In his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978), Milen Kundera refers to a photograph taken in Communist Bohemia in 1948, where Klement Gottwald steps out to a balcony to address the people. He is bareheaded and it is snowing. One of his comrades — Clementis — removes his fur cap and places it on his leader’s head. According to Kundera’s narrator, this photograph makes a million copies and is circulated widely. Four years later, Clementis is charged with treason. He is “removed” from history and is “removed” from the photo. It is almost as if he never existed. This allusion by Kundera can be the departure point in accessing Tamil Tigress.
What is more intriguing than Niromi De Soyza’s (chosen nom de plume of Subothini Anandarajah) Tamil Tigress is the consequent critical discourse that the book had paved way to. The intervention with the supposed “confessional biography” which was released in 2011 by a leading Aussie publishing powerhouse can be traced along two camps: one, which questions the authenticity and the intention behind the “Tigress narrative”; and the other, which supplements the story of “Niromi” and her days as a “Freedom Bird” (a member of the female LTTE wing) as an honest, credible delivery. The likes of Arul Ambalavanar and (more crucially) Michael Roberts have written extensively on behalf of the camp critical of “Niromi De Soyza’s” confession; while DBS Jeyaraj has been diligently defending the author, provisionally by citing his own experiences with the LTTE-related discourses during the 1980s.
Whether “Niromi De Soyza” was an LTTEr or not, or whether the “confession” is word-to-word authentic is not the bone with which we should contend. As Michael Roberts, too, points out, what should detain our focus is what “Niromi De Soyza” and her publishers intends to do with this “story”; as to how they slant it into public reader circles and as to what kind of marketing ploys are accompanied therewith. From existing evidence, what we can see is that “Niromi De Soyza” has invested much tears and emotions behind the socializing of the novel, which includes repeated breakdowns and burst-forths in public forums. In a tale of Grade ‘A’ militant activity in a decisive phase of Lanka’s Civil War in the year of 1987, the supposed real life inspirations for all major characters charted in the plotline, too, are by now dead. The conclusion of the novel indicates that “Roshan” — the dashing cadre cum wooer of “Niromi” — is held in a camp in India; while Jeyaraj informs us that “he” has resumed a “new life” in a Northern country. Other than that, only “Niromi” survives the combat unit we meet in the novel; which makes Michael Roberts, too, wonder whether the story “Niromi” tells us in 2011 would have been any different had Prabhaharan lived upto then. Nor should one take seriously “Niromi De Soyza”‘s wanting to emulate / honour the memory of Richard De Zoysa. I feel that that is a pleasant lie that would feed the marketability of her writer image. Had “Niromi De Soyza” been all that loyal to Richard De Zoysa’s activism etc, she should have paid closer detail to how the surname of her supposed fetish is spelt. But, then, again, the bungling up of the spelling in itself is symptomatic of “Niromi De Soyza”s work bench: for, as Ambalavanar and Roberts have pointed out it is the “little details” that undermine and give away, what they repeatedly insist is, “De Soyza”s duplicity.
My purpose, however, is not to essentially debunk “Niromi De Soyza”, nor is to back away from the suspecions and skepticisms the camp of Michael Roberts carry in relation to the novel. Nor would I necessarily chastize “Niromi De Soyza” if she is acting a pantomime for a few extra dollars and a launching into a recognition of sorts. She is definitely not the first to do so, and the whole discourse of “narrativizing” history is enmeshed by political, commercial, egoistic underpinnings and more, that one’s search for “authenticity” and “verifiability” itself is a tangled enterprise. A classic and popular case at hand would be Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark on which a possible million of people have wrested their mind’s good judgment; but, a book that is as dubious and incredible as much as it is factual and believable.
From a purely narrative-reader’s point of view, Tamil Tigress does give a reader who is “reasonably read” (and I am one) that sense of “discomfort” — an itchy feeling, really — in accepting it as a “historical confession” of “truth and nothing but the truth”. The tale of “Niromi” carries an undeniable pinch of incredibility and implausibility in relation to some incidents, that — are those incidents genuinly true — they would only show us how like fiction and fabrication the real life of “Niromi De Soyza”, at times, is. The politically-provocative sections of the book is set in the second half of 1987, up to the run up to the Indo-Lanka Accord, its rejection by the LTTE and the subsequent hostilities between the LTTE and the Peace Keeping forces deployed by India (IPKF).
Niromi (the character) is present at the deathbed of Thileepan, as he breathes his last, following a fasting satyagraha of a week and five days. In an event attended by thousands of people and with Thileepan’s stage being the focal point of the protestant gathering, what are the chances that a low-rung person of the LTTE female wing gets a “few last minutes” with Thileepan, on stage? Similarly, Niromi comes into open contact with Prabhaharan (who, at one point, even summons Niromi to give her money to be spent on uniform clothes) on at least two instances in as many months, and is frequently in the same spaces as the “frontline” Tiger leadership such as Kittu, Mahaththaya etc. From a purely narrative perspective, these insistencies can boost the credibility of the writer and the fiction under study. But, as to which level these are undoctored, unadulterated “facts” is a moot point that cannot be easily verified, in 2014.
When Niromi’s unit comes under heavy IPKF attack, almost half the comrades of her contingent are killed. This includes Ajanthi (Nirmala), Niromi’s best friend and confidante. However, given the determination with which Niromi locates the IPKF’s counter-LTTE assault — where, she says, 2000 troops are in search of 20 of her unit — the small band of determined LTTE cadres make good ground and survive in spite of extremely tricky moments. For instance, while the IPKF is seen to be experts at ambush and in infiltrating the Tiger occupations, they are not seen to be too efficient in patrolling and routine checks, as the remnants of Niromi’s band make easy ground from village to village with minimal interferance. She spends weeks and months in “LTTE-friendly” villagers’ huts and abodes with not even a routine IPKF/military patrol coming her way. This is an anomaly of a sort, as elsewhere, civilian life is consistently seen disrupted by army/IPKF stormings in. The escapes and hiding outs in villages, in other words, are too easy; specially, when juxtaposed with the hounding Niromi’s unit takes in the camps and in the jungles.
The stronger quarter of the novel is clearly the first half. The concluding chapters take a didactic tone which, at the worst, is annoying; and which, at its tolerable moments, pulls down the narrative, by making Niromi sound a school-matron. The killing of a cadre upon suspecion of being a spy — who is buried alive — and Mahattaya’s close range summary execution of a young cadre for having an affair with a female cadre bring in a chastizing effect. Once again, too many things (and things that should happen to make a selling narrative) happen within the small contingent of 20 cadres. From betrayals, decimations, miraculous survivals, love affairs, Prabhaharan who makes regular appearances, mysterious entries and exits of top Tiger ranks to camps that are barely held together, to movement from one uncharted village to another with the ease of cutting through butter, all enhance a critical reader’s skepticism.
As Roberts observes, the “political aspect” of the novel — specially, the happenings in 1987 and their peripheral aspects — closely resonates existing literature on the same matters. The only difference is that “Niromi De Soyza” records incidents from the perspective of an “I”, referring to the over-arching political backdrop of the North of 1987 through a personal window. The observation cited above locates many echos between “Niromi De Soyza”‘s work and the work in the line of N. Swamy. Roberts is equally intrigued by “Niromi De Soyza”‘s locating of a face-hidden person on Thileepan’s stage of fast as Murali, the level-headed unit leader under whom Niromi is stationed.
For almost every claim “Niromi De Soyza” makes in the book, Jeyaraj has evidence of a sort to back it up, which once, again, is too smooth to be accepted without a sense of “discomfort”. Jeyaraj has a 4 part blog submission available in his interesting and versatile blog which gives us an “unmasked” version of what “Niromi De Soyza” gives us with carefully crafted masks (for security) and all. In a sense, what “Niromi” hides is neatly “unravelled” by Jeyaraj, though their larger visions in reading Tamil Tigress seem to complement one another.
The photo with the alleged-Murali — half hidden behind a Thileepan speaking into a mic — reminded me of a reference Milen Kundera makes to a photograph, as he alludes to the act of “history-making” in his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978). Kundera refers to a photograph taken in Communist Bohemia in 1948, where Klement Gottwald steps out to a balcony to address the people. He is bareheaded and it is snowing. One of his comrades — Clementis — removes his fur cap and places it on his leader’s head. According to Kundera’s narrator, this photograph makes a million copies and is circulated widely. Four years later, Clementis is charged with treason. He is “removed” from history and is “removed” from the photo. It is almost as if he never existed. This allusion by Kundera can be the departure point in accessing Tamil Tigress. It would answer all the questions of the Ambalavanar-Roberts camp; and put to rest the many words the Jeyaraj-likes and the many tears the very “Niromi De Soyza” will have to waste in giving the book a crutch in the “real” world.