by Pulsara Liyanage
It is well known that a man named Samuel Clemens wrote as Mark Twain, those wonderful adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and many more, in the 19th century.
In the 21st, we still refer to the author as Mark Twain. His assumed name was a term which he had borrowed from navigating on the Mississippi in his day which in no way reflected adversely on his writing.
In the same we must not let the name Niromi de Soyza fool us that the book Tamil Tigress is not written by a Tamil, female, who as a teenager was very briefly in the armed wing of the LTTE in the mid-to-late ‘80’s. If it is the author’s wish that she be known as Niromi, Niromi, she will be for me. She is authentic.
My introduction to Tamil Tigress was in the English language press which was mostly negative criticism which queried, on many accounts, the authenticity of the writer. I am aware that the book had come under discussion in the Sinhala language media too; especially in the electronic media. Having missed those discussions, I am not aware of the content. (This is also a confession that I do not subscribe to Peo-Tv)
The series of articles written by D.B.S.Jeyaraj (available at dbsjeyaraj.com) on Niromi, From Shenuka to Niromi; True tale of a Tamil tigress proved that Niromi, whom Mr. Jeyaraj prefers to call ‘Sharmila” and her tale were real by tracing her families’ history and collecting information on the author herself through his own excellent contacts in Jaffna and elsewhere.
In order to read Tamil Tigress I had to order the book on the net and it was posted to me from India. The book now has an Indian publisher, Mehta Publishing House, but is still not available with Sri Lankan book-sellers. This is a shame. There is no censorship on the book, yet our book-sellers are fighting shy of making it available to the local reader. An alarming self-censorship!
Tamil Tigress is very well written. The Australian Arts Council was very correct in tagging it as a book “You Can’t Put Down”. Since Mr. Jeyaraj’s articles have answered the many charges brought against the book and its writer from academics to journalists, I do not need to discuss any of that. Nor am I competent to comment either on the use of the Tamil language or the sociology and geography of Jaffna.
Niromi writes of a moment in our own, contemporary history from the inside, albeit the periphery. I enjoyed reading the book very much. In certain episodes Tamil Tigress recalled to memory another book written on a very different revolution by a revolutionary at the time: Omar Cabezas’ Fire from the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista. Niromi’s book reminded me of the different radicalization processes of those of my generation including my own.
As Niromi so simply writes her story of over two decades and many traumatic experiences later, it is easy to understand her journey into the LTTE. It was not only romantic idealism of youth that propelled her voluntarily to join that political organization. She was also a spirited child and sensitive to the pain of others. The scenes at hill country railway stations that she describes so well having witnessed them as a little child, would indeed have been very disturbing to her. From there she awakens to a realization that she herself is Tamil and others like her lived in fear among the majority Sinhala people. Along with the awareness of her ethnic identity her parents decided to relocate her with her paternal grandmother in Jaffna.
The alienation of a middle class, westernized young girl in conservative Jaffna is also an important factor in her radicalization. The only place of refuge for her, who loved reading, was the Library. Indeed the Jaffna Public Library was not only a refuge for one alienated young girl, but the very heart-beat for the young, the studious, the bright and the intelligentsia of Jaffna. When this library was burnt down the youth was left with only anger and frustration. Niromi says it as it was; in just these words.
The incidents of July ’83 are dealt with in Chapter 3. She writes of the news reaching Jaffna and its effect there. Niromi’s family and their neighbours did not have bread that day. The bakery was shut since the family had fled Jaffna. The neighbourhood baker, the author says, was Sinhalese and all the Sinhalese had left Jaffna. Some of us met a few of these Sinhala families who were sheltered at D.S.Senanayake College in Colombo. When we met them there were only a couple of families still left at the shelter. The others had gone to their former villages where some of their relatives still lived. The few we met had nowhere to go since their relatives had left the villages too.
According to them, many Sinhalese were afraid to stay in Jaffna because the Tamils were harmed in Colombo and they feared retaliations against them. At this point none of the families had been harmed.Many Tamil people had begged them not to leave saying they will protect them. But the Army had insisted that they must leave Jaffna for their own safety and provided them with transport and escort. The author speaks of the ethnic cleansing committed later by the LTTE which included the Muslim people as well as the Sinhalese.
July ’83 changed life for all of us: same as for Niromi. The book briefly deals with the attack on the Tamil prisoners at Welikada. I remember the murder of Dr. Rajasundaram who was in prison having been the head of the Gandhiyam Movement in Vavuniya. Douglas Devananda who was also in prison at the time was able to save the lives of several by preventing the door of their cell being broken down. But Dr. Rajasundaram had attempted to reason out with the attackers in Sinhala. The ambush of a convoy of 13 soldiers in close proximity to the Jaffna University was the spark that lit the fires in Colombo. It was also found that the bodies of the soldiers had been mutilated.
One step in the “humanising” of the war was the exchange of bodies after battle between the Army and the LTTE. I remember the photograph that was published in an English language news paper at the time of Capt. Jayantha Kotelawela and Kittu of the LTTE shaking hands after handing over the bodies to each side. Niromi mistakenly mentions it as a prisoner exchange. It was not so. Seeing the photograph I was proud of Jayantha doing the right thing since he was a childhood friend. The book mentions ‘the unusual friendship’ between Jayantha and Kittu. The author awards it to a mutual admiration of each other. There was a sort of a ‘friendship’ between Raheem and Jayantha as well. I never had the opportunity to talk to Jayantha about these.
I find the writer in her innocence being extremely truthful about an organization once rated as the world’s deadliest. She is truthful about the wanton violence of the LTTE against those of their own organization and ethnicity, members of other Tamil movements as well as unarmed civilians. In fact the major part of the Tamil Tigress is a damning critique of the LTTE and the policies of its leadership. In several sections of the book the writer describes the encounters of the youthful militants with the ordinary Tamil people of the North. In one instance the people gave these hungry militants some food because they felt sorry for their children but insisted they leave the village, sometimes even chased them out.
Why did a young and spirited girl who was westernized and from the middle class join with the LTTE? That was because the LTTE was seen as the most ‘successful’ of the movements. Success was measured in terms of ‘operations’ against the enemy, Sri Lanka Army. The arguments among the girls in the author’s class at the Convent on the popularity of the groups each preferred, give the reasons for their admiration.
Yet another reason was that these passionate young people did not have knowledge of politics nor did they think it was important to also be armed with knowledge. This was the tragedy in the South as well as the North. It must not be forgotten that there were young people who joined the less ‘successful’ Left/Marxist movements in the North. Many of these youth have been assassinated by the LTTE. I wish the few individuals who survive will write their stories too. For those will be an example and an inspiration for generations to come on how not to succumb to the ‘attraction’ of the moment.
Every one of us also has a version of the author’s Uncle Ratnam who initiates us into the socio-political realization of ethnicity which is a recreation of the ethnic polarization into the next generation.
The adolescent attraction between the author and Roshan weaves a redeeming feature throughout the book amidst all of the negative human characteristics the tale lays bare.
Only a person who has actually been in a movement will be able to relate the realities of life in the ‘underground’ or in battle. It is such descriptions in the Tamil Tigress that reminded me of Fire from the Mountain; the several days one had to endure without the luxury of a bath or the lack of fresh underwear, etc. Somehow these are more difficult to bear for a middle class kid than the shortage of food or water.
Tamil Tigress is a book that must be read in Sri Lanka. It is also a book that needs to be translated into Sinhala and Tamil.
The organisers of the Galle Literary Festival should invite the author of the Tamil Tigress for their festival next year.
Thank you Niromi for that beautiful tale. Hope to see you in Galle! courtesy: Sunday Island