This journey begins with a bus ride. A few minutes from my house in south-west London is a large and yet barely visible community of Sri Lankans, in Tooting. They’re all Tamils, mostly refugees and mostly from a single town, Velvettithurai. Nobody knows exactly how many there are, although the usual figure is eight thousand. Whatever the number, there are now more Sri Lankans in Tooting than there were ever Britons in Ceylon (even in 1911, at the height of the empire,the British population numbered only six thousand). But Tooting, of course, is only part of the picture. Across the country, there are 110,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, with twenty-two temples in London alone.
For years, I’ve been intrigued by my Tamil neighbours. Perhaps it’s their seclusion that’s fascinated me. They demand little of the outside world; they have their own shops, their own after-school academies,their own charities, their own leaders and their own cafés (where lunch still costs four pounds). There are also Tamil newspapers and a special Tamil Yellow Pages, which offers a curious glimpse of another London: coy, jewelled and Asian.
The Tamils (or, strictly speaking, the Tamilians) even have their own internal crime wave, vicious gangs with names like “The Jaffna Boys” or “The Tamil Posse,” who go at each other with knives, Tasers and samurai swords. In one year alone (2005), sixteen Tamils died at the hands of their own. London hardly seems to notice.
As Sri Lanka’s civil war (1983–2009) drew to a close, I decided toexplore this shy community further, and to begin with the temple. Tamil friends from elsewhere had plenty of advice about what I mustdo (I mustn’t wear any leather, and I mustn’t eat any beef for two days before), but none of them would come with me, and nor would they ever allow themselves to be named or quoted in anything I ever wrote. That, of course, made me more curious than ever.
I made several visits. From the outside, the Sri Muthumari Amman Temple still looked like a little department store. Its tiled art-deco façade—now cracked and grimy like old eggshell—had previously housed the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. But once over the threshold, a new world appeared, which I always assumed was SriLanka. My eyes would prickle with incense, and the air was greasy with the smoke of coconut lamps. Upstairs, there were twelve deitiesarranged around the old shop floor, and the walls (once a delicate Bakelitegreen) were darkened with soot. The gods, all made of silver and bronze, were tended by twelve priests, each half-naked with hair down to the waist. It would have been easy to forget where I was, except for the odd London bus, glimpsed through the vapours.
I was always the only white face amidst the crowds. The older menoften offered me snippets of information, perhaps as a way of gaugingmy intentions. “Our deities weigh six hundred and fifty kilogramseach,” they’d say, or, “Five hundred people worship here every day.”
From time to time, the most important deity, the goddess Mari Amman, would be ritually bathed in gallons of milk, rosewater and orange juice, before being dressed again in a fresh silk sari. Around her,the worshippers would prostrate themselves on the floor, and stuff her coffers with money. I’d never imagined such devotion in England, let alone a mile from home. On the notice board was a letter, asking everydevotee to give the temple ten thousand pounds.
There was also a shrine to the Tamil Tigers. It looked like a four poster bed, but with photographs and flowers. For many people around the world, the LTTE or “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” has been the most heartless, cold-blooded terrorist organisation mankind has ever known. But not here. In this temple, the pictures staring back were of martyrs: a boy who’d died in a hunger strike; pretty girls in that distinctive tiger-striped camouflage. “And these ones,” one of the worshippers told me, “were poisoned, with nerve gas.”
Copyright © 2017 by John Gimlette. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.