by Pallavi Pundir, Eater, New York, January 2, 2024
How a simple rice dish became a Tamil symbol of resistance in Sri Lanka
Photography by Steephan Sansigan; Interpreter: Gowthami Thillainathan
The plan for a surreptitious meeting had been in the works for weeks.
On the morning of November 7, Mariyasuresh Eswari got in touch with a group of women to meet her at a clandestine location in Mullaitivu, a district located in the northeastern corner of the island nation of Sri Lanka. As the dark, unpredictable monsoon clouds loomed in the skies, Eswari picked up a giant cooking pot from a local shop she wouldn’t name. By 3 p.m. the gentle drizzle had turned into a downpour, lashing down on a colorful temple, the location of which will have to stay anonymous as well. “It’s because of the pressures we encounter from the [Sri Lankan] intelligence department,” Eswari said. “If they came to know about the location, you would have likely witnessed certain people keeping a watch on us.” Sometimes, they disrupt the cooking too.
Sri Lanka ranks among the top 20 countries with the largest active armies in the world, a disproportionately large chunk of which is stationed in the northern and eastern parts of the country where the majority of the country’s Tamil population — women like Eswari and her friends — live. Here, surveillance and restrictions are a way of life. That’s been the case for decades, but particularly since 2009, the end of a decades-long civil war between Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese populations. As the minority ethnic group — currently, there are an estimated 2.5 million Tamils in Sri Lanka, compared to 17.2 million Sinhalese — the Tamils are monitored, surveilled, detained, and interrogated for activities the government considers treasonous or, in other words, showing support for Tamil separatism. Often, that includes something as simple as cooking kanji.
At the temple’s verandah, between conversations and laughter, the women place firewood between sections of bricks and set it on fire. They pour mounds of rice into a plastic blue tub and sift it for stones and insects. After this, they wash the rice in tap water in the temple garden. It’s strained and finally dumped in the cooking pot with some salt. As the rice simmers, the women get closer and keep watch.
Kanji, or rice gruel, is a common feature in South Asian homes. It’s a hearty breakfast when mixed with coconut milk, or a quick lunch or dinner if sprinkled with vegetables. It’s also a comfort food for those with gastrointestinal distress. But in Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern districts — the stronghold of the Tamils — the simple dish assumes a more political form.
It was in the thick of this war, when the Sri Lankan military cut off access to food, medicine, and other essentials for Tamil civilians in a bid to weaken the LTTE, that kanji became a desperate source of sustenance. Rice, though scarce, was easy to make. For many, one bowl of kanji dunked in salted water was the meal for the entire day. The weaponization of starvation led to widespread malnutrition by 2008.
“The amount of kanji available just wasn’t sufficient for the people. There were a lot of people within small encampments,” says Eswari, who lost her husband in the war and raised her three children — then ages 6 years, 2 years, and 2 months old — alone in refugee camps.
In 2009, during the last stages of the war, hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were trapped in supposedly safe zones, and bombed by the Sri Lankan military. (Both sides have been accused of war crimes by the U.N.) Food distribution centers in these so-called “no-fire zones,” which gave out food including kanji, were also targeted by the Sri Lankan military because they were run by the LTTE.
Murugesu Thangama, a 69-year-old grandmother and war survivor, remembers witnessing a queue of children who were waiting for kanji to be served, being bombed by Sri Lankan military shelling. “I will never, ever forget it. The children died there and then,” Thangama says. “The pain that we carry can only be understood by those who endured it. This is why it’s so important for us to pass on this memory from generation to generation.”
On the day of our interview, the women are cautious, declining to be interviewed initially due to concerns of police intervention. All the women are members of the Association for Relatives of the Enforced Disappearances, a civil rights group that fights for justice for the Tamils. The wariness is compounded by the upcoming observance of Maaveerar Naal, a day for Tamils to remember the fight for their homeland. To the Sri Lankan state, observing the date is an endorsement of terrorism; Tamil memorial events are prohibited in the country and locals usually face intimidation and restrictions throughout the month such dates occur. “Had [the security officials] come to know that we’re cooking the kanji today, they would disrupt the gathering,” Eswari says. “They tell people we’re exploiting their pain. They contact our relatives and friends to intimidate us.”
“[The kanji] symbolises the genocide of our people,” Eswari adds. “The rice, salt and water used in this kanji represents our bravery. It has now become a symbol of the Tamils.”
As the rain gets heavier, kids from the neighborhood show up at the temple vicinity, waiting for the kanji to soften.
I first encountered the politics of the Tamil kanji last year, on May 18. In the searing spring heat, I drove past empty streets to a small sandy open ground in the middle of a village called Mullivaikkal, in Mullaitivu district. Here, a crowd, mostly dressed in black, trickled in, walking with garlands and photos in their hands.
May 18 is commemorated as Genocide Day by the Tamils, the day V Prabhakaran, the LTTE supreme leader, was shot dead by the Sri Lankan military to end the civil war. Last year, when I was in Mullivaikkal, the country’s first-ever public acknowledgement of Genocide Day took place in the capital city, Colombo, during mass anti-government protests that were triggered by severe economic crisis. It was a rare unifying moment for Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities. The protests also led to the ousting of the government of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose powerful family had led the war against the LTTE decades ago.
In Mullivaikkal, hundreds of Tamil families gathered on a 3-square-kilometer plot of land, the site of the last Sri Lankan military offensive in 2009 in which tens of thousands of Tamils were trapped and bombed. In the vicinity of this plot stood Sri Lankan security officials; up in the skies hovered military drones. On the side, a group of women handed out kanji in plastic glasses and coconut shells, a reminder of the war when displaced civilians used the shells as bowls. Amid the heat and heavy emotions, I relished the warm rice gruel and its light, savory taste.
The rice-salt-water kanji, or the “Mullivaikkal kanji” — referencing the last stage of the war fought there — is not an everyday affair.
Maya, who, along with her family members, is being identified by her first name due to concerns over their safety in Canada and Sri Lanka, recalls a more sumptuous version of kanji from her childhood, one in which the boiled rice meets the warm embrace of creamy coconut milk. “It’s rice, coconut milk, water and salt,” says the 65-year-old speaking to me on Zoom from Toronto. Her hands mimic the gestures of cooking as she adds, “You garnish it with onion and green chile. This is the kanji I remember from my childhood.”
They moved to a small village close to Jaffna, which was governed by the LTTE. Every Tamil household had underground bunkers, where families would flee when the shelling by Sri Lankan military started. This is when Maya, then a child, learned to make a pared-down version of kanji. “It was faster to make too. When the shelling started, we would make a quick pot of the kanji, and move to the bunkers,” she says. No one knew how long they’d have to be down there.
Even in its most basic form, kanji is rich in vitamin B12, protein, and carbs. Sinthu, Maya’s niece and Raj’s granddaughter, joins the Zoom call to recall her version of the kanji. She was four years old when her family fled to Canada, and kanji is more or less a reminder of home, with her parents, in Canada. But she understands when her elders don’t want to cook the dish every day. “It’s because of the trauma associated with the kanji. It evokes the painful memories of the war,” says Sinthu.
The Tamil diaspora from Sri Lanka has been critical in bringing international attention to the genocide at home. They’re estimated to be 1 million strong across the world, with the largest population — of nearly 300,000 — in Canada. Influential Tamil advocacy groups have been calling for a Nuremberg-like international court to bring the Sri Lankan government to trial for war crimes and genocide. Last year, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked May 18 as the Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day, the Sri Lankan state issued a denial of the genocide and called the civil war a “terrorist conflict perpetuated by the LTTE.”
The political symbolism of kanji emerged in Tamil rights activism only in the last few years, says Dr. Thusiyan Nandakumar, a London-based doctor and journalist. “The wounds of the war were too fresh for us to think of symbolism immediately after the war. But recently, we started reclaiming the symbols of the suffering of our people as powerful reminders that we won’t forget the genocide.”
Nandakumar was just 19 when he joined the growing overseas humanitarian movement to respond to the starvation crisis. His family had escaped the Black July massacre of 1983 and moved to London, where he was born.
“We heard about people being forced to eat the kanji because that’s literally all they had,” he says. “Seeing the images of malnutrition is truly my first association with the kanji. It wasn’t a staple in Tamil households until the hunger and desperation led to its making on a widespread scale.”
Ara Balanathan, a London-based scientist and a part of an advocacy network called British Tamil Alliance, has been distributing kanji in London’s public spaces, including Tamil shops and neighborhoods, since 2021. Last year, the group was at the Houses of Parliament on May 18 to hand out kanji in takeaway boxes with the recipe and a message to “share the Mullivaikkal rice kanji with your family.”
Balanathan’s family had fled Colombo during the Black July pogroms, mostly out of fear that the unusually tall Balanathan, who was then just 13 years old, would be picked up by the Sri Lankan military for merely looking like “a Tamil of a fighting age.” The number of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka ranks among the world’s highest, with Amnesty International estimating up to 100,000 disappearances since the 1980s.
Balanathan remembers a sweet kanji variation, cooked with jaggery, from when he was a kid in Jaffna. “Even right now, many diaspora Tamils like me, we make a luxurious version of the kanji because it’s comfort food. But on remembrance days, we make it a point to eat the Mullivaikkal kanji — boiled rice, salt, and water,” he says. “It’s tradition now.”
As the rice comes to a boil on that November morning in Mullaitivu, the women remember the days of abundance before the war. Vickneswaran Rajini, who is among the women cooking, recalls bringing fresh paddy from the temple and her mother making coconut milk kanji for the family. At home, mothers and grandmothers would cook in clay pots on firewood stoves. “Even now, I cook in clay pans and pots because this is how the kanji is the most delicious,” says Rajini.
The rain starts to peter out as the women bring out shaved coconut shells. Filling the coconut shells to the brim, they serve each other and stare out of the temple verandah while taking slow sips of kanji. November gets very hectic for the group. Mid-November, they got together to commemorate Kanji Vaaram, a week where families serve kanji in public spaces to not only tell the story of the war, but also engage with younger Tamils who didn’t grow up seeing the war. Sometimes, they engage with those who might not agree with them.
Thangama recalls a recent incident when some security officials in her neighborhood disrupted kanji preparation. In response, Thangama asked the officials to sit down with them under a tree and to talk. While chatting, the women served them kanji. “The officials initially refused but we told them, ‘We’re not offering you poison. This kanji helped us survive. If you wish, you can have the kanji,’” Thangama said. Listening to their stories, the officials drank the rice porridge.
This story is a rare one.
On November 27, Tamil Guardian, a London-based news portal that focuses on Tamil issues, reported that the Sri Lankan police got a court order to stop Tamils from marking Maaveerar Naal. They tore down flags bearing colors of the Tamil Eelam flag, summoned children to the police station for wearing LTTE uniforms, and arrested at least seven Tamils under terrorism laws during the remembrance event. Despite that, at night, the Tamils gathered to remember their struggle, with kanji.
Pallavi Pundir is an Indian journalist who has been covering the intersections of politics, society and gender for over 10 years across South and South East Asia.
Steephan Sansigan is a seasoned freelance photographer and independent filmmaker since 2012, focusing on documenting the landscapes and stories of North and other regions of Sri Lanka.
Gowthami Thillainathan is a freelance mediator and translator who has been effectively bridging language gaps between Tamil and English through meticulous document translation and personable live interpretation services since 2020.