Thulasi Muttulingam is the creator of Humans of Northern Sri Lanka, a Facebook page dedicated to telling stories of people and communities in the North of Sri Lanka. She is also a journalist and feature writer. In this interview with Women Talk, Thulasi talks about having grown up in the Maldives, her return to Sri Lanka, her journey into journalism, her passion for writing about social issues, and her latest research-based work on women, labour, and migration.
You grew up in the Maldives, mainly because your parents were compelled to leave Sri Lanka after the 1983 riots. This engagement your parents had with the riots and having to grow up away from your culture of origins, did that shape your thinking and identity in any way?
Definitely. My parents did not tell us much about Sri Lanka, except that they had fled the country at a very dangerous time. So, that was the only thing I knew about Sri Lanka. Growing up, I was a history buff. I liked to learn about other cultures and histories. I was always reading in the library. I tried very hard to get books on Sri Lankan history and culture, but I could not find any. Such books were not available in the Maldivian libraries or the school. You got books on American history, British history, and Indian history, but there weren’t any on Sri Lankan history. So, that was always a gap in my life, wanting to know more about my country and my culture and being completely removed from it.
Within the family unit we had Sri Lankan food and Sri Lankan-type parenting. But outside the house it was the Maldivian culture, which is completely removed from Sri Lankan culture. It was kind of hard, growing up in that dichotomy.
What made you come back to Sri Lanka?
I was 21 years old when I came back to Sri Lanka. I came on my own. This was when the ceasefire was signed. People who fled the 1983 riots, like my parents, tend to live in a time warp where they constantly think of Sri Lanka as a very dangerous country. They did not want to come back. By the time I was 21, I took a decision to go back to Jaffna. I came here and stayed with relatives in Jaffna for a year. That was very hard to take, simply because I was not at all prepared for Jaffna. Jaffna itself had also opened up since 30 years of being shut. They were not prepared for me, wearing pants, talking English, and having opinions for a woman.
Most children who grow up anywhere else would have this common experience of being told that they did not belong there. And they are asked to go back home to where they belonged. That is especially true of South Asian countries because you can’t become citizens there. I continuously heard that growing up in the Maldives – that I didn’t belong there. So, I completely by-passed Colombo and came to Jaffna. I had to be home, on my own soil.
You seemed to be doing a lot of reading, especially since you were a child and you also got into a career in journalism. Is there a link between this love you have for reading, writing, and journalism?
Definitely. The only thing that I could do was write, which was a direct extension of my reading. But my parents being Sri Lankan, they were horrified of the notion of a daughter writing as a journalist in Sri Lanka. So, they made it very clear from the beginning; one, you are not going back to Sri Lanka. Two, you are not becoming a journalist anywhere. Three, you are not studying humanities. So, I had to study science for my O/Levels and A/Levels. Then I had to get into CIMA and accountancy. But I finally made a decision and joined the Sri Lanka College of Journalism.
How did you start, as a journalist in Sri Lanka?
When I started, I had to promise my parents that I would not write anything political. At that time, journalists were getting killed and abducted. The Tamil journalists, in particular, had to be extra vigilant. Anyway, I was mostly interested in feature writing. I was not very interested in hard news. From the beginning, I was a feature writer, sitting in features departments, writing about social issues, which is what I still do.
What are some of the work you have done in your career in journalism?
Straight after the College of Journalism, I joined the Sunday Times. That was quite interesting. I learned a lot there. I was there just under a year and then I got a scholarship to the Asian College of Journalism. At the Sunday Times, I was a cub reporter and I did not know what I was getting until I was assigned to cover certain stories. I wrote a lot but not all of it got published. But it was a good place to start because there were many seniors in the field there and you were given the opportunity to report on diverse programs, such as drama, theatre, workshops and many other kinds of articles. I enjoyed my time at the Sunday Times.
After I came back from the Asian College of Journalism, I joined the Sunday Observer, purely because I wanted more space to publish my writing. I spent a year there. I then joined the Ceylon Today. I learned a lot there because it was a paper about to re-launch and I joined before its inception. There we had to be all-rounders at everything – proofreading, layout, editing, sub-editing, writing news, and features. It was quite interesting, launching a paper and being able to do everything round the clock. It was very demanding but also very educational.
You then go on to work for ZOA, an organisation working on resettlement and rehabilitation of people affected by war and natural disasters in the North and East of Sri Lanka. What kind of exposure did you get through this work on issues relating to war-affected communities in North and East of Sri Lanka?
I basically joined ZOA to enhance my journalism, not leave it behind. On some occasions, I had been paying my own way to the North and coming back to write articles, which was not sustainable. I also could not access many of these areas on my own. As a single woman, you really cannot go to most of these far away villages without the help of an institution. You cannot do it on your own. It was difficult to take a bus and go to the middle of nowhere in the North or the East. I needed some kind of an institutional backing, which I found in NGOs. While I was working at Ceylon Today, I had been volunteering with NGOs. They needed people who could write reports for them in English. So, every weekend I volunteered with Oxfam Australia in Kilinochchi. And through the contacts I made there, I came to know that they really needed help with report writing in English, mostly with these NGOs. And if I came full time as a report writer to one of these places then I could also access a lot of information, which I thought would benefit me in my journalism. So, that’s how I joined ZOA.
What kind of exposure did you get in terms of working with communities affected by the war in the North and East and also from natural disasters?
I learned so much. You get these stereotypical stories from time to time in the media. But that is not the only thing there is. There are stories of resilience. There are stories of so many other things that they went through. I started focusing on their daily lived reality – what is their life like now, what are their challenges like now, what are the challenges they went through at that time. I was interested in things that other people were not necessarily focusing on. Most of the media was writing the obvious and leaving the not-so-obvious out. But it had a heavy impact on these people’s lives, like how they thought, how they view things, how that affects people in their communities.
You continued with your passion for journalism when you started Humans of Northern Sri Lanka. How was this initiative formed?
I was travelling a lot. Everyday, part of my job was to travel extensively in the North. I was coming across lots of stories. People wanted to talk. Everybody here has a background of pain during the war. And they did not really sit and talk much to each other. They value an empathetic ear. When I sat down and talked to them, they would cry and talk to me for hours. There were many valid stories there that they entrusted with me, essentially. I could not put it all out. It was just too many. I could not write articles on the weekend with all of that. So, these notebooks were just piling up full of stories. I didn’t know what to do about them. I had been a fan of Humans of New York for a long time. But somehow I had not thought of doing it myself. Until one day, I was just browsing through my notebooks and thought of doing this – snippet-like stories that I can easily push out during the day.
What are some of the particularly compelling stories that you shared on Humans of Northern Sri Lanka?
I think nearly all the stories I published were compelling but this story about a mother, who was crying about how her child had been abducted from school by the LTTE is particularly moving. The child had died and the LTTE brought back a coffin. There had been something rolling inside the coffin but they had sealed the coffin and asked not to open it. They have told that your child’s body is not inside as we could not retrieve the body. But the mother wanted to get her child out. That is something that I remember very much. The mother’s pain after so many years from the war and she herself was saying how she was psychologically imbalanced now. Most of these people don’t get mental health care as such. It is not accessible to everyone, especially in the rural villages. Her cries were about how she wanted to open the coffin and get whatever was inside out.
These are also very vulnerable communities as well, people who had gone through a lot. How do you actually deal with their stories?
When I talk to them, they love to be talked to. They love to tell their stories. They would talk to you for hours, if you listen. That is not the problem. My problem is, especially, photographing the women. Because we have this culture that when a woman’s picture is out there that means she is a bad woman. When the women tell me their stories, they very often freak out and say don’t put my picture on the internet or the paper. The only ones who break this are the mothers of the disappeared. They are so desperate. They pose with their children’s picture and say, put my picture out there, I want an answer for my disappeared son or daughter. But other than that, many women tell me lots of stories, even very positive stories about what they have achieved, at the end of the day they say don’t put our picture on the internet. So, I get around it by saying can I at least photograph your hands – something to prove that this is a person I interviewed. And they agree to that.
Was doing Humans of Northern Sri Lanka different from feature writing, as a print journalist in the mainstream media?
That is why I started this page. In mainstream media, there is this 360-degree thing where you can not talk to one person and write their story. You have to verify it from so many other sources before you write it, which is why so many of my stories were not getting published. These were things that people told me themselves. But while working with ZOA, their officers were working at ground level and have been working with these villages for years at a time. ZOA has been around for many years, including during the war. Their officers had worked during the war as well. So, if someone told me a story, I was able to verify with my colleagues whether such a thing had happened in such a way during this time.
Do people in these communities understand about the internet or Facebook? How do they react when you say this is for a Facebook page?
Older people don’t know but younger people do. That was something that stood against me. When I tell people that I want to put this on Facebook, they did not understand Facebook, at least during the time when I started in 2013. I couldn’t just say I want to put this on Facebook. Now I think many of them do know that there is something like that. So, back then I had to say that I was putting this on the internet. And this freaked them out because the internet is a bad word and putting your picture out on the internet had connotations.
Having grown up in the Maldives, when you go into those communities as someone who did not grow up in that culture, how did people receive you?
They see me as an outsider, obviously. But they are used to outsiders coming into their communities. As war-affected people, they are used to NGO aid a lot. So, they are used to talking to people from outside the province who come in and talk to them. They are very happy when someone talks to them. They think of me as an outsider but then they ask me ‘how do you speak Tamil so well then?’
In an article, I read about you, you had mentioned that you are a ‘third-culture child’. You had a cultural disengagement and also a certain engagement with the culture of your origin. Did your work help you to mitigate that gap you had with your culture?
It was hard when I tried to blend into Jaffna in 2002. People were very clear that I don’t belong here, all over again. But when you travel to these places and you speak in Tamil, they value that. I came to see it as having added value to my journalism. I don’t take many of these things for granted. You can miss so many things if you grow up within the culture that could be new to people outside the culture. In that way, I think, reporting on Tamil people to the outside world, I could see many things that fellow Tamil journalists missed because I saw it with fresh eyes.
You are also currently working on a project with migrant labourers. Would you like to elaborate a bit on what this project is?
This is a media fellowship called Panos South Asian Media Fellowship, where you have to report on migrant labour from your country. They give the fellowship to SAARC countries. I have to report on my country’s labourers going to a country outside of the SAARC region. I have to cover their social issues from within the country as well as in a destination country. I have started researching in Jaffna. I hope to travel to Batticaloa as well as upcountry, covering Kandy and Nuwaraeliya. Next month, I will be travelling to Malaysia and Singapore as well to see their conditions after migration.
What are some of the findings so far?
The direct backlash is always on the women. This is something I have come to expect after so many years of reporting in the North and East. When a man goes abroad there is no stigma attached to them, whether he might have an affair there. The stigma is whether the wife may have an affair here. They automatically look at her with suspicion and start judging her when she goes out. Same goes for the woman who goes abroad. They take it for granted that in a gulf country she will be sexually abused. And then when they come back, there are women who were sexually abused who do not admit simply because they will be stigmatised. These women have no avenue of talking about the pain they have undergone. On the flip side of the coin, there are women who claim that they have been treated very well. But when you start asking questions, it is more like I could sleep only three hours a day, I couldn’t sit down any time while working, I had to look after 10 children, but they say I was treated very well. Their understanding is that if they are not sexually abused, they are given their salary on time, that is the minimum standard of being treated very well.
You also have a very visible presence on Facebook as a feminist. You advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. How are you received for you views?
Living in Jaffna, it is very hard, and that is primarily why I became such a hardcore feminist. I felt the need to assert myself once I came here because the process of know your place, keep quiet, don’t express your opinion, don’t go out too much, get married – those notions are much stronger here. So, in order to push back I had to be equally strong.
Date of Interview: 7 October 2017
Interviewer: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage