Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Long Farewell

It has now been two weeks since I’ve been back in Beirut, three weeks since I left Jaffna, and the last installment to my Jaffna diaries remains suspended in images that still inhabit my dreams, and memories that resist being committed to paper, where the stillness of the printed word will solidly put them in ‘the past’ and out of my ‘anecdotal present’.

I was lucky to recognize how happy I would be to come back to Beirut, because leaving Jaffna was not easy by any measure. My Sunday walks through the town, originally conceived as a mode of therapy to get me out of the house on the very still weekends, became such a joy of adventurous exploration, and such generous scenery for my amateur photography, that my departure countdown included checking off the imminent end to these little pockets of simple joy.

My initial feeble attempts at socializing with my non-international colleagues had borne fruit when I wasn’t looking. Weekend lunches for the ladies at the only house where there were no men (mine) became such fun that I wondered why we hadn’t had that many more during my short tenure. One of these lovely ladies commented that it felt as if we were childhood friends, and I must admit that my mind refused to compute why leaving Jaffna meant that there would be an end to these light-hearted gatherings that felt like part and parcel of my every day. The men, sweet as they are, were never invited to these gatherings, where I could picture their soft shyness getting in the way of any fun (for them, undoubtedly providing much fodder of fun for us), and I always wished when in their presence that I spoke better Tamil so that I could share a joke and put them more at ease. Their own witty jokes, whispered in Tamil under their breath, and given away only by the bursts of laughter that follow, were always so refreshing in our larger gatherings, even if I didn’t ‘catch’ the joke. The dynamics echoed those of an extended family, with members that are different and diverse, but also supportive and loving.
Two weeks in Beirut, and three weeks since I left Jaffna, I find that I miss the cultural criss-cross that we (I) had finally learned to maneuver, and the calm, warm company of my little Jaffna family.

Funnily enough, my last couple of weeks in Jaffna, ticking away louder than a Swiss cuckoo clock, resisted sentiments of ‘endings’ and kept hinting of yet more ‘beginnings’. The biggest task attached to my departure had to do with selling my electrical appliances and houseware, and I was lucky to find a buyer who was more than willing to take it all. He had, in fact, just arrived to Jaffna, and moved into a large, renovated and very empty house just days before I was due to leave. He wasn’t my replacement or even in my agency, which made the sudden barrenness of my flat, emptied of its possessions, ring of his new tenure in Jaffna rather than the end of mine. I was delighted to share with him stories of the various acquisitions, some as rare finds in Jaffna markets (which were stark around the time of my arrival) and others as ‘essential’ tools that were carried back from Beirut or Colombo. I smiled as I realized that he would one day sell them to someone else arriving in Jaffna, and that I had in some small way contributed to the comfort of future waves of internationals in this charming and remote Northern town.

Packing my office, however, was unlike any of my previous experiences. In the past, I would be packing with a sinking feeling as I came across pieces of project ideas that I never got to see through, or projects in their sensitive phases weighing me down with guilt that I may not have done enough to ensure their safe continuation. In the past, I would be ‘loudly’ labeling files and boxes so that the contents don’t get buried in a shroud of ill-knowledge, and so that my conscience is not burdened with the possibility of losing that which had been entrusted to me. In the past, however, I was working mostly on my own, and among the many thrills of working in a team is being able to pass on said files and boxes to them, sharing the odd project idea that did not come to life during my stay, and leaving it all in their capable hands. The programme was running before I arrived, and would successfully continue after I left. My empty desk, with all its files happily migrated to other inboxes, looked as it did when I arrived. Without any traces of me, it rang of someone else’s new beginning, and I hoped that their experience would be just as happy.

In so many ways, I was grateful that I could slide out of the office relatively painlessly, because I could not have been more emotionally drained from farewells to colleagues and partners. It is always humbling to find that you have been ‘seen’ and appreciated, and immeasurably rewarding to be told that you have made an impact. It was enough to make me wonder whether I was wise to leave this for a new adventure where I had no guarantees of success! But that was just a mere tickle compared to how blessed and lucky I felt.

Lucky! HA! The joke there lies in the past, in the beginning, when I first landed in Jaffna and became physically ill in my first few days, probably a shock to my system from the travel, the heat, and the ‘gasp’ at what would be my home for the coming year. The joke is that I should have greeted this experience in that way, and that, a year later, I would be unable to look back and speak of anything but my gratitude for my good fortune to have been there, because there was nothing hard that wasn’t balanced out – or even outweighed – by a little luxury, kindness or typical Jaffna charm.

It was not easy to leave Jaffna. The finality of my departure sunk in like a ton of bricks as I was being driven to the airport, a trip that was normally light-hearted because it meant I would be going somewhere with hot-water showers and fresh meat, was now just plain sad. It finally dawned on me that I would not tread these streets again with my camera in hand, that I would not be seeing these lovely people any time soon, and that I may never have an adequate reason to come back to this sweet charming town that will forever occupy a chapter in my personal history. As I shook hands with the air force staff, who had been so kind in various trips in and out of Jaffna, trying to modestly emphasize that I was leaving for good and receiving nothing more than a light, though warm, goodbye in return, I realized that I was one of many expats they have met and bade farewell to over the years, that this event that I was viewing as momentous was something of a routine for them. I realized that, when all is said and done, Jaffna had made a bigger impact on me than I did in return, and that it was the perfect swan song for one phase of my life as I returned home with a clean slate and dreams of drastic changes. And I shall always feel lucky and grateful…

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