A Captivating Fiction with a Political Slant? - Sri Lanka Guardian

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Captivating Fiction with a Political Slant?

Niromi de Soyza as Tiger Fighter

by Michael Roberts

(August 27, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) I began reading de Soyza’s Tamil Tigress in a relaxed moment while at tennis and was captivated by its readability and the author’s capacity to create atmosphere. I was fascinated by its casting, that is, her skill in crafting the work. De Soysa begins with a striking incident where she is introduced to the world as a neophyte fighter in an incident marked as “Ambush” – where she is lucky to survive even while ten comrades, including platoon leader Muralie, perished.

De Soysa then plunges her readers back in time by moving to her autobiographical family history and its various ethnic, intra-ethnic and caste tensions. Each chapter ends on a note of suspense and/or moment of change in life world, so that the readers are kept on their toes so to speak.

Niromi de Soysa (generally a Sinhalese name) is a nom de plume – as she has indicated during radio interviews on ABC. She told Margaret Throsby that it was adopted in honour of Richard de Zoysa,1 a TV personality who was murdered by state agents during the Premadasa regime. She herself is a child of a love marriage between a Jaffna Tamil gentleman from the north and a lady from a merchant family from the Malaiyaha Tamil (that is Indian Tamil) peoples of the central regions of Lanka, a cross-community connection that created intra-familial tension according to her autobiographical account. This was a Catholic family, a background that is of considerable significance in the story line because she tells us she attended a Catholic school in Jaffna and then again in India after she managed to secure her release from the ranks of the LTTE at some point in 1988.

I have yet to finish reading the work. I am, thus, literally suspended in mid-air, wondering whether this work, cast as a true autobiographical tale, is a documentary novel or a fiction. My questions arose in part from two minor little tale-tale slips in local parlance and in part from a major error in historical detail.

Arun Ambalavanar now tells us that it is strewn with fake “accents” in its presentation of Jaffna society, slips exacerbated further by discrepancies in its story line on events around the LTTE in the mid-1980s. So, Ambalavānar argues, we should consider it to be a fabricated story.

If this allegation holds up in subsequent months, we should marvel at the lady’s audacity because she has conducted several high-profile interviews with such personalities as Philip Adams and Margaret Throsby, carrying herself with great composure and authority. If it turns out that she has taken highbrow people for a ride, she could stand on the same pedestal as Helen Darville who is better known under her nom de plume as Helen Demidenko. For those uninitiated, let me observe that the Brisbane lass, Demidenko, fooled famous literary personnel in Australia into treating her story of a Ukrainian family during the Holocaust of the Second World War as a non-fiction worthy of a literary prize … till she fell from grace when her evasions and lies bubbled to the surface.2
Doubts

But what aroused my own queries? Two little things nagged me initially: one, on page 14 Niromi de Soyza refers parenthetically to arrack as “the local beer” -- NOW, not even an ardent Sri Lankan lady teetotaller from any ethnic group could be that ignorant; two, she transliterates the leading Tamil caste’s name as “Vaelaalar” (page 26). One can certainly use two aa’s to indicate the long ā if one does not have access to diacritical marks [as in Vellālar or Vellāla]. But the formulation “Vae” for the first syllable is quite bizarre when it comes from any Sri Lankan Tamil. This could, admittedly, be a printing error; but few Tamils would miss such a blemish within such an important category in their life world.

These seeming errors are minutiae to be sure. But it is precisely such failures in “accent,” as he calls it, which leads Ambalavānar, a Jaffna Tamil writer himself, to doubt the authenticity of her background.

However, the more telling error is linked to her market pitch against Sri Lankan society and her implicit alliance with the Western media world in its consistent targeting of Sri Lanka since early 2009.3 This mistake can be introduced by noting that the verisimilitude in her book is constructed by the deployment of several photographs in one cluster in the middle. Apart from family photographs, she has several of Tiger leaders and fighters, including two girls, Dharshini and Theeba, who figure in her text. So too does Muralie, one of the platoon leaders involved in the ambush appear (with face hidden by Thileepan’s body) in a photograph of Thileepan fasting.

Thileepan (of Vellālar caste incidentally) was a senior Tiger leader and intellectual. His fast-unto-death in protest against the entry of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in July/August 1987 was carried out in September 1987. It was not an idiosyncratic move, but an official one sponsored by the LTTE directorate.4 This protest was initiated after the Indian government under Rajiv Gandhi intervened during the middle months of 1987 to protect the Tamil people from what seemed to be a successful military offensive by the Sri Lankan state (GoSL) which threatened to defeat the LTTE and other militant Eelam forces in the Jaffna Peninsula. The imperial weight of the Indian state forced the Sri Lankan government’s hand and they accepted the Indo-Lanka Accord in late July 1987.

This agreement permitted the Indian state to send troops to the island’s north and east in order to keep the peace. The striking dilution of the island’s sovereignty aroused considerable anger in the southern regions, but was welcomed by many people in the Jaffna Peninsula. The LTTE had acquiesced in this intervention quite reluctantly because their arms were twisted while Pirapāharan was kept in virtual detention at the Ashok Hotel in Delhi. Unlike the other militant groups, the LTTE leadership was aware of India’s imperial designs. While the people of Jaffna welcomed the arrival of the Indian troops in delirious rapture, Pirapāharan made a significant speech before a massive crowd at the grounds of Sudumalai Ammān Kovil on the 6th August which conveyed considerable reservations on his part.5

Once the Tiger directorate took the decision to combat Indian occupation it is probable that Thileepan volunteered to be the sacrificial weapon through which to convert the Tamil people to the Tiger programme because he was a dedicated Eelamist who had a debilitating injury. His fast-unto-death in the ground adjacent to the symbolic Nallur Temple in the heart of Jaffna town was a uyirayutham (life-gifted-as-weapon) of dramatic character. He died on the 26th September after several weeks of fasting. Large crowds had assembled around Nallur Temple during this intense period, while currents of emotion circulated along the Tamil circuits in Sri Lanka and the far-flung diasporic networks in all parts of the world. Through the anguish generated by his death, in one prolonged and dramatic stroke the LTTE turned most of the Sri Lankan Tamil people against the Indian intervention. The IPKF were now seen as an “occupation force.” The LTTE war of liberation re-commenced. But now the immediate enemy was the IPKF because the Sri Lankan state forces in north and east remained confined to their barracks.

Thus, from October 1987 or so the LTTE moved into the guerrilla mode of resistance and centred their high command within the jungles of Mullaitivu in the northern Vanni, while maintaining underground activity in the Jaffna Peninsula. These details are supplied here to indicate that the “Ambush” that is described in graphic detail by de Soyza in Chapter One must have entailed an encounter with Indian troops. The enemy is not a named in this account. They are just “soldiers.” However, all the blurbs advertising the book state that “two days before Christmas 1987, at the age of 17, Niromi de Soyza found herself in an ambush as part of a small platoon of militant Tamil Tigers fighting the government forces that was to engulf Sri Lanka for decades.”6

The “Ambush” is clearly designed to provide a dramatic start and the blurb underlines the pathos by stressing Niromi’s youthfulness and placing the encounter just prior to the natal day of Jesus Christ. But why obscure the presence of the IPKF, if, indeed, this event occurred?

One speculative answer would be that any indication that the early fighting encounters of Niromi de Soyza were against Indian troops would complicate the story. Further, that in a context when the Western media was verbally thrashing the Sri Lankan state, and where some articulate elements in Australia society, from Gordon Weiss7 to Bruce Haigh to David Feith to Damien Kingsbury to several journalists, have been in de facto alliance or in affinity with the LTTE lobby, it would be poor market sense to highlight the fact that her experience of fighting was against the Indians. Battle-experience in teenage days could highlight bravery in innocence; but it would be best to depict the OGRE as the contemporary “Bad Boy,” that dirty state of Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksas. Rajiv Gandhi’s India would not be as effective an enemy for any sales pitch in a market indulging in Sri Lanka bashing, with a touch of “churnalism” here and there.8

The IPKF forces are not entirely obliterated. She refers to them in passing during her interview with Throsby and the IPKF appears in the last chapter entitled “Afterwards.”9 At this point and during her Throsby interview, there are some severe strictures cast against the LTTE, but it is clear where Niromi de Soyza’s sympathies lie. The concluding pages are straight out of the propaganda package drafted by the Global Tamil Forum that has become part of the hardened beliefs of a whole spectrum of migrant Tamils in their condition of emotional turmoil. Some statements, such as the note that “journalists and politicians–both Sinhala and Tamil—have become victims of government thuggery,” carry some validity;10 but others are misleading. For someone in late 2010 or early 2011 to state that “some 100,000 Tamils displaced by the war … were held against their will in behind concentration camps where they endure primitive conditions” (page 303) and to assert that “Sri Lanka remains a very dangerous place not only for Tamil but for anyone who openly criticises the government’s anti-democratic stance” (p. 303) is a combination of malicious slander and exaggeration.

This line of propaganda was also pressed during de Soyza’s ABC interview with Throsby. Sri Lanka today is a place permeated by “silence” because “there is no free speech” and “the Tamils are continuously oppressed.” Such opinions are no doubt firmly held in several Tamil quarters in Australia and elsewhere. The work of the Tamil spokespersons worldwide has also convinced many educated persons in the West – to the point where Margaret Thorsby tells her listeners that during the last stages of the war in 2009 “40,000 civilians might have been massacred.”

Perhaps it is too much to expect the morality that impels such personnel to present these criticisms induced them to probe further by consulting Tamil personnel in Australia and Sri Lanka with some knowledge of local conditions over time. My brief visit to Vavuniya and Jaffna in June 2010 was an eye-opener.11 The welfare work undertaken by such NGO’s as SEED, Sewalanka, Caritas, et cetera in both the IDP camps and the northern reaches was a lesson in humility for those, like me, who live by pen rather than deed. If only people like Philip Adams would consult such persons as Singham, Annet Royce, Thamilalagan and Kesavan out there delivering aid in the boon docks rather than relying on NGOs cloistered in Colombo or disaffected migrant spokespersons for their “facts,” Sri Lanka could move forward. They would, for instance, find that Niromi de Zoyza’s picture of the IDP camps was largely a figment of the imagination.

As it happens, I have received an unsolicited note from a Lankan Australia who has just returned from aid work he has been directing in Mannar District. Jeremy Liyanage’s report was succinct: we “ran five focus groups -- four with Tamils and one with Muslims, all in Mannar. The story is now consistent over three separate periods of interviews over the past 12 months, that people are conflict saturated, that they don't want the Tamil diaspora to speak on their behalf, that the eelam project is a failed project, and that they want a united single Sri Lanka but with conditions (equality of opportunity and outcome).”12 This concise assessment, I stress, is for one district and should not be blindly extended to the Tamil people in other localities. It is nevertheless a suggestive pointer for the northern regions in general.

All this, therefore, indicates where de Soyza is coming from and whom she moving with. However, the veracity of her purported autobiography is now sharply undermined by the exegesis provided by a Jaffna Tamil who is himself a literary figure. Ambalavanar discloses her profound unfamiliarity with local landscape and Tamil argot.

The plot has thickened has it not! Time will reveal whether Niromi de Soysa has emulated Helen Demidenko (alias Helen Darville). When Demidenko’s The Hand That Signed the Paper appeared in print under the masthead of Allen and Unwin in 1994, the editorial staff believed that it was essentially autobiographical, though they persuaded the author to alter the family’s name in the book to “Kovalenko.”13 The Hand That Signed the Paper won the Vogel Award for a first novel in 1994, which was followed in 1995 by the most prestigious literary prize in Australia, the Miles Franklin Award, as well as the Gold Medal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. When it was subsequently discovered that Demidenko had no Ukrainian background, a literary storm erupted. This furore was further exacerbated by Darville’s continued evasions as well as her manifest anti-Semitic prejudices.

Literary evaluations are fraught with disagreement. The University of Queensland had rejected Demidenko’s manuscript14 in early 1993 and Mike Morley refused to review The Hand That Signed the Paper because he found it so awful.15 Niromi de Soyza’s mining of the highbrow airwaves seems to be facilitated by media personnel whose roller-coaster engagements do not encourage them to attend to their homework. While one could expect some ignorance of local Sri Lankan context from Margaret Throsby, her degree of ignorance and the naivete directing some questions left me gobsmacked. Arun Ambalavanar has now cast a cat among these media pigeons and planted a bomb in the basement of Allen and Unwin. But if Demidenko did not sink the good ship Allen & Unwin I doubt if Ambalavanar’s aspersions on the Tamil Tigress can either.

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