A Few Preliminaries on Withdrawal in Kathryn Hind’s “Hitch”.

Kathryn Hind’s Hitch (2019), published by Hamish Hamilton, maps the last lap of what appears to be a ‘hitching road trip’ undertaken by a young girl and her dog, Lucy. Events reveal that Amelia had lost her mother and, in the traumatic aftermath, has taken off on the present journey from one outback town to another, with the final hope of arriving in Melbourne. When the novel opens, Amelia is closer to the end of her journey. What may have covered the earlier stages of the trek are not referred to or revealed. The narrative opens with Amelia and Lucy being offered a ‘ride’ by a man (who introduces himself as Will), as they are picked off the Stuart highway. This is the first of five such ‘rides’ through which the novel is woven to its end.

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Kathryn Hind, c/o Rose Taylor

Will drives Amelia to a town named Glendambo, where they have sex (which Amelia co-initiates, but later seems to belabour under) in Will’s neglected, badly-maintained house. At the end of it, Will announces that the condom had got ripped. Later that night, as Amelia and Will sleep, a second man stumbles into the house. Jez is introduced to Amelia as Will’s brother who, later, clumsily tries to cajole and corner Amelia into ‘going with’ him. In a later passage of play, two other men – who walk into a motley shelter in which Amelia is resting for the night – attacks her, seizes and ransacks her backpack, looting Amelia of her meager supplies: her rice-crackers. In many ways, this fleeting encounter echos Amelia’s night with Will. Amelia’s consciousness of the proximity of abject male bodies, the presence of predatory sexual intent and the tension of that presence, and the vulnerability of the woman in these conditions – as well as exposure to ‘bare life’ at the periphery of society, devoid of civilization’s safeguards – come out powerfully through each of these encounters.

9780143794349Pops is a third male predator – perhaps, the sleaziest and most ‘open book’ among them, who narrates to Amelia a series of lewd descriptions of sunbathers on Bondi while making suggestive and innuendo-driven remarks and gestures – encountered in Amelia’s trek. Promising her a lift, Pops decides halfway to  pull over at a ‘friend’s place’ to break the night. The passage which follows, perhaps, is the most cryptic of the whole novel – and, is probably consciously left so – as it is not directly ceded as to whether Amelia is assaulted by Pops (or not); or if, indeed, a sexual encounter took place to what degree Amelia’s agency was compromised. The build up towards a possible ‘assault scene’ – a scene where the victim to be Amelia has no ‘equal choice’, or control over the limited options before her – is palpable, but between Pops’ retiring into the house and the break of the morning that follows, the text leaves for the reader an ambiguous coda of sorts. Waking up in the back of Pops’ vehicle, Amelia has a “tensing and shifting inside” her belly, a feeling of nausea (179) and finds “new bites down her arms and legs (and) on her neck” (180). A woman coming out of the house aggressively shouts at Amelia to go away. “You’re bloody lucky the old man’s passed out, or you’d be in some real trouble” she says (183). “I’d be clearing out in a hurry if I were you”. However, clarification is of want as to whether this ‘old man’ to whom the woman refers is Pops himself, and as to the bites Amelia discovers are made by – say – bugs and mosquitoes.

In the course of her journey, Amelia encounters a succession of people – most of them women – who project on her their empathy and understanding. Brenda and Ron drive her to Crystal Brook, and Brenda – who gives a bad first impression – offers Amelia unexpected and unlikely comfort and care. The woman in the convenience store (?) in Glendambo, as well as Leanne and Fi – a mother and daughter – who give Amelia a ride to Tailem Bend, follow this caring-category. Before parting, Leanne, with motherly understanding and penetrative wisdom, pacifies Amelia, urging her to fight on whatever crisis in life of which she is the survivor. Her words echo in Amelia’s mind as she walks on.

220px-Into_the_Wild_(2007_film_poster)More crucial to this short essay is the localization of Amelia, among a host of other such modern characters who withdraw ‘into the wild’. Amelia’s trekking is at once an act of coming into terms with oneself and the immediate circumstances that follow a deep, personal loss. From her recollections and the shadow cast by past memories, the cavity left in Amelia’s life by the loss of her mother is deep and unbalancing.  In fact, memories of hikes taken with her mother, echos of her admonishing, visuals of her movement, a strong yearning for her warmth, and other details of a shared past frequently play with Amelia’s present. Hers is a withdrawal and enforced dislocation from society and the ‘known world’: in many ways, a journey of exit-and-toward: away from the habitual realm, and towards one’s self. The journey can also be proposed to be a trek into the ‘unknown’ and the ‘uncharted’, by the way of overcoming the unbearability of the life one has always known.

Amelia’s ‘withdrawal’ – or, ‘renunciation’ of the known world – takes place in three movements. It is primarily set off by a disruption of normality (caused by the mother’s death), which triggers the withdrawal, that culminates with a ‘return’, or a ‘restoration’ of sorts. As the novel concludes, Amelia had now returned to the ‘known realm’, but (one hopes) in an ‘enlightened’ form of her former self. This tripartite trajectory, as well as the novel’s central motif of wandering/hitchhiking places Kathryn Hind intimately adjacent to the genre which includes and takes off from the Beat Generation’s preoccupation of the road (carefully chosen pun). At that level of larger framing, ghosts in the line of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and The Dharma Bums (1958) – in any case, the early Kerouac -, with a hint of Charles Bukowski and William S. Burroughs easily come to mind. A more recent juncture of this expansive discourse includes Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (1996), which was later made into a film by Sean Penn.

66-3But, in Amelia’s person, the emotional and trauma-driven dislocation takes precedence. The philosophy of her isolation and withdrawal is not a symptom alone, but is also indicative of a self-administered antidote. In that respect, Amelia echoes for me a hero/heroine from an early novel of RK Narayan – a Chandran of The Bachelor of Arts (1937), a Savitri of The Dark Room (1938), or a Krishnan in The English Teacher (1945). Amelia’s reduction and exposure of herself to ‘bare life’, and the friction of her unwilling willingness to play in the unscheduled margins of civilization – a vortex of the uncertain, unknown and the unknowable – defines her gateway to a reconfiguration of her body, mind and emotions. Pre-enlightenment, the Gautama Buddha tried and tested a not altogether complementary but somewhat similar path (a trajectory echoed in both The Bachelor of Arts, where Chandran spends several months wandering as a sanyasi, and in The English Teacher, where Krishnan withdraws to a life of deep meditation) where he consciously centers his living experience in the self-administering of suffering and pain.

In Hitch, a consciousness of dirt, odor, refuse and bodily waste – loosely categorized as forms of abjection – feature prominently. A reading of the novel along the lines of the scholarship to which the likes of Julia Kristeva has contributed (which falls outside the boundaries of this blog space) may stimulate a vigorous discussion of this aspect in Kathryn’s writing. For instance, Amelia is consistently preoccupied with scratches, bites, cuts and wounds in her body – almost in a gloating, appreciative, reassuring way – as well as in the bodies of others. At one point, she notices a red patch along Fi’s shoulder blades and notes unpeeled threads of sunburned skin (119). Amelia absorbs in detail the scents and smells from the car interiors to the body sweat of men. The ‘Rage Against the Machine’ shirt Amelia wears during her encounter with Will is stained by his odor, which she carries for days, crudely crumpled in the interior of her backpack. On no less than three occasions she takes the shirt out, remarks its feral smell, before returning it into the bag. Disarranged garments and sweat stains – a lingering sense of the uncouth – are consistent in all intimations of body on body: from Amelia’s having sex with Will, the scene where Brenda and Ron lie in a troubled sleep (in Crystal Brook), to Amelia’s waking up in the back of Pop’s smelly Land Cruiser.

Kathryn Hind’s novel is refreshingly non-linear. It shares with a reader a fragment of a broken mirror. It deals with a fraction, while mischievously (and gracefully) leaving out the ‘whole’. It is at once a study of the inward mind, and the margins of the outside world where civilization and safeguards end and bare life controls.

Fairway National Award 2018 (English): “Not Awarded”. Why Not?

The Fairway National Literary Awards for 2018 — the youngest of Sri Lanka’s award platforms of a literary nature — was recently concluded in Colombo. Highly lucrative in its rewards and a pet project of construction giant Fairway Holdings, the prize felicitates up to fifteen writers in Tamil, Sinhala and English whose works are published in Sri Lanka within that calendar year. The winner receives Rs. 500,000, with Rs. 100, 000 each given to the shortlisted writers. For the recently concluded edition, Tharu Visula Raeya by Aruna Premarathne was chosen as the ‘Best Novel’ in Sinhala (from a shortlist of five) while Thottu Ponavarkal by Fernando Seeman Pathinathan earned the plum in the Tamil category. Here, too, the winner was chosen from five shortlisted entrees.

fairwayHowever, interestingly, the prize in the English category has been deemed “non- awardable”: an intriguing prospect since the prize had in late August announced a competitive shortlist of four (not five, like in its cousin-categories) consisting of Sandali Handagama’s Rao’s Guide to Lime Pickling, Seheni Hisara Kariyawasan’s The Chameleon, Charulatha Abeysekara Thewarathanthri’s Stories and Navin Weeraratne’s Zeelam. In spite of this ‘minor victory’, the judges had since decided that none of these four should emerge as a final winner. This scenario is not strange to the Fairway Prize, as in 2015, during the prize’s inaugural year, a similar situation was seen in the Tamil category where none of the entrants were seen as worthy of being chosen as a ‘winner’. From the communication passed on from the judges’ bench it was understood that they saw a need to “benchmark Sri Lankan writing to meet the international standard” (paraphrase) and as such they considered none worthy of that bar.

Of the four English works that made the final round, Sandali Handagama’s Rao’s Guide to Lime Pickling had earlier been shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2014. Back then the book was in manuscript form (the Gratiaen Prize accepts both published and unpublished work), which has since been launched through a mainstream medium. Most interestingly, Charulatha Abeysekara Thewarathanthri’s Stories has been a previous winner of both the Gratiaen Prize (2015) and the Godage National Awards (2017). As such, the Fairway shortlist under probe is the third such recognition Stories has received either as a manuscript or as a printed item. Lack of familiarity with Zeelam and Chameleon prevents commentary on each of those books.

The previous success of at least two of these four shortlisted work encourages them to be tested as books that offer competition and quality at the highest level. So, what prevented judges Dushyanthi Mendis, Ramya Jirasinghe and Tassie Seneviratne from picking an ultimate winner from among these four? What can be that decisive, missing golden nugget which this panel was in search of that the shortlistees failed to produce in the last stretch? More crucially, can it be construed as a cruel act to abandon this shortlist after bringing it all the way within sight of a trophy and a cheque of 500,000 rupees?

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Of the three judges in question at least two have brushed shoulders with the English literary circuit long enough. Dushyanthi Mendis is a Professor in Linguistics attached to the University of Colombo, while Ramya Jirasinghe is an occasional poet who was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2008. She is also a Deputy Director of the Fulbright Commission. The third judge, Tassie Seneviratne, is author of Human Rights and Policing: Reminiscences of My Police Days,  and a contributor to media debates on issues on human rights and so on. Together, this panel represents a diversity, expertise, know-how and experience which serves the Fairway Prize fairly well; except, in this curious case of “benchmarking” literature.

If “benchmarking” in itself is to be debated, the non-awarding of a prize can be argued to be a crude and rather destructive form of drawing boundaries. Specially, in a context such as Sri Lanka where there are only four literary awards on offer, where the opportunity for and accreditation of writers are already poor. A ‘win’ at a national platform can be argued to enhance their chances in earning a publisher’s recognition, or even qualify them for international forums in creative writing. A different way of “benchmarking” can happen through discursive practices such as criticism, academic culture and syllabus-policing: an approach that makes “benchmarking” a practice through dialogue, than one of prescription.

Furthermore, one has to consider whether a literary award such as the Fairway exists for such “benchmarking” practices, and whether such censure is the expected outcome of the judging process. Is this necessary adventure an immediate objective of the prize? Or, is it one emergent out of the judges’ consensus alone over which the organizers have no power? How does such censure in favour of an ‘international standard’ corroborate with the larger structure of the award which includes prizes for Tamil and Sinhala literature? As it evolves in the years to come, these are points on which the Fairway Prize will have to be consistent and clear.

If “benchmarking” itself is to be expanded on, should one then benchmark the judges who assume high censorial powers? None of the three judges in question are known as fiction writers or as researchers in fiction writing. Dr. Jirasinghe has published a collection of poetry, but her expertise lies elsewhere. Prof. Mendis is an eminent linguist and a renowned and respected scholar within her specialized field. She has several publications on casual topics in literature; but is far from being an expert in the subject. Between the triumvirate, there is very little to suggest that they ought to use the Fairway platform as a vanguard of what should be the standard of world literature.

However, as a positive, the ‘non-award’ in question makes a contribution to a debate within the discourse of prize distribution itself, as it openly challenges the Gratiaen Prize of 2015 and the Godage National Awards of 2017. Out of the four main literary awards presented in Sri Lanka to work in the English language the Gratiaen is considered as the most prestigious forum. Quite clearly, its position as being a prize far superior than the State Literary Award has long been established. The Godage Awards, on the other hand, has not really earned a place in the imagination of the English literary circuit as yet. The Fairway verdict thus challenges their cousin (or counterpart) panels to rethink the substance of their former pronouncements.

But, as the Fairway Literary Award evolves as a platform for creative writing and in energizing an emergent camp of rewarded writers, it might have to be more subtle of these nuanced limits that allow a ‘non-winner’; which disallows a final triumphant candidate through. In the final analysis, is it really too difficult to declare a winner, in spite of one’s international aspirations? I do not think it should be so. When the Sri Lankan Tolstoy, James or Joyce emerges — and if such literature is indeed heeded — his entrance will be duly known. Until that happens (and precisely so that it would happen) — the prizes should flow.

 

 

“The Beast” Framed: On Jude Perera’s Work of Young Adult Fiction.

Jude Perera’s The Beast (illustrations by Vasana Perera) is a work of young adult fiction set primarily in Sri Lanka’s hilly estate-country, and deals with the adventures of a tightly-knit circle of mid-teens friends: Ashwin, Dylan, Menaka and Rose. The story begins with the friends’ determination to track down a local mystery – an elusive ‘spirit’ of sorts they call ‘Yakush’ which is intermittently sighted by the folk – which leaves back paw prints of an unknown kind.  The story which opens with this ‘quest for the unexplained’ then takes a rapid turn when a gang of kidnappers enter the fray. In one of their excursions, the youngsters discover a small girl –Usha – who had earlier escaped from the kidnappers to roam the periphery of the woods. In a further development, Menaka herself is found to be ‘missing’ from her home, as she runs away after overhearing a disheartening phone conversation between her parents. But, her mischief soon takes a turn worse off as she gets caught to the kidnappers.

As such, Perera maps the storyline through a sequence of twists and suspenseful ends, and the middle chapters of the novel are focused on Menaka’s absence. However, normalcy is restored with the recovery of Menaka who – as the novel concludes – is reunited with her friends; especially so, with Dylan who has long struggled to express his emotions to the young girl.

the-beastPerera’s weave betrays a deep sense of place and location, as the topography of Haputale and other nearby locations is portrayed with commitment and care. Writing away from his country of origin the connection Perera strives to make with that ‘past departed from’ emerges strongly through his stenciling of the adolescent culture. Though the young men and women of the protagonists’ age in the present time may not necessarily devote the kind of time and energy in the pursuit of a vague spirit, the way in which Perera imagines such a (contemporary) scenario through images – perhaps, of a recorded past – which are more intimate to his own past experience growing up in Lanka opens a window as to how the ‘dislocated’ imagination works in re-creating ‘departed from’ terrain. But, this topic, overlaid by heavy theoretical implications, should be discussed in a separate essay.

The Beast’s portrayal of the town’s church culture, the inter-class dynamics of the community (both its harmony and dissonance), the children’s easy-negotiation of social divisions that often challenge their elders, the pangs and tensions of mid-teen love, as well as the anxieties of middle class parentage are often well captured and are true to life. The influence of the classical British young adult writer is at times visible; and in a private communication Jude Perera testifies to his own childhood where writers of the Enid Blyton category made inspirational reading. However, it has to be firmly concluded that the ‘ground’ on which he allows the story to take shape is essentially of Lankan ethos and energy; and this includes various cultural aspects – rituals, idiosyncrasies, mores, taboos – as well as social and linguistic patterns of colloquial speech.

For a relatively short novel, Perera attempts to complicate the storyline with several subsidiary plots and other ‘suspense-provoking’ situations which he strategically gives closure to till the novel’s tail-end. For instance, though out of character with the generally levelheaded Menaka, her ‘leaving home’ remains a mystery till the end; even though this passage of play is what connects the main story with the sub-plot of the kidnappings. Much alike the kidnappers, Perera takes a risk in the extremes to which he allows the plot to digress, as the growing complication of the story demands to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. This is a heavy task for a story of The Beast’s length and it yields Perera a mixed harvest.

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Jude Perera, c/o ‘Star Weekly’ 

At one level, especially in the ‘plot reversals’ that later occur, Perera delivers with success. For instance, the discovery of Priyantha’s friendship to Menaka being an appearance comes across as unexpected. The mild-mannered music tutor, it is later revealed, is desperate in unearthing a hidden treasure (an old, flogged, hackneyed motif) and has under his control a formidable gang. for which a girl with a butterfly-shaped birthmark had to be sacrificed. The convenient discovery of Menaka’s long estranged twin Neluka – her being in all ways, including in dress sense, Menaka’s ‘clone’ – as well as Menaka and a random girl whom she meets, the kidnap-victim Usha – having a birthmark of the same shape challenge the veracity of Perera’s plot; specially, as it is burdened with the task of living up to its complexity.

Neluka’s introduction to the story happens a few days after Menaka’s kidnapping, soon after the December 26th Tsunami. Dylan and Ashwin are seen in the coast and they meet Neluka, who is freshly displaced by the Tsunami, and is in a position to gladly welcome Manel’s (Menaka’s mother’s) invitation to move into the hills. This convenient and serendipitous discovery helps in the next passage of play where Menaka and Neluka come face to face in the middle of the town. As we later learn, Menaka had just escaped from her captors’ grip and in the confusion that follows the kidnappers mistake Neluka to be their escaped prey. Such coincidences that are primarily used to motivate the plot undermine the overall impact of the narrative.

However, meant for young readers – and being written with an inquisitive and absorbent readership with a penchant for the vivid in mind – The Beast evokes a commendable infuse of description, mystery and suspense which is held together by a fast moving storyline. It is rich with a sense of place and time and maps into the larger narrative a community and a social ethos; thereby giving it a Sri Lankan soul: bringing ‘home’ a genre that is not yet fully established within the Lankan English literary circuit.

Authenticity, Memory and the Gaps that Demand Conviction: the Curious Case of Niromi de Soyza’s “Tamil Tigress”.

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, of which the book is an embellishment, and that the ‘autobiography’ is in large a weave based on fiction, other corresponding sources and hearsay. This summarizes the main accusation levelled against Tamil Tigress, which, since its launch in 2011, seem to have, as suggested above, courted public attention for all the wrong reasons. For instance, one such external source that has severally been alleged to have been internalized into de Soyza’s weave is Indian journalist M.R. Narayana Swami’s writings on the LTTE. In other spaces, mainly the Australian media and literary platforms, the ‘memoir’ has been facilitated unquestioned and thereby, is promoted as a work of integrity and authenticity.

A distressed Niromi de Soyza / Subothini Anandaraja at the Adelaide Film Festival of 2011, among others, is a much shared YouTube archive, where side by side with Frances Harrison, she speaks as an authority and a source on the Civil War in Sri Lanka and of atrocities committed against the Tamil community there.

new-TT-book-cover-640My initial instinctive reaction to Tamil Tigress was that, notwithstanding the issues of sincerity and the direction in which the producers of the books wants the discussion on Sri Lanka channeled, the book at any given point is unlikely to be more than a carefully crafted semi-fiction: the kind of narrative we anchor on fact, but which we expand as a document to create an echo of a time, place and culture, even at the expense of what really might have been or have been not. The many disagreements between fact and representation, the incongruity of certain detail, and the mistakes and misdirections that, at one level, are inevitable when you are writing out of second-hand knowledge takes away from de Soyza’s / Anandaraja’s claims of ‘undisputed authenticity’. With a view of non-repetition and of not overlapping what readers / critics (including myself) have had earlier pointed out in other spaces I, in this section, wish to draw on the positioning of Tamil Tigress as a text that attempts memorialization, representation and protest, and as to its inherent shortcomings as a credible narrative.

For a meticulous narrator who keeps close track of time and durations while making frequent notes of dates, months and the time lapses in between the most insignificant of incidents, Niromi also makes glaringly unconvincing notes which often push the narrative towards incredibility and credulity. For Niromi, in 1979, the Yal Devi running between Colombo and Jaffna 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 elsewhere, it is suggested that she was born in 1969 (she is 8 years old when, in 1977, she is relocated to Jaffna), which would make her 13 years of age in 1983. The train journey from Norton Bridge to Jaffna, which Niromi undertakes with her father, takes 18 hours.

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“Niromi de Soyza”

In presenting 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 attempts at democratic negotiation between Chelvanayakam and two successive regimes between 1958 and 1965) had, in the interim, widened the ethnic gulf. 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 militant call for a Sovereign state that is said to have happened in 1978. Assuming that this is a reference to the Vaddukottai Resolution, the year of that confederation is generally agreed to have been 1976. However, a dualism on which Niromi often lays emphasis is her sheltered, convent-educated girlhood spent in conventional surroundings, notwithstanding of which she is quite political-minded from a young age. At 14, she is already anxious of a possible state-engineered Tamil genocide. At 16, and having had lived the last eight formative years within the walls of an almost exclusively Tamil Jaffna, she is yet 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 of personality between this ‘perceptive Niromi’, and the ‘uncritical, single-minded Niromi’ who gets drawn to militarism in spite of her faint misgivings of the LTTE. She is either blind or insensitive to instances of LTTE ruthlessness, in spite of several incidents that stir deep doubt within her. The killing of the EPRLF cadre, ‘Benjamin’, by the LTTE, the killing of Principal C.E Anandarajah, the brutal killing of Vellai – a fellow cadre – 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 seen as a regular middle class domain which keeps a strict monitoring eye on the children’s movements and pastimes. Even though one may overlook shampoo, a rare and luxurious item in 1985, being routinely used by her ordinary, 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 and the non-response by the mother to these nonconformist acts come across as incongruous with the otherwise iron hand of her parentage. These pickets are casually referred to as an aside, more like a ‘filler’, to intensify a rebellious energy in Niromi which the writer wants to highlight, but is not backed by any concrete detail. As to how, when and in what pretext Niromi participated in these pickets and as to what those demonstrations were in aid of, one may suggest, are as important to the narrative as any other detail.

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. The calling off of an exam set for December as early as April comes across as improbable. The EPRLF ideologue ‘Benjamin’ is said to have had a Tamil accent of Indian origin, and not one of the Hill Country. This is a curious incongruity in trying to demarcate the Tamil dialect of the North with that of the Estate-centric Hills, as the Hill Country Tamil community are of Indian descent, whereas the point of contrast would have been to contrast Benjamin’s speech with one of the dialect of one of the two localities.

ACfU3U13NW6BorM8pavTdc7QZ2hCcce3Kg_zOn July 1st 1987, Niromi and her fellow female combatants begin military training. However, there is very little detail regarding the specifics of the training. Descriptions given are often banal, and overly general in character to provoke representation. There is not enough evidence to convince the reader that Niromi had necessarily undergone the weapon training alluded to. Details of camp-life are often expressed without character. Even more interesting is how Niromi and Ajanthi – both frequently marked apart from the other female cadre for their more ‘affluent’ backgrounds – and the combatants from remote and impoverished socio-economic circumstances get along with no tension or friction. Definitions of class and its 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 cadre are also seen playing a game called ‘Guessing the Laugh’. This choice of name, given the majority among the women combatants, comes across as classed, and improbable.

The generally elusive LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, in that sense, is omnipresent in Niromi de Soyza’s Tamil Tigress. He is seen as a frequent visitor to the Freedom Birds Headquarters, freely mingling with the cadre. He even goes to the extent of explaining step by step his political responses (such as the laying down of arms in 1987) to the female cadre who sit around him and listen. 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 freely lie about in the Freedom Birds Headquarters, which includes correspondences from moderate Tamil politicians in exile, who had been writing home. In one of his meetings with Niromi, Prabhakaran hands over Rs. 20,000 for purposes of clothing the female wing. In 1986, that amount for that specific purpose to be handed in in the offhand way it is done overwhelms the reader. Other leading figures whom Niromi gets a chance to interact at close quarters include Mahatthaya, Kittu, Yogi Master and Karikalan.

The writer suggests 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 about 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 period.

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 students 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, while in an uncannily repetitive roster Niromi’s sentry duty falls almost always at either 1.00 AM or 2.00 AM. She is both witty and quick in responses with even the senior-most cadres: this, in spite of the LTTE being introduced as a strict, stiff, hierarchical institute. At one point, Niromi has senior male cadres such as Roshan tightly wrapped around her finger, while others such as Razzak, Thileepan and Muralie are different towards her in their favouratism. Even Prabhakaran’s address to Niromi is marked with a personal note and affection.

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Thileepan

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 consequent retreat – provides interesting reading, to say the least. The mode of the LTTE’s operation, if indeed things happened the way Niromi narrates them, betrays an amateurish rag-tag quality of the best kind. The Second Battle is a narrator’s disaster, especially if the writerly purpose is to evoke pathos and tragedy. The second battle triggers as the contingent led by Muralie and Sudarshan attempt to cross a road, and is set upon by the enemy from all sides. This scene, I feel, is heavily steeped 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 cadre next to you (Gandhi Aiya); and for it to hit the fellow cadre, 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 combatants fall attempting to scamper across the road, the rest still follow through. Banana fronds, water tanks and roofs are readily available for cadres to retreat to. The alleged 2000-strong enemy misses its target which is within touching distance.

In the initial aftermath of its release, and at the trigger of heavy debate, Michael Roberts and D.B.S. Jeyraj were among two writers, both with a long bibliography attesting to their works and observations on matters Lankan, who contributed heavily to two growing camps; one in the defense of the text, while the other attempted its unravelling. Since then, this discourse has evolved and entrenched various other opinion-honers – some of them less visible behind their cyber masks and aliases – and a whole Facebook Page which, at least in its early days, attempted to pool evidence against the book’s claim of being ‘authentic’. Roberts, writing from Adelaide, has to date made a long, comprehensive argument against the veracity of Tamil Tigress which he, along with views on the subject that he had collated from other writers, has posted on his online forum, Thuppahi’s Blog. Jeyaraj, on the other hand, has made sustained efforts to defend Niromi de Soyza / Subothini Anandaraj and the text, even going to the extent of supplementing the reader with personal anecdotes, and heavily detailed background information that would discourage the book from being cast aside as a fabrication. To say the least, Jeyaraj’s commentaries and his fillings in are more fulfilling and convincing in detail and description than the original text that, at moments, one even feels that Jeyraj would have fared better making himself the ‘writer’ of Tamil Tigress which he now spends the time defending.