Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam known widely among Tamils at one time as “Mangai Akka”(elder sister Mangai) passed away at the age of 82 in Britain where she had been residing for the past 27 years. She was taken ill and admitted to the Royal borough of Kingston upon Thames Hospital in Surrey on Tuesday March 8th . Ms. Amirthalingam died in hospital 30 hours later on Wednesday March 9th. According to her younger son Dr. Baheerathan Amirthalingam, his mother succumbed to Acute pancreatitis which caused multi organ failure.Her funeral will take place in London on March 20th.
The name Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam is not likely to ring any bells among younger generations of Sri Lankans. The lady herself living in self-exile for several decades has faded away from public memory. Yet, there was a time when she dominated the Tamil political scene as a political firebrand . She was famous as a Tamil nationalist and regarded as the virtual first lady of Tamil politics by numerous Tamils. She was equally infamous to a large number of Sinhalese who looked upon her as a controversial politician with extremist views. While Mangaiyarkkarasi was treated with loving affection by many Tamils on the one hand, Mrs. Amirthalingam was also the Tamil woman politician hated most by many Sinhalese on the other. Despite these contrary perceptions there is no denying that Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam made an indelible impact during the time she was active in politics.
Media reports about her demise note that she was the wife or widow of well – known Sri Lankan Tamil political leader Appapillai Amirthalingam who served as a Parliamentarian for 20 years in an illustrious political career spanning four decades. Amirthalingam was a stalwart of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) known as the Federal party and also the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF) . He was the ITAK MP for Vaddukkoddai from 1956 to 1970 and TULF MP for Kankesanthurai from 1977 to 1983. Amirthalingam who was the Sri Lankan Leader of the opposition in 1977-83 was a TULF National list MP when he was brutally assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) on July 13th 1989.
Amirthalingam and his spouse Mangaiyarkkarasi were an inseparable duo in personal and public life. Mangaiyarkkarasi’s life was inextricably inter-twined with that of her husband’s political career. Like Lord Shiva and his divine consort Paarvathy, Amirthalingam was “Shivam” and Mangaiyarkkarasi his “Shakthi”. There was a time when the political couple enjoyed the adulation and support of thousands of idealistic Tamil youths. Amirthalingam was “Amir Anna”(elder brother Amir) and Mangaiyarkkarasi “Mangai Akka” (Elder sister Mangai) to them.
Against that backdrop, it is indeed correct that media reports should emphasise that Mangaiyarkkarasi was the wife of Amirthalingam. Had it not been for her marriage to him, Mangaiyarkkarasi may have never entered the political sphere in the way she did. Nevertheless what must be realised is that Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam was a dynamic political personality in her own right. Although she walked willingly with her husband on his political path and talked his political talk, Mangaiyarkkarasi did not bask in reflected glory. She herself had an impressive charisma of her own that went down well with the masses in the not so distant past. Mangaiyarkkarasi had a refreshingly independent mind of her own and exerted much influence politically in the bygone years.
Jaffna College, Vaddukkoddai
The names Amirthalingam and Mangaiyarkkarasi have been familiar to me from childhood. Amirthalingam was a contemporary of my father at Law College. There would be references to the Amirthalingams whenever Tamil politics was discussed at home. My personal interaction with the Amirthalingams began when I studied for my GCE Advanced Levels at Jaffna College(JC), Vaddukkoddai. I was then boarded at Howland Hostel in JC. Amirthalingam was not an MP then having been defeated by A. Thiyagarajah of the Tamil Congress at the 1970 polls.
If and when Amirthalingam saw Jaffna College students at the Vaddukkoddai junction bus stand he would always give them a lift or ride if there was room in the vehicle. Both his sons Kandeepan and Bageerathan were students at Jaffna College then. Some Jaffna College students also used to visit their home at Moolai frequently for impromptu meetings and discussions of a political nature. Mrs. Amirthalingam would act as a gracious hostess then. She was particularly kind and generous to hostellers like myself who were looked upon compassionately as children deprived of food cooked by a mother. I was quite friendly with their sons Kandeepan and Bageerathan though both were junior to me in school.
In later years I began interacting with Amirthalingam in a professional capacity after I entered journalism. Amirthalingam was an important political contact and source I cultivated as a journalist working for newspapers like “Virakesari”, “The Island” and “The Hindu”. I used to meet Amirthalingam in Parliament and at his official residence near “SravastI”. I also visited him then at Moolai whenever I was in Jaffna. I have also met with him and interviewed him at the Tamil Nadu state guest house in Chepauk, Chennai where the Amirthalingams were accommodated after relocating to India post – July 1983. I also used to meet Amirthalingam at Empress Hotel and at the old Taprobane Hotel (Grand Oriental Hotel) when he came down to Colombo for talks with the Govt. Mrs. Amirthalingam was present at most –if not all- of these occasions.
I left Sri Lanka in 1988 and was in Canada when Amirthalingam was killed in 1989. Since Kandeepan and later Bageerathan had gone to Britain and were UK residents their mother Mangaiyarkkarasi too went to London after Amirthalingam’s demise. She would often visit Canada where her sister and brother (now no more) were living. I would visit her then and engage in lengthy conversations about the past, present and future. She was friendly as ever but the ebullience was gone. There was always an overwhelming mood of sadness. One could easily recognize the immense sense of loss she felt by the death of her husband. She would show photographs of the various social and cultural activities in Britain that she was involved in. She would also give me books and shirts as presents. Likewise I would also meet Bageerathan in Toronto whenever he visited Canada. It is with the aid of this personal relationship and knowledge that I venture to write about the life and times of Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam .
“Queen Among Maidens”
Mangaiyarkkarasi meaning “Queen among maidens “ in Tamil was born on July 3rd 1933 in Moolai a village within the Valigamam west AGA division of the Jaffna peninsula. While her mother Nagammah was from Moolai Mangaiarkkarasi’s father Vallupuram was from another village called Kurumbasitty who had relocated to Moolai after marriage. Vallipuram was a successful businessman owning four mercantile establishments in Bandarawela. His flagship Valliupuram stores was burnt during the violence of Black July 83.
Vallipuram and Nagammah had three daughters and two sons of whom Mangaiyarkkarasi was the eldest. Her pet name at home was “Thavam”meaning devotional penance. This was because the parents had been without children for ten years and had performed many devotional penance rituals for a child. The pet name Thavam struck and most family members including husband Amirthalingam always referred to her as Thavam during conversations at home.
The Vallipuram children grew up in Moolai visiting Bandarawela only during school holidays. Mangaiyarkkarasi studied at the Moolai Saivapragasa Vidyasalai school and later Victoria College in adjoining Chulipuram. Being a talented singer with a musical flair , she later enrolled at Ramanathan College in Maruthanamadam which had been founded by former Legislative Councillor Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. Mangaiyarkkarasi pursued a course in aesthetics and fine arts at the Ramanathan academy as it was known then. She excelled in Carnatic vocal singing. A lecturer from India named Saambamoorthy who taught at Ramanathan wanted her to go to Tamil Nadu and study music further. However Mangaiyarkkarasi’s father Vallipuram rejected the idea and instead began looking around for a suitable groom for his favourite daughter.
Meanwhile a young lawyer from Pannaagam a village in the vicinity of Moolai was beginning to make a name for himself in Tamil politics. Amirthalingam was the son of Appapillai who worked in Malaysia as a station master in the British railway. Amirthalingam born on August 26th 1927 was a brilliant student and the first alumnus of Victoria College in Chulipuram to enter University. After completing his BA , Amirthalingam got admitted to Law College and passed out as an advocate.
Amirthalingam caught Tamil political leader SJV Chelvanayagam’s eye when he wrote articles during his undergraduate days espousing federalism in the “Suthanthiran” newspaper owned by Chelva. The dominant Tamil political party of the time , the All Ceylon Tamil Congress led by GG Ponnambalam split and in December 1949 a group of dissidents led by Chelvanayagam launched the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi(ITAK) known as Federal Party in English. Chelvanayagam wrote to Amirthalingam personally and invited him to join the new party. Amirthalingam did so and became a founder member of the ITAK. He contested Vaddukkoddai on behalf of the ITAK in 1952 and lost.
The handsome Amirthalingam possessing immense oratorical and writing skills was a rising star in Tamil politics. He was once invited as a special guest for an event at Ramanathan College. Mangaiyarkkarasi singing at the same function had a tremendous effect on the lawyer – politico. Cupid struck the eligible bachelor who conveyed a proposal through friendly third parties to the family. It was communicated that Amirthalingam had heard Mangaiyarkkarasi sing and had liked both the song and singer. Mangai Akka would shyly admit later that she too fell for Amir at first sight.
Mangaiyarkkarasi’s father Vallipuram was a strong supporter of GG Ponnambalam and the Tamil Congress. He refused to let his daughter marry a politician let alone a federalist. Finally Mangaiyarkkarasi’s maternal uncle -Nagalingam – a businessman at Welimada intervened and persuaded Vallupuranm to accept Amirthalingam as his son in law. Nagalingam a supporter of Chelvanayagam and the ITAK convinced his brother in law that the teetotaller Amirthalingam was a good man suitable as son in law. After a meeting with Amirthalingam Vallipuram agreed.He was impressed by both Amir’s character as well as good looks.Subsequently Mangaiyarkkarasi’s younger sibling Gnanambigai married Amirthalingam’s younger brother Thigambaralingam. Their romance was kindled at Jaffna College, Vaddukkoddai where both were students. The Thigambaralingam family is now living in Canada.
Mangaiyarkkarasi and Amirthalingam were married at Moolai in July 1954. The newly married groom departed in the evening to Karaveddy in the Vadamaratchi sector for a political debate with V. Ponnambalam of the communist party. Ponnambalam had a field day cracking jokes at Amirthalingam’s expense about the “Puthu Maappillai” or new Bridegroom.
It soon became apparent to the new bride that her husband’s first love was not her but the political fate of the Sri Lankan Tamil people. Instead of fighting this reality she chose to devote herself also to Amirthalingam’s politics. Amir too preferred to take his newly-wed wife along with him when he engaged in political meetings and discussions. This was a new phenomenon in conservative Jaffna where a woman was not supposed to get involved in politics let alone accompany her husband to political meetings. The Amirthalingams were the target of many persons including political rivals for this alleged travesty. The couple however disregarded criticism on this issue and continued the practice till Amirthalingam’s life was snuffed out years later.
One recalls an incident in Paris when Amirthalingam and Mangaiyarkkarasi visited France in 1983. At a meeting held in the Tamil infested area of La Chapelle in Paris, Amirthalingam was asked by a youth in Tamil” Why do you go around everywhere with your wife?Why has she accompanied you to Paris”?. Unperturbed Amirthalingam responded smilingly “ What is wrong in going around with my own wife? It would be wrong only if I go everywhere with a woman other than my wife. Besides my wife has accompanied me not only to places like Paris but also to the Panagoda army camp where we were both detained together”. Amirthalingam’s reply brought the house down and the questioner was effectively silenced. Amirthalingam was referring to the time in 1961 when 74 ITAK Satyagrahis were detained at the Panagoda Army cantonment for six months by the Sirima Bandaranaike Govt. Mangaiyarkkarasi was the solitary woman among the detenues then.
Nineteen years later in 2002 Mangaiyarkkarasi was to speak in the same La chapelle area in Paris. This time she was without her husband who had been killed in 1989. The occasion was the observance of Amirthalingam’s 75th birth anniversary or “Pavala Vizhaa”. Mrs. Amirthalingam tearfully recounted the circumstances of her husband’s murder. In a voice choked with emotion she boldly queried in Tamil “I am asking “Thamby”(younger brother) Prabhakaran and the Liberation Tigers – why did you kill my husband? What is the harm he caused to the Tamil people for you all to kill him in this way?” Of course there was no answer but some LTTE propagandists faulted her for singing “oppaari” (dirge)and lamenting her husband’s death instead of simply keeping quiet.
Mangaiyarkkarasi’s participation in political affairs began after her marriage in 1954 to Amirthalingam. One of her earliest experiences in agitational politics was in the same year when the then Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawela visited Jaffna. The ITAK launched a black flag demonstration protesting his visit. Mangaiyarkkarasi was the sole woman among volunteers waving black flags. The debonair Sir John being a reputed connoisseur of feminine beauty was intrigued by this sight. He removed the rose from the Boutonniere on his lapel and threw it impishly at Mangaiyarkkarasi who promptly flung it back at him.
What happened next was not so funny! The Police unleashed a savage attack upon the demonstrators. Many were injured including Amirthalingam whose forehead bled profusely from blows received. Among those hurt badly was the well-known lawyer V. A. Kanthaiyah whose spectacles also got smashed up in the incident. Two years later both Kanthaiyah and Amirthalingam were to successfully contest the Kayts and Vaddukkoddai seats respectively and enter Parliament in 1956.
This was but the first instance where Mangaiyarkkarasi witnessed Amirthalingam being beaten up and bleeding for political reasons. The most terrible example of such beatings was in 1961 during the Satyagraha campaign conducted by the ITAK. The Satyagrahis had surrounded the Jaffna Kachcheri and the official residence of the Jaffna Govt Agent Mylvakanam Sri Kantha. Civil administration was virtually paralysed. On the day in question Amirthalingam and five other Tamil MP’s including Dr. EMV Naganathan blocked the GA’s jeep from leaving the premises by lying in front of the vehicle on the ground. The Police cracked down ruthlessly beating the prostrate Satyagrahis repeatedly with their batons. Horrified by the brutal spectacle, a weeping Mangaiyarkkarasi and another woman volunteer named Alagammah waded in and placed themselves between the Police and protesters. It was only then that the GA’s vehicle reversed back and Police withdrew.
Despite several incidents of this nature in which Mangaiyarkkarasi saw at first hand her husband being beaten and sustaining injuries at the hands of the Khaki –clad authorities , she did not let that affect her or the political conduct of her husband. Though dismayed and sad when seeing her bleeding husband , she was not deterred politically by that sight. In fact she was proud of the sacrifices made by her husband for the Tamil cause and Tamil people.
Mangaoyarkkarasi knew how much the Tamil people loved and appreciated Amirthalingam’s politics. This realization buoyed up her spirits constantly and gave her the strength to endure such bloody scenes. What unnerved her and upset her emotionally and spiritually in later years was the sight of her dead husband and the pool of blood on the floor. She would say later that the lines of Sri Lankan Tamil poet Kasi. Aananthan about “dancing in a battlefield of blood”(Oru Senkalam Aadi) would come to her mind whenever she thought of what she saw on that fateful July 13th 1989.
Kasi Aananthan whose full name is Kaathamuthu Sivananthan hails from Amirthakali in Batticaloa. He is now living in Chennai and is an ardent supporter of the LTTE. He was famous for his fiery Tamil poetry which inspired and motivated thousands of Tamil youths at one time. Kasi Ananthans two daughters are medical doctors -also married to doctors – and living comfortably abroad. Kasi Ananthan however keeps company with the extremist fringe of politicians in Tamil Nadu who want the Sri Lankan Tamils to commit collective suicide by continuing the fight for Tamil Eelam. Kasi Ananthan nowadays exhorts Tamil youths to prepare themselves for the fourth Eelam war after ensuring that his own children are safe and sound living in prosperity.
There was however a time when the poems and songs composed by Kasi Ananthan were hugely popular among Sri Lankan Tamils. They were sung at political meetings. Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam was well –known for singing songs written by Kasi Ananthan. The emotional content of Kasi Ananthan’s words were given great expression and appeal by the emotional singing of Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam. It tugged at the heart strings of many impressionable Tamil youths. I, too was enamoured of this combination in my younger days and can recollect the time when I wrote in Tamil that the singing of Kasi Ananthan’s songs by Mangiyarkkarasi was akin to “Sakkaraip Panthalil Thaen Maari Peithathu Poala”(like a rain of honey falling upon a pandal of jiggery) meaning the experience was a double delight.
Speeches and Songs
As stated earlier Mangaiyarkkarasi’s political journey began after marriage when she started accompanying her husband to political meetings.Amirthalingam was elected the President of the ITAK youth front and had to travel around various places in the North and East opening up party branches and addressing meetings. Mangaiyarkkarasi would in the initial stages be a silent participant. Thereafter she would be asked to sing the “Praise to the Tamil Mother” (Thamil Thaai vaazhthu) at the beginning and end of meetings. Later on Mangaiyarkkarasi too would be requested to speak at meetings. Encouraged by her husband , Mangaiyarkkarasi began speaking falteringly at political meetings. Soon she blossomed into a powerful and attractive orator. Speeches and songs by Mangaiyarkkarasi were much in demand.
Former “Daily Mirror”editor Reggie Michael once wrote of Appapillai Amirthalingam half jestingly as a “Man who could both move crowds as well as be moved by crowds”. This was somewhat applicable to his wife Mangaiyarkkarasi also. Being highly emotional she had a tendency at times to make intemperate utterances. Some of these statements and expressions were twisted or highlighted by vested interests to depict her as a Tamil racist with rabid anti – Sinhala views. Much of this criticism was both unfounded and unfair.Still in a political realm where perception is reality, the much misunderstood Mangaiyarkkarasi was much maligned. So much so that some journalists even described her in those days as the “Tamil woman politician whom most Sinhalese loved to hate”.
To Be Continued
This article written for the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” appears in the “Daily Mirror” of March 12, 2016, it can be reached via this link:
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org