“Tamil Tigress” Reviewed by Koom Kankesan

KOOM KANKESAN
Niromi de Soyza’s Tamil Tigress has been available for a year in Australia but was only recently imported to Canadian bookstores. It seems to have brought the anonymous author (Niromi de Soyza is a pen name, apparently constructed for the author’s protection) almost as much controversy as fame. The book starts off as a polemic against the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) but ends up as a document affirming Tamil women’s rights.

The memoir is about a year in de Soyza’s life when she and her best fried, Ajanthi, joined the Tigers during the second stage of the war – the mid 80′s when Tamils fought the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the North and East of Sri Lanka. De Soyza and Ajanthi came from middle-class families in an area of Jaffna in which the LTTE found it hard to recruit. Given the fact that both girls were still in their mid to late teens, the news of their enlistment was shocking to their families and neighbours. Trading their Catholic school lives and designer clothes for mud soaked rags and chest holsters, the girls join the first wave of female hopefuls, mostly poor young women from rural areas, to brave starvation, privation, and mockery in order to fight for the LTTE. Armed with little more than revolutionary idealism and anger for the injustice perpetrated against Tamils, the girls struggle along through months of waiting, training, and sentry duty before seeing combat. The story is told in a natural style employing gripping episodes with a knack for sensation and detail, and is designed to be accessible to a wide range of readers.

Tamil Tigress is important not only because it is the first book by an insider within the forces, but because it hearkens to key aspects of the Tamil psyche. Most accounts or portraits of Tiger cadres have been written by outsiders. As invested and informed as they are, there is an impenetrability about them when getting access to soldiers’ feelings and personalities. Their portraits of affected Tamils can be opaque, not to mention temporary and distant. Much has been written about the fallout of the fighting: the destroyed families, devastated parents, tortured civilians, and maimed fighters. Once again, de Soyza is able to provide a familiarity and insight here that only an insider can. The Tamil civilians’ complex relationships and attitudes towards the Tigers are sometimes the most interesting parts. The constantly starved soldiers are dependent on sympathizers who are at turns pitying, nervous, scared, and hateful. This is not the LTTE that stalked a nation’s nightmares or rationed control of the Jaffna peninsula. This is an LTTE that is often running for its life, praying that people don’t turn them in. Villagers are intimidated enough that fighters can impose on them in a time of crisis and a kind of mute sympathy and coexistence exists in many of the scenes:

‘Stop all this fighting, children! We can’t cope any longer!’ wept an old woman.

’If you are fighting for us, we can tell you right now that we don’t want this!’ shouted someone. ‘We are tired of living as refugees in our own land, and it’s all because of you.’ I felt that these people were being ungrateful. Did they not see we were willing to die for them? Prabhakaran had told us that the Indians were not to be trusted. These people would one day learn the hard way.

De Soyza recounts passing experiences with Prabhakaran, his deputy Mahathaya (nicknamed the Crocodile), as well as other Tiger leaders. The controversy over the book stems from claims that the account might be fake and the fact that De Soyza wilfully conflates the IPKF and the SLA in an early account to paint the Sinhalese forces as the enemy. D. B. S. Jeyaraj, in a laboured and somewhat smug blog, has claimed knowledge that the account and characters in De Soyza’s memoir are indeed accurate because he and other citizens of Jaffna knew them. Regardless of this pickling debate, the book offers much that is interesting as a contribution to writing about Tamil life and for this reason alone, is worth reading.

Early in the book, De Soyza explains that as a child, she would have to try and understand what was happening around her by making herself invisible and eavesdropping in on conversations:

Niromi de Soyza

 

In Sri Lanka curiousity was not a trait encouraged among children, particularly in girls, because those in power – often males, but anyone older, or of higher caste, education or influence – were always right and their reasons needn’t be explained or understood to the subordinate. Questioning was seen as defiance or challenging authority, for which we were often ignored, scolded or smacked, so we quickly learned to never challenge authority.

She grows up enduring a spiteful grandmother, suffering mother, and schoolteacher nuns who use humiliation and bullying as their primary educational tools. The climate of Jaffna, a sophisticated urban environment that prides itself as the capital of the North, is portrayed amongst the mounting tensions and flammable politics of the late seventies and the early eighties. De Soyza is a dedicated, intelligent, and fairly serious student whose intensity and anger for events around her runs deep. While the rest of her friends discuss militant movements as if they were boy bands, De Soyza and her friend Ajanthi join SOLT (the student wing of the Tigers) at school and then convince the leader of the organization, Muralie, to let them become military recruits. Their patience and dedication is tested by weeks of endless waiting, cleaning, cooking, training, sentry work, and most difficult of all, rebuffing the constant appeals of their parents who come to Tiger stations and beg them to return home. The two are finally posted in companies resisting the invasions by India’s IPKF and the girls have to wait until other soldiers are killed before their rifles can be passed down to them.

At this stage of the war, the Tigers are presented as a disarrayed medley of ragtag children and weary adults, cynical and starving, silent and obedient, hardened if they have the fortune to survive. De Soyza is often moved around in groups, not knowing what the plans are, with no change of clothing, an absolute lack of water to wash in, suffering from dermatitis and lice, and making do with open air toilets in which she can see the maggots and worms feasting on the feces. Their stomachs shrivel due to the lack of food and when food arrives, it is usually the barest spoonful of red rice and weakened curry. They are constantly on the run, in bare feet, trying to evade the advancing IPKF forces, spending more of their time running than fighting.

Through it all, De Soyza presents scenes which delineate the wiry and sharp characters she encounters and friends she has great feeling for. She captures the sharp Tamil wit and the strange insanity that accompanies life during wartime:

The Tigers apparently imposed fines on suicides as well as failed attempts, reasoning that it was bad enough that the Sinhala government was trying to eliminate the Tamil race, without us doing our bit to help them. It made me think about Benjamin and the other innocent Tamils the Tigers had murdered.

‘Perhaps the Tigers could send the boy on a suicide-bombing mission, instead of penalising his family,’ laughed Dhushi later, when I told the girls about the fine. ‘That way, everyone would get what they want.’ She was always making such inappropriate remarks.

Never losing her revolutionary fervour, De Soyza struggles on, but becomes more and more uncomfortable with the way the Tigers administer and exercise power. From the execution of an EPRLF acquaintance to the torturing and living burial of a boy who is cast with the slightest of suspicions, to the ultimate coldblooded execution of a cadre who has fostered a romantic relationship with a female recruit, De Soyza watches in horror and amazement as the dictatorial nature of the Tigers asserts itself:

As Akila and I headed back to our hut at the end of my sentry hour that evening, I thought back to the times I had been a witness to my comrades’ crimes – Mahathaya beating up an innocent man while Kaanchana and I guarded his bicycle; Navin and Nizaam bashing a civilian at the shopping mall; the killing of Vellai in broad daylight; and now Shanthan. The gravity of these incidents had increased over time, starting as assaults and ending up as murders, and I had done nothing to stop them. And, although I did not condone any of this, I, too, as a Tiger and witness, now had blood on my hands – the blood of my comrades and my fellow Tamils.

The story is essentially a passage from innocence to experience; by the end of it, De Soyza is a weary young adult who, having seen most of her friends die, chooses to resign. Her politics do not change but her choices in life swing back in line with the values she was brought up with. She concludes the book by telling us that she went on to study in India where eighteen months later, she graduates as ‘one of four captains and crowned prom queen of the year.’ She migrates to Australia, does graduate work in law, marries, and has children. Her mother, sister, and Ajanthi’s sister also leave and find similar successful lives, establish their identities as emigre members of the bourgeois class in which they started.

Probably the only person who could write such a book is someone like De Soyza. The fervent Tiger service is a brief but eyeopening interlude in an otherwise comfortable and privileged life. It’s hard to imagine a veteran of the conflict sitting down to write a tell-all, feeling free enough or even wanting to divulge the details. Only someone familiar and comfortable with the trappings of middle class success could venture such a gambit. For that reason, it is perhaps even more amazing that this book should exist. Maybe it will open up the gates for future accounts of Tiger service but I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

What is consistent throughout the book is a keen anger at injustice and the conditions of the time and place in which she lived. De Soyza aligns the Tigers’ pernicious methods with factors in Tamil society that are already familiar to us: having to follow orders without questioning, the fear of authority, the extreme care that must be taken to guard one’s propriety and behaviour, the dread seriousness and threat of ramification from elders if rules are disobeyed. De Soyza does a very good job of portraying how women are both shunned and privileged by these social mores while serving under the Tigers. What she goes on to understand is that a movement like the LTTE can only flourish in a culture that is so long suffering, yet intensely proud and demanding of its own.

The very real and natural accounts of villagers and civilians are the strongest aspect of this book. The civilians are uncomfortable and sometimes fearful, don’t wish their children to join, but at the same time sympathize with their decision to take arms and at other times, when they have the upper hand, are scornful or even spiteful, especially of the women. If I have a complaint, it is that the glimpses into characters are brief and unfulfilling. Passages feel quickly written and even in the case of her friends, De Soyza does not paint sustained psychological portraits that live up to the precision of her anecdotes. Despite her intelligence and dedication, there is something cold about the way in which she undertakes her adventures; we never really come to feel we know her as a person, let alone the people around her. This guardedness is there in childhood and very much there in the sense we get from De Soyza as a successful adult and may be a feature of the social forces which she so adroitly describes. Episodes in which Roshan, a Tiger lieutenant who is in love with her and whom she is quite affected by, are especially frustrating because De Soyza waxes coy and flirts with the possibility of falling in love with a boy of lower caste than herself but cannot bring herself to act and acknowledge her feelings.

For those of us lucky enough to have left the war, there is the question of why we should drag all this history and trauma behind us. There is something almost Teutonic or Victorian about our culture which has entrenched itself. It imposes a strong self-regulation, a code of conduct that is like an exoskeleton of feeling, an iron band around the heart. We are used to the rule of force, the desire for power and success, in a cultural identity where pride and unhappiness walk hand in hand. The pride which we take in our abilities and achievements is a great source of comfort but in an oddly complicated way, is also at the root of our misery. As we’re at a stage where we’re rapidly dispersing and changing, we have the unique power to stop and look back on ourselves: who we are, what we want, what to keep and what to change. Imagine the wonder a pupa would feel if it could gaze at itself from outside its cocoon. I don’t think we can just cut our pasts loose with a slice of the psychic knife. As any psychologist will tell you, the worst thing one can do is bottle up the feelings and pretend the trauma didn’t happen. Sweeping things under the carpet will not make them go away. That being said, it would be a mistake to continue in the same vein as our ancestors, cloying to them for the sake of tradition. Conversely, it is a mistake to simply see life in Western countries as liberating and life back home as repressed. Such simple binaries only serve to make us simple.

There is still an association with the struggle back home, however abstract. It is impossible to know of the long years of suffering, violence, and privation, and not feel moved, to feel some attachment. Tamils often resent the feeling of being the underdog and this anger that burns with a combustive intensity has made us all somewhat complicit. We’ve agreed at some point, even if it was only for a few private moments in our heads, that the Tigers were justified. What is most disturbing, however, is the ease with which the Tigers killed their own, simply to dominate the social order or on the merest suspicion that individuals were not following the status quo. It is amazing to see how strongly deep feelings of anger run alongside an acceptance of death as a price, death as a means, death as an inevitability, symbolized by the cyanide capsule held by a black string, forever around De Soyza’s neck during her service. When death (both to our own as well as to enemies) becomes a familiar logistic, an alarming line has been crossed. In this way, the Tigers are more like the Sinhalese government than different; both killing their own people in order to maintain power. It behoves us as Tamils to search the darkness within our own hearts, within our own culture, that allows something like this to be permissible.

The desire for power, for accomplishment, for success, drives us at the root of our psyches. When this pride supplants our ability to look at ourselves, the forces we are pushed by and which we use on others, our relationships to each other as men and women, as parents and children, it wouldn’t have mattered if we had migrated to the other end of the galaxy. Nothing will have changed. All that intelligence and all that professional development will not save us; it will not buy us happiness or peace.

In this way, De Soyza’s failure to ultimately deal with her revolutionary ideals or convey to the reader a personal fundamental change, is a huge disappointment. De Soyza ends having found success by the standards which she bristles against as a young child. This results in a lack of warmth in the way she finds her escape from a world of pain. Despite this, I think the book is the most important account by a diaspora writer of what it is to be Tamil, fictional or otherwise. She touches upon key elements of our society and psyche that are troubling and familiar; they are here and probably will be here for a long time. The book is extremely readable, vivid in detail, and groundbreaking in terms of its material. Despite railing against the Sinhalese government’s actions, it keeps a constant eye on the disturbing actions undertaken by the Tigers and the Tamils’ complicity in these actions. It should be read by everyone whether they are people who don’t know much about the Tamils or Sinhalese, Sinhalese who hate Tamil sympathizers, Tamils who hate the Sri Lankan Government, Tamils who hate Sinhala apologists, Tamils who hate the Sinhalese, Sinhalese who hate the Tamils, Sinhalese who hate the LTTE, plain old haters who hate everybody (misanthropists), or just people who enjoy reading compelling memoirs.

The above review was initially published elsewhere and as expected drew diverse commentary.

 

 

Koom Kankesan is a writer who has published film and book reviews with newspapers such as the Montreal Gazette. He is an unabashed fan of comic books and movies, has contributed short stories to The Colombo Telegraph, and written the short novel The Panic Button . Check out more on the FB page  ‘The Panic Button.’

 

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