In the book by Swiss author Martin Suter “Der Koch” (“The Chef“), the Tamil cook Maravan comes from Sri Lanka to Zurich as a refugee. He works in a good Swiss restaurant and his cooking skills have unexpected side effects.
When I studied in Zurich, I lived in a ramshackle old house next to the forest at the edge of the city and in the apartment above us lived a Tamil family. When they cooked, the stairway filled with the scent of spices and a couple of times they brought us food.
Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic group are the Sinhalese of which most are Buddhists. The North of Sri Lanka with its center Jaffna is predominantly Tamil who are Hindus. Tamils also populate India’s state Tamil Nadu just across the Palk Strait. Their language is a Dravidian non-Indo-European language and there are visible cultural differences. Men wear lungis and the Tamil Temples are adorned by colorful figures and look more like angled Mayan pyramids than the curved shapes of the North of India.
The Tamil Tigers have been seeking independence from the rest of Sri Lanka for several decades and in 2008 and 2009, they were finally defeated by the Sri Lankan army.
Switzerland has a sizable Tamil community. And back then, I saw the family’s father at a demonstration. He wore a Tamil Tigers T-Shirt and flag and marched with a group of other Swiss Tamils over the Quay Bridge towards Bellevue.
I traveled to Sri Lanka last year and the differences between North and South are stark. The South is better developed than India, there are more middle-class cars and fewer beggars.
Sri Lanka’s capital and largest city Colombo is in the Southwest, the island’s Southern center is moist and lush with green tea plantations and in the East there are laid-back surfer villages. But as you get to the North, the country becomes more flat. The sun burns and you can view far into the distance. The Lonely Planet likens it to the savannas of East Africa.
Jaffna is a weird place. There are many ruins. At night, large swarms of bats cross the city. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew had just died and there were posters in the street mourning for him.
The military holds a strong presence in the Northern Province. This is criticized, as they basically treat it like a colony.
It felt not just more Tamil there, but more Indian. The food was better, especially the Dosas. In the South it’s “rice and curry” most of the time.
The Dutch left the city a castle and the library is pretty. But when the Lonely Planet says the most exciting place to go during evenings is an expat bar run by former aid workers during the civil war, then you know there isn’t much going on.
In the book, Maravan cannot escape the troubles from home. And Jaffna, too, is a far from having recovered.