by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
“Tamil Tigress” is a 320 page book released this year by the Australia –based publishing house, Allen& Unwin. The book has a picture of an armed female guerilla fighter on the cover along with the strap line “My story as a child soldier in Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war”. It is written by a former member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)under the pseudonym Niromi de Soyza.
The book has reportedly made quite a splash in Australia and New Zealand where it is available at book shops. The Australian Ministry for the Arts and the Australian Arts council have selected it for their 2011 “Get Reading! Campaign” as one of the 50 Books “You Can’t Put Down”! It is earmarked for a second edition soon and is likely to be distributed world-wide.
While the book has been enjoying brisk sales the author herself has been the subject of interviews by Radio, TV, journals and newspapers. She has also addressed breakfast meetings, seminars and public discussions. Some see the author being gradually turned into a minor celebrity.
Many reasons may be attributed for the book’s success, down under, at this point of time.
Firstly there is wide interest over Sri Lanka within mainstream Australia right now. Earlier Australia’s predominant interest in Sri Lanka was whether our Murali was a chucker or not or whether Murali will overtake Shane Warne in wicket taking. But currently this interest has extended beyond Cricket.
Large numbers of asylum seekers are arriving in ships seeking refuge. If the war is over in Sri Lanka then why are there refugees now? is a question puzzling many Aussies. Hence there is an urge to know more.
This curiosity has further increased due to the release of a controversial book on Sri Lanka by another Australian Gordon Weiss who served in Sri Lanka during the war years as an UN official.Weiss has written about his experiences in a book named” The Cage:The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers”. This book and the screening by Four Corners of a documentary”Sri Lanka:The Killing Fields” made by British Channel 4 TV has whetted the Aussie appetite for further information about Sri Lanka.
In that respect the “Tamil Tigress” provides information and insight into a hitherto uncharted area. This is the first time that a former member of the LTTE has written a book in English based on his or her experience in the movement. This pioneering effort is of tremendous significance as it gives the reader a glimpse of the Sri Lankan past from a uniquely different perspective.
The book also makes a fascinating read. It is written dramatically and incisively from a first person’s point of view and grips the readers attention from the first chapter. The narrative is tight and the narration racy. It is primarily written for a “non-South Asian” audience and transports the reader to another place and another time. It is indeed “unputdownable”.
“Tamil tigress” is also a tale of negated idealism and lost innocence. It is about a girl in her teens who joins the LTTE willingly in a spirit of romantic idealism and then gets disillusioned as realization dawns through experiencing bitter reality.
The book is also a personal story of redemption and renaissance as the protagonist quits the movement, reunites with her family, seeks safety abroad and relocates finally to Australia. She forges a new life for herself in her land of adoption where she gains post-graduate qualifications and becomes a lecturer. She also marries and is the mother of two daughters.
It is a classic immigrant success story that makes countries such as Australia proud. In this case the “new immigrant”is one who has turned around her child soldier past and is now courageous enough to write about it openly and lucidly. This is a welcome feature. The author’s sophisticated appearance and suave articulation enhances this appeal.
These are the reasons then for the book’s impact and success. This success and fame have evoked a negative reaction too. There is a school of thought within some Sri Lankans and those of Sri Lankan origin that the author bearing the nom –de –plume “Niromi de Soyza” is not whom she claims to be.
This school of thought comprising Academics, researchers,writers and journalists evince doubts that the author had at any time been a “Tamil tigress” as she claims to be in her book. They point out some alleged mistakes, errors and discrepancies in her book and on that basis cast aspersions on her authenticity. “Fake tigress” and “counterfeit guerilla” are some of the expressions used to denigrate her.
Then there are the “conspiracy” theorists. This is a breed that flourishes in Sri Lanka and elsewhere among those with a Lankan connection. The timing of the book release and some of the alleged errors in the book are perceived as being part of a deep-seated international conspiracy to undermine Sri Lanka. The “Tamil Tigress” author had an unpleasant experience in Melbourne a few months ago while signing copies of her book when some “patriots” mobbed her and called her a “fake tigress”.
Some others have a different take on this. They allege that the book is a literary forgery with an ulterior motive. The see it as a ruse by sections of the LTTE and pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora to garner funds for the tigers. In that process, unfair, unsubstantiated charges have been made against a respectable organization engaged in worthwhile activities to better the life of affected people in Sri Lanka.
The only reason why these charges are being laid is due to the fact that the author of “Tamil tigress” has pledged publicly to donate part of the proceeds from sale of her book to the work of this organization. The organization concerned has issued rebuttals to these charges.
The “Tamil tigress” author however has not responded to the many accusations against her. This silence baffles many.
This deliberate silence to me is quite understandable. There is indeed no reason that she should respond to these accusations. If one were to start responding to charges such as these there would be no end to it. Besides it would be demeaning for any self-respecting author to reply critics who doubt her very existential reality.
Some of these critics are known to me personally and I do respect a few of them for their scholarship and merit but I would not blame the author if she suspects these critics or some of them to be part of an orchestrated campaign to denigrate her. Whatever their individual motivation, these critics like the assassins of Julius Caesar seem to have “drawn their knives separately and struck jointly”. Indeed the venom and intensity sustained by at least one of the critics makes one suspect a hidden agenda in this exercise.
Moreover the charges themselves do not seem to be grounded on sound basis. Mistaking is not faking. Blunders and errors of minor detail are signs of sloppiness not fraudulence. The discrepancies and doubts pointed out do not in anyway affect the structure and content of her book. They are not basic or fundamental mistakes that drastically alter the scope and scale of what has been stated.
It must also be remembered that a memoir like “Tamil Tigress” is not an auto-biography where meticulous attention needs to be paid to every point or fact mentioned. Accuracy is essential in a historical account. This is not so in a memoir. In this case the book seems to be of a mixed genre. It is in memoir format with characteristics of a realist novel.
However there is no denying that if there is indeed a credible challenge regarding an author’s identity or authenticity then there is an obligation on the part of those challenged to clear their name. In this instance I do not think there is a credible challenge because the challengers are yet to present strong evidence in support of their charges.
There is also another dimension. The author has said openly that the name Niromi de Soyza is a pseudonym. Her real name is something else. If she reveals her name and more personal details explicitly much of the criticism would lose vigour. She is however unwilling or unable to reveal her real name.
This could be to maintain the privacy of the author and her loved ones. It could also be due to concern for the safety of family, relatives, friends etc. This may be the reason for her using different names for some of the characters and places in her book. Whether this device would help her in the long run is debatable but her intentions in this need to be respected.
Undoubtedly this stance places the author at a disadvantage. While some of her critics try to goad her into divulging her identity and more details the author remains silent. This silence lends credence to the charges of “fake” and “counterfeit” in the eyes of the average reader. The author of “Tamil tigress” is as vulnerable as a wounded tigress surrounded by a hyena pack.
It is against this backdrop that I want to write about this “Tamil tigress” author. My intention is not to write a review of her book or examine the charges of “fake,forgery or fabrication”leveled against her. I do not want to analyse and dissect the allegations and accusations concerning her book and argue for or against or even remain neutral.
This is because I know with certainty that she is the genuine article and not counterfeit as alleged by her detractors. Her nom de guerre in the LTTE was Shenuka!
When I know that she is truly a real person and has indeed experienced what she states in her book there is no need for me to delve into the criticism of her book.Incidently some of these charges are now translated into Tamil and is fuelling another controversy in the Tamil media.
The famous French Film director Jean – Luc Godard who along with some like minded “auteurs”pioneered the new wave in French cinema made in 1967 a masterpiece “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle).
As far as the author of “Tamil Tigress” is concerned there are not two or three , but many,many things that I know about her. Also I know people who know more things about her like family members, relatives, neighbours, classmates, schoolmates, colleagues and erstwhile comrades at arms.
Moreover I am also familiar with the time in which the bulk of her narrative is set in.Also with many of the places, persons and events she describes so vividly in her book.
I have been covering the so called “war” for decades and have frequently visited the north during those times. I lived in Jaffna for many months while working as Deputy –editor of “The Saturday Review” in 1986. I was also in Jaffna when the war erupted between the Indian Army and LTTE on October 10th 1987. I was arrested and detained at the 4th floor and later produced in courts due to my reporting on that outbreak of war.
It is that context in which I want to focus on the author of “Tamil Tigress” in this column. I want to write her story so that people realize she is not fake or counterfeit as charged. I hope to set the record straight about her to the best of my knowledge.
While writing what I know about her and about some events of the past I also hope to provide some background and context to an era when Tamil youths flocked to the militant movements to fight for the lofty goal of national liberation.Niromi de Soyza is a pseudonym or nom de plume adopted by the author of “Tamil tigress”. Niromi is the name of an old schoolfriend and a name she liked. De Soyza is for Richard de Zoysa, the well-known journalist, TV announcer,screen and stage actor who was abducted and killed by “state terrorists” in February 1990.
Richard was immensely popular in Jaffna those days as a TV Personality. So his dastardly murder was a shock to the author .Selecting Richard’s name as her nom de plume was both a tribute to his memory and a manifestation of solidarity with media persons victimized by state terror. Richard’s name was a symbolic choice.
This choice of pseudonym too is viewed with suspicion in some circles. Although de Soyza is Portugese in origin it is perceived as a Sinhala name in Sri Lanka. So, some see it as a diabolical ruse by a Tamil woman writing under a Sinhala name while others suspect a Sinhala woman of pretending to be an ex –Tamil tigress.
So what then is her real name? Who is this person whose nom de guerre in a previous avatar as a militant was “Shenuka” and her nom de plume in her new avatar as author is “Niromi”?Much as I would like to reveal her full name publicly and dispel doubts about her identity, I do not want to do so at this juncture due to a constraining factor.
Rightly or wrongly the author of “Tamil Tigress” has certain reasons for not divulging her real name. Even if one diagrees or agrees with her reasons one must respect her position on this. In my code of ethics exposing her name against her wishes is simply “not done”to use a phrase that is now going out of vogue in language and in conduct. Until and unless “Shenuka-Niromi” is ready and willing , her real name will not be disclosed by me. I do think that the disclosure of her full name would be inevitable at some point of time.That decision is entirely up to her.
Let me be a tad facetious here and play a word game supplying a few clues. She has three names in all. Her first name is of North Indian origin but widely used by Tamils.;the second is of Irish origin but widely used by the English, Scottish and Welsh people. The third or maiden name which is her father’s, is a Sanskritised Tamil name.
I have coined a name that has the first letters of all three names – “Sharmila”. It is by this name that I intend referring to her in this article up to the time she teamed up with the tigers. In the meantime if anyone wants to guess her real name in full then please be my guest!
The “Tamil Tigress” author called “Sharmila” was born in Kandy in the Central Highlands some weeks before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in what was described by him as a “small step for a man” and “giant leap for mankind”.
“Sharmila” was the eldest of two daughters. The second is younger by three years and is referred to in the book as “Shiranee”.
Her father is an “Ilangaithamizhan”(Sri Lankan Tamil)of Jaffna while her mother is an “Inthiya vamsaavazhithamizhachchi”( Tamil woman of Indian descent)from the up country.The father is a Catholic and old student of St.Patricks College in Jaffna. Her mother was a Hindu who converted to Christianity after marriage. Incidently both her paternal and maternal grandfathers had been station masters in the Railway department.
The father who is an engineer worked at the Electricity board for many years and was stationed in up country areas. It was then that he met and fell in love with “Sharmila”s mother who was then working in a Govt department.Later she took to teaching.
The family moved from place to place living in different houses at different times.While they were living in Dunbar Road, Hatton “Sharmila” studied at St.Gabriels.
After the 1977 anti-Tamil violence the parents decided to send the eldest daughter to Jaffna for studies in 1978. She stayed with her grandmother at 3rd cross street in Jaffna town. Her father’s family was originally from Veemankaamam in Thellippazzhai but was residing in Jaffna town
After a while her father opted to seek lucrative employment abroad. He went to Dubai. The mother and sister then relocated to Jaffna. They left the 3rd cross street residence and moved to 4th cross street. Later they moved to a house in Rakka lane, Jaffna.
“Sharmila” studied for some years at the Holy Family convent in Jaffna. Later she moved to Chundikuli Girls College, Jaffna. After passing her General Certificate of Education (GCE)Ordinary level examination with four distinctions and four credits she began following Bio-Science subjects (Botany, Zoology, Chemistry,Physics) for the GCE (Advaned Level) classes She did not complete her A-levels as she later joined the tigers.
Jaffna then was in a state of semi-liberation. The armed forces were more or less confined to barracks and the Police had ceased functioning. The various militant groups were in “control”. The danger was from artillery shelling and aerial bombardment and strafing. On ground the different Tamil groups were ruling the roost. The LTTE was the dominant entity among these.
The LTTE had a student organization then called SOLT(Student Organization of Liberation Tigers). The person in charge of it in Jaffna was Murali also called “Kaliviyankaadu Murali” because the SOLT head office was in Kalviyankaadu.
Murali whose real name was Veluppillai Ratnasingham was born in Aavarankaal on October 10th 1957. As head of the students organization Murali interacted with University, Technical College and College students.
Since there was freedom of movement and easy access ,Murali and other SOLT operatives used to visit various schools and Colleges and address students. This was aimed at enticing potential recruits for the LTTE. The tigers then did not conscript or forcibly recruit but wooed students through systematic propaganda
One day Murali himself came to Chundikuli Girls College and addressed Students. The school was regarded as an elite institution in Jaffna somewhat similar to Ladies and Bishops Colleges in Colombo. Getting “Chundikkulip pettaigal” (Chundikkuli girls)into the movement would have been a prized feather in Murali’s cap.
After listening to Murali’s rousing speech four students from the Advanced level class volunteered to join the LTTE student organization. This apparently was a first for “Chundikkuli” as the school was generally referred to. This was in mid -1986
Among the four were “Sharmila” and her classmate and best pal Ajanthi (real name). Both were inseparable friends having studied together at the Convent and then shifting to Chundikuli Girls College. Ajanthi’s family living on Swartz Lane,Jaffna was also Catholic. Hailing from Mullaitheevu district they had lived in Colombo for years before moving to Jaffna. Ajanthi’s father like her friend’s father was an old Patrician.
If I may strike a personal note I too was living on Swartz lane around this time in 1986. I was then working at “The Saturday Review” housed at 4th cross street and living at my friend “Raga”s house on Swartz lane.When thinking of the atmosphere and mood that prevailed in Jaffna then, one can easily understand why youths and students attached themselves to the various Tamil militant organizations.
In the case of “Sharmila” and her friend Ajanthi it was initially a feeling of romantic idealism and perhaps adventurism that impelled them to join the SOLT. After engaging with SOLT as student activists for a while they came under the sway of Rasiah Parthiban alias Thileepan who was then the chief LTTE Political commissar for Jaffna district. Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias Kittu was the LTTE military commander and overall chief for Jaffna.
The woman’s division of the LTTE political wing was called the “Suthanthirapparavaigal” or “Birds of freedom”. This was because they published a monthly journal by that name.
The woman’s division of the political wing was a brainchild of Thileepan who was also referred to jovially as “Amirthalingam” by fellow cadres. This was because there existed within the highly militaristic organization like LTTE, a contemptuous attitude towards democratic politics and politicians.
Thileepan and the political wing were the butts of several intra-LTTE jokes as a result, Dubbing Thileepan as “Amirthalingam” was one such joke as Appapillai Amirthalingam , Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) secretary-general and former opposition leader was the foremost Tamil politician of that time.
The author of “Tamil Tigress” used to write Tamil poetry and quite a few of her poems were published in “Suthanthirapparavai” and also the daily “Eezhamurasu” that had been misappropriated through force by the LTTE
After about a year of working as an activist in the Student and Women outfits both friends decided to join the LTTE formally and obtain military training. What influenced them in this was “Operation Liberation” launched by the Sri Lankan armed forces to regain control of areas in the Vadamaratchy region in Jaffna.
Upon being accepted as military trainees both girls quit studies and went to a camp in Thenmaratchy region for arms training.They were given the option of choosing their nom de guerres. Ajanthi chose her mother’s name Nirmala while”Sharmila” chose Shenuka.Unfortunately most of her comrades mispronounced the name as “Saenuhaa”.
Both girs in their teens were technically “child soldiers”.It was as a fresh recruit of the first batch of “tigresses”to receive military training in Jaffna that Shenuka got an opportunity of meeting ,one to one, the LTTE supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran.
TO BE CONTINUED
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org