Review: Displacement among Sri Lankan Tamil Migrants

by Giorgia Donà, International Migration Review, Vol. 57, Issue 3, September 2023, pages 869-1321

Chattoraj Diotima. 2022. Displacement among Sri Lankan Tamil Migrants: The Diasporic Search for Home in the Aftermath of War. Singapore: Springer Nature. 180 pp., Hardcover, 120 USD. SpringerLink

Forced displacement has resulted in the loss of homes for millions of people across the world. Its magnitude is also felt in Asia where Sri Lankan Tamils have endured conflicts and dispossessions for decades and where the legacy of war continues to have a bearing on their lives.
Displacement Among Sri Lankan Tamil Migrants: The Diasporic Search for ...Diotima Chattoraj’s study on the diasporic search for home in the aftermath of war among Sri Lankan Tamils presents us with a timely analysis of the meaning of “home” across contexts of displacements. The rich ethnography documents forced migration both in Sri Lanka and in India, tracing the daily lives of displaced people in rural areas, urban spaces, and welfare centers — close to “home” yet unreachable. Additionally, the book considers the idea of return and connects migration with the im/possibility of going back to one’s place of origin.
The book helps us to understand in novel ways the shifting relations of home, belonging, and attachment as they unfold. Chattoraj’s analysis draws from the Tamil word “Ur,” which means natal village and also forms the basis of one’s personal identity. Ur refers not only to the place to live in but to the people, ambience, and opportunities it offers. The author advances our understanding of home by aptly relating Ur to broader conceptualisations of home and belonging. In this regard, Ur constitutes a particular aspect of home, as it explicitly refers to the place of origin — based on its geographical and social dimension — and it relates to the concept of belonging in the various ways in which people allocate meaning to home in emotional, social, and economic terms.
The book foregrounds the voices of Tamil-speaking Hindus and Muslims and offers a vivid account of their shifting and divergent migratory trajectories. The study shows the manyfold ways in which Sri Lankan Tamil migrants revaluate old and form new attachments to the places they inhabit. Going beyond broad representations of Tamil displaced populations, the study delves deeper into their age, gender, class, caste, personal migration history, their present living conditions, and the national frame of reference. The findings show that Sri Lankan Tamil migrants give contrasting meanings to Ur based on different factors and priorities in their lives.
Among the significant merits of the book is the innovative perspective on generational divergences that offers new insights into how intergenerational positionalities shape the complex constellation of home, belonging, and attachment. For the elderly, memories of home create a strong desire to return to their Ur. By contrast, younger people feel detached from their homes and are reluctant to return because of the painful memories they associate with their former homes at wartimes. In between, the middle generations are stuck with both memories of their homes and of eviction. Middle aged Tamils were attached to their native places but for many, attachment to Ur has turned into detachment over time. Thus, Tamil displaced persons relate to the concept of home through positive and negative facets of attachment/detachment, revealing its complexity.
The broad range of stories and perspectives clearly shows how complicated and complex individual attempts to relate to the (former) home are and what makes people take a decision to stay in the “new” home or returning to their Ur. As such, the book offers an important contribution to the argument that the varied notions of “home” have to be taken into consideration to explain the decisions of displaced persons to return to their “home” and homeland.
This book is of interest to students and scholars of anthropology, sociology, geography, and politics and those in the interdisciplinary fields of migration and refugee studies, conflict and peace studies, as well as those interested in area studies, especially South Asia. It is also relevant for policy makers and practitioners interested in the future of migration and return in Sri Lanka, and more generally in the connections between displacement, resettlement and return in postconflict societies.
Readers will appreciate the vivid account of experiencing the understandings of home and attachment for Tamils inside and outside Sri Lanka. They will value the complexities of home, unpack the ambivalence of belonging, and grasp their shifting nature. By connecting past to future in explaining Tamils’ diasporic search for Ur, Chattoraj convincingly shows the co-existence of several meanings of home and their relevance for understanding migratory experiences.

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