Saturday, 18 February 2012
Book Review: Tamil Tigress by Niromi de Soyza
Niromi de Soyza doesn’t exist. The former LTTE fighter who wrote Tamil Tigress has adopted a nom de plume because she fears for her personal safety and that of her family. Niromi’s fears aren’t totally unfounded. Niromi’s offering is a memoir of the time she spent with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a dreaded organisation that was once described as the most effective and ruthless terrorist outfit in the world. At the height of its power in the early part of the last decade, the LTTE controlled most of Northern and North Eastern Sri Lanka. Niromi is as critical of the LTTE as she is of other players in the Island’s tragedy. True, the LTTE doesn’t exist anymore, but its supporters in various western countries remain as fanatic as ever, with dreams of an independent Eelam burning as brightly as ever.
Tamil Tigress is well-written. The prose is smooth, but doesn’t have unnecessary frills or garnish. One of the best things about Tamil Tigress is that it captures the mood and atmosphere of Jaffna prior to 1983 when the troubles began and afterwards. Compared to the hill country where Niromi and her parents led a very western lifestyle for the first eight years of Niromi’s life, Jaffna was a bastion of conservative values. Niromi’s father was a high caste catholic, while her mother was an Indian Tamil, a Hindu of a different caste and was looked down by her in laws even though her father was also, just like her father-in-law, a railway station master. Niromi’s parents had married for love. Niromi’s father was an engineer working for the Sri Lankan Electricity Board’s technical college at a place called Norton Bridge in the picturesque Central Province, around sixty kilometres south of Kandy. When eight year old Niromi is sent to her paternal grandmother’s place in boring Jaffna (because the Sinhalese heartland had become unsafe for Tamils), she is unhappy with her surroundings, which are very different from Norton Bridge where Niromi, her younger sister and her parents had led an easy-going and laid-back life.
Caste and class played an important role in the life of Jaffna Tamils. This is in a way not much different from the situation in Tamil Nadu or the rest of India. Niromi’s paternal grandmother, a devout catholic, is quite superstitious, practising a form of Catholicism that is very native in character. Niromi’s father is on the whole progressive, encouraging a western lifestyle and does not make Niromi go through an antique ritual, which many Tamils follow even now, one that involves a public ceremony almost akin to a wedding, to celebrate and declare to the world the onset of a young girl’s menstrual cycle. He however forbids her from singing in the church choir since it is composed mainly of girls from lower castes! He also gets rid of a scrapbook she had with pictures of Sridevi, the Indian movie diva, and suggests that she collect pictures of Mother Mary.
It is interesting to note that most of the LTTE cadres were from the lower rungs of society. The upper classes fled Jaffna for safer destinations all over the world. There’s an interesting anecdote when a Tiger named Roshan (who later plays an important role in this narrative) tries to force one of Niromi’s neighbours to move to another house, so that the LTTE can use the neighbour’s house which is strategically located as a base. The elderly neighbour’s verbal abuse forces the Tiger requisitionner to leave. This is essentially because Roshan is from a poorer background and a lower caste. When Niromi and her friend Ajanthi enrol in the LTTE, they are treated as curios and more importantly, they get preferential treatment since they are ‘upper class’. Nothing illustrates the background and educational qualifications of the average LTTE fighter than the anecdote of how when once Niromi referred to the LTTE by its acronym, one of her fellow fighters, a girl named Dhushi, wanted to know what it meant, since ‘until then, she only knew the organisation she was a member of as just Pulihal [Tigers]’
Women in Jaffna did not have an easy life. Men could loll around and still expect to be waited upon hand and foot, while women slogged. This attitude seems to have percolated to the LTTE as well. Initially, the Tigers did not admit women – the attitude was that it would be tantamount ‘to placing a spark of fire next to cotton wool’. The first female LTTE fighters were actually from rival organisations, the TELO and PLOTE, which had been banned and then decimated by the LTTE. The female fighters of these organisations who were undergoing training in India were allowed to complete their training and admitted to the Tiger fraternity on their return to Sri Lanka. Niromi tells us that untrained female Tigers were referred to as ‘Makkal’ by the Tigers. ‘Makkal’ can be loosely translated as ‘people’ or even ‘the masses’. We even hear Prabhakaran address Niromi and her fellow trainees as ‘Makkal’. There are quite a few instances narrated by Niromi which show the deep chauvinism exhibited by the men folk in northern Sri Lanka, both civilians and male Tigers, towards female LTTE cadres. However, during one of Prabhakaran’s speeches at Niromi’s training camp, he said that ‘women were the future of the organisation, as they were more dedicated and willing to please.’ Towards the end of the her memoir, when Niromi and other LTTE fighters shelter in the Vanni jungles, Niromi tells us that female fighters, even the senior-most among them, were never part of strategy discussions.
The women in the LTTE, Niromi’s colleagues, might have been second class members, but it doesn’t seem to have affected their ability to crack pithy one-liners and find humour in the dreariest of all places. When the one-legged leader Kittu is asked for advice by a trainee, he responds, ‘what advice can a legless commander give budding fighters?’ Pat comes the muttered, under-the-breath response from one of Niromi’s fellow trainees, ‘how about a lecture on self-pity?’ The LTTE itself seems to have a weird sense of humour in the way it foisted names on all its recruits. We are told that someone who was very dark skinned was renamed ‘vellai’ which means ‘white’ in Tamil. Another chap is called ‘Manmadhan’, meaning the handsome God of Lust. Niromi tells us that the chap in question ‘was quite the opposite.’
The factors which caused Niromi to take up the gun are well sketched and Niromi builds up a good case for her decision to join the Tigers. When she was a child living in the Central Province, she witnessed the forced deportation of half the Indian Tamil population. Children were separated from their parents and old people were treated harshly. The Sinhalese sat around and watched, unruffled. Then there were the 1977 riots and the riots in 1983 immediately after the LTTE ambushed and killed 13 government soldiers in Tinneveli near Jaffna, where so many Tamils were killed in Colombo and other Sinhalese dominated areas. The Jaffna library, which housed so many culturally important and unique documents and palm leaf manuscripts, was burnt down in 1981 by a mob of policemen and militia men. Niromi doesn’t say this, but this act of vandalism was in retaliation for the murder of three Sinhalese policemen at a TULF rally.
Niromi adopts the name Shenuka on joining the Tigers. Shenuka is a Sinhala name, one which cannot be pronounced easily by many Lankan Tamils, but Niromi doesn’t care. Life within the LTTE is tough and the fighting tougher. Unlike most of her colleagues who were used to a life or hardship, Niromi finds the toilet facilities so disgusting that she and her bosom friend Ajanthi who is also from a similar background, initially resolve to eat less so that they don’t use to go to the bogs too often.
The LTTE is shown to be ruthless towards other Tamil groups which refuse to disarm when ordered to do so. Niromi is not happy when she is told that many TELO and PLOTE members were killed by burning tyres placed around their necks. Niromi is deeply uncomfortable and unhappy when the LTTE kills her distant relative Benjamin solely because he belongs to the rival EPRLF. Niromi doesn’t mention this, but on 8 October 1987, the LTTE had ambushed an IPKF rations truck carrying paratroopers, taken 5 paratroopers prisoner and killed them by garlanding their necks with burning tyres. The murder of many innocent Sinhalese by the LTTE upsets Niromi. Nevertheless, she believes that only the LTTE can provide a solution to Tamil woes and joins the LTTE. However, after joining the LTTE, her doubts increase in the face of LTTE’s ruthlessness, though she manages to silence her disquiet for a while. Suspected spies are cruelly executed. The LTTE expects unquestioning obedience from its members and brutally punishes all those who dare to disobey. As the LTTE fights the IPKF, civilians are unhappy. There are a few instances where they accuse the LTTE of breaking the peace and request them to stop fighting. The LTTE ignores them. In fact, Niromi makes it clear that even when agreeing to a truce and weapons surrender after the IPKF accord, Prabhakaran had no plans to surrender his weapons or give up his demand for Eelam.
There are so many interesting anecdotes about Prabhakaran and many of the other top LTTE leaders. Niromi tells us that during her training, Prabhakaran visited the training camp often. His wife Madhivadhani and their two children – Charles Anthony and Dhuwaraka - accompanied them once in a while. Niromi tells us in a matter of fact manner that ‘A self-trained man, he wanted us to develop exceptional patience and mental strength which he claimed to have achieved as a young boy by staying inside a sack in the sun all day (no ordinary achievement considering Jaffna’s heat), by inserting needles under his finger nails and by torturing insects.’
One of the diktats of Prabhakaran was that men and women, or rather boys and girls, serving together should not be romantically involved. Roshan, the Tiger who had tried to requisition a house from one of Niromi’s neighbours, is attracted to Niromi and vice versa. The affair comes to nothing, but many of Niromi’s friends tease her about it and one is left wondering till the end if some disciplinary action might be taken against Niromi or Roshan on account of it. Towards the end of the memoir, two young LTTE fighters, Nora and Shanthan are accused by LTTE leader Mahathaya of falling in love. Shanthan is summarily executed, and his body is displayed in public with a note to the effect that ‘he was punished for misbehaving.’ Nora is ordered to ‘prove her loyalty to the organisation by taking a frontline role at every confrontation with the enemy and by stealing an item from the enemy’s camp each time’. Nora’s comrades privately sympathise with her, but none of them openly object. Rather they advice Nora that she ought to fulfil her punishment at least once before she resigns, just to prove her loyalty. This attitude is nothing new. Earlier, we are told of how an LTTE fighter, when ordered to shoot his father, who was suspected of being a spy, complied with the order, before he quit the LTTE.
The punishment meted out to Shanthan and Nora turns out to be the last straw for Niromi who resigns. All her comrades want to resign as well, but they are not allowed to do so. Niromi explains how her background (upper middle-class and upper caste) actually played a role in enabling her to leave the LTTE other than as a deserter. Niromi’s extraction from the LTTE’s hands to her family’s custody is finally achieved when the Mayor of Kilinochchi intervenes in person.
Many writers and bloggers have disputed the veracity of Niiromi’s account. Here’s one such article which explains in detail why Niromi has allegedly got so many things wrong in her narrative. And here’s another.
After reading Tamil Tigress, I felt that on the whole, the narrative sounded genuine. Of course, it is possible to picks a few holes here and there in Niromi’s story. For example, Niromi talks of many a meeting with the LTTE Supremo Prabhakaran and his number two Mahathaya. Even after one makes allowances for the LTTE being, in 1987 when Niromi was a member, a much smaller organisation than the beast it grew to be in the present century, I found it incredible that Prabhakaran would spend so much time with newly recruited fighters. Niromi tells us a lot about Prabhakaran, including that he was passionate about Hinduism and she was worried she might have to convert to Hinduism. I found this difficult to believe. The LTTE, like many other Tamil groupings in Sri Lanka, was essentially Marxist/Socialist in ideology and its top leadership was largely atheist. The nom de guerre adopted by or foisted on many LTTE fighters were Christian or Muslim names, such as Soosai (which means Joseph in Tamil), Gaddafi etc. Dead LTTE fighters were buried and not cremated. I seriously question Niromi's contention that Prabhakaran was a flag-bearer for Hinduism, though he might have had an anti-Buddhist bias since most Sri Lankan Tamils identify Buddhism with the Sinhalese community. Another anecdote (which I found unconvincing) is how after the fighting with the IPKF started, Prabhakaran gave Niromi money to buy uniforms for the female fighters. ‘How much money do you think you will need, children?’ About 20,000 rupees?’ Prabhakaran asks. Just the thought that after hostilities with the IPKF commenced, Prabhakaran would go around handing out rupee notes to a bunch of female fighters to buy uniforms for themselves, cracked me up. The instances where Niromi meets Mahathaya are much more believable since Niromi and Mahathaya are part of a group on the run from the IPKF.
Eminent journalist DBS Jeyaraj, who has written a series of posts in support of Niromi (as a rebuttal to the various allegations and accusations that Niromi’s account is fraudulent) tells us that ‘Niromi is the name of an old school friend and a name she liked. De Soyza is for Richard de Zoysa, the well-known journalist, TV announcer, screen and stage actor who was abducted and killed by “state terrorists” in February 1990’. You can find Jeyaraj’s posts on this topic from these links: (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Part 5 is yet to be posted)
I tried to compare Niromi’s account with that of one Anthony Thasan, a.k.a Shoba Sakthi, whose autofiction Gorilla has been translated into English by Anushiya Sivanarayanan. I had reviewed Gorilla in mid-2008 and my review can be found here. However, I did not get far in my comparison since Shoba Sakthi was a poor, dalit boy and the treatment he received while in the LTTE could just not be compared with what Niromi underwent.
The biggest criticism against Niromi, and this bit is fully justified, is that Tamil Tigress’s blurb talks of how ‘two days before Christmas in 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 government forces in the bloody civil war that was to engulf Sri Lanka for decades.’ Note, the reference to ‘government forces’. As has been pointed out by so many folks on the internet and elsewhere, in 1987, the Sri Lankan army was confined to the barracks and the LTTE was fighting Indian soldiers who had been sent there as a peacekeeping force. In the first Chapter of this memoir, the same ambush is sketched out in detail. In this chapter, the reference is to ‘soldiers’ as hundreds of Indian troops surround Niromi’s group and kill many of her friends. There is no mention of troops from the Indian Peace Keeping Force, the IPKF , or of Sri Lankan soldiers. Later on, in the 14th chapter, the same ambush is explained in greater detail. Here Niromi makes it clear that the LTTE is fighting Indian soldiers. All of this has given rise to the well-justified accusation that Niromi’s memoir is an attempt to show the western world, how much Sri Lankan Tamils have suffered without messing up the narrative with the confusing presence of the IPKF, at a time when Australia, where Niromi currently resides, and the rest of the Western world is clamping down on boat people and other refugee arrivals. There is no doubt that the Sri Lankan Tamil community has suffered, but is Niromi entitled to whitewash certain facts in such a clumsy manner to project victimhood and to explain why Sri Lankan Tamil refugees should not be forced by western nations to return to Sri Lankan?
Niromi tells us time and again that she never saw the faces of the IPKF soldiers she fought. I find that difficult to believe. When faced with an enemy which was superior numbers and weapons, the standard tactic would be to get in as close as possible before the firing starts. The first time Niromi was involved in a fire fight, at a village called Kopaay, she and the others with her ran away when called on to surrender. Fortunately for Niromi, the IPKF did not pursue her. The second time Niromi was in combat, we are told that ‘the battle lasted all through the night. I hardly noticed the time pass as we continued to fire intermittently, changing our magazines only once. All I could see were flashes of gunfire. I aimed at them, but never saw a soldier.’ During the ambush which is briefly described in the blurb, and in greater detail in the first and fourteenth chapters, Niromi and other survivors hide in a nearby large lantana bush. When the soldiers close in, Niromi and others are ordered to ‘quietly cock your rifles. Place your kuppies (cyanide capsules) inside your mouth. If the soldiers spot us, fire the entire magazine into them and then bite the capsule.’ The soldiers come close enough for Niromi to see their boots, but they are not spotted. I assume Niromi didn’t see a soldier’s face even then.
Once when Niromi is in a house where some Sinhalese PoWs had been housed before they were executed by the LTTE, Niromi wonders ‘How could anyone shoot someone at such proximity, especially unarmed prisoners? Then I thought of Benjamin – he had met death in the same way as these soldiers: unarmed and defenceless. I hoped I would never be asked to carry out such a task by the Tigers. The only enemies I was prepared to shoot were faceless, armed and in uniform, somewhere out there trying to destroy me and my people. I did not want them to be in civilian clothes or in the same room as me.’
Niromi accuses the IPKF of committing various atrocities and says (rightly in my opinion) that she would have expected Indian soldiers to be better behaved. There is one instance where Niromi talks of the IPKF as a foreign army, distinguishing it from the Sri Lankan government forces. She tells her readers that ‘I resolved that I would not let Ansaar’s death be in vain, I was going to fight until the foreign army was driven from my homeland and we could attain Tamil Eelam, where there would be no more torture or murder.’ Towards the end of the story, we are told that the IPKF raided her house, ransacked it and marched her mother and younger sister to the nearest camp for further questioning. However, because Niromi’s focus is on atrocities by the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhalese majority, India and the IPKF get off relatively lightly.
However, not once does Niromi say that she didn’t like the idea of fighting the Indian army, when the Sri Lankan Tamil community considered India to be a friend and the real enemy to be the Lankan government. A blogger, who seems to know a lot more than I do, claims in this article that in May 2009, when the LTTE was on the verge of defeat, Niromi published a short story of some nine pages in the Daily Telegraph entitled: “Life as a female Tamil Tiger guerilla relived by one of first female soldiers.” Apparently in this story, she made it clear that she fought the IPKF and that 'fighting the Indian soldiers made no sense to me.'
Niromi’s attitude towards India is ambivalent at best, though I suspect there is little love lost. Once Niromi notes ironically that even when the LTTE was fighting the IPKF, wounded LTTE fighters could get medical help in India (no, she doesn’t say they could get help Tamil Nadu). In another instance while travelling by boat along the Sri Lankan coast, she notes the deserted shore and thinks ‘we must still be in Sri Lanka, because I remember having heard that India was highly populated.’ Most probably if Niromi weren’t too worried about garnering international opinion, she would have been more forthright on the IPKF and India. We are told that within two months of leaving the LTTE, Niromi was enrolled in a boarding school in India and she graduated 18 months later. ‘I had been elected one of four captains and crowned prom queen of the year.’ I assume the school Niromi went to was one of the few international boarding schools in India – the average Indian school doesn’t do prom. How did Niromi like her school, I wonder? How did she feel being in India after having fought Indian soldiers, at a time when her former colleagues were still fighting Indian soldiers? The IPKF was in Sri Lanka until March 1990.
There is another reason to doubt the accuracy of the ambush mentioned in the blurb and twice in the book. It is in this ambush that Niromi’s best buddy Ajanthi is killed. Niromi tells us that a short while before the ambush, a fellow-fighter, a girl named Sadha who claimed to be able to read palms, took a look at Ajanthi's palm and in a sudden burst of drama in an otherwise matter of fact narrative, told Ajanthi that she had a very short lifeline.
Niromi’s literary deception in a way fits in with her earlier behaviour when she joined the LTTE. Though she knew that the LTTE was tyrannical and treated rival Tamil organisations in a despicable manner, though her relative Benjamin had his teeth knocked out and was beaten black and blue by LTTE leader Vasu, kept in detention for many months and later murdered in cold blood in retaliation for the grenade attack on Kittu (which was allegedly carried out by the EPRLF), Niromi still joined the LTTE because she thought the LTTE alone could safeguard Tamil rights. 17-year old Niromi thought she was looking at the larger picture, ignoring the ground realities surrounding her and the pleas of her family. Niromi turned out to be wrong then. Is she doing the right thing now?
In the concluding (20th) chapter, Niromi takes the offensive against the Sri Lankan government’s human rights record. Niromi says that ‘currently, some 100,000 Tamils, displaced by the war – including children and the elderly – are held against their will behind barbed wire in concentration camps, where they endure primitive conditions. Many are also held in prisons without charge or trial. Meanwhile Sinhala resettlement programs take place in their hometowns.’ It is true that many Tamils are still held in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) and these camps are not exactly comfortable R&R resorts. However, it cannot be denied that the Sri Lankan government is entitled to hold to account those civilians who supported the LTTE which had crossed all boundaries of civilised human behaviour. I’m sure the IDP camps and resettlement programmes for inmates of those camps have many drawbacks, but I am not going to comment any further since I am not competent to do so. Here are a few balanced articles on the camps for IDPs: : Article 1, Article 2 and Article 3.
Niromi concludes that ‘at the time of writing this book, Sri Lanka remains a very dangerous place. Not only for Tamils, but for anyone who openly criticises the government.’ To some extent Niromi is right. The Rajapakse government has a horrible human rights record. Anyone who criticises the government is at risk of being silenced as the murder of well-known journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga has demonstrated.
Niromi is perfectly entitled to argue that Sri Lanka is still a dangerous place for Tamils and that Western governments should not force Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to return to Sri Lanka or turn away fresh arrivals. However, should she have morphed Indian peacekeepers into Sri Lankan government soldiers in order to project a more simple and less complicated narrative to achieve her ends?
Niromi ends her memoir with words of thanks and goodbye in Tamil and Sinhalese. Instead, I wish Niromi had made a few positive suggestions to make life easier for the Tamil community living in Sri Lanka. Granted, the Sri Lankan government hasn’t shown any sign of wanting to offer a fair deal to the Tamils in Sri Lankan, granted most of the politicians representing the Tamils are government stooges, but is the situation really irredeemable? Couldn’t the girl who could speak to Sri Lankan soldiers in Jaffna in Sinhala and was addressed by them as Podi Nangi offer a few concrete suggestions to make the island the paradise it used to be? After the 1983 riots, there haven’t been any anti-Tamil riots by the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Not even when in June 1990, the LTTE massacred over 600 Sri Lankan policemen who had surrendered to them after receiving promises of safe conduct, nor after the Battle of Mullaitivu in 1996 when the LTTE killed over a thousand Sri Lankan soldiers or after the LTTE captured the Elephant Pass complex in April 2000, yet again killing over a thousand Sri Lankan soldiers. The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora based in Canada, UK, Australia and other Western countries is still dreaming of a Tamil Eelam. Doesn’t Niromi have a message for such die-hard fanatics who are willing to fight to the last Tamil left in Sri Lanka?
The Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka is not particularly different from that of other developing countries. Yes, critics of the government are harshly put down, but those willing to keep their heads down and work hard seem to do well. This is the case in so many Asian and African countries including the United Arab Emirates to which Niromi’s father migrated leaving his family behind in Sri Lanka, India and China. Sri Lanka’s treatment of its Tamil minority has been shameful, but has it been much worse that Australia’s treatment of the Aborigines who have lived there since time immemorial? Niromi herself tells us, when narrating the time she spent inside a village school at a place called Alavetti, that ‘I was impressed by the large and well equipped village school. The one thing the government was doing right was giving children free access to education all over the country; even at private schools, we never had to pay for our text books.’ Mind you, this village is 15 kilometres north-west of Jaffna, in the heart of the Tamil country at a time when the Sri Lankan government was not in control of that area. I just can’t imagine the Indian government running excellent schools in areas under the control of, say, the Maoists. I can however imagine Niromi’s scornful riposte to such an argument!