Thulasi Muttulingam

Beauty of Northern parts of Sri Lanka is something the rest of fellow Sri Lankans missed out on for a few decades. Now that the Northern Province welcomes the world to experience its beauty, most of the travellers are eager to visit the area. The Nation suggests readers visit the Facebook page ‘Humans of Northern Sri Lanka’ or the blog before you visit the area. These will give you information about the places you can visit, the history, culture and the communities. It will be a virtual tour of Northern Sri Lanka before you actually go visit the place, giving you a heads up on what you can explore while providing you with background information.

Thulasi Muttulingam, a Jaffna based freelance journalist, is the brainchild of this Facebook page, who takes immense pleasure in searching and publishing the sensational information about the Northern Province widely traveling the five districts of the North viz Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Vavuniya. She said that this Facebook page was a result of her attempts to quench her curiosity, that she too missed the wonders of Northern Province as a child, although her parents were originally from there.

Notebook-of-an-achiever“I grew up in the Maldives. My parents fled the ’83 riots here and were so traumatized by it that they refused to come back to Sri Lanka, or allow us to come back to Sri Lanka to resettle here,” she recalled. Thulasi didn’t feel welcomed as a child, growing up abroad and she always wanted come back to Sri Lanka and understand the culture and the heritage of the place where she actually belonged.

She has been 21 when the ceasefire agreement was signed in 2002 and this gave her the leeway to convince the parents that she should be allowed to return to Jaffna. “A few months later, they joined me.”

After coming back to Sri Lanka, she joined the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. She reminisced how she enjoyed her days at The Nation newspaper as an intern while she was a student of journalism. After her graduation in 2008, she worked at Sunday Times, Sunday Observer, Ceylon Today and now contributes to the Daily FT and the Daily News as a freelancer.

As one of the few Tamil speaking journalists working in English print media, she said, she was often called on to help file stories from the Northern Province while she was working as a full-time journalist based in Colombo. She wasn’t satisfied with how they managed to get those stories. “Very often it was over the phone, or at best a one to two day visit to the North. This is not enough to get a feel of the North or its myriad issues,” she said. “So at one point, I gave up my full time job and took on a job as a Reporting Officer with an Aid Agency working to rehabilitate war affected people,” she added. This job, which Thulasi took on two years ago, provided her ample opportunity to travel widely in the North, especially into its rural interiors, allowing her to gain firsthand insights into the people’s issues.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to write all these stories up. Thus I found myself sitting on top of a number of unique stories, which deserved wider reach – yet I was unable to disseminate them,” she explained what paved the way to create her Facebook page. “I finally figured out I could use social media and short snippet form story-telling in the manner of the much loved Facebook page Humans of New York (HONY), to get my stories out. So I started a Facebook page which I modeled on HONY.”

She explained that Humans of New York had already inspired many similar global pages by this time. “There was already a Humans of Sri Lanka page active, so I named my page, which was concentrated on the people of the North, Humans of Northern Sri Lanka,” she said. In her blog and the Facebook page, she doesn’t leave out the essence of the Northern Province, its culture, heritage, people, places and even its food and where you can taste them. It’s a virtual tourist guide to the Northern Province.

She wanted to provide a wider understanding of the people of the North and the issues they face, to people who don’t have active access to the North, but are yet interested in them. A quick glance at her page, scrolling down would provide enough evidence that she has so far been successful in achieving her goal.

Speaking on how social media helped her to take the stories from Northern Sri Lanka to the world, she said that one can actually get the large stories out via a few words and a couple of pictures. “It doesn’t have to run into thousands of words in order to tell a proper story. With those shortened Facebook updates, far more people are able to read, follow and share. As such they get a much wider reach,” she pointed out. “With the click of a button, I can ensure that the stories I want to disseminate are read, not only by people within Sri Lanka, but all over the world.” She also said how these Facebook posts came to her as a relief while she was frustrated that she didn’t gain wide reach of readership for the long research articles she wrote as a journalist.

People from the other parts of country didn’t have access to culture, traditions and arts of Northern Province for a long period. When asked what the other fellow Sri Lankans missed she said, “Well, I am still figuring out what I missed,” adding that there is yet much more to be explored.

Speaking further she appreciated projects like Jaffna and Galle Music Festival funded by Norway for the valuable work they do in reviving dying traditional arts in the North and using it to join North with South.

“The greatest tragedy is that the Arts took a backseat for nearly 30 years as the war raged in the North. It is only now that artists are slowly taking up their arts again – especially the traditional folk artists. In some cases, this might have become irretrievably lost as younger people migrated out and older people died,” Thulasi reiterated.

When she was asked whether she believes that there are enough opportunities for the people from other areas to mingle with the people, arts and culture of the Northern Province, she said, “I am not sure about enough opportunities, but there are certainly opportunities,” she said adding that there are already artists and activists from both the North and South, working actively to connect with each other. “They have been doing so for quite some time now, from since before the war ended. There could be more of such efforts though.”

In her perspective, a better understanding of each other is needed among the common people in order to enhance the relationships between the North and the South. “For too long, the vernacular media has demonized each other to the Tamil and Sinhala people, by giving only one sided stories. We need a more responsible media seeking to bridge the divide instead of working to increase the gap,” she stressed. “As a journalist myself, this is something I am trying hard to do.”

She also said that understanding the people’s aspirations, the source of their pain and hurt, and seeking to redress that should be given utmost most priority in addressing the issues in the Northern Province. “Right now in the Northern Province, which is functioning as a post-war economy, there are several raging problems such as widespread unemployment, marginalization of women especially war affected widows, and breakdown of law and order,” she pointed out.

“Many visitors from the South travel on the glittering new highways to the North and think much development has taken place in the North. Just off those highways however, are rutted bumpy rural roads that would rattle your teeth along with your intestines. These are what the common northern people use. All that glitters is not development,” she further said.

Leading a group of journalists who arrived in Jaffna to cover Northern issues