By Charles Sarvan –
The web-site tamiltigerwomen.com contains material, both poems and prose-sketches, selected and translated from the original Tamil into English by Dr N. Malathy: my thanks to her for sending me a copy. The documents are rare in that they are the writings of women (many were teenagers or in their early 20s) who were Tiger combatants. Presumably most, if not all, are now dead, killed in action. I may be mistaken but think their names as given are nom du guerre. Much of the material they left behind was destroyed by the government. Dr. Malathy is owed a debt of gratitude for collecting, translating and making available for posterity these intensely personal perspectives. It is, one hopes, an on-going project to which others will contribute. Eventually, a data or document bank can be established from which those interested can draw. Our memory and recall are not to be trusted. Memory adjusts and alters the past, and creates something different, that is, something that did not happen quite the way we remember and believe. But many of the works selected here are not the product of distant recollection but were written as it were in medias res, and so are all the more valuable. I admit: immediacy does not eliminate subjectivity. Reading the fictionalised contributions, one recalls the words of Nadine Gordimer, Nobel-Prize winner for Literature: Nothing factual that I write is as true as my fiction. If there is death and awful injury; great grief and unutterable pain; mutilation, hardship, exhaustion, shortage of food and medicine, there’s also warm camaraderie; brief and in-between moments of teasing, tomfoolery and laughter. Love finds brief expression in ‘Fire within’ by Ampuli. Neela belongs to a carrier-team tasked with bearing away the dead and the injured, bringing forward food and ammunition. Suddenly, in the midst of the “fire” of battle, she catches sight of Hari, her love. She had believed he was in another theatre of the war, and the fearful thought wells up: will she also carry his dead body?
Even after death, the Tamil Tigers continue to excite sharply contrasting reactions, and those who attempt a balanced approach risk the ire, if not abuse, from both extremes. Some see them as heroes who, inspired by a precious dream, fought for about three decades even though they were internationally isolated (a poem composed by Barathi accuses the United Nations of protecting not the vulnerable but the “vultures”); were massively out-numbered, and didn’t have a single jet-fighter or helicopter: see, Sarvan, ‘A great military victory?’ in the Sunday Leader of 25 October 2009. They fought with courage, often displaying chutzpah as in, for example, their attack on Colombo airport, 24 July 2001. Others see the Tigers as cruel and foolish: most of us are not immune to the infection of partisanship, though we may not be conscious of carrying the bacillus. The way in which the war ended brings honour neither to the government nor to the Tigers. The latter are accused of using thousands of Tamils, including children, women and the aged as human-shields – the very people to whom they had sought to bring freedom. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act 1, Scene 4), it is commented of a character facing execution: “Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it”. The same is not said of the Tiger leadership. There are several examples from history of courage to the very end, such as the Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BCE, where Spartan King Leonidas with 7,000 men faced a Persian army thought to number about 150, 000. On realizing that he had been betrayed and was trapped, Leonidas released the bulk of his army and remained with a few to fight to the end. “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”
The Tigers were a complex phenomenon: in other words, there were contradictory elements which went to form their make-up. As I have written elsewhere, if there was cruelty in them, there was also discipline and courage; if there was strategic error, there was also tactical brilliance; if there was foolishness, there was also exceptional intelligence; if there was fatal stubbornness, there was also ingenious improvisation; if there was ruthless ambition, there was also pure idealism and the total self-denial and self-sacrifice such idealism can create. (For the last, see my review of the documentary, ‘My Daughter, the Terrorist’ in: www.sangam.org/2008/08/Film_Review.php?print=true) As far as I know, there are no reports of the Tigers (unlike Sri Lankan government soldiers) indulging in rape, be it of civilians, alleged sympathizers or captured combatants. Again, unlike with government security personnel, there is no record of the Tigers stripping naked, publicly taunting and humiliating Sinhalese, were they soldiers or civilians. (Gang-rape and rape continue with complete impunity in Tamil areas occupied by the army: see the Human Rights publication of 2013 titled We Will Teach You a Lesson. I have drawn attention to this book in Paper No. 5904, South Asia Analysis Group, 2 April 2015, and in Colombo Telegraph, 3 April 2015.)
In the present ‘blog’, Dr Ms Malathy does not concern herself with politics, with right and wrong, but with the experience of female Tamil Tigers as expressed in their own writing. War is presented in its detail – and in its terrible waste and tragedy. These poems and prose sketches reveal the individual, sentient, human being behind stereotype labels such as “terrorist”. The contrast between the beauty of nature and the cruelty of human beings has long struck and saddened humanity. In the words of Bishop Reginald Hebert: “where every prospect pleases, and man alone is vile”. If Sri Lanka is a “Paradise Isle”, as touted in tourist literature, it is so in terms of its natural beauty and not on political, economic, social or ethical grounds. These last are gifted neither by the gods nor by nature but are the creation of wise and caring, sustained and patient, human endeavour. In ‘Rise up for the new dawn’, also by Barathy, bird songs welcome a beautiful new dawn and trees shake off their dew. But then the blood of the female comrade next to her “paints new pictures on the soil”; the trees are crushed and birds rendered wingless.
Under the Tamil Tigers, women enjoyed a rare degree of emancipation. They carried out the same duties, did the same work, suffered and died as their male comrades. They saw it as a challenge to prove they were as good, if not better, than the men and so deserved their new status as equals. In Malaimahal’s Puthiya Kathaikal (‘New Stories’), the Indian army for the very first time in its history battles an all-women unit. (Female Tiger units are known to have routed all-male government forces.) It is indeed a new story because it is about a new breed of women freed from the notions and constrains of conservative society. Words from the poem ‘Easter, 1916’ by Yeats come to mind: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born”. (The Easter uprising was an attempt by the Irish to free themselves from British imperial rule but it couldn’t prevail against superior numbers and fire-power.) A mother is shocked that her daughter who as a child was even afraid to go out in the dark (presumably to the toilet) is now a Sea Tiger, wearing shorts and diving deep into the dark depths of the ocean. Another woman comments that the sea, outraged at this unbecoming behaviour by a woman, will surely storm and rage. In Pillai’s perceptive and tragic Malayalam novel of the 1950s, Chemmeen, the belief is recounted that the life of a fisherman far out at sea is in the hands of his wife ashore. Should she behave improperly, Kadalamma (literally, sea-mother, meaning the goddess of the sea) would visit vengeance on her husband. Such pseudo-religious beliefs were (are?) used by older folk to control the younger, particularly women. Patriarchy, supported by complicit, conservative and collaborative women, often disguises its drive to domination as religious piety and social propriety. As Louis Althusser showed, state and society maintain themselves through Ideology which includes religious belief. The exploited – in this case, females – are persuaded to believe in and support their own exploitation and subordination.
In ‘What price?’ by Malaimahal, a group of female Tigers is surprised to come across an old man crying on the edge of the frontline. He explains that the land on which they stand was his, intended to meet the dowry required to ‘settle’ his daughter. Now the land is gone; with it the dowry and his daughter’s future. “What is the point in my living when I cannot do anything for my child?” It is dishonourable for a man to demand a dowry, and an insult to the woman to have one paid, and the pernicious dowry system was rejected by the Tigers. In this sketch, a female Tiger decides to write to her brothers urging that, when they marry, they should not accept a dowry. Under a ‘Carthaginian peace’, the situation of Tamil women in the occupied areas, now far worse than before the war began, is pitiful. It is not only harassment and humiliation at the hands of soldiers but conservative Tamil society has reasserted itself, and women who were free and enjoyed as much scope as men are now consigned to playing traditional roles. A former fighter cannot even climb onto a low wall to pluck a ripe fruit because that would be un-ladylike: please access ‘Haunted by her Yesterdays’;
‘Eluthaatha Kavithai’ (‘Unwritten poem’) was composed by one Vaanathi shortly before she was killed in action. Its refrain begs, “Write my unwritten poem / This is my plea to you”. But while others may die with or even for you, each must die her or his own death. So too only Vaanathi can write Vaanathi’s poems, and she is no more. They emerged from her unique inner-being. (Every human being, terrorist or freedom-fighter; however lowly and obscure, is unique.) Dr Malathy has done what’s possible by rescuing these works and making them available to a wider readership. It is for readers to access this ‘site’ and form their own opinion: mine is merely an attempt to draw attention to it.
Finally, there is the aspect of translation. In Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 3, Scene 1), when a character is temporarily transformed into an animal, his friends exclaim: You have been translated! A translation is a new avatar in a completely different form. Those who don’t know the original language can form impressions, make judgements, only on the basis of the translation before them: translators bear a grave responsibility. Secondly, to translate, say, from Italian to French is easier than translating not only from a different language but also from a very different culture: as is the case here. Thirdly, while translation assumes near native-speaker competence in the target language, to work on literary texts calls, in addition, for heightened sensitivity to language and its nuances. So it is that the same text has been translated into the same language by different individuals, each not quite satisfied with the effort of her or his predecessor. For example, Homer’s Odyssey has been translated into English over the centuries, each version more or less different. Variety of interpretation is enriching and to be welcomed. The present translation may leave much to be desired but it must be commended for what it does: preserve and disseminate. No doubt, there will be different translations, other versions, of this and other Tamil-Tiger literature.
We want minds to strip away falsity; to nurture empathy and to bury difference.
(Adapted from ‘We want beautiful minds’ by Ampuli, included in ‘Tamil Tiger Women: Through Selected Writings by Them’)