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The poet and writer, Dominic Jeeva, talks about growing up with caste, how he challenged the system as an activist and why, despite its many flaws, he’s still proud to be a Jaffna man.
-Photography by Kannan Arunasalam-
I took a three wheeler with my friend Shaseevan to Kotahena, on the fringes of Colombo. I was going to meet one of Sri Lanka’s original activists, Dominic Jeeva. On our way, we passed Hindu temples and shops selling Jaffna wares. It was almost like being in Jaffna. We reached Sri Kathiresan Street in the heart of Kotahena, where Mr Jeeva’s office was, right across the street from a barber shop called the Saloon de Shakthi. Having heard about Mr Jeeva’s anti-caste activism, I couldn’t help but think that this may have been his way of making a statement. Mr Jeeva is also from the barber caste, one of the lowest rungs in Jaffna’s caste hierarchy. He still keeps a barber shop in Jaffna.
He had shunned a formal education system that paid little interest in educating someone who would normally follow his father’s trade. By reading magazines and pamphlets from India he began to write and stood up for the human rights of downtrodden communities in Jaffna.
Piled up around Mr Jeeva’ tiny office were books of poetry and short stories he had written or published through his publishing house, “Mallikai pandhal”, or the “Jasmine shed”. A photograph of Mr Jeeva with the President had pride of place above his desk, but there were many trophies and certificates on the walls and shelves of the dark room. Every last inch of floor and wall space was used.
I was sad that my Tamil was not strong enough to be able to read any of these books of poetry, but hoped that my interview would give me some insight into this unique man from Jaffna.
Mr Jeeva talked to me about what it was like growing up with caste, about forbidden love and glass ceilings, and his passion for writing. He was a natural storyteller. He talked with wild gestures, as he acted out events from his life.
Unlike others I had interviewed on stories to do with caste, I could be direct with Mr Jeeva in asking him about his experiences of being treated differently simply because he was born into a certain family and therefore community. I wanted to know what he thought of the popular view that the system was gradually fading. His replies opened my eyes to another world, far from my privileged Jaffna roots.
My final question to him was simple: with all these terrible experiences of an archaic system that Jaffna still seemed to cling to, what did he think of his hometown? Mr Jeeva’s wrinkled face softened and he smiled. His response was equally simple, something even I could understand. ”Naan Yaalpanathaan,” he said proudly. ”I am a Jaffna man”. There had been many bitter experiences, but he was still proud of his hometown. We left this remarkable man as we found him, reading quietly by the window.