|Life in the war zone
by Namini Wijedasa in Mannar
But the man notices none of this, perhaps because he cannot afford any better. To him, the modest contraption is his livelihood and feeds a family of six which has only just sprouted roots in Mannar after being displaced by war more than ten years ago.
S.N.J. Antoninus is a 56-year-old "street typist". In a town where permits and licences are a culture, he offers to hammer out all sorts of documents on his typewriter for mere Rs. 30: route permits, residential passes, police entry forms, guarantee letters, cement passes, compensation letters, and so on. The cost may vary according to the type of form.
There are at least five other typists installed near the bus stand, most of them pensioners making a living out of the strict security arrangements imposed by police and army. Anyone needing a permit is directed by Mannar residents to "that road near the kachcheri... near the kohomba trees." Even the police, when asked where to obtain this or that form, will tell you that "there are people in the town with typewriters... anyone can direct you." The police or another competent authority must ulitmately sign those forms to make them valid.
Residents commented that these street typists were a feature unique to Mannar, where one needs permission for almost everything. Movement of persons and goods is, in particular, strictly controlled and monitored.
"You want permit? What permit?" Antoninus inquires while busily drawing out paper from a plastic basket on the ground and inserting carbon sheets to produce the mandatory four copies of each document. Theyre not very good specimens. Antoninus is rather careless over spellings and the unreliability of his typewriter means that the sentences are sometimes hopelessly crooked. But they do the job.
Antoninus, a Roman Catholic, has four children. His eldest is a woman of 30 while the youngest is a 17-year-old boy studying for his advanced level examination at a school in Mannar. The family originally lived in Uyilankulam on the Vavuniya-Mannar road where Antoninus, the sole breadwinner, was working at the area sub-post office. "Government servant," he noted. He communicates well, though he speaks English haltingly.
Their lives were disturbed in 1991 when fighting broke out between the army and LTTE. Antoninus and his family fled to Madhu, walking most of the way. Asked to describe life at Madhu where many displaced persons had camped, he grimaces. "Very difficult," he says, managing to sound eloquent even within his limited vocabulary.
In 1997, Antoninus moved his family to Mannar island. "No income there (Madhu)," he explained. "I came... find work here." The post he had held at Uyilankulam had been non-pensionable at the time. Shortly after shifting, he noticed the potential in the field of permits and approval papers and purchased his typewriter for a sum of Rs. 3,500.
Today, he earns about Rs. 300 a day but said that this amount varies according to demand. "Cant say," he explained, pulling out a completed route licence from the typewriter and pinning the four sheets together. "Sometimes 10 to 15 forms a day."
Life is not easy. The whole family lives in a house which has just two rooms and the years of displacement has left them with a feeling of insecurity. But Antoninus opted to reserve his opinion on the war which has hit his family so badly. "Cant say," he repeated, characteristically brief..
It is evident that not all the typists scattered on that street in Mannar are from the same social class or background. Sinthathurai, who has set up his typewriter near Antoninus, said proudly that he was a Justice of the Peace who had contested the last parliamentary election on the Tamil United Liberation Front list. He lost the bid to enter parliament but he did not give up his work, one which he has practised for the past five or six years.
"Its just a past-time," he stressed in careful, measured English. "I dont do this because I have a wish to take money from these people. I do it as a service. It also helps me to meet my small expenses." His main income was his pension, he explained.
Sinthathurai retired in 1988 as staff assistant of the Mannar kachcheri. He has a wife and three children. Two of his daughters are married and his son is in university at Peradeniya. He was more articulate than Antoninus and much luckier where the instrument of his trade was concerned. "I bought it for 10,000 rupees from someone who returned from abroad," he explained, gesturing toward the well-maintained contraption. It even had its own custom-made case.
Asked how he could speak English so well, Sinthathurai explained that he had been educated in Jaffna and Mannar and that he had also been in the government service for at least 30 years. He had been displaced by war twice, he said. Both times, in 1990 and 1995, he left his home near the Mannar stadium and fled to India. "When I came back, everything was stolen from my house... it was ransacked," he said, the frustration still showing on his face. "And we didnt even have a pot to boil water and make tea."
Sinthathurai is proud of his abilities and slightly contemptuous of the other street-typists, commenting that they "dont even know English." He did this work only when he felt like it, he explained.
The man had open and critical views about the war. He lamented that people in Mannar are restrained and restricted in many ways due to security measures of the army and police. He commented specifically about the ceiling on fishing hours. "In other countrys fishermen go where the fish are," he lamented. "It is only in Sri Lanka that the fish have to come to the fishermen at the right time." He adjusted the paper he had inserted into his typewriter and started to punch at the keys in a professional manner. His customers were an old woman and a grandson requiring "day passes".
In the distance, Antoninus had enlisted the help of his young son to move his desk, stool and typewriter to the opposite side of the lane. The sun had shifted and was beating down mercilessly on his former spot.
He completed the alteration and settled on the shaky stool, placing his crossed arms on the wall behind him. Slowly, he looked up and down the street, waiting for the next permit to come along.
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