Living on an island off an island

If Delft makes it to headlines, is it likely that the Sri Lankan Navy has apprehended trespassing Indian fishermen off the tiny island, an oft-seen reference to the place. A little over an hour’s boat-ride away from Pungudutheevu, some 30 km west of Jaffna peninsula, Neduntheevu or Delft, named after the Dutch city, is a small, oval-shaped patch of land in the Palk Bay that is home to nearly 4,000 people.

“If you come at 7 am, I can show you Rameswaram from here. The view is clear,” Subramaniam Natarasa, a tour guide-cum-three-wheeler driver, said, after parking his vehicle at the western tip of the island. The afternoon sun had bleached the sea white, resulting in a glare so harsh that we could not see anything, let alone Rameswaram. Perhaps it was this proximity that prompted scores of Tamils living in Delft to go to India during the three decades of Sri Lankan civil war. Most residents seem to have left in the early 1990s and returned in the early 2000s, while a few got back after the war ended in 2009.

Mr. Natarasa himself spent a couple of decades in and around Tiruchi. Though not in the theatre of war for most part, the intense shelling in nearby Jaffna cut supplies to this island, which still relies heavily on Jaffna town for essentials, including rice, dal and fuel. And that comes with a significant additional cost. Petrol sold at LKR 117 (approximately ₹50) a litre in Jaffna and is priced at LKR 140 (₹59) in Delft, Mr. Natarasa complained, pointing to the costs of living, heightened by poor access and connectivity.

Taking an impromptu eecham pazham break, he stopped midway to show this writer the wine-coloured fruit bunches hanging from short, palm-like bushes. Found in plenty, the fruit is muted in its sweetness, allowing only a tinge of tartness. The limited ferry service — despite the recent addition of Neduntharakai, a larger motor boat — is overburdened with residents and tourists. The Navy is actively involved in operating the services, and tries privileging locals over tourists.

The journey is anything but pleasant during the day. A scorching sun above, a wobbly sea and the constant smell of fuel from the boat’s engine make for an uneasy combination for the readily seasick. But for many from Delft, who work in Jaffna town, two such trips are an inevitable part of their daily routine.

For tourists, however, the one-off journey leads to one of the remotest parts of the island, with an assortment of Colonial era remnants from the time of the Portuguese, Dutch and British, dating a few centuries back — like the wild ponies which are a huge draw even as they graze virtually barren land, looking malnourished. Or the ruins of the fort, the surviving pigeon house or the lone African baobab tree. Reflecting the coral-rich sea surrounding it, the island sports long walls made of dry coral, coated with layers of dust from the sandy roads that criss-cross the 50 sq. km the island spans.

Options outside

Most of the locals are engaged in fisheries and toddy tapping that have sustained the island, but the younger generation is now forced to consider options outside, islanders noted with concern. Neither fisheries nor the palmyra sector is lucrative any more, with the fishers badly hit by the Indian and local trawlers, and the toddy tappers unable to market their produce. “Some of those people have also started fishing now,” Mr. Natarasa complained, casually reflecting a strong caste bias that has not spared even this small territory.

The extent of differences within Delft society may be harder to spot in the first visit. But a prolonged neglect is clearly visible in every nook and corner of this island off an island.

Meera Srinivasan writes for The Hindu and is based in Colombo.

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