Books and Borders: a Tamil Migrant About Life in the Sri Lankan Civil War

Books and Borders

Content Note: mention of war, loss, abuse, sexual crimes, death

*Names have been changed. 

The ticking of a bomb, the whirring of an electric kettle, the smell of kerosene in the family shop, the aroma of chicken roasting in her kitchen, the slap of the father on her mother’s face, the filth coming out of her husband’s mouth, the laughter of children playing outside the refugee camp and the giggle of her youngest daughter. The cold February wind of London reminds Linah* of waves sweeping over her feet in Sri Lanka.

Some jarring memories eventually fade into the mundane, yet never really leaving the brain. Linah says,

It’s these memories that have become an innate part of me, the story that reveals itself in between the lines of the fiction I write.

An author in the making, there are far too many adjectives that can describe this 47-year-old woman. The obvious ones disguise themselves as statistics on paper. A Sri Lankan in the UK, a migrant domestic worker, a survivor of the civil war, a person of colour, a single mother, a minoritythe marginalized. But there’s more to this monolithic representation that I am given to understand when Linah invites me over for lunch.

[Read Related: What you Need to Know About the Easter Sunday Attacks in Sri Lanka]

I’ve come to know only a little about her through our week-long correspondence over Whatsapp. In between trying to set up a meeting, she has already informed me that she may be of a little help in my research on migrant domestic workers in London. I still insist. Our mutual contact had spoken fondly of her courage and charisma, her experience with war and her ongoing process of writing a book. Agreeing, she messages me with a smiley, “Do you eat meat?” 

On a warm, sunny afternoon, I am welcomed inside her modest North London apartment by Amna, Linah’s 13-year-old daughter. As I take in the aroma of spices, Linah walks out of the kitchen. Hugging me, she apologetically informs that lunch is a little behind schedule. “Perhaps we can begin with the interview,” she adds, instructing Amna to prepare a salad for the meal. As the chicken grills in the kitchen, a story from the past unfolds and I am temporarily whisked away to Sri Lanka of the ’80s.

It was July of 1983or Black July as it came to be known because of the anti-Tamil pogrom that killed nearly 3000 people and destroyed 18,000 establishments. Linah’s house was one of them. “I was 10 at the time, perhaps old enough to remember what happened. But all I have are vivid flashbacks from the refugee camp where my parents and I found ourselves at the end of that month,” Linah recalls. She is seated on a sofa across me, wearing a long maxi dress that loosely falls over her stout structure.

Her hair is tied up in a bun and her dark eyes glisten as she talks about her family:

My mother was a housewife and my father was a mechanic. His shop was destroyed during the riots. Living in a predominantly Sinhalese area, we only spoke Sinhala and never learned Tamil. So it was harder for us to fit in the refugee camps.

“It was almost ironically comical,” she adds while chuckling. Although Linah taught herself Tamil through the camp, her formal education came to a halt. “My mother would teach and read all the kids, including myself, stories from books that donors gave to us,” Linah recalls fondly.

These fond childhood memories have translated into a defining identity trait for Linah, who is an avid reader. The ceiling-to-floor cabinet in her living room is stacked with booksfrom heavy encyclopedias to memoirs and journals from South Asia alongside the classics of Roald Dahl and Wodehouse. It was her habit of reading that led her to write in a language that was neither her first, nor one she had been formally trained in. 

[Read Related: 23 Must-Read Books for Every 20-Something South Asian American]

“I believe one only achieves the true purpose of language when they can express themselves through it. My mother was a well-learned, English educated person but our society looked down upon working women. Still, she found a way to fulfill her purpose by teaching in the camp,” explains Linah who stayed there for two years until her father saved up some money to move them further east in the country. 

At Batticaloa, Linah’s father built a house with a small garden and she resumed school. It may seem like conditions were peaceful in this Tamil dominant region but the experience of peace is relative, especially for minorities marginalized in their own countries. Even away from the camp, Linah grew up in a full-blown civil war that continued raging throughout the ’90s.

Skirmishes continued and casualties increased. “The army came to our town when I was 16. We fled back to Colombo in the middle of the night and found ourselves in the same camp that we had escaped six years ago,” Linah narrates as she continues to describe the conditions in the camp. No proper sanitation, breeding mosquitoes, unavailability of clean water, and no safety for women.

“Some girls I knew in the camp had been raped or harassed. I’ve seen them bleed, heard them cry and there’s little I have been able to do for them,” Linah says trying to hold back her tears. She excuses herself to go into the kitchen and check on Amna. 

This is not the first time Linah was reliving the memory. She has done it several times as is evident from the number of notes she has pinned on to a bulletin board in the room, laid out in almost a perfect timeline. Some of them are graphic, some of them just dates and numbers all coming together to form the story that Linah has been writing for a few years now. She says,

Sometimes expressing incidents through art is the only closure you get. 

Linah first desired to write a book when they became her only solace. After losing her parents to paralysis within the camp, Linah was adopted by distant relatives, both of them who were progressive social writers. Pointing to her collection on the shelf, she recalls:

Losing my family pushed me into a dark hole. I would cry inconsolably and wouldn’t be able to sleep due to recurring nightmares. I was thankful to my adoptive parents who gave me my space and resources to heal. I would spend hours every day, just reading. My favourite was Roald Dahl.

With the help of her adoptive parents, Linah pursued a degree in political science. By this time she was fluent in English, Tamil, and Sinhala. Multilinguality was a desired skill for humanitarian organisations that had now flocked into this post-conflict country.

[Read Related: From an Eelam Tamil Woman: Why a Carefree Brown Girl Cannot Exist

Thus, Linah started working as a translator with UNDP, aiding several of those who, like her, had lost families and livelihoods in not just the civil war but also the Tsunami that severely affected the island nation in 2004. Soon Linah had a stable income, drastically improving the quality of her life. She could buy more books, meet interesting people and also work for their welfare. Things seemed to be looking up for her, until, as Linah puts it, another problem hit her:

I fell in love. 

I look at the wall behind her that’s covered with photographs of herself and her children. There’s not a single photograph of a male I could peg to be Linah’s husband. She senses curiosity and states, “I met him in my swimming class. He was a Muslim, and his family was unhappy with the marriage. But soon, he too turned abusive and started hitting me every day, even when I was pregnant,” Linah states adding how she had to leave her job for she no longer could turn up to the office with the bruise marks:

I would have divorced him if it weren’t for my kids, whose custody would have gone to him. This is why I decided to take a longer and a more difficult route.

With the help of her boss, Linah left for Dubai to work as a nanny in an English expat’s house and thereafter migrated to the UK with them on an Overseas Domestic Workers Visa. “My eldest son was in a boarding school, whereas my daughter was with a relative. I sent my husband money every month so that he wouldn’t trouble my children. Once I settled in the UK, I called them here. My husband stayed with me for a month and then wandered off. I neither know nor care where he is,” Linah reveals in disarming candour.

Linah believes she is finally in a happy place, and rightfully credits her will power to be able to get here. On an indefinite leave to remain in the UK, Linah now feels secure enough to relive her past. Working in the afternoons and evenings, Linah dedicates her day time to writing. Every morning she wakes up recalling a memory, an incident that would make it into the next chapter of her novela fictionalized story set in the Sri Lankan civil war, drawing from the experiences of her life and that of many others she encountered during the time:

I would be lying if I say that it’s not triggering. So many times I find myself in tears, unable to write. But then I recall that I survived it. Perhaps this story can help inspire those who still live in conflict zones and abusive households. 

There’s a little desk in the corner with a PC and a bunch of notebooks. The big window on the right gives a view of a quiet London street shining under the sun. As I look around, my thoughts are interrupted by the buzzing of a printer. Linah hands me a few sheets, printed on them is one of the chapters of her book. Her writing is emotive.

There’s a nostalgia for a time of the past as well as urgency about the tragedy unfolding. In one of the scenes, a few Tamil men are chatting about the ease of living in the pre-war times. They’re on a beach, having toddy and hearing the gushing sound of the waves. The air’s heavy with the aroma of Chicken curry and yellow rice. Linah has walked in with lunch and I am again back in Sri Lankathis time, one of the happier times. 

Linah plans to publish her book by the end of next year.

The opinions expressed by the writer of this piece, and those providing comments thereon (collectively, the “Writers”), are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any of its employees, directors, officers, affiliates, or assigns (collectively, “BGM”). BGM is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Writers. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you have a complaint about this content, please email us at This post is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Devyani Nighoskar

Devyani Nighoskar is an independent journalist from India reporting on development, culture and identity. She is currently pursuing her Masters … Read more ›

Culture Series Part 3: Remembering Indentureship Through art in Suriname, Guyana and Trinidad

Featured Photo Credit Kevita Junior | Left to Right: Tu hiya ka kare he, Tu kaha bate, Tu hamar ke bate 

Thundering waves clawed on the body of the vessel as the sea swallowed the voices of terrified passengers. They clung to the shreds of the Eagle Speed as each hour submerged the ship deeper within the kala pani (dark waters). Steamer ships were sent for rescue, finding two children alone, clenching to the remains of the mast. The unscathed captain and crew fled in boats, leaving the lives of coolies (indentured laborers) to the fate of the dark waters. The Eagle Speed set sail on August 19th, 1865 from Calcutta to Demerara. This tragedy took the lives of over 300 hundred indentured laborers. The coolies onboard were not just casualties of the kala pani, but a larger system of British colonialism.

The crossing of these tumultuous seas was forbidden for Hindus, as it meant the severance of reincarnation and the unraveling of caste. Yet more than 2 million Indians were taken across the kala pani. The forbidden water carried stories along its transatlantic waves, bearing witness to history lost against its tides. The restraints of caste drowned along the voyages as surnames and relations were cast across the seas. They became Singhs (lions) and Maharaj’s (great kings), Brahmins by boat instead of birth.

[Read Related: The Culture Series Part 1: Descendants of Indentured Diaspora a Look at Fijian Representation]

These indentured workers were mainly taken from regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to different corners of the globe, with some of the largest to the Caribbean. Guyana experienced around 238,909 workers, Trinidad 143,939 and Suriname 34,304. With 399 Indians, the Lalla Rookh docked on June 5, 1873, at Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname, later becoming known as the coolie depot. As workers poured out of ships and onto plantations, they experienced violence and oppression at alarming rates, especially against women.

Coolie Belle

They were nameless and barefooted with gold jhumkas and bangles adorning their bodies. As tourism increased in the Caribbean’s, photographing indentured women on postcards became part of its selling point. These women became subjects to appease the white colonizer gaze and fetishized exotic ‘Coolie belles.’ A bulk of these postcards were shot in Trinidad and sold in local shops to visiting tourists. Yet these postcards failed to translate the hierarchy of power between the photographed and those behind the camera. The white European men who carried out these photoshoots chose backdrops that masked the real conditions of sugar cane fields and living quarters. Who were these women? What were their names? The women were juxtaposed with the term ‘Coolie,’ a slur for laborer and ‘Belle,’ the French word for beautiful. They were coined as laborers of beauty, yet their eyes tell a story of fear of pain.


Tu hamár ke bate? (Who are you to me?) Tu hiyá ká kare he? (What are you doing here?) Tu kahá báte? (Where are you?) Artist Nazrina Rodjan posits these questions that rummage through the minds of many Indo Caribbean descendants. Who were my ancestors? What did they experience? Rodjan aims to explore the experiences of indentured women through her oil painting series “Kala Pani.” In this series, she reimagines the postcards of indentured women alike the depictions of European nobility. In conversation with Rodjan she mentions,

 I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be ethical to reproduce these staged images of women who might have felt scared and uncomfortable being brought into these studios to be photographed by men. I will never know their true experiences and how they might have felt knowing a stranger in the future will decide to paint them in the same positions they were put in for the original photograph.

Rodjan’s art series started as a way to commemorate 150 years since the first indentured workers arrived in Suriname and expanded to include regions like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica. 

Wanting to reclaim these images comes from feelings of injustice whenever I see these postcards. They were made from a dehumanizing perspective. Reclaiming these images becomes necessary knowing how the violence Indo-Caribbean women still face today is just a continuation of the violence brought onto indentured Indian women then. To me, creating this piece, symbolized the acceptance of questions remaining unanswered, stories being lost forever, and realizing that after a history full of trauma, there’s a treasure in the women that are still here to tell their stories.

The ratio of men to women arriving on these ships left little to no autonomy for women. Experiences of violence on ships and plantations were common throughout the Caribbean. Despite this, indentured women became trailblazers and pioneers in uprisings against poor working conditions. 

Everything about these women seems to be a question we can never answer, but I decided to give them titles in Hindustani that are questions they might have for me as the painter who looks at them and sees both a stranger and a loved one. Tu hamár ke báte? Who are you to me?

Living in the Netherlands, Rodjan talks about her experiences tracing her ancestry and honoring this history:

 Unfortunately, in the Netherlands learning about the history of Dutch colonization only meant memorizing all the different spices they brought in and listening to teachers talking proudly about the Dutch East India Company in elementary school. Tracing back my ancestors has so far only led to a picture of my parnani and a few more names in the family tree.


On May 5, 1838, Anat Ram stepped foot on the rich grounds of Berbice, becoming the first Indian laborer in Guyana. The Whitby and Hesperus departed from Calcutta on January 13 and arrived in Berbice first then West Demerara. Over the course of 79 years, approximately 259 ships voyaged from India to Guyana. While the experiences of these ancestors may remain unknown, artists like Suchitra Mattai aims to revitalize the voices of our indentured ancestors.

[Read Related: The Culture Series Part 2: Exploring the Indo Jamaican Identity ]

Suchitra Mattai is an Indo Guyanese multi-disciplinary artist. Through her work, she uses the experience of her family’s migration and the history of indentureship to rewrite and expand our notions of history. In her piece, Life-line, a rope of saris pours out of a tilted boat, mirroring the experiences of her ancestor’s journey across the transatlantic. The saris serve as both water and a connection to two lands, India and Guyana. Mattai further explores indentureship in the piece “Coolie Woman,” depicting a woman seated with a sari, embellished with jewelry and flowers. 

I wanted to reimagine the photo to give her agency. I also wanted to address the desire for people of the diaspora to connect to their homelands and ancestral pasts. The painted wallpaper drips and fades to parallel the way my memory of Guyana ebbs and flows, Mattai says.


Anchoring at the Port of Spain on April 22, 1917, the last ship to ever carry indentured Indians made its final stop. A system that bound Indians to an unknown land finally ended after 79 years. 

To invoke conversation and pay homage to their memory, artist Gabrielle Francis creatively analyzes indentureship. Gabrielle Francis is an Indo Trinidadian queer interdisciplinary artist, writer and organizer from Queens, New York. In her piece “206:21 Queer Altar Mixed Media Performance,” Francis pays homage to her indentured ancestors with a focus on queer identities. The title 206:21 reflects the ratio of men to women that journeyed on the Fatel Razack, the first ship from India to Trinidad. A mirror is decorated with the colors of Trinidad’s flag along with six candles embodying the pride flag and vibrant red carnations. Written across the mirror is, “I wonder how many of you were queer?” A question that allows for openness and conversation around potential queer ancestors. Written records around indentureship were translated and produced by European men, leaving little to no room for women or queer folks. Francis’s work aims to transform and challenge Eurocentric narratives surrounding indentured history.

 {insert photo} 206:21 Queer Altar Mixed-Media Performance, 2021

As descendants of indentureship, it becomes difficult to sit with questions that may never have answers. Visiting National Archives or exploring digital databases can help connect descendants to learn about their own history. As we unravel difficult experiences of the past it’s important to ask, how do we carry the legacies of our ancestors? How do we honor their sacrifices?

As they were stripped of their identities and reduced to passenger numbers, they fostered new relations—jahaji bhai and jahaji bhain (ship brother and sister). From shipmates to family, to present-day melodies of chutney music to the stew of pepper pot on Christmas morning, these bonds of community have evolved and are seen across the diaspora today.

By Anjali Seegobin

Anjali Seegobin is an undergraduate student at the City College of New York, majoring in political science and anthropology. She … Read more ›

‘The Black Rose’: British Asian Shweta Aggarwal Voices her Truth Against Colourism and the Battle to end her Skin Whitening Cream Addiction

Black Rose

I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.” 

Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind. 

[Read Related: Liam Neeson’s Week of Rage is Every Person of Colour’s Truth]

Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too. 

Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially  when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,

I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.

During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance. 

The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose! 

Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type —  the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way. 

[Read Related: Dear Priyanka Chopra, Endorsing Colorism and Discrimination is not ok. It Never was and Never Will Be]

It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits, 

Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you. 

I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance. 

But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,

The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and  not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour? 

I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?  

A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride! 

I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.

“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.


Photo Courtesy: Shweta Aggarwal

By Sejal Sehmi

Brown Girl Magazine’s U.K. Editor Sejal Sehmi is an IT consultant by day, whose passion for writing stemmed from challenging … Read more ›