Chennai: When Kopalapillai Ratnasingham and his wife Chandramathy set foot in their hometown Trincomalee in north-east Sri Lanka last October for the first time in more than a quarter century, they were greeted by cloudy skies, a light drizzle and a throng of relatives whose sight unleashed an emotional deluge.

At home: Sri Lankan Tamilian Kopalapillai Ratnasingham (centre) along with his wife Chandramathy and son Aravinthan in Chennai.

The husband and wife landed in Trincomalee a few weeks before the wedding of their eldest son to Chandramathy’s niece, a union allowed in Tamil tradition.

More significantly, they were seeing their first-born nearly a decade after he was deported to Sri Lanka following a botched attempt to move from India to Canada—host to a large number of displaced Sri Lankan Tamils—through an agent who turned out to be a fraud. Subsequently, though, their eldest son managed to make that shift from Sri Lanka.

The trip helped Ratnasingham—who fled civil war-stricken Sri Lanka for India on a rickety boat one January evening in 1986, leaving behind 200 acres of paddy fields and the family’s construction business—to revisit a question he had put on ice for 26 years.

Watch how Sri Lankan Tamil families have made a home for themselves in Chennai.

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“Do I want to go back to live in Sri Lanka?" the stout, moustached Ratnasingham said in a lilting accent, using ornate, archaic Tamil vocabulary, starkly different from the Tamil spoken in Chennai and a remnant of his Sri Lankan lineage. “If someone spends 30 years in a prison, that will most certainly become his home, and Chennai is now our base."

Building a future: Schoolchildren at a Sri Lankan refugee camp in Gummidipundi, Thiruvallur district, Tamil Nadu. Photos by Mint

“They go back for nostalgia and find that the country is still a police state," said Ramu Manivannan, a Chennai-based political scientist, who has travelled several times to Sri Lanka and has visited refugee camps. “Unfortunately, their dream of a return cannot be swallowed as reality."

After the final rout of the separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam three years ago by Sri Lankan government forces, the arrival of Tamil refugees to India slowed to a trickle, and some even commenced their return to the island nation. In 2010, 2,040 refugees—compared with none in 2007—went back to Sri Lanka, according to Tamil Nadu’s department of rehabilitation.

That number dropped to 1,672 in 2011 as Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government failed to ease repressive wartime measures or hold out assurances for the refugees’ safe return.

Around 68,155 refugees still live in 112 camps in India, eking out a living doing blue-collar and other labour-intensive jobs. Some families living outside camps even run successful businesses, with regular reporting to the local police on any travel being the only reminder of their status as refugees.

Building a life on foreign shores

Nearly 30 years ago, Ratnasingham reluctantly chalked out a new chapter in his life as a courier for a Chennai goldsmith he had approached to pawn his wife’s jewellery to support his family of five. The amiable and sprightly Ratnasingham saved up his Rs150-a-day wage, scraping even the daily Rs20 refreshment allowance into the kitty, to springboard into what he knew best. He started a construction business, a trade he learnt back home from his father and brothers.

A day in the life: Ratnasingham overseeing labourers at a construction site in Chennai. He started a construction business, a trade he learnt back home from his father and brothers, when he came to India.

“We would like to go to Sri Lanka for a month or two, but ultimately, this is home," said the 54-year-old Chandramathy, in the kind of curlicue Tamil spoken by her husband, about the land she has now spent more time in than her place of birth.

What was a hunch for several years got stamped as truth four months ago when she and her husband made the month-long sojourn to Sri Lanka for the wedding of their eldest son.

Ahead of the wedding, the family went to see what had been their home in Trincomalee; its soot-streaked walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, and the concrete shell stripped of grills, doors and every tile.

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Ratnasingham points to a digital picture from the trip showing a thin, tubular, rust-coloured gap on one of the walls, implying theft of even cheap metal water pipes by looters. Ruddy blooms on rose plants outside their home were the only shreds of the family’s past remaining.

But things were not all smooth even during the short visit. It took a tempestuous turn within two weeks when Ratnasingham faced a three-day arrest by Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism department, deflating the family’s happiness before the wedding. His subsequent release on proof of innocence, the presence of the army in Trincomalee, lack of proper roads in the region even three years after the end of the conflict, helped make up the Ratnasinghams’ minds: they would remain anchored in India.

Hidden angst

Aravinthan, their second son who has Chandramathy’s shiny eyes and easy smile, concurs. In fact, the 26-year-old Sri Lankan citizen chose to return to Chennai last year despite earning a permanent resident status in Canada after nearly six years in the North American country, where he did a diploma in animation. His elder and younger brothers have chosen to work and live in Canada.

Ratnasingham’s son R.Chandrasekaran (extreme right) working at a Chennai hardware shop where his father is a partner.

He now manages the accounts for his father’s two-year-old partnership in a large Chennai-based hardware and paint store, Ratnasingham’s latest investment to retire from the hectic construction business. Two months ago, Aravinthan invested a couple of lakh rupees in a fledgling photo booth business to be pitched at college events and weddings.

“It was devastating at first to change careers after the grim realization of being an outsider in India," says Aravinthan, who can speak Tamil like a local as well as swing into his family’s lyrical dialect.

“But now I’m happy. I would love to travel to Sri Lanka on work, but for all other reasons, it seems like a foreign land."

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