by Sarah Stodder
When I step out of the rain and into the restaurant, Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran is already waiting for me. Though I’m seven minutes early, I arrive to find the exiled Sri Lankan lawyer, known to his compatriots as Rudra, sitting at a corner table and peacefully watching the deluge outside.
We’re within walking distance of several Sri Lankan restaurants, but we meet at Rudra’s suggestion at Saravanaa Bhavan, a South Indian eatery on Lexington Avenue and 26th Street. This corner of Manhattan, affectionately called “Curry Hill,” is peppered with restaurants boasting the regional cuisines of India and its neighboring countries. Saravanaa Bhavan specializes in the cuisine of Tamils, an ethnic population with large numbers in India and in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island off India’s Coromandel Coast.
Rudra is Tamil; for culinary, linguistic, and political reasons, he would prefer to eat at the Indian Saravanaa Bhavan than at a Sri Lankan place, which would serve the cuisine (and, potentially, the politics) of Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority, the Sinhalese. The minority Tamils, led by the militant separatist Tamil Tigers, fought for 26 years for an independent homeland, dubbed Tamil Eelam, in Sri Lanka’s north and east. The Tigers’ tactics, including the invention of the suicide vest, made them a formidable rebel force and landed them on over 30 countries’ terrorism lists. But the Sinhalese-run military finally ended the war in 2009 by annihilating the Tigers’ top leaders—and some 40,000 Tamil civilians, according to the UN—in a final battle around the coastal town of Mullaitivu.
Though he has lived in New York for over 30 years, Rudra has stayed intimately connected to Sri Lanka’s civil war and its ongoing aftermath. During the war, he served as a legal advisor to the Tamil Tiger boss, Vellupillai Prabhakaran. Now, he is Prime Minister of the Provisional Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), the first government of its kind in the world. Headquartered in New York, the TGTE continues to peacefully assert what the Tigers asserted violently: the right to a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka’s north and east.
I first heard of Rudra during the year I spent as a Fulbright Scholar in Trincomalee, a majority-Tamil town on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast. My Sinhalese friends saw him either as a terrorist or as the foolish figurehead of a lost cause. My Tamil friends revered him. I sat down with Rudra at Saravanaa Bhavan to learn what motivates him as Tamil Eelam’s current standard-bearer, and to try to understand what drew him, a lawyer and naturalized American citizen, to aid an organization his adopted country labels “terrorist.”
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