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AUGUST 4, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 30 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Refusing to Bow to the Politics of Blood
He is Sinhalese. She is not. What of their son?
By ARJUNA RANAWANA Colombo

They called their only child, a boy, Charudatta Thayalan Christopher Thenuwara. Then everyone was happy. The first name is Sinhalese, the second Tamil and the third Christian. The father, Chandragupta Thenuwara, 40, is a prominent artist living in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo — and Sinhalese. His wife, Kumudini Samuel, 42, is a leading human rights activist and a co-ordinator of Sri Lanka's Women and Media Collective. Her father is Tamil and her mother a Sinhalese Christian. "All my Tamil friends and relatives call our son Thayalan, and our Sinhalese friends and relatives call him Charudatta," says Thenuwara lightly. He can still smile at other people's foolishness.

There were many times, though, when Thenuwara's art betrayed his easygoing countenance. In some respects it still does, since he is regarded as a leading anti-war painter in Sri Lanka. The turning point in Thenuwara's life came in July 1983, when Sinhalese mobs rampaged through Colombo for 10 days. Vengeful over the murder of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers by Tamil separatists, the mobs destroyed property owned by Tamils and killed anyone who resisted. "I saw how shops and homes owned by Tamils were set on fire — how they were attacked on the streets," says Thenuwara. Then a fresh graduate in aesthetic studies and a struggling freelance artist, he quickly arranged to move offshore to pursue his master's degree. He chose Russia. "From Europe, Sri Lanka was a country that was looked upon like Lebanon at the time — torn by war where there were rivers of blood," he says. Thenuwara's paintings from that period reflect the horrors. "The images were of death," he says. "The signs of death and death not foretold. I couldn't draw anything beautiful — all my paintings were somber."

That same July, thousands of miles away in London, Kumudini Samuel was deeply worried. She was busy raising funds for a trade union movement, but "because I had friends and relatives on both the Sinhalese and Tamil sides, I was acting as a bridge, making calls home, making sure people were safe." Among the English-speaking middle classes in Colombo, mixed marriages were not uncommon. Yet the growing conflict sharpened the ethnic divide and most parents soon discouraged the idea. Samuel's Colombo family watched in despair as friends and relatives bore the brunt of the 1983 pogrom. Soon after, the simmering Tamil secessionist movement erupted into a full-scale civil war.

Sixteen years later, having met in Colombo through mutual friends, Thenuwara and Samuel would marry. Thenuwara grew up among almost equal numbers of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in rural Ampara on Sri Lanka's east coast. He remembers his parents mixing freely with people of all communities. Samuel's father "was also very cosmopolitan," she recalls. He took her to watch Sinhala-language theater, even though his own Sinhala was not sharp. "He wanted me to understand the culture," she says. When Thenuwara introduced Samuel to his parents, they expressed only happiness that he had finally found a permanent partner. Other members of Thenuwara's extended family, however, have been uncomfortable with Samuel's ethnicity. "We tend to gloss over it when we talk to them," Samuel admits.

These days Thenuwara's paintings often feature the ubiquitous rows of barrels from military installations that dot Colombo. When the couple is stopped at military checkpoints and asked to produce national identity cards, a divide opens up. "Often the soldiers speak only to my husband and ask him, 'Who is this woman?'" says Samuel. "When he says she is my wife, they continue to question him: 'Do you know where she comes from, how long have you known her?' They tend to ignore me." Fluent in Sinhala, Samuel confesses that she sometimes assumes identities of convenience. Once, looking for an apartment, she found that the Sinhalese owner was willing to knock down the price if she was not Tamil. Her neighbors, however, were Tamils and she then used her "Tamil-ness" to freely fraternize. Samuel remembers that occasionally in her parents' home, some Sinhalese relatives would loudly condemn the Tamils, causing her father to leave the room. But she is made of sterner stuff. She confronts. Thenuwara always feels uncomfortable at such moments. "It is a completely different situation for him," she says. "Now he knows what it is to be intimately related to someone who is from a different community."

Under laws dating from colonial times, Sri Lankans must state their "race" on documents of identity. Thenuwara refused to write "Sinhalese" when he applied for his son's birth certificate. "Instead I wrote Sri Lankan - because that is the identity that I want my son to have," he says. Both parents call the boy Charu. But when the certificate arrived in the mixed household, it said "Sinhalese." Observes Thenuwara stonily: "It appears that the state is ignorant of people like my son." n



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