A Possible Biography of an Ocean


Map Sinthujan
Cartographic collaboration between Léopold Lambert and Sinthujan Varatharajah for the purpose of this contribution (2021).

the horizon was ornated with white clouds scattered across a deep blue sky. we stood there, looking across waves crushing down on the light brown sand below our feet, slowly pulling the ground from underneath us. our gaze focused into the distance, searching for an image of something across the water’s surface, something that wasn’t apparent to the mere eye, something that didn’t attract anyone’s attention but ours.

the sea’s warm breath tickled our feet, drenched our clothes and pulled us closer into its seabed. don’t walk too far into the water, she said. the sea does not discriminate.

on the other side of the ocean, less than 40 kilometres away, was a shoreline heavily guarded by navy patrol officers; almost as if the stretch of land behind this horizon was a large prison without ceiling; almost as if the land behind this sea separating two shorelines from one another was a gateway into a completely different world.

news about fishermen from one side of the ocean being arrested and taken to prisons on the other side of the ocean regularly plaster local newspapers on both coasts. these headlines however and if anything remain trapped within regional segments of national papers: within local languages and chatters. they hardly ever turn into main and national headlines.

don’t go too far into the other water, their families continued warning the fishermen before they departed into the dark. many had already been swallowed by the seemingly endless horizon, shot above its surface for trespassing invisible boundaries drawn onto maps, but not onto this earth; boundaries that still remain indistinguishable to the human eye. in some cases their bodies were dumped into the water body; into supposedly foreign waters; for these fishermen to then turn into fish fodder, for them to return as meals to their families.

since decades now, fishermen from the subcontinent encroached waters that are, according to maritime borders, the waters of a different country. having depleted the fishing stocks bordering their own shore lines, they saw themselves forced to expand their hunting grounds closer into someone else’s sovereignty.

in order to nourish their families, their boats navigated further and further southeast, or alternatively northwest, depending on how maps are drawn, held and read. the number of boats departing on such journeys increased by the day. sometimes more than 400 of them would depart from the now “indian” shore into now “srilankan“ waters. for some of them the journey tragically ended on cold concrete floors of prison cells in jaffna’s police stations: prisons of a foreign state.

following the departure of the portuguese, dutch, french, danes and british who had reigned across this specific region, separated by only few kilometres of water body, these two new emerging multi-racial, cultural and linguistic states that were born months apart, in 1947 and 1948 respectively, were caught up in the tremendous efforts of nation-making. but how do you become when you’ve never been?

their solution to this men-made problem was to consolidate power, people, cultures, and territories by imposing new rules, symbols, and narratives; to pull together what was scattered. this was seen as critical to ensure the longevity of these new states. they were not just undergoing a process of decolonization, but also a process of self-invention: of propagating their righteous place in this global order, of historicizing their present and stabilizing their future. this wasn’t just an outwards-directed process but was foremost inwards-directed, shaping those most who were caught within the boundaries of these new nation-states.

under european rule the specific region we are talking about, a region connected through shared languages, cultures and relationships, a region bound by its spatial proximities, had shifted from being its own center, autonomous and self-governed, to becoming someone else’s periphery. southern-most for some, northern-most for others.

meanwhile little had changed for the inhabitants of these regions in their location, in their geography or their understanding of place. what had however changed was how they were governed, and how they’ve been pushed to the very fringes of state boundaries and likewise to the imaginations of these newborn nation-states.

from living within tamilakam, the ancient tamil lands connecting today’s tamil nadu, kerala, southern andhra pradesh, karnataka, puducherry, lakshadweep, and northeastern eelam, a large stretch of land governed by different kingdoms and connected through shared cultures, they shifted from being a majority in their own lands to becoming minorities of others’ countries.
indeed, they turned into becoming someone else’s afterthought, placed in another ones’ backyard.

from thereon, they were urged to no more look at each other, to no more look towards the waves and across the ocean, to not look at what connects them, but to uncentre water for land, to look inland, away from the oceans, towards new capitals that were further away from them, not just purely geographically-speaking, but also culturally and ethnically-speaking than were the people who sat on these two neighboring shorelines.

prior to the entry of european colonizers into the ocean world that was to become known as the indian ocean and its eastern section, the so-called bay of bengal, the water bodies connecting the shorelines from today’s india all the way to today’s malaysia and indonesia were a vibrant cosmos, at the very center of global histories. it was an area that witnessed one of the most vibrant exchanges, trades and also conflicts between different empires, people and cultures; it was a region that was later to become the backdrop to one of the largest movements of people in modern history. and yet, this region so central to the lives of hundreds of millions of people, past and present, still remains written out of world histories, almost forgotten in our readings of the world, in our constant attempt to center land histories over water histories; in our attempt to privilege what’s in the relative proximity to the white man and what isn’t.

before the bay of bengal was named as the golfo de bengala by the portuguese, it was widely known across different, but not all language barriers, as the chola lake or chola sea. the cholas were one of longest-running tamil-speaking dynasties of the world whose powers stretched across the entire ocean. before the invasion of europeans, this particular ocean world was a cosmos deeply shaped by trade relations and religious exchanges. the then chola sea became a cosmos that connected people thousands of kilometres separated from each other. later, it also enabled the spread of therevada buddhism from today’s sri lanka to burma and thailand, and islam from today’s tamil nadu throughout malaysia and indonesia.

later, in 1494, the spanish and the portuguese crown divided the world outside of europe and its oceans in the tratado de tordesilhas between themselves. the line of demarcation fell between the portuguese colony of cape verde. everything to its west, was to become spanish, and everything to its east was to become the prerogative of the portuguese. in other words, the chola lake, that was soon no more to be called as such, and all the lands and people embracing it, turned into portuguese realm of interest.

the entry of the portuguese into these “asian” waters increased the pre-existing militaristic and trade competitions between native and european empires. by the 16th century the now golfo de bengala was under portuguese sovereignty and the large swaths of lands surrounding it were conquered and rendered into portuguese colonies. their claim over the sea was however soon to be contested by new emerging empires from europe who were approaching with their advanced maritime floats.

years later the dutch, the british, the danes, and the french changed the existing complex political order and ousted the portuguese from most of their “asian” colonies. by the end, the territories surrounding the former chola sea became, except for the french colony of point de chery and dutch batavia, all parts of the british empire. the sea that had since millennials been connecting people through kinship and cultures, had now been brought under a single rule by a foreign power, a european empire.

when european slavery was abolished and replaced with indentured labor between 1840 and 1940, somewhere between 28 million people crossed the “bay of bengal” in both directions. a large number, if not vast the majority, of these indentured laborers originated from ancient tamil lands and were shipped from there in direction of ceylon, the malay peninsula and the indonesian archipelago. tamil lands thereby expanded. They were no more limited to the ancient tamilakam, but stretched across the sea where millions of tamil laborers found, under very difficult circumstances, new homes. this thriving economy however came to a relatively quick collapse with the commencement of world war I and world war II in europe, as well as the japanese empire’s invasion of britain’s colonies in the region that followed.

when in the late 1940s the first “asian” states surrounding the “bay of bengal” were released into independence, new geographic boundaries were drawn onto land and water. they were to regulate the understanding of this very region and the waters encompassing it. what functioned as a region suddenly became divided into two separate regions: “south asia” and “southeast asia.” from thereon, they were considered to be separate in their histories, cultures, people and laws. likewise, conceptions of citizenship, identities, social, economic, and political relations were all framed within these new borders, further separating what wasn’t necessarily as separate before modernity.

trapped within these new borders are a people who’ve lived in the region amidst and through the sea. today there are around 80 million tamil-speakers spread across the “bay of bengal” positioned within new states. from “india,” “sri lanka,” “burma,” “malaysia,” “singapore” all the way to “indonesia.” for them the water masses became a constant reminder of what was, what could have been and stopped being. this was particularly true for the people across the “palk strait” who were now separated by two new states — while living less than 40 kilometers from one another.

territorial borders were not just limited to land. they extended into the sea. the 1973 and 1982 laws of the sea convention created an international standard for how to demarcate and regulate water bodies. soon after, in 1974 and in 1976, the indian government and the sri lankan government agreed upon their maritime boundaries. they drew lines of separations into the sea, further distancing a people from each other.

katchatheevu is a small islet squeezed between both lands, squeezed between tamil populations on either shoreline. throughout british colonial rule it was administered by both british india as well as british ceylon. later, it fell into the hands of the delhi government who then, in 1974 under indira gandhi, gifted it as a sign of appeasement gifted to the colombo government against the wishes of local residents.

although katchatheevu may have been emptied of life, it has historically been an important place for tamils from both sides of the shore who have used the waters surrounding it to fish, and the land to dry their nets on before heading home to either side of the ocean. the significance of this island to neighboring fishing communities is also inscribed in the catholic shrine sitting in the midst of it. it forms an annual pilgrimage site visited by thousands of tamils from fishing communities from both sides of the sea who have previously been converted to christianity by colonizers. But with the 1976 consolidations of boundaries, tamil fishermen from the indian side of the ocean were prohibited from entering the waters around the islet. similarly, with the rise of anti-tamil violence in sri lanka and the emerging tamil resistance movement, which heavily relied upon arms trade and military training across the ocean, the sea became heavily militarized by the sri lankan state, preventing both from accessing their waters.

prior to that there was a time when people would cross the sea to watch a movie, to meet friends, visit holy places and attend traditional concerts on the mainland or on the island. daily ferry connections between mannar, dhanushkodi and rameshwaram connected civilians across the sea. since the outbreak of the civil war in sri lanka in 1983, they were cut off and the waters surrounding the islands have become a dead pass. the sea became a border. the islands became prisons.

standing on the shoreline, we aimlessly watched into the horizon, trying to get a glimpse of the promised land awaiting us somewhere on the other side of the sea. there was no trace of land anywhere in sight, and yet our eyes kept on searching for something that someone told us to exist, to be somewhere there at an arm’s reach.

instead of staying, i rather take my children and walk into the sea, for the sea to take us,” she said. “it is better to be one with the ocean than to live here as if you were no human,” she continued. a tamil refugee, a mother of two, she has lived for more than 25 years in one of more than 100 refugee camps across the indian state of tamil nadu. decades before she had crossed the sea, like hundreds of thousands of tamil refugees had done in order to seek sanctuary in another tamil land that was now indian land. soon after the ferries stopped arriving in rameshwaram, on the indian side of ocean, fishing boats filled with hundreds of people started dropping refugees from the island onto the mainland. mainlanders would come to describe them as zombies who would surface out of no where, out of the water walk aimlessly towards something they saw, but we couldn’t see. many had been shot by the sri lankan navy on their journey to safety, others drowned when their boats capsized in the dark. precise numbers remain unavailable. there’s no one who counts here, there’s no one who documents here.

one night he left on a boat that promised to take him to australia. it’s been five months since that day. we’ve never heard of him again,” his wife said. her husband, a tamil refugee in his 30s, arrived on the indian side as a 12-year old boy. ever since their lives had been confined to camps, to limbo. unable to watch their bodies and dreams wither away, hundreds of people who had once arrived as boat refugees decided to continue their lives as boat refugees: when they realized that they had hit a legal and psychological dead end.

the ocean that had carried them towards the mainland was to become the ocean that carries them towards malaysia and indonesia. or so they hoped. from there, their journey was to continue all the way to australia. very few were to actually ever reach australian waters. and those who did were either sent to outsourced detention camps in manu island and nauru, or intercepted by australian navy boats and handed over to the sri lankan navy in no man’s waters.

since 2009 more than 800 tamil refugees have departed on boats from tamil nadu into the sea to never be heard from again. the numbers are of course mere estimates. counting isn’t really afforded here, in this region where few care about the lives of stateless people — dead or alive. those who didn’t drown on the way or didn’t reach australia, their final destination, often got stranded in malaysia, where they were able to blend with local tamil populations who provided relative protection from being targeted by local immigration controls. hostile water, hostile land. in indonesia they sometimes lingered for years within refugee camps run by international organizations.

watching the bay of bengal, the former chola lake, from all its different corners, north, south, west, east, we remember a time when states did not regulate our movements, when seas did not contain borders, when the water wasn’t something in our way, but something we could live off, travel on and celebrate for all it gave us, rather than all it took from us.

don’t walk too far into the water, she said. the sea does not discriminate.

an ocean and its people, a people and their ocean. ■