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In My Mother's House

Civil War in Sri Lanka

By Sharika Thiranagama. Foreword by Gananath Obeyesekere

Publication Year: 2011

In May 2009, the Sri Lankan army overwhelmed the last stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—better known as the Tamil Tigers—officially bringing an end to nearly three decades of civil war. Although the war has ended, the place of minorities in Sri Lanka remains uncertain, not least because the lengthy conflict drove entire populations from their homes. The figures are jarring: for example, all of the roughly 80,000 Muslims in northern Sri Lanka were expelled from the Tamil Tiger-controlled north, and nearly half of all Sri Lankan Tamils were displaced during the course of the civil war.

Sharika Thiranagama's In My Mother's House provides ethnographic insight into two important groups of internally displaced people: northern Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Muslims. Through detailed engagement with ordinary people struggling to find a home in the world, Thiranagama explores the dynamics within and between these two minority communities, describing how these relations were reshaped by violence, displacement, and authoritarianism. In doing so, she illuminates an often overlooked intraminority relationship and new social forms created through protracted war.

In My Mother's House revolves around three major themes: ideas of home in the midst of profound displacement; transformations of familial experience; and the impact of the political violence—carried out by both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan state—on ordinary lives and public speech. Her rare focus on the effects and responses to LTTE political regulation and violence demonstrates that envisioning a peaceful future for post-conflict Sri Lanka requires taking stock of the new Tamil and Muslim identities forged by the civil war. These identities cannot simply be cast away with the end of the war but must be negotiated anew.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: The Ethnography of Political Violence


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pp. vii

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Note on Transliteration

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pp. ix

Rather than use a standard system for transliteration, I have written Tamil words phonetically in English. However, the English usages I follow are those commonly used for those Tamil words (e.g. ur the Tamil word for home). In addition, place names and proper nouns are rendered in the text in the form they commonly appear in the Sri Lankan...

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pp. xi-xvi

It is a pleasure to write a foreword to this elegantly written, jargon free work on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. For me In My Mother’s House is the most significant contribution written to date for understanding that conflict, mostly from the perspective of Tamils and the Muslims of the north, the latter brutally evicted from their homes by the Tamil Tigers (the LTTE). I hope this work will be read not only by Sri Lankans...

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pp. 1-40

On 21 September 1989, my sister and I waited for our mother to come home from work to the temporary house we were renting at the time. We were living in the northern Jaffna peninsula, by then, already a war zone. We were half minority Tamil (my mother), half majority Sinhalese (my father), but brought up speaking Tamil. The years when our Sinhalese...

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1. Growing Up at War: Self Formation, Individuality, and the LTTE

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pp. 41-76

I begin here in the middle of a conversation with Vasantha, a Jaffna Tamil in her mid-twenties living in London. Our interviews, running over months, were themselves in the middle of a long, loving, and complex friendship. I have known Vasantha since we were five-year-old neighbors, classmates, and best friends in Jaffna, our mutual home. My sister and I left Jaffna...

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2. The House of Secrets: Mothers, Daughters, and Inheritance

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pp. 77-105

Malathi’s tone was measured. Malathi is in her mid-thirties, living in Colombo with her mother, her husband, and her two daughters, Ovia and Rosa. Malathi and I often meet, but our more formal interview takes place over two houses in two kitchens. In the first kitchen (and our most extensive interviews) we discuss the building of the second house, which...

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3. From Muslims to Northern Muslims: Ethnicity, Eviction, and Displacement

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pp. 106-144

In 2003, I went to the northwestern province of Puttalam, home to thousands of Muslim refugees ethnically cleansed from the north by the LTTE. All 70,000–80,000 Muslims had been forcibly cleared from the five districts of the north that the LTTE (at the time) controlled in October 1990 within 24–48 hours, in an act now known as the “Eviction.”1 The majority of northern...

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4. Becoming of This Place? Northern Muslim Futures After Eviction

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pp. 145-182

Farook and I were in a Jaffna Muslim majority refugee camp in the Puttalam district one evening in 2003. We had arrived there late, dusk was approaching fast, and the camp rang with the busy sounds of the women beginning their household labor for the evening. The camp leader explained this to us, asking me to come another time. Looking at me, while Farook explained...

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5. The Generation of Militancy: Generation, Gender, and Self-Transformation

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pp. 183-227

Kugamoorthy, now in his forties and living in London, was reflecting on his youth in Sri Lanka. He was one of many young Tamils now in their forties and fifties who joined militant movements by the thousands in the mid- to late 1980s. Kugamoorthy had joined TELO as an eighteen-year-old in the early 1980s, been imprisoned by the Sri Lankan state for most of the...

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6. Conclusions from Tamil Colombo

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pp. 228-256

Colombo, a recurring site of anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka, is at the same time a city of many Tamil-speaking and other minorities, Malaiyaha Tamil, Muslim, “Colombo Tamil,” and Sri Lankan Tamil, along with Malays, Borahs, Burghers, and Europeans. Prime target of attacks by the LTTE in wartime, Colombo is also one of the places where Tamil remittances flow, where...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 257


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pp. 259-272


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pp. 273-285


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pp. 289-291

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pp. 293-296

This book from fieldwork to its various reincarnations in writing has taken me close to a decade and left me indebted to more people than I can possibly name. The greatest debt is of course to those I interviewed in Sri Lanka, in Britain, and in Canada whom I keep anonymous but who have left an indelible mark on me. There are many stories that are not explicitly...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205114
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243420

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: The Ethnography of Political Violence