To write about a train, you don't need to run with it. So I will, instead, first talk about Jaya Perera, a hairdresser from Muscat, who in the 1970s, had married a man from Jaffna, had his child, whom they had taken to meet his grandparents on a train, with her wearing a sari and speaking in self-conscious Tamil, to escape being noticed she was Sinhala.
In the riot-ridden 1970s, Sri Lankans, she said, had things to hide: the Sinhala, her Sinhalese once they were out of the South; the Tamil, his culture and language.
"Who goes to Jaffna now I wonder? Except government doctors and teachers or pilgrims few went North those days…" she said taking a seat on a train from Colombo a few seats behind mine. She last rode the Yal Devi in the 90s to meet her in-laws. By then, the Tamils, in response to decades of Sinhala chauvinism, had started fighting for a separate homeland, turned militants, and, through the '80s and '90s, blasted the train several times.
Much like India's Frontier Mail, one of India's first superfasts connecting the north (Amritsar) to the west (Bombay), about the Yal Devi,- connecting the Tamil-majority Northern Province with the rest of Sri Lanka- Sri Lankans are full of ambiguous memory. This connection with all its faultlines was present even when it was built by the British in 1905; smashed by the LTTE (it used a number of its rails and sleepers to make bunkers), repaired by the Lankan government (after the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987) and re-built (its tracks were laid by IRCON, an Indian Railways company) in synchrony with the nation's politics and its evolving dynamics with its South Asian neighbours.
These days, across the Palk Straits, as Chennai takes a breather from its 'Save Indian fishermen' (they were released this week) alongside its longstanding 'Save Tamils (of Sri Lanka)'campaigns, the Sri Lankan government, says its critics, is running its own campaign. It's called 'Everything is Fine'. Its backers point to China building its ports; India building its transport infrastructure, as "signs".
Passengers are mostly Tamils going or returning to Colombo for work and non-resident Tamils. Sinhalas are on a re-discovery of the North
"For 25 years, the North was cut off. But what we need most is an opening up of its social, political and economic potential," says Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political economist and member of the Collective for Economic Democratisation in Sri Lanka.
"Even five years after the war, the government is keeping the north and the south polarised through militarisation. The countryside may now have electricity. Village roads and small water-tanks may have been repaired. And road networks and train lines are necessary. But what this has also meant are leasing companies; banks which give credit increasing people's indebtedness in the absence of productive investment, and a military controlling post-war society.
In other words, financialisation without democratisation. So, everything is not fine. The train is an opportunity but people need much more to take advantage of it."
"But it's still the same train isn't it?" asks Jaya looking hopefully around saying she has been dashing letters to friends when the news of the train launch had reached her a month ago, mixing in it the anxieties of exile with hope.
The Bishop of Jaffna inaugurated a cricket turf in Jaffna recently, an event organised with army backing
There are many keepers of displacement figures of Tamils from the North and Sri Lanka at large. They may be contested, but they are documented. The number of progressive Sinhalas or people of mixed unions in self-imposed exile, like Jaya, like that of the Northern Province's Muslim population (the LTTE expelled them) living in refugee camps, is hardly part of any list. Their issues muddy the political math. As they give legitimacy to no group, they are no one's constituency.
"Same train? I wouldn't know," says Rukmani, a Sinhala teacher, on her way to the Nagadeepa Buddhist temple near Jaffna when I ask her the question that, Jaya, I feel, wants me to ask everybody. "How will I feel when I get to Jaffna? We'll see," she says exchanging a look with her group, not too different from the other middle-class Sinhala tourists on the train, going to Jaffna for a re-discovery of the north, to reclaim it in a post-militancy scenario.
To her right across the aisle, sits Ayuran, a Tamil, returning home to visit his brother. He is in a suit. His wife, flowers in her hair, wears boots. "In the US, I think 'this is my country, I should come back'. When I do, I'm back to being a Jaffna Tamil," he says, keeping the decibel low. "Now, there's no fight, the war is over, things should be clear-cut. It's not clear. What is the army doing at my door asking me questions? How do I know who blasted the train? I was in California!" His wife, Chetty, asks him to look out of the window.
Sri Lanka, from inside a train window, is a sight. Train stations, in muted pastels and peach wait with freshly painted prettiness in the sun. Snow-white egrets swoop down on courtyards of houses built along the railway tracks. One-storey buildings riddled with bullet holes, a pillar fallen, the roof gone- also appear, then disppear, or get hidden by foliage.
The grass and newer dwellings have grown around them. Nearing north, army men and palymyra trees alternate as monitors, as it were, on either side of the train as it crosses the stations of Vavuniya and Kilinocchi, two of the former LTTE strongholds where thousands died in the final phase of the war.
Vijith, a jeweller from Colombo is going to the north
Vijith, a young jeweller from Colombo, who changes his headgear twice in between these two stations but keeps his T-shirt on ('Cool guys never die' is its slogan!) fishes out his camera-phone shooting himself hanging out of the train. Tourism under martial law, as in many parts of the subcontinent, is not a contradiction in terms.
In Jaffna, of course, that situation gets even better: Jaffna has begun to participate in constructing the normal. Jedaratta, a student, for example, on being asked about his job prospects at home, pin-points, without giving any reason, the exact year, 2003, when he "had a change of heart". "I will take the train and go for work in Colombo. The Sinhalas are also good people. But I don't speak good English and I don't know Sinhala, will I fit in?" This cross-connection persists, despite attempts by the government to bridge the language divide, begun by the watershed Official Language Act of 1956 to substitute Sinhala alone for English as the language of State even though it is not the 'mother tongue' of Sri Lanka's largest ethnic minorities, the Tamils (of North, East and up-country) and Muslims (excluding the Malay community).
Government departments still send circulars to Jaffna in Sinhala, says Thomas Savundaranayagam, the Bishop of Jaffna. According to a 2010 report of the Sri Lankan advocacy group, Law and Society, "audits by the Official Languages Commission revealed divisional secretariats unable to offer basic services in Tamil. There are neither Tamil-speaking officers nor material resources to support translation or issue of documentation in Tamil.
Bullet-ridden houses beside railway tracks are a reminder of the LTTE's last stand against the Sri Lankan army
In a recent survey of 19 institutions in bilingual administrative areas, only 15 had the required typewriters or computers and language software in Tamil." The disempowerment of the Northern Provincial Council is an extension of the Sinhala majoritarianism that gives with one hand and takes with another, say locals.
"Tamils may have an elected leadership in the Northern Province but the Northern Council's status is that of a town council. Here, the governor (the former military commander of the region during the war) is more powerful than the chief minister," says the bishop, getting up to leave for the evening prayers.
Public places still bear traces of a war zone even if soldiers are absent. The translator cues me on what to ask and how at the Jaffna market. In between the sale of a grape cordial, shopkeepers say surveillance is rampant. They ask us to move on anticipating trouble. Intensely serious young men and women in Jaffna, nevertheless, talk of peace and war and its many definitions in workshops and seminars organised by Sinhalas on a reach-out drive.
A few of them also have Tamils as part of the coordinating team. Sarvana Bavan, a Tamil news anchor with a TV channel, for example, was accompanying his other colleagues on the train back to Colombo who were belting out Sinhala and Tamil songs as if singing was going out of fashion.
Most of these efforts, even when they are well-meaning, Jaffnaiites say, are being killed because they are facilitated by the army. They intervene in every part of social and public life in the North, say locals.
Thilak Thilagaraj owns Tilco, the biggest hotel of Jaffna
According to the Sri Lankan defence website, www.army.lk and social media, the army manages, among other things, a catering service in Battaramulla; the 'Laya' chain of hotels: (the newest one opened in Pasikuda in February 2014); the Thalsevana Holiday Resort in Kankesanthurai. The airforce runs the Heritage Golf Club in Anuradhapura, the Eagles Lakeside Banquet and Convention Hall in Attidiya, the Eagles' Lagoon View Banquet Hall in Katunayake plus a commercial domestic flight service (Helitours), a veterinary services outfit (Sky Pet Animal Services) and Clippers, a beauty salon in Borella.
According to a UNHCR survey of internally displaced people in June 2013, more than 18% of respondents (rising to 21-26% in Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Mannar) reported that the military was farming and fishing in their villages and were selling the produce below market price, thereby putting local traders under pressure.
It is this spectre that is haunting the ordinary Joe of Jaffna, even if he happens to run its biggest hotel. Owner of the Tilko Hotel with an eclectic clientele (armymen to politicians to tuition masters with a booming business looking for a quiet spot to down a peg), Thilak T Thilagaraj plain-speaks, because he can.
He is a Tamil with a dual citizenship. Resentment, he says, will not bring or expand anyone's business in these times. "But for true reconciliation, the Tamil, has to be understood, not undermined. An economic deal alone will not work without a political deal. This is not Ethiopia. We have seen trains before," he says.
The interview over, we ask him to pose for a picture. "Hands in front? Or hands on the hips?" he asks with a grin. We let him decide for himself. His waiters gawk. A few guests stop their meal and give him side glances. They were all looking at the man who was king of Jaffna for a day.
SL Gupta, executive director, IRCON International
We caught up with SL Gupta, 52, executive director, IRCON International, the Indian Railways company that has built the tracks on which the Yal Devi runs. Excerpts from the interview:
The Northern Line project is operational again. What next?
We started the project two years after the war ended in 2009. We said we would deliver it by year 2014. We delivered it on time in October 2014. Two other projects Medawachchia to Madhu Road and Omanthai -Pallai were completed and commissioned by March 13 and March 2014. Two other projects Jaffna to Kankesanthurai and Madhu Road- Talaimannar are in progress and likely to be completed by Dec 14. The signaling and telecommunication project in the northern region is likely to be completed six months ahead of schedule. The Anuradhapura to Omanthai (65 Km) track is also being considered for up gradation by the Sri Lankan Railways.
Do these projects employ locals?
In 2012, 800 Sri Lankans were working with us. Plus 3,000 personnel were employed indirectly through our subcontractors. All these Sri Lankans had lot of value addition by working on our projects. More than 600 employees of Sri Lanka railway were formally trained by Indian Railway training institutes. As of date, we employ 400 Sri Lankans and 200 Indians to complete balance work.
Tamils in the Northern Province say the project has not engaged any Tamil and even labourers from the north have been given jobs in their areas.
More than 50% employees were Tamils. However we did not pay any attention to it whether they are Tamils or others.
What according to you are the challenges of the train travel?
As many of the stations have a single platform, it delays the train by 30-45 minutes during the crossing of trains. We have proposed doubling of tracks to avoid bottleneck. Government of Sri Lanka has also declared in the last budget to take up doubling of track from Polgahawela to Vavunia on priority. The shock absorbers are better in the AC trains.
Colombo is believed to be considering building a Metro. Does it really need it? Will India have a role in it?
Mr Sreedharan, who built the Delhi Metro, has been here for talks. The project will cost 3-4 billion dollars approximately. A metro will ensure traffic without obstruction. Government of Sri Lanka will have to give priority first to up gradation of their existing track to have smooth and safe ride which will cost 1-1.5 m USD per km approximately compared to the cost of metro in the range of 60-70 m USD per km.