True tale of a Tamil Tigress-4
After joining the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) formally the two friends Shenuka and Nirmala were lodged at the house of a widowed mother of three daughters by senior tiger leader Murali. This lady was an aunt of Bharathan Rajanayagam who was then in charge of the LTTE ‘s TV and photographic unit.
Bharathan’s father Rajanayagam master was a respected progressive citizen of Jaffna. I have been to his house in Thirunelvely a few times in 1986 to visit HN Fernando the teachers trade union activist and brother in law of former JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera.HN was a friend and one of my earliest contacts from the time I was a reporter on the Tamil daily “Virakesari”.
Comrade HN had fled Colombo to escape the Jayewardena Govt crackdown and was staying with the Rajanayagam family.
Those were interesting times when Sinhala progressives fearing the UNP regime found a safe haven in “semi-liberated”Jaffna. Tragically in 1987 this situation changed and many Sinhalese in Jaffna were killed by the LTTE in revenge for the deaths of 12 tigers including Kumarappa,Pulenthiran, Nalan and Abdullah.But HN and other Southern progressives had moved back then due to the peace ushered in by the Indo-Lanka accord.
Bharathan’s family was highly politicized. One of his sisters Kunthavai too was a member of the LTTE “Freedom Birds” .His brother Bharathi is a well –known Journalist in the Tamil media. Bharathan’s aunt in whose house Shenuka and Nirmala were staying had three daughters. Two of them bearing the noms de guerre “Chithra and Ruby” were members of the LTTE women’s wing “Suthanthirapparavaigal”(Birds of Freedom) and obtained arms training.
Meanwhile the families of both Shenuka and Nirmala were shattered by the news.Girls of their family background joining the LTTE was something new then and this development was something sensational in the circles they moved in.Many sympathized while some gossiped that the girls had “eloped”. Shenukas father working in the middle-east was informed but he could not suddenly take leave and come to Sri Lanka due to contractual obligations.
Interestingly one of the first to meet the two girls and lash out angrily for having joined the LTTE was “Razaak” who was an uncle of a classmate of the two girls at Chundikuli Girls College.Despite being a tiger himself ,Razaak wanted the girls whom he knew well through his niece to quit and return to normal life. But the two girls starry-eyed with the dream of Eelam refused and managed to get him to convey a message to their families.
The girls had not brought any spare clothes or extra under garments or toilet accessories. They had simply dropped everything and just come away. Shenuka being a bookworm had only brought some of her books along. While this was proof of their unbridled enthusiasm it was also a manifestation of their naïve, romantic idealism.
So Razaak informed their families and brought back some clothes, under garments and toilet accessories.The two mothers however rushed to the LTTE main office near the Jaffna University to meet their daughters. They were allowed to do so. In later years the LTTE would not permit new recruits to immediately meet families.They could meet only after training was over.
But in this case the LTTE in 1987 seems to have been very lenient and easy going. The mothers of Nirmala and Shenuka were allowed frequent visits to see their daughters. The meetings would take place at the LTTE main office opposite the Varsity. Cadres would fetch the two girls living in close proximity to the office. Despite maternal pleading both daughters had refused firmly to return. So the meetings became simple conversations although the reflection of sorrow in the eyes of the two mothers was clearly discernible.
It appears that the LTTE leaders of the time were somewhat reluctant to tear these two girls away from their doting families and absorb them into the LTTE as armed fighters. These daily family meetings were encouraged perhaps to discourage the new tigress recruits.
It may also have been a test to gauge the extent of their commitment and resolve. Shenuka and Nirmala in spite of the many meetings did not waver or falter.After some days these meetings ended as the girls were relocated elsewhere. Perhaps they had passed the “test” with flying colours.
During the preliminary phase of her “tigress” life Shenuka as was her nature used to ask many questions some of them rather irreverent. She was soon put in her place by Thileepan and Murali. Shenuka was told that she was now in a militant organization and subject to military discipline. She was not supposed to raise questions but simply obey orders unquestioningly. Like Tennyson’s “light brigade” hers was “not to reason why “but simply “do or die”.
It was during their stay with Bharathan’s aunt that the two SOLT (Students organization of Liberation Tigers)members interacted closely with the “Birds of Freedom” women’s division of the LTTE political wing. The “freedom Birds” co-founder and head was the be-spectacled ,matronly Gayathri known as Gayathri Akka to the girls.
Both Shenuka and Nirmala met and made new friends through their interaction with other members of “Freedom Birds” many of whom were on the waiting list for arms training. Among these new friends and comrades were Gayathri Akka,Chitra,Ruby,Mithila, Bamini and Kunthavai who was Bharathan’s sister. Both Nirmala and Shenuka were referred to by others as the “SOLT Pettaigal” (girls from SOLT)
One of the main duties of these Birds of freedom was to cook food,wrap food parcels and deliver them to LTTE cadres manning various sentry points. The food was generally puttu (pittu) and Paruppu(dhal) or Soru(rice) and payithangaai (snake beans). The parcels were delivered to sentry points at 11 am (breakfast)4pm (lunch) and 10 pm (dinner).
Apparently Shenuka who had shunned cooking at home because of her self-perception as Bharathiyar’s “Puthumaippenn”(nouveau woman)hated these tasks.The freedom birds were also given basic training in administering first-aid.
It was during this time that LTTE political commissar for Jaffna Rasiah Parthiban alias Thileepan who was in overall charge of the Birds of Freedom inducted Shenuka into the editorial board of the monthly journal “Suthanthirapparavaigal”. Apart from editorial duties she was asked to write poems for the magazine.Thileepan knew that the “Tamil Tigress” author had a flair for writing poetry.As a student at Holy Family Convent (HFC)she had won awards for poetry in 1984 and 85 and also won a Jaffna district competition for Tamil poetry in 1985. She had also won a poetry award at Chundikuli Girls College(CGC) and published her poem in the College magazine.
Shenuka had also maintained a crimson coloured notebook in which she inscribed her poems.Later this book assumed a life of its own.One of her relatives “Ravi Anna” was a medic in the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF)known as “Dr.Benjamin”. In 1986 December he had borrowed the book from her to read. Shortly afterwards the LTTE launched a fratricidal onslaught on the EPRLF.
“Benjamin” was also detained by the LTTE. Sadly he was among the scores of detenues executed in cold blood by LTTE senior commander Aruna in 1987. Aruna had gone berserk after an attack on his close friend, former Jaffna commander Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias Kittu. He had mowed down these members of rival groups being held under LTTE detention.
The red poetry book was seized by the LTTE from Benjamin. It was not returned to the author but kept in the LTTE media office. The author of “Tamil Tigress” as a student used to write heroic poems and drop them off in the LTTE complaints/suggestions boxes. The tigers were extremely curious about the mystery poet but were unable to find out the true identity. But now with the book in their possession the tigers were able to compare the mystery poems written in beautiful handwriting and discover the truth.
But the saga of the red book of poetry did not end there. When hostilities broke out between the Indian army and the tigers the LTTE media office was raided by the IPKF and among the material seized was the poetry book. The Indian army then came to Shenuka’s house on Rakka lane and interrogated the family. Her sister was asked to read and translate the poems into English.
It later transpired that the Indian army officer who asked the sister to translate was a Tamil by ethnicity. He later revealed he was a Tamil and that he could understand the meaning of the poetry very well. He praised the quality of the poems and said they helped make him realize the sense of oppression felt by Tamils and the reasons for their taking up arms. The poetry book was taken away by the Indian officer and may perhaps be in his possession still.
Shenuka’s creative impulses continued even after she lost the red book. She had now started writing poems in an ordinary exercise book. She wrote even during her arms training period and during the fighting with the Indian army. Once again she lost the poetry book on December 1st 1987 to the Indian army after a raid on the place she was hiding in with her comrades. What happened to the poetry book is unknown. But she stopped writing Tamil poems after that.
So it seems obvious that Thileepan got her to write poems for “Suthanthirapparavaigal” magazine with full knowledge of her creative talent. During her short stint at the editorial board she wrote three poems for the magazine.Two were published under her nom de guerre Shenuka and one as Nirmala ,her friend Ajanthi’s nom de guerre.
Two of Shenukas poems were also published in the Jaffna daily “Eezhamurasu” which had been taken over from its owner Mayil. Amirthalingam by the tigers and was being run as a LTTE newspaper.
After some weeks at Thirunelvely both girls were sent by Thileepan to stay in a very poor neighbourhood in Navaaly,Manipay. This was shortly before “Operation Liberation” was launched by the Sri Lankan armed forces on May 26th 1987. The military operation in the Vadamaratchy region did not affect normalcy in other parts of Jaffna peninsula.
The relocation to Navaaly was a test to expose the middle class girls from a comfortable background to squalid surroundings and harsh conditions. Here the two friends slept on the bare floor, washed and bathed at an open well and used a squat bucket toilet. It was a new experience.
However both Shenuka and Nirmala were regarded as “special” by their hosts and neighbours. They were referred to as “Nalla kudumbathup Pillaigal” (Children from good families) and treated like royalty. They were overfed despite protests and the overfeeding stopped only after Nirmala threw out after an “enforced” heavy meal.
During this time the girls went to a hospital in Manipay where injured tigers were being treated. The sight of maimed,limbless cadres at the hospital moved both girls immensely.
Signing of Indo-Lanka accord
It was while they were in Navaaly that India conducted “Operation Poomaalai” on June 4th 1987. Indian planes violated Sri Lankan airspace and threw down food containers over Jaffna. It was a strong signal conveyed by New Delhi to Colombo.President JR Jayewardena understood the implications and caved in to Indian pressure thus paving the way for the signing of the Indo-Lanka accord.
Shenuka and her friend Nirmala were recalled to Jaffna town by Thileepan shortly after the Indian air drop. They were now assigned sentry duty at the Jaffna Fort vicinity. The Sri Lankan army was expected to move out en masse from the Fort camp and the tigers were ever vigilant. Assigning sentry duty to the girls also gave them exposure to the frontlines.
Six girls Chithra, Sanjika, Thuvaraga,Bhanu, Shenuka and Nirmala were grouped into one unit and assigned sentry duty. They stayed at Chithra’s house in Thirunelvely and cycled to and from the Jaffna fort area. There were male tiger cadres also on sentry duty. Shenuka and the others were on duty at the Telecommunications building vicinity.
Jaffna Fort – in Jun 2010 – pic courtesy of: Gane
The duties of the girls were of a supplementary nature. The actual sentries were the male cadres. The six girls were there on a stand –by basis. They had to simply observe and wait in readiness with first –aid kits. The sentry posts assigned to them were NO 2 ,3 and 6. The six girls were placed in pairs to each sentry post. Venthan was in charge of Sentry post 6 and Muthu of Sentry post 3.
Chithra whose real name was Tharany and Shenuka were placed in Sentry post no 2. Rangan also known as Kuberan was in charge here. Little did Shenuka realize that Rangan was there for a purpose and that the God of love “ Manmathan” was firing his five flowered arrows in the midst of war and death.
Rangan whose real name was Rajasooriyar had had an “eye” on Shenuka even as a schoolgirl and tried to draw her attention many times. But she apparently was unaware of his interest. After Shenuka joined the LTTE Rangan renewed his efforts. Incidently Rangan is referred to as “Roshan” in the “Tamil Tigress” book.
Despite the strict disciplinary code forbidding intra-tiger romances, many cadres of the LTTE found ways and means of circumventing them. Not even hard core tigers could curb natural impulses and resist that “many splendoured thing called love”. Their great leader Prabhakaran too had fallen in love with Madhivadhani Erambu of Pungudutheevu and even amended the LTTE rule book to get married to her. Others like Kittu,Kumarappa, Pottu Amman, Mahathaya and Soosai had also fallen in love and married.
Rangan who had set his sights on Shenuka made his desire known to many comrades at arms.Since “all the world loves a lover”many in the LTTE began helping him quietly to woo Shenuka. Rangan who was attached to the LTTE camp on Temple road was suddenly “transferred” to sentry duty at the Jaffna Fort when Shenuka was assigned duty there. Moreover Shenuka and Chithra were placed under him at sentry post no 2.
Since Rangan had a hidden agenda his interaction with the two girls at his sentry post were different to that of his colleagues Muthu and Venthan. Shenuka unaware of Rangan’s intentions then complained that she and Chithra were not learning anything whereas their friends at no 3 and 6 were being taught new things.
Rangan then began instructing the two girls about firearms while on sentry duty. He taught them the finer points of different fire-arms and how to dismantle , assemble and load guns.They were also shown many firing positions. They would also discuss many things about different aspects of various firearms.
After two weeks, sentry duty was over for the girls. To her surprise Shenuka found Rangan too ending his sentry duty at the Fort and returning to the Temple road camp. This made her suspicious that Rangan being stationed at the Jaffna Fort while she was there may not have been entirely a coincidence. Her doubts were further strengthened by the conduct of her friends
Her comrades and friends now began to tease her about Rangan.They cracked jokes and passed hints. The biggest match-making effort was by none other than the “Suthanthirapparavaigal” head Gayathri akka herself. She and Rangan’s elder sister Rathy had studied together at the Jaffna university and were friends. Gayathri akka would often refer to their family in general and Rangan in particular while conversing with Shenuka.
Gradually Shenuka too began developing a soft corner for Rangan. But the mutual “crush” never flowered into a budding romance. There was no significant forward movement because of the LTTE code forbidding romances among cadres. Also Shenuka was inhibited by another factor. Rangan was a Hindu while she was a Christian. Since her parents were from different religions and this had caused some tensions , the girl was wary of of crossing religious lines.
Rangan however continued expressing his feelings for her in many bizarre ways . He was a good driver and would often drive LTTE vehicles. Whenever he saw Shenuka cycling on the road he would drive fast pretending to drive her off the road. He would drive at break neck speed over pot holes and rock the vehicle tooting his horn
It was Rangan who drove former tiger deputy –leader Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya and the LTTE’s ex-political adviser Anton Balasingham to the Palaly army camp to visit the detained LTTE leaders Pulenthiran and Kumarappah in October 1987. It was then that Cynaide was surreptitiously passed to them by the Mahathaya-Balasingham duo. Their suicide was the flashpoint of tension that triggered off the fighting between the Indian army and the LTTE.
After Shenuka’s arms training period was over and she returned home for a few weeks Rangan began visiting her . He would sit in the front verandah and chat with her. Though Shenuka liked Rangan and talked to him often she did not encourage his attentions seriously. This was because of her reluctance to fall in love due to the LTTE disciplinary code and the religious factor.
There was also another incident which illustrated the depth of feeling and concern in Rangan for Shenuka. This was after the fighting had begun with the Indian army. After the abortive attack on the Jaffna University premises by Indian paratroopers the varsity was subjected to intensive artillery shelling. The LTTE also stationed many sentries in and around the campus anticipating a second assault.
Shenuka and some of her friends were also posted as sentries on campus precincts.Shenuka and Kanchana were in one building while Nihintha and Nirmala were in another. Kanchana and Shenuka were scribbling on a blackboard and having fun when a shell exploded on the building causing both to hit the ground.
None sustained serious injuries but a piece of shrapnel had struck Shenuka’s foot. The LTTE medic a 3rd year medical student named Ranjan administered some first aid putting cotton wool and a bandage.Later when Rangan/Kuberan came to see Shenuka he found blood oozing through the bandage. He got upset and frantically got down a civilian medico friend of his to attend to the wound and treat it. Rangan’s worry that day was an index of his feelings. Shenuka carries the scar on her foot to this day.
Shenuka’s final meeting with Rangan was not very pleasant. He was wearing a sarong and this irritated her for some reason at that time. So she began admonishing him and there was a heated argument. Neither one knew then that this meeting in October was going to be their last. As the war escalated both had different duties to discharge and went their separate ways.
Nearly two years later during the peace interlude when Ranasinghe Premadasa was the President , Rangan went to the up country in search of Shenuka but she was then in India. A year later after the Indian army departed and war erupted with Colombo again,Rangan quit the LTTE.He then went to India to make travel arrangements and leave for Europe. Shenuka had by then left India and gone to Australia.
While Rangan was in India making arrangements to travel abroad, fate played a nasty trick on him. The LTTE assassinated former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in Sreeperumpudhoor on May 21st 1991. One-eyed” sivarasan was the alleged mastermind. Unfortunately for Rangan while in India he had met his old acquaintance Sivarasan who had asked him to drive his vehicle on a few occasions as a favour. Rangan who was fascinated by fast vehicles obliged him.
When the Indian authorities cracked down on the LTTE in Tamil Nadu Rajasooriyar alias Rangan was also arrested.
To strike a personal note Rangan’s brother in law who is a friend of mine contacted me.He was then living in Norway. I helped in a small way by putting him in touch with Bhakthavatsalam the Chennai-based Civil rights lawyer to watch Rangan’s interests.
Rajasooriyar alias Rangan described as an “ace driver” by Indian officials was indicted for the Rajiv Gandhi murder and intitially sentenced to death. Subsequently the sentence was reduced to a term of imprisonment. After serving his sentence Rangan was released but confined to a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu for a while. Later he left India and sought a new life elsewhere.
This then is the brief tale of the “ budding romance ”between Rangan and Shenuka. It was a mutual “crush” and never ever became a serious love affair. The amorous arrows of the Roman God Cupid and Greek God Eros failed to strike bulls eye here.
Nevertheless the short episode demonstrated that love springs eternal amidst war and death and that even two legged felines cannot be insulated from experiencing romantic pangs.
NEXT:TIGRESS SHENUKA IN WAR WITH IPKF
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org