The taxi driver

Esan has been driving passengers around Jaffna in his trusty Morris Oxford for nearly twenty years. He remembers the times of scarcity following government embargoes on fuel and the need to adapt to survive. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam.

Join the discussion: 3 comments

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    Whenever I visit Jaffna, I hire Esan as my driver. His trusty Morris Oxford has not just helped him make a living, but also helped his passengers to survive the war. Esan told me how he once took twenty people in his Morris Oxford to safety during the embargo of the 1990s.

    These days Japanese vans and super bikes are common in Jaffna, but it’s the classic British cars that have caught my eye as they rattled along the pockmarked, dusty roads. Despite the often bumpy ride in these cars, you quickly ease into the gentle pace of Jaffna life.

    I saw elegant Morris Oxfords, the Austin Cambridge and the Morris Minors. If you’re lucky you might spot the rarer Austin A40, popular it seemed with temple priests and their entourage. These cars handle the war beaten roads remarkably well and Esan insists that the more modern Japanese cars are useless on these roads.

    But there was another quality that distinguished these British cars from the newer Japanese ones: adapting their engines or making spare parts out of scrap iron was easier with the Austin and the Morris models of cars. They engines could also be converted to run differently. With restrictions on fuel and engine oil, Esan and other drivers experimented with alternatives. Kerosene was more freely available and quickly became the main substitute to petrol. And when engine oil was in short supply, the mechanics and cab drivers experimented with all kinds of household oils. It seemed that not even the embargo on fuel or the war beaten roads could stop these cars running.

    Cab drivers are usually keen to strike up a conversation with their passengers and often difficult to shut up. But Esan is quiet and cool. When I asked him how he coped during the days of scarcity as a cab driver, he said he owed everything to these “lucky cars”, and played down his role in helping the people of Jaffna. I quickly realised that Esan and these cars were both survivors and Jaffna’s local heroes.

  • (@iam_project) (@iam_project) says:

    Doha bound for the Aljazeera documentary festival where the short film ‘Kerosene’ is going to be screened, featuring Esan from series one

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    I’ve witnessed violence, just once.

    In December 2010, I visited Jaffna with my wife for a weekend break. We decided to fly there and took one of the military flights that had opened up a civilian service. Our flight companions were government soldiers and, on this particular occasion, a famous Sri Lankan actress, Malini Fonseka. I remember the soldiers sitting in absolute awe of her. It made them more human because earlier I couldn’t get the terrible thought of the numbers of civilian casualties out of my head, and that these or their fellow soldiers were the men who may have been responsible for them.

    But it struck me how civilians and soldiers could both be star struck by celebrity, and I sat back in the rickety seat forced to confront this dichotomy longer than necessary for it was raining hard in Jaffna and that made for a few false-takeoffs. Finally the rain eased up and we were in the sky though landing in Jaffna would still be a problem. As I saw the red soil of Jaffna approaching from the window, I felt I was home, and when my wife and I finally landed we were thankful for the rain for it made Jaffna rich and lush.

    Some soldiers drove us into town on an old bus. It was a bumpy ride along a pockmarked and deserted stretch of road. The only life here was military— bunkers and small camps punctuated the destruction. We passed bombed out houses, many that had been overtaken by nature and trees sprouted from their foundations. The houses that were still standing were occupied by soldiers. I saw a soldier tending with surprising gentleness a neatly kept vegetable garden by the side of a bunker. Another soldier playfully chased a street dog. Yet more scenes that challenged my preconception of Sri Lankan soldiers.

    It seemed ages before we reached signs of civilian life. The roads suddenly sprang to life. Sun drenched tobacco leaves lined the fences of houses. The smell of roasted chili powder tickled our noses as roadside cafes prepared for lunch. Some things are eternal! It was good to be home.

    I don’t remember much about growing up in Jaffna, just fragments of memories, like watching clips of old Super 8 video, the colors muted, the images spliced together randomly and blown out by the sun. I remember walking to my first school, St John’s Bosco and the Murugan temple near our home which had a huge water tank, the steps of which were mossy, emerald green. My family would take me to bathe there from time to time after a visit to the temple. I remember eating ice cream to cool us down, a special treat on an especially scorching day. I remember the smell of hot peanuts and popcorn served up in a twisted newspaper for temple goers during the festivals. Family members were also neighbors in this tight-knit society, where life centered on the temples, peaceful and safe, and we kids were taken care of by aunts and uncles who lived across the road. Now many of these relatives live thousands of miles away, scattered around the world during the war.

    In Jaffna my wife and I were taken around by Jagatheeswaran, ‘Esan’, a 50-year-old taxi driver, who I usually hired to drive me around in his trusty old Morris Oxford. As we rattled along the dusty roads, I noticed that since my last visit a few months earlier there were more soldiers walking around or taking up positions at the ubiquitous bunkers and sentry points.

    One evening I met friends for a drink and we went to a restaurant serving up a fusion of Indian and Jaffna cuisine. We stuffed ourselves with an odd but irresistible combination of naan and spicy crab curry, Jaffna’s most famous dish. It was getting late by Jaffna’s standards and just after eleven o’clock the waiters switched off the lights, their less than subtle way of asking us to go home. My friends and I said goodbye and I got into the Morris with Esan at the wheel.

    The side roads were empty and silent, the moon hung low and the stale smell of that evening’s meals drifted from the houses into the car. But once we turned onto the main road we saw something we weren’t supposed to see. Three young men sat by the side of a temple wall and standing behind them guarding them at gunpoint were several government soldiers in uniform and a group of men in civilian clothes. To me, the young men sitting down seemed like Tamil students and the men in civilian clothes were most certainly also Tamil, their giveaway bushy moustaches so popular among Tamil men. My guess was the civilian clothed Tamils were aligned with the government because otherwise there was no way the soldiers would have allowed them to get so close. Then one of the soldiers cocked his rifle and gave it to one of the civilians. The civilian took the gun and forced it onto the temple of one of the sitting students. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image of that student being pushed to the ground by the muzzle of a gun or the terror on his face.

    He was absolutely helpless. I was really scared. The soldiers waved us on. At that point everything seemed to happen in slow motion. As we passed I continued to look back and after we drove away I listened for a gunshot. Thankfully there was none. An eerie silence filled the car. From the way he kept looking at the rear-view mirror, even the usually cool Esan was rattled.

    When we arrived at our guest house, I quickly paid Esan and went inside but I couldn’t sleep. As I lay in bed, I tried to make sense of what I’d seen. Clearly an act of intimidation: three soldiers simply wanted to show who was in control to those young Tamil men, and by giving the rifle to another Tamil from the area, they were humiliating the Tamils even further. The nonchalant way the soldiers waved us on underscored the culture of impunity that exists in Jaffna. Their message was simple. We can do this and no one can stop us, so keep moving.

    I kept quiet about the incident. I went back into town and at least outwardly to playing the part of tourist in my homeland. At lunchtime I complained about the food. In the afternoon I went to the local junk shop and bartered for some old brassware. In the evening I went out to restaurants and tried not to think about what I had seen and what I had not done.

    A day later I happened to drive past the scene. I looked out for blood on the dirt and on the temple walls. I didn’t see any, thankfully. But even if I did, what then? The soldiers knew that no one would do anything.

    I’ve thought about that incident ever since it happened. But I still don’t know what I could have done.

    Intervene? They would just shoot us. Complain to the police? Not a chance.

    But even if I was to have done something, by speaking out I would have been putting Esan’s, a local’s, life at risk. The soldiers had most likely taken note of the Morris as we drove by and Esan had survived years of war in part by not complaining to the police about military brutality. How could I play games with his life?

    After I left Jaffna to return home to Colombo, a friend told us that there had been round-ups of suspected rebel cadres and what we’d seen may have been one of those instances.

    There is no way to know the exact meaning of what I saw. Except to know that life in Jaffna remains fragile and that only a thin, porous membrane separates the world that visitors enjoy during the day and the dark and frightening one locals have to live with after hours.

    Even today 16 of the 19 divisions of the Sri Lankan army are stationed in the northern province. I’ve heard residents describe the situation there as living in an ‘open jail’.

    Extract from ”An Inconvenient Truth”, Kannan Arunasalam, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, ed. M. L. Weber – ezine with poetry, fiction and essays,


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