Thursday, March 3, 2011

Posted in Colombo: A Glance at Toiling Women and the Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka by Shizue Tomoda

Illustrated by Edwin Batawala

In this non-fiction book, part memoir part historic, Shizue Tomoda is working for a United Nations specialized agency. She is assigned to Colombo, Sri Lanka as the director of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for three years beginning late December 1997. Arriving on Christmas Eve, the next day she hears what appears to be an attack with rifle fire not far from her hotel, unnerving at the best of times but particularly in a country with ongoing attacks. However, this time it was fire crackers. She will be living in Colombo through some of the most high-profile assassinations. Indeed, during her stint in Sri Lanka, the assassination of a political leader by suicide bombers will take place very near her home. While she is still in Sri Lanka, a major turning point in the war happens, the fall of Elephant Pass to the LTTE.* She begins the book with a brief history of this civil war-torn country. The early part of "Posted in Colombo" reads somewhat like a text book, but becomes much less formal as it goes along.

One of the first things she must do is locate an apartment that will both allow her to have her two cats Taro and Tomi, and also be a safe home for them. Shizue had not had time to become familiar with the languages of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese and Tamil, which created a problem when hiring someone to do cooking, grocery shopping, and cleaning. The person she will be hiring must speak and understand English fairly well, be prepared at short notice for dinner guests and will also be responsible for taking care of the home when she is away on a project, as well as caring for the two cats. One of these cats, Taro, is a Norwegian Forest cat, and seems unusually aware and intelligent. With his very thick fur bred for northern winters, he will require air conditioning.

As mentioned, some of the book brings some of the history of Sri Lanka, but also a history of the tea plantations and the treatment of the workers, particularly women, many of them working in other countries away from their families in order to support them. Another problem that upsets her is the lack of education for the children on the plantations extending into the 21st century, and the child labour.

The historical background of the country and its people I found interesting and was surprised at what I did not know. She is concise in her descriptions and backs them up with many references and sources as endnotes. As in most governmental positions, and no different in the UN, almost every project and department has a long name, a fertile environment for the use of acronyms. Fortunately for the reader, Shizue has put a glossary of these at the front of her book.

I enjoyed the connection between Shizue and Devi, her housekeeper, an Indian Tamil mother of four, with an unstable alcoholic husband. Devi's family lives and works on the plantation. As a quick study, Shizue offers Devi several opportunities to learn employable skills that will help her ability to obtain work when Shizue's term is up. Devi lives with her and usually goes home once a month.

Through the conversations between the two, we learn even more about the life of a Sri Lankan woman, and what changes are slowly being made. Overall, I enjoyed this vision of Sri Lanka, I feel I have a better understanding of the situations in the constant conflicts between the two main factors, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the Tamils also split between Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils. I also have an understanding and compassion for the plight of the women and children and am glad to see there are inroads being made to provide proper schools and education, put a stop to child labour, particularly in dangerous jobs, as well as assistance with housing and employability. There appear to be major changes over the past 50 years, but they were, and possibly still are, slow in coming. Devi was very fortunate to work for someone who knew the ropes and which ones to tug on. This was an entertaining and informative book, particularly what is learned from the interactions of Shizue and Devi. The book is also an easy read due to its layout and the author’s narration.
*LTTE - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

I have previously reviewed “Sachiko”, a book of fiction by Shizue Tomoda

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