was the site of a protracted conflict were tattooed on the land. We passed the half-empty shells of bombed houses, some covered with vines that had twisted around their crumbling facades. It was clear that making Jaffna whole again will take far more time and money.

Some remnants of the war have purposely been preserved by the government. A makeshift tank used by the Tamil Tigers, but destroyed by a government soldier, is now a roadside attraction, labelled the “Terrorist Bulldozer” on Google Maps. A water tower knocked down by the Tigers in Kilinochchi, the northern town that served as their headquarters, has been transformed into a creepy tourist attraction.

The fallen water tower in Killinochchi.

The fallen water tower in Killinochchi, which has become a tourist attraction and marker of the end of the war.


My husband’s uncle offered to take a photo of Anis and me standing in front of it, smiling as though we were at the Eiffel Tower. I politely declined. In the souvenir shop – the souvenir shop! – next door, a bored sales clerk waited to ring up purchases of Coca-Cola or $3.50 mugs bearing a photo of the toppled tower and the words “Kilinochchi: Say no to destruction ever again.”

Throughout much of the war, this road was littered with checkpoints; few visitors gained clearance to travel here. Out of the left side of the van we saw the Queen of Jaffna, a passenger train, chugging southbound – an ordinary sight made extraordinary by the fact that it had resumed running only last year, after a quarter-century out of service. Life was slowly returning to normal here, but it felt as if it were by way of a time machine.

The rebuilt exterior of the Amman Kovil (a Hindu temple) in Urelu, the village my mother grew up in.

The rebuilt exterior of the Amman Kovil (a Hindu temple) in Urelu, the village my mother grew up in.


Tree beside the Amman Kovil, a Hindu temple in my mother's hometown of Urelu. DAKSHANA BASCARAMURTY/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

It was only after much prodding that I had finally got my parents to help co-ordinate a list of places to seek out during my time in the north. They were pleased with the idea of my going to Sri Lanka, but didn’t exhibit the glee I’d hoped for when I mentioned the journey to Jaffna.

It was my Australian uncle, Yogan Mama – my mother’s brother – who did the heavy lifting, spending hours poking around on Google Satellite and compiling points of interest in Urelu. Was the village co-op store still there, he wondered? It was where members bearing ration books could pick up weekly allotments of sugar, flour, rice, semolina and Maldive fish.

The store also distributed subsidized fabrics. Spotting a girl in a dress made with cheap co-op material, my mother and her siblings would nudge each other and smirk: “Yeah, that’s a coupon dress.”

When the family had dinner guests, my uncle recalled, one of the four brothers would be sent off into town to Subhas, Jaffna’s first ice-cream parlour. Whoever was dispatched would fill a flask with vanilla, the only flavour available, and cycle home from the relative hubbub of Jaffna’s town centre to the sleepy village where the family grew bananas, coconuts, guava and eggplants. The owners of Subhas also ran a famous hotel of the same name that was shuttered for many years because of the war.

The hotel has reopened, but the ice-cream parlour, we discovered as we poked around, is long gone. So were the snack corners where they’d order rotis and mutton korma for lunch, and the grinding mill where they’d take coffee, rice and lentils for processing. In my dad’s village, meanwhile, his primary school was still standing, but the fate of many others, including both of the secondary schools he attended, was a mystery.

The primary school my dad attended in Atchuvely.

The primary school my father attended in Atchuvely.


As I set out with Anis and a few members of his family, I had little optimism we would find what we were looking for here. Once the second-largest city in Sri Lanka, Jaffna had been hollowed out by the war, and now has a population smaller than it did half a century ago. As we drove through this city, with its broken infrastructure and overhauled population, it seemed like a long shot that I’d find the place where my dad had grown up, or any traces of my parents’ former lives, for that matter.

The directions my family had offered to my father’s childhood home in the village of Atchuvely were simple: We were to look for a temple built to honour Pillayar (the elephant god, also known as Ganesh) and, after finding it, to ask around for the house known as Theivam Pathy.

During the war, a few temples were destroyed; others were occupied by the army so Hindus couldn’t pray at them. Since the end of the conflict, some houses of worship had been rebuilt, occasionally funded by former residents who had created lives elsewhere. If we couldn’t find the first landmark, there was little hope. But the Pillayar Temple was there! An L-shaped structure painted mustard, it reminded me more of a repurposed farmhouse than the majestic white buildings adorned with hand-carved deities we’d seen in other parts of the country.

Piliyar Temple in Atchuvely, where my dad grew up. He attended this temple daily as a boy.

The Pillayar Temple in Atchuvely my father attended daily as a boy.


A tree painted to look like an elephant beside the Piliyar temple in Atchuvely. The temple was built to honour Piliyar, the elephant-faced god.

A tree painted to look like an elephant beside the temple, which was built to honour Pillayar, the elephant-faced god.


A few stray dogs languidly roamed around under the temple’s vaulted ceiling, seeking refuge from the sticky afternoon heat. The humans here, we later learned, had the same idea: They retired to their beds when the sun was this high. Save for a few smartly uniformed children playing behind the gate at my dad’s old school, there was no sign of a living soul. We’d made the mistake of showing up during Atchuvely’s unofficial nap time.

Just as we were about to throw in the towel, my husband spotted a man in the distance driving toward the temple on a scooter, and we waved him over.

“I’m looking for a house called Theivam Pathy. Know it?” I asked in my rusty Tamil.

“Theivam Pathy,” the man said slowly, letting the words marinate on his tongue for a few seconds.

“Her father used to live there. She’s looking for his house,” explained my husband’s Tamil-speaking uncle, Jude. My dad’s name didn’t ring any bells, either.

We saw another old man walking toward us, and Anis’s cousin’s husband, who also speaks Tamil, flagged him down. The man wore a baseball cap, and had tied his sarong the same way my dad did in the summer or when vacuuming the house: folded in half to hit just above the knees (rather than the ankles) for greater mobility. We peppered him with questions. No dice. It had been a long shot in any case.

I told the men it was okay, I was happy to have found the temple, and thanked them.

The first two men in Atchuvely who offered us help in finding my dad's house.

The first two men in Atchuvely who offered us help in finding my dad’s house.


But unlike Torontonians, who may shrug apologetically and carry on their way if asked for directions to a place they don’t know, these two were transfixed by our mission, and suggested we visit a neighbour’s house nearby. My dad was born in 1939, the same year The Wizard of Oz was released in theatres, an odd fact I always held onto because he was so rarely forthcoming with biographical details. And so it somehow seemed fitting that, in this journey to learn more about his life, my ragtag crew and I had crossed paths with people who brought to mind the benevolent residents of Munchkinland.

I turned to the members of my husband’s family who were standing with me, knowing that the other half on the bus – several battling the flu – were wondering what was taking so long.

“Is this okay?” I asked them. “Should we go back to the bus?”

“Jude Uncle” looked at me with incredulity and charged after the two men. “This is where your dad grew up – we must find it!” he called over his shoulder.

The man in the cap told us to wait while he went inside to wake his friend from his afternoon nap. In the meantime, I noticed a few members of my entourage had stopped at the house next door, to chat up the couple who lived there.

A shirtless, white-haired man in a veshti (a white cotton sarong) held up with a belt, his cellphone tucked between the layered fabric and his belly, walked to the gate, eyeing us with what seemed to be curiosity and suspicion, as if we were Martians. His wife, a wiry woman with sharp cheekbones, marched up with him, sporting a faded green cotton dress and a dot of red kungumam on her forehead.

A couple in Atchuvely who helped us find my dad's house.

A couple in Atchuvely who helped us find my dad’s house.


“I’m a visitor from Canada,” I began, with a broken Tamil that was no doubt bringing shame upon my family. “My father used to live here and I’m looking for his house. Do you know Theivam Pathy?” I asked.

The woman’s eyes lit up immediately. “Theivam Pathy? Oh yeah, I know Theivam Pathy!”

The group at this house now wandered over to the one next door, where another shirtless man, skinny with dark cocoa skin, confirmed that Theivam Pathy was just down the road.

The man who led us through Atchuvely to find my dad's house (left) and another (right) who confirmed its location.

As we were taken through the streets of Atchuvely to find my father’s house, a small crowd gathered to help and gawk.


I looked behind us and noticed a small crowd of passersby had now formed, all interested to hear what mission had brought our group here. They perked up with excited questions for us: Where were we from? Was I planning to move to Atchuvely? Was this my first time in Sri Lanka? Was I married? Was my dad still alive? How old was he? Was I interested in buying the house?

One man eyed Anis. “Who’s this?” he asked.

En … makan,” I replied, mistakenly identifying him as my son. Mercifully, Jude Uncle corrected me. The man in the baseball cap, sensing we might be stuck there till sunset, gestured back to the road, telling us the house was just around the corner.

“Thank you! Poitu varen!” I called out to the crowd. It felt right that the Tamil parting salutation translates as “see you later,” rather than “goodbye.”

The kind stranger and resident of Atchuvely who led us through town to the doorstep of my dad's old house. My husband's uncle tried to give him money as thanks and he turned it down.

The kind stranger and resident of Atchuvely who led us through town to the doorstep of my dad’s old house.


“Just around the corner” means as little in Sri Lanka as it does in Canada. We rounded many corners, trailing the man in the baseball cap for what felt like 15 minutes, until he gestured at a house.

Here it was: a modest bungalow surrounded by a stucco wall painted the colour of calamine lotion. Two women stood in front of the gate, chatting.

“Is this Theivam Pathy?” I asked, bracing for rejection.

But one replied: “Yes, yes, this is Theivam Pathy.” She turned out to be the owner.

“This is where Cathiravelu Bascaramurty used to live,” I said. “Do you know of him?”

“Oh, yes, I know that name,” she said, nodding.

I turned to my husband, my eyes bulging. This was it.

Theivam Pathy: My dad's childhood home in Atchuvely.

Theivam Pathy: My dad’s childhood home in Atchuvely.


She offered to let me in for a tour, and I stood there for a few pregnant seconds, grinning so hard that my cheeks began to ache. This was all I needed: The house, she told me, had been dramatically renovated; I’d never seen pictures of its interior or heard my dad tell stories about the place, so I had no nostalgia, even as a proxy, for it.

The front porch at Theivam Pathy.

The front porch at Theivam Pathy.


Inside the house.

Inside the house.


My parents had uprooted their lives completely to start anew in Canada more than three decades ago, and much of the world they’d left behind had been vigorously shaken up and slowly reassembled in a new form. But despite all that, there was still a small flicker of my dad’s existence in this tiny, sleepy town.

Behind the house, faded plaid sarongs and batik dresses hung on a line, shaded by a tree weighed down with dozens of mangoes. I thought I was scoring when I bought a crate of imported ones for $10 near the Toronto airport, but here outside my dad’s old home they were so abundant that some would probably rot on the tree before being consumed.

Theivam Pathy.

A mango tree in the yard of my father’s old house in Atchuvely.


The woman who owned the house offered us a blush-toned one, along with a knife. It was cut into segments and passed around as our group walked through the property as though they were at an open house. I graciously thanked the woman and shooed the stragglers back on our bus, which had found its way to the dwelling’s front gate.

As I walked to my seat at the back, I bit into the slice of mango, and juice dribbled down my chin. My dad’s family never had enough money for bicycles, let alone a car, so they seldom went to downtown Jaffna. Their diet was a mix of vegetables and fish with rice – meat was too expensive, and would probably spoil on the long walk home from town, anyway. But my dad had grown up with a mango tree in his yard. A mango tree. This was a good life. And it seemed as if everyone here were living just as simply and contentedly as he had all those years ago.

As our bus bumped along the road west, far out of Atchuvely and Jaffna to a spot we were headed for lunch, Jude Uncle revealed that he had offered money as a token of gratitude to the man in the cap who had led us on the odyssey to find my father’s house.

The man had firmly refused it. He had never heard of Theivam Pathy before that day, or had any memory of my father’s time here, but it didn’t matter. I was a daughter coming home.

Dakshana Bascarmurty is a Globe and Mail reporter.


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