The more skeptical camp of Niromi de Soyza’s supposed-autobiography in general agree that it is possible that Subothini Anandaraja had a peripheral involvement with the Tamil Tigers, but that the book is an embellishment of that involvement, and that, as such, the “autobiography” is in large a weave based on fiction, other available sources and hearsay. One such external source that is cited by de Soyza’s dissenters is that of M.R Narayana Swami’s writings on the LTTE. In other spaces, mainly the Australian media and literary platforms, the book has gone unquestioned and thereby, considered a work of integrity and authenticity. Youtube footage of Niromi de Soyza at the Adelaide Film Festival of that year, among other platforms where she had been emotionally distressed while speaking of the book, were all experiences that post-date my initial essay on Tamil Tigress which was written soon after my first reading of the supposed-autobiography in 2012. Parallel to my first reading, I had already had a rudimentary glance at the already growing criticism aimed at the work’s authenticity and – more so – of its sincerity.
In a more exhaustive reading of Niromi de Soyza, I would more strongly reaffirm my earlier feelings that the book is most likely a carefully crafted semi-fiction: the kind of book that we anchor on facts to give a supportive historical vibe, but one that still leaves a hollowness and lack of credibility, owing to the many disagreements between fact and representation, the incongruity of detail, and the mistakes and misdirections that, at one level, are inevitable when you are writing out of second-hand knowledge. With a view not to repeat or overlap what many readers / critics (including myself) have earlier pointed out, in this essay, I wish to highlight a few further instances that render Tamil Tigress as suspect.
For a writer who often keeps close track of time and duration while making frequent notes of dates, months and the time lapse between incidents, minor, almost negligible details that are unconvincingly presented often push the narrative towards incredibility and towards credulity. For Niromi, in 1979, the Yal Devi offers A/C carriages, and the burning of the Jaffna Library – generally accepted to have been carried out on the night of June 1st 1981 – happens in a morning. In the Third Chapter, set in 1983, Niromi claims to be a child of 12, though earlier, it is tabled that she was born in 1969 (she is 8 years old when, in 1977, she is relocated to Jaffna), which would make her 13+ in that year of the 83 Pogrom. The train journey from Norton Bridge to Jaffna, which Niromi undertakes with her father, takes 18 hours.
Speaking of the Sinhala Only Act (1956) and the Standardization of University entrance (1972), the writer refers to both these implements in the space of the same paragraph, as if they are in consequence of each other. In reality, the two enactments are a decade and a half apart from each other, while many other developments which the writer leaves out of the narrative (such as, for example, the failed pacts between Chelvanayakam and two successive regimes) had widened the ethnic gulf in the interim. She makes a passing reference to anti-Tamil agitations of 1956 and 1977, though there is no reference made to 1958, 1979 or 1981. These de-selections are intriguing; specially, in the case of the violence of 1981, when the writer is said to have lived in close quarters to the town.
The writer refers to a Tamil call for a Sovereign state in 1978. Assuming that this is a reference to the Vaddukottai Resolution, the year of that confederation is generally agreed on as being in 1976. Yet, for a sheltered, convent-educated girl of conventional surroundings, Niromi is, nonetheless, very political. At 14, she is already anxious of a possible state-engineered Tamil genocide. At 16, and having had lived the last 8 years of her formative years in Jaffna, she is perceptive enough to ponder on how politicians create polarization among the people in the South and the North for their own petty gains. There is a schizophrenic disparity in personality between this “perceptive Niromi”, and the “uncritical, single-minded Niromi” who gets drawn to militarism in spite of faint misgivings of the LTTE. She is either blind or insensitive to instances of LTTE ruthlessness, in spite of several incidents that stir doubt within her. The killing of an EPRLF carder, “Benjamin”, by the LTTE, the killing of Principal C.E Anandarajah, the brutal killing of Vellai – a fellow carder – and the story of an LTTEr being ordered to kill his own father suspected of espionage are instances that waver Niromi; but, she, in spite of her otherwise critical-minded energy, always reasons in favour of the Movement. This leaves a palpable inconsistency of character.
From the beginning, Niromi’s home is defined as a conventional, strict household that monitors the children’s movements and pastimes. Even though one may overlook shampoo, a rare and luxurious item in 1985, being routinely used by her upper-middle class family, the casual, offhand references to pickets and demonstrations in which Niromi is said to have taken part in her pre-LTTE days come across as being incongruous with the iron hand of her parentage. These pickets are casually referred to as an aside, while describing something else: more like “fillers”, or “additional” information. How did Niromi participate in these pickets? When did she do so? Where were those pickets held? Why weren’t they referred to in the order of sequence as they happened? How did she go unnoticed in these demonstrations?
In April 1986, due to the rise of militancy in the North, the G.C.E O/L exam is said to be already postponed indefinitely. Why would anyone call off an exam set for December as early as April? The EPRLF ideologue Benjamin is said to have had a Tamil accent of Indian origin, and not one of the Hill Country. What this means, only the writer can elaborate.
On July 1st 1987, Niromi and her fellow female combatants begin military training. However, there is very little detail regarding the specificities of the training. Descriptions given are often banal, and too general in character. In short, there is not enough evidence to convince the reader that Niromi had necessarily undergone weapon training. Details of camp-life is often expressed without character. Even more interesting is how Niromi and Ajanthi – both frequently marked apart from the “general female carder” for their more “affluent” backgrounds – and the combatants from remote and impoverished socio-economic circumstances get along with no tension or friction. Class or its implications or complications do not hinder camp life, except in the case of the senior, male leadership, who treat Niromi differently from the rest, being considerate of her softer upbringing. The female carder are also seen playing a game called “Guessing the Laugh”. This choice of name came across as classed, and improbable.
The generally elusive LTTE leader Prabhakaran is omnipresent in Niromi de Soyza’s Tamil Tigress. He is seen coming and going to the “Freedom Birds Headquarters” at all hours, freely mingling with the carder. He even explains step by step of his political programme (such as the laying down of arms in 1987 etc) to the female carder. Though this is not improbable, there is still an air of fiction and embellishment about these passages. Prabhakaran is seen engaged in weapon training in a part of the Jaffna University, even though the campus is said to be within the range of IPKF missiles. A large quantity of intercepted letters, photo albums and documents of importance are seen to idly lie in the Freedom Birds Headquarters, which includes correspondences from moderate Tamil politicians in exile, writing home. In one of his meetings with Niromi, Prabhakaran hands over Rs. 20000 for purposes of clothing the female wing. In 1986, that amount for that specific purpose is somewhat overwhelming. Other leading figures whom Niromi gets a chance to interact at close quarters include Mahatthaya, Kittu, Yogi Master and Karikalan.
The writer claims that LTTE frontliner Kittu’s leg was critically injured and amputated about “18 months prior to” July 1987: the month of Niromi’s commencing her weapon training. By this admission, Kittu’s injury would have been received in January 1986. Historically, the injury is understood to have occurred in March 1987. Going by Niromi’s timeline, the ceremonial handing over of arms by the LTTE to the IPKF happens in mid-August 1987, a few weeks past its possible historical date. Niromi’s weapon training ends in the end of August: a course of 2 months. Later, she is sent to set up claymore mines, though there was never references to her being educated in mine-setting during her basic 2 month training.
According to Niromi, a Government Agent is shot to death a few months after Thileepan’s death in September 1987. The said official’s daughter, by the writer’s admission, was her classmate. Who this government official is a bit unclear. Jaffna’s Government Agent from 1984 to 1989, Panchalingam, was shot to death by the LTTE in 1989. Still, in 1987, a group of Jaffna university students, on their way to the computer lab, is stopped by Niromi and her fellow cadres who are on sentry duty at the campus gates, making the studentship disgruntled. Indeed, it is worth to verify the existence of such a facility – and, in spite of my ignorance, there may have been such a center – even though according to the University of Jaffna website, the Faculty of Science, along with a Computer Science Department, was only set up in 1991.
In the first instance of being unexpectedly called upon to halt the progress of an encroaching enemy battalion, Niromi rushes in, while eating biscuits. She has a brief Wordworthian moment when, 100 meters ahead of her, she spots a “thousand” IPKF soldiers waiting in ambush. Niromi’s sentry duty falls almost always at either 1.00 AM or 2.00 AM. There is something uncannily repetitive about that roster. She is both witty and quick in responses with even the senior-most carders: this, in spite of the LTTE being introduced as a strict, hierarchical institute. At one point, Niromi has senior male carders such as Roshan tightly wrapped around her finger, while carders like Razzak, Thileepan and Muralie are different to her. Even Prabhakaran speaks to her with visible difference.
Most unconvincing are the two battle scenes which Niromi minutely outlines for us. The first battle scene – the unexpected confrontation with the IPKF and the retreat – is quite unconvincing. The mode of the LTTE’s operation, if indeed it happened the way it did, betrays an amateurish rag-tag quality. The Second Battle is a disaster, especially if the writer uses it to evoke pathos and tragedy. The second battle triggers as the contingent led by Muralie and Sudarshan try to cross a road, and is set upon by the enemy from all sides. This scene, I feel, is heavy in melodrama and echoes a badly choreographed Bollywood script. Bullets are seen whizzing by, while bombs thrown are seen to cinematically cut across the air towards you, giving you just enough time to duck, and to call out a warming to the carder next to you (Gandhi Aiya); and for it to hit the fellow carder, his brains to spill all over you, and for his headless torso to fall on the ground. Bullets are seen to graze you by, hitting all in the vicinity, but you. Even as carder after carder fall attempting to scamper across the road, the rest still follow through. Banana fronds, water tanks and roofs are readily available for carders to retreat to. The 2000-strong enemy misses his target within touching distance.
Michael Roberts and DBS Jayraj were two writers whose commentary of the book in those initial stages came across as engaging, and since then, there have been others who have contributed to the discourse sparked by Tamil Tigress. Roberts, writing from Adelaide, has made several submissions and collated others’ views in his blog space, assessing the text as questionable, and dishonest, to say the least. Jeyaraj, on the other hand, has made sustained efforts to defend the text, even while going to the extent of supplementing the reader with personal anecdotes and chunks of background information that would make the reader rethink the work as fact. In fact, one of Jeyaraj’s entries, written in his engaging hand, is more fulfilling than Niromi de Soyza’s rendition. Jeyaraj comes across as having all the right information that will fit all the questions people have to ask of the book. No wonder Niromi de Soyza is yet to answer her critics.