On Isai Priya and Memorialization, In the Month of November.


Shobha alias Isai Priya

For the first time in, maybe, 26 years, a relatively tension-free, bloodless November 26th has passed. This day, the traditional “Maarveer Day” held much for debate and speculation even after the death of its author, the slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhaharan, as the state militia had, up to last year, its eyes and rifles cocked up in vigilance of potential November 26th activity. In fact, a year ago, in 2014, there was much intimidation and conflict in the Jaffna University, where a student faction had organized a candle-lit vigil, in spite of a strict prohibition of any form of commemorative function by the militia/law enforcement.

The relaxtion of tension should not be mistaken or be translated as “forgetting” or as “forgiving”; for, an acceptable solution and mechanism as to how we “reclaim” the memory of those lost in battle  — specially in the Northern and Eastern territories — is yet to be satisfactorily proposed. We, as a nation, are still at the rudimentary debate as to whether “war crimes” have been committed, and as to with what measurement that definition has to be examined. The more sensitive and nuanced interaction with memory and memorialization, as yet, has not even remotely entered the top agenda of negotiators.

Over the past year, among other post-war developments, the banning of a South Indian film — K. Ganeshan’s Porkalathil Oru Poo — caught my attention, as it was stalled by the Indian Censor Board. The film is based on the life of slain LTTE journalist-artiste Shobha, alias Isai Priya, whose mutilated and (possibly) sexually assaulted corpse made shocking headlines, when leaked through Channel 4 footage three years ago. Isai Priya is said to have worked for the LTTE broadcasting division and had also worked as a singer and dancer. Evidence of her being in Vavuniya as a refugee is confirmed by several sources. Tamilnet had earlier claimed that   Isai Priya was taken away from the refugee camp in Vavuniya by the Sri Lankan military on or about the 23rd May, 2009. The Ministry of Defence website had, in 2009, posted an update citing Isai Priya to have died in battle in the last phase of the war.

Porkalathil Oru Poo Movie Stills

Porkalathil Oru Poo Movie Stills

Isai Priya became an icon for the sexually violated and brutally murdered female cadre, though she is just a hint of brutality’s gross proportions at the hands of a leash-less militia. Hers is one specific case that came to global light, as her harrowing death happened at a specific historical point, where all spots were on Sri Lanka in the post-war aftermath. Hers can only be a shudder which represents a thousand other women, men and children brutalized and extra-judicially executed by the legit militia of the country. The trick will be as to how all these lives lost in the most unfortunate and unforgivable manners can be meaningfully remembered in ceremonial spirit? Or, should the likes of Isai Priya simply be condemned to a sequence of brutalized photographs in the memory of the world wide web?

In 2012, at the wake of the Channel 4 photographs of Isai Priya being publicized, I was deeply disturbed, as her tragedy, in many ways, summed up the gruesome heights to which mob violance can escalate, at a floodgate like May 2009. The banning of Porkalathil Oru Poo brought back to me my own words written in homage of Isai Priya, of violent truths that a censor’s signature cannot deny:

“Your body comes to us in pictures,
No censorship can withold the flow
Of thought that there was in you that thought
Fro weeks, perhaps, before you were caught,
For weeks you may have known that it was a matter of time.

Yes — in pictures sold by the very rapist:
Your undignified mangled nude, neck wriggled awry,
Black rectangles for tits and genitals, in a
Bid to make news a wee bit ethical”.

A wikipedia entry on Isai Priya states that she was 27 at the time of her murder. Her infant child had died on or around the 15th of May, 2009, as a victim of ariel bombing. Her husband, an LTTE activist, too, had died during the last stages of the war. Isai Priya — or, Shobha — had been born in 1982 and been a resident of Delft Island. Her family had been displaced in 1995, at the height of Operation Riviresa. She had studied at Vembadi Girls’ School, and had been a news anchor and announcer. Her other aspirations and dreams in life, like in the case of thouands of others similarly cut short, are not known. But, to do their lives justice and to account for their deaths in some meaningful form is a collective obligation which we all should accept.


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