Suntharam Yogarajah

He survived war and violence in Sri Lanka, then rebuilt his family in Montreal
Suntharam Yogarajah
Illustration by Marian Bantjes

Suntharam Yogarajah was born in Kamparmalai, a town on the northernmost tip of Sri Lanka, on Nov. 26, 1947, to Suntharam Yogarajah, a farmer, and Vairi Muthan, a housewife. The sixth of 12 children, Suntharam’s first job was selling his father’s banana, eggplant and carrot crops in the local market. At 22, he met 18-year-old Sivapackiam Arumugam at her high school in the nearby town of Parutharai. The two were so taken with each other that they decided to marry—one of the few couples in Kamparmalai to enter into a “love marriage” rather than one arranged for them. Their first child, a girl named Vansanthy, was born in 1970. Five more children, two sons and three daughters, followed.

Tensions grew between Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers in the late ’70s. Suntharam was used to seeing men abducted off the street, never to be seen again. In 1981, two years after their daughter Tharsini was born, he answered a knock at the door to find several Sri Lankan soldiers. He convinced them to leave him be by motioning to the baby in his arms. The soldiers moved on to his neighbours’ houses, rounding up other young men and bringing them to a vacant building. The soldiers then executed them, worried they would have otherwise joined the Tigers—the rebel group that went on to fight a 26-year war with the Sri Lankan government—if they hadn’t already.

As the eldest male in the house, Suntharam felt he was in grave danger, and soon fled to Singapore for three years. He moved to Canada in 1985, part of the first wave of Tamil refugees to come to these shores. He landed in Montreal alone on Aug. 11—he always remembered the date—and settled in an apartment in the city’s Snowdon district. His first job was distributing flyers door to door; he later worked as a printer and, finally, as a supervisor for the company that produced the flyers. In 1994 he had his entire family brought to Canada to live in the same apartment block.

The intersection of Côte-Ste-Catherine Road and Victoria Street, where the family lived, was the epicentre of Montreal’s Sri Lankan and Indian communities. Suntharam, known as Yoga to his friends, came to see the advantage of the location. He opened a video rental store specializing in Indian films downstairs from their apartment and, in 2001, a grocery catering to a similar clientele next to the video store. He also opened Restaurant Tharsini, named after the daughter who probably saved his life. “He knew what he had in that spot,” his daughter Menaka says.

Suntharam was trained as a boxer, and volunteered at the Montreal Blues Sports Club, an after-school program for Indian and Sri Lankan youth. He taught cricket, shot put and running. As vice-president of the Tamil Elders’ Association of Quebec, he organized trips to Hindu temples in Toronto and Richmond, Va., as well as visits to Ottawa and Quebec City. He drew flowers on bits of paper when he didn’t have anything else to do. Restless as he was, he never fretted about his children. “All he ever asked me to do was grow my hair,” says Menaka, whose hair is quite short.

Eventually, his family grew too big for the corner, but Suntharam wanted to keep everyone together. In 2005, he bought a triplex in the nearby Park Extension neighbourhood, and moved nearly all his children and their families there. He was content save for one thing: he wanted his sons to have children to add to the brood already living in that small triplex.

In the mornings, Suntharam would often leave home before the sun rose to go to tend to the businesses he owned, and to return well after dark. On July 20, he was working in the grocery store; on the closed-circuit video, Suntharam can be seen moving boxes, taking out garbage and puttering around the place with his usual restlessness as Saruka, his daughter-in-law by his son Vasanth, operates the cash. At one point he leaves the store abruptly. According to his family, he got into an argument with a man, a regular customer, who had strewn garbage in front of the store. At 5:55, Suntharam was stabbed in front of the store on the corner of Côte-Ste-Catherine Road and Victoria Street. He was rushed to hospital but never recovered. He was 63. Saruka, the first to minister to her wounded father-in-law, found out she was pregnant exactly one week later.