THE TRAITOR WHO IS THE WRITER
This is an essay about writing and trauma.
This is an essay about violence: of men, of armies, of women, of relationships, of gossip and memory, of having to remember and having to testify.
This essay is an exercise in intimacy. It questions why women on the margins have to trade in our trauma for the chance to be heard.
This essay in an exercise in trust. I have never discussed my writing – writing as life, as living, as central to my existence and my identity – with any of the men in my personal life. I feel vulnerable enough giving them my love, giving them the pleasure of my body, giving them the power to reject me from one night to the next. I discuss my writing with those who know me only as a writer: my agent, my editors, and most of all, my readers. That is why I bring this essay to you: to show you where some of my writing comes from.
This essay is the story of how I grew up vicariously involved in the armed struggle for Tamil self-determination. This essay is the testimony of what I learned as I listened to other women share their stories of trauma.
This is an essay about three women: a Tamil Tigress, a Tamil Tiger’s wife, and me.
When did my identification with Tamil nationalism begin?
Perhaps it began when I was a newborn baby, barely a few weeks old, and my father was asked to resign from his job as a Tamil teacher at a school in Choolaimedu, Chennai. He remembers the day vividly: 31 October, 1984, the day India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her bodyguards. Why was his resignation demanded? My father taught Tamil at the Lalchand Milapchand Dadha Senior Secondary School, a private school run by a Hindi-speaking Jain management. He had crossed the point of no return by politicising his teenage students and taking them along to protest demonstrations. I heard this story repeatedly over my childhood, and remain convinced that when people are punished for their beliefs, it only ends up reinforcing them.
My father was no anomaly. He merely reflected the prevailing mood in Tamil Nadu, our home state in southern India. The civil war in Sri Lanka had begun. A year earlier, in 1983, the deadly Black July pogrom had seen Tamil people in Colombo attacked, murdered and publicly lynched by Sinhalese mobs. The systematic targeting and scapegoating of the Tamil-speaking minority was a standard feature in post-independent Sri Lanka. The Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian state virtually reduced the Tamils to second-class citizens, passing the Official Languages Act in 1956 which removed Tamil as an official language of the state, and reinforced a Sinhala-only policy which meant that Tamils could not access government jobs, or even intercede with the state in their own mother-tongue. This was followed, in 1972, by a disastrous policy of standardisation, which prevented Tamil students from accessing education and employment on a par with their Sinhalese peers. The burning in 1981 of the Jaffna Public Library, which housed centuries-old rare Tamil manuscripts and histories, was seen as a direct attempt to erase their history. Clampdowns on the Tamil press were common. Against this backdrop of rising ethnic tensions, with the state pursuing an explicitly Sinhala Buddhist agenda, the Tamil Tigers (officially, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE) – one of many militant groups on the island – had killed thirteen soldiers of the Sri Lanka Army in an ambush in Jaffna on 23 July 1983, in retaliation against the abduction and rape of Tamil schoolgirls by state forces. While the standard, established practice was to send the bodies of the slain soldiers to their hometowns, the Sri Lanka Army Commander Tissa Weeratunga and the Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene decided to bury them with full military honours. Their mangled bodies were brought to the Kanatte cemetery in Borella, in the heart of Colombo, and kept for public display. A delay meant that thousands of Sinhalese had already gathered at the cemetery before the bodies arrived. That crowd morphed into a mob, and armed with electoral rolls to identify Tamil homes, these state-supported rioters ended up killing over 3,000 Tamils, and left about 150,000 homeless overnight.
This caused an unforeseen influx of Tamil refugees into Tamil Nadu. Being neighbours with a shared language and history, who had also stood up to majoritarianism in our own country, we welcomed them with open arms. Tamil people took to the streets to protest, to call upon their own government to step in. From one day to the next, the war on the island began to enter our homes.
Perhaps it was the inevitable trajectory for someone who was an Indian Tamil.
Within our one-bedroom home on CNK Road in the gritty Chepauk Triplicane area, the war meant long conversations and a never-ending stream of visitors. It meant that my mother, a mathematics professor, would take on refugee students and appeal to the colleges she knew in Chennai, pleading for them to be admitted. It meant that my father, an unemployed Tamil scholar, would volunteer his proofreading skills to the many printing presses that were being set up by Tamil militant groups to manufacture their pamphlets, posters, campaign material. It meant that when someone came to our home, amma would put water to boil on the stove to make a sugary tea and appa would run downstairs to fetch vadai from the Nair mess at the corner of the street.
This everyday engagement mirrored the wider mood. India set up secret military camps to provide arms training to the Tamil guerrilla groups, ostensibly to protect the Tamils, but primarily to ensure its own supremacy as a regional player. As the civil war in Sri Lanka escalated, India also intervened in an official capacity. Its diplomatic efforts resulted in the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, which promised a devolution of power, a conditional merger of the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern provinces (the Tamil homeland of Eelam), and the recognition of Tamil as an official language. The accord also promised the disarmament of the Tamil militant groups and an end to the civil war, and stipulated the deployment of an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) for this purpose.
The force’s arrival was greeted with jubilation by the Tamil people in Eelam, but their initial optimism soon gave way to horror. The IPKF appeared to be working to another mandate altogether. Seeing the Tamil Tigers as a direct challenge to its imperialist ambitions in the region, India was no longer playing peacemaker. Far from being a military presence meant to protect the people, the IPKF soon became a de-facto occupying army, seizing control of the city of Jaffna, storming its hospital, killing civilians, raping women and perpetuating massacres. In August 1989, in retaliation to a Tamil guerrilla attack that killed six Indian soldiers on foot patrol, they turned the small coastal town of Valvettithurai into a scene of bloody carnage, gunning down and murdering more than a hundred civilians, killing babies and burning homes. In the aftermath of such atrocity, the Tigers announced a temporary ceasefire with the Sri Lankan military forces, and joined calls for the IPKF to leave.
As Tamils in India, we were furious at how the Indian intervention had turned out. Our anger turned inwards; it brought us to the brutal realisation that the Tamils were not only fighting the Sinhala state, but another enemy in disguise: India. Disillusionment with our own country made us realise that the Tamil people of Eelam could not rely on external powers to secure their liberation. Instead, we believed, the Tigers held the key to a successful struggle for self-determination.
Perhaps it begins with the fact that we were girls in a country where girls were not wanted, not welcome.
Today, we watch the largest armies in the world half-heartedly give women a toe-hold in their ranks. So it was a surprise to many that women formed a third of the fighting force of the Tigers. It was often remarked, in jest, that the biggest recruiter of women for the Tigers was the Indian Peace Keeping Forces, a rapist army whose reign of terror drove women to take up arms.
Growing up, my friends and I looked up to the female Tamil Tigers with admiration, and in their courage and militancy we found the conviction to be strong ourselves. It was a borrowed courage that is difficult to explain. We still lived in a Tamil society where girls were expected to conform to the four quintessential feminine qualities of accham maddam naanam payirppu (fear, ignorance, modesty, shrinking delicacy): we had parental curfews from four in the afternoon and a chaperone wherever we went; no boyfriends, no girlfriends, no short skirts, no jeans. My parents added other layers of oppressive regimenting: no television, no playing loud games outside, no visits to the cinema, no glossy weekly magazines. Across the Palk Strait, where the states of Tamil Nadu and Tamil Eelam were separated by only twenty miles of ocean, young girls like me were carrying AK47s and killing the enemy, and here I was, cowering under the bed in fear of my father waiting with a belt in his hand because a boy in my class had dared to phone me at home. It became easier to forget our own restrictions if we could identify with these warriors who appeared to us like living legends, so real and near, yet somehow distant and mythical, too. It became easier to bear our situation when armed with the knowledge that in a place not far away, Tamil girls just shot the fuck out of anyone who snatched their rights. It was thrilling to lust after the smoking-hot Che Guevara in his beret and his stubble; equally thrilling to lust after these incredibly brave women.
I spent most of my childhood and early teenage years waiting for the liberation they were bringing to their land, and by extension, to Tamil girls like me. I wasn’t the only young, impressionable person out there. Parents were naming their daughters after the fighters (Malathi – the first female martyr in the Tigers, who died in battle fighting the IPKF in 1987, only twenty years old; Vanathi – a poet-fighter who died in the First Battle of Elephant Pass in 1991). It was acknowledged, even among the Tigers, that women were better in armed struggle because they were sharp-shooters. ‘Their concentration is unwavering, they only go for the bulls-eye,’ Vaiko, a senior Tamil politician who had visited the Tigers, said on a stage in Chennai.
To me, their prowess undid the humiliating years when my parents were constantly asked by total strangers, ‘Two girls? Both of them! Why don’t you try for a boy? Never too late, you know!’
Girls were fucking better with guns.
Perhaps this defiant solidarity for a nationalist self-determination struggle begins with bans; with the knowledge that moral support and revolutionary sentiment could no longer be flashed around, but had to be driven underground.
On 21 May 1991, a Tamil woman suicide bomber assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur, sixty kilometres from Chennai. India banned the Tigers overnight and launched a witch-hunt against those who sympathised with the cause of Tamil self-determination. The sensational trial sentenced twenty-six people to death, later reduced to seven after much outrage and legal wrangling. Tamil public sentiment has thus far ensured that this death penalty has not been carried out. But the ban on the Tigers had wide-ranging consequences: it was no longer possible for them to publicly enlist support in Tamil Nadu. Much of their fundraising and campaign efforts had to relocate to countries – among them the UK, Germany, France, Norway, Canada – where they had the support of a small but highly educated and well-connected refugee population.
The second ban – more powerful, potent and crippling – came in the aftermath of 9/11, when George W. Bush used the language of terror to go after Al Qaeda. At this point, the Tigers were on a peaceful trajectory: having consolidated their territory, they had announced a unilateral ceasefire in 2001. The next year, following peace talks brokered by Norway, the Tigers and the Government of Sri Lanka signed an agreement for a permanent ceasefire to end two decades of conflict. When the permanent ceasefire happened, we collectively huddled around the family desktop computer, desperate to know what this meant for the Tamil people. My father made pakoras and payasam to celebrate the moment. There would be no more bad news from the island, we thought.
In 2003, the Tigers’ proposal of an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) was rejected by the Sri Lankan side, who saw it as separate statehood in all but name. The following year, the Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, staged a coup of sorts, dissolving Parliament and declaring a state of emergency. The war was restarted by the Sri Lankan state, this time not as an effort to protect their sovereignty, but dressed up as a ‘war on terror’. This terminology lost the Tigers some of their essential supply lines – not only of arms and weapons and funds, but also of solidarity. The Tigers’ struggle for self-determination, the drive for national liberation that formed the core of their politics, the women who led from the front lines, would all be forgotten in this newly vitiated atmosphere. No longer was Sri Lanka dealing with civil war, insurgency, separatism or secessionist guerrillas; in the new lexicon of the neoliberal world-order, they were fighting against terrorists. A liberation struggle was now a security problem. Any interference was seen as aiding the so-called terrorists: this allowed the human rights abuses committed by the state to continue unchecked. At the same time, literally every imperialist power – America, Russia, China, Britain, Israel, to name only a few – was recruited to the fight against the Tigers. In this battle of Us versus Them, we all walked (or cheered those walking) blindfolded into definite defeat.
Perhaps my sympathies were cemented when my mathematician mother, who belonged to that rare breed of shudra (lower-caste) women in science, was accused of attempting to destabilise India (and her place of work, IIT Madras) by plotting with the Tigers and the Pakistani intelligence services agency. Subramanian Swamy, a rabble-rousing Tamil Brahmin politician and routine Tiger-baiter, wanted her arrested under the National Security Act. My mother cannot point out Jaffna on a map, her knowledge of the Tamil struggle is sketchy, but she was singled out because she was a non-Brahmin Tamil. I was still in the last years of school when this happened, and I realised that it did not matter what you were doing – you could be working on the zero divisor conjecture and super-Boolean algebra, but one day, your identity would be sufficient to pull you back into place. My mother’s being a Tamil woman scientist, outspoken against Brahmin elitism in educational institutions, was enough for Swamy to paint her as a Tiger collaborator and to demand her incarceration under a draconian anti-terrorism act.
Perhaps there is nothing more to it than what is readily apparent: my politics influenced what I did with my life (write, edit, translate), and what I did with my life reinforced my politics.
My parents were a crazy match for their time: nomadic tribe, Tamil scholar, migrant, first-generation learner, sceptical rightwinger (father) and shudra, mathematician, research-addicted woman in a family of ten children (mother). Theirs was an inter-caste arranged marriage. You morons will get on well together, their mutual friends had joked. Theirs was the kind of match that did not have the traditional support systems of family or caste, and they thrived solely on the connections they painstakingly made and worked hard to foster: with colleagues, Tamil nationalists, Periyarist rationalists, other inter-caste couples, outliers. First, I grew up knowing that we did not belong with the others who had castes, then not knowing where we belonged at all. Soon enough, I learned the life lesson that caste must be obliterated from existence.
Because of my mother’s sustained struggle against caste supremacy and exclusion in her workplace, a struggle that would continue over the three decades she spent there, I gravitated towards anti-caste politics. My first book, published in 2003, was a translation into English of the selected essays of the radical Tamil Dalit politician Thol. Thirumavalavan. I would spend a year and a half on the project, compiling information and photographs, supplementing the work with elaborate footnotes. I was eighteen then. Eighteen years later, I now feel his words, ideas and emotions all over my own work; they have become the map with which I navigate this world, whether I’m thinking about the anti-caste struggle or Tamil nationalism or the primacy of looking at everything through language. Next, I translated the Tamil Eelam poets Kasi Ananthan, Cheran Rudhramoorthy and V. I. S. Jayapalan. Then, from November 2007 (when S. P. Tamilselvan, the leader of the Tiger’s Peace Secretariat, was assassinated by a cluster bombing) until the brutal, genocidal showdown in May 2009, I filed news reports and translated for Tamilnet.com, a website that was then seen as the most authentic source of information on Tamil Eelam. A blogpost of mine condemning Tamilselvan’s murder had caught the eye of the editor, Jeyachandran Kopinath, who asked if I could volunteer my time to expand their coverage of Tamil issues. By day, I was a PhD student doing my mandatory coursework on linguistics at the College of Engineering, Guindy, Anna University. In the evenings, I was pulling up maps online, and agonising over the territory we were ceding daily to the Sri Lanka Army’s renewed aggressions along the forward defence lines. We knew that we were losing.
Writing, reporting, translating: yet I knew this was not enough. We had to take to the streets. My friends and I tried to unite all the student movements in our state under a common platform, Stop the Slaughter of Tamils. We demonstrated and marched against the war, adding our voices to the rallying cry in Tamil Nadu, but all was to no avail. My state was swept by a string of very public self-immolations: young men and women burning themselves, appealing to India to intervene and stop the war. The first man to set himself ablaze was Muthukumar, who left a six-page handwritten suicide note. Alongside a set of his demands to the Indian state, he directed young Tamil people to take up this fight. On 30 January, the night following his immolation, I stayed up translating that suicide note, sent it to Tamilnet.com to be posted, and then raced to university. In the autorickshaw, I said hello to a woman in the rearview mirror as I took my seat, only to realise, after a time lapse, that she was me. That was what the struggle was doing to me: it was leaving me totally untethered and alienated from myself.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s President at that time, was determined to wipe out the Tigers, and Tamil lives were collateral damage. He had carefully chosen his moment for the final assault. In the early months of 2009, caught in the fever of parliamentary elections, the genocide in Sri Lanka became less important to most politicians than negotiating seat-sharing agreements. As Indians went to vote in May, the elections provided a perfect smokescreen for the Sri Lankan state to complete its mission. As Indian Tamils, we were enraged. We could see that our country was also engaged in this proxy war: supplying ammunition, intelligence, the latest military gadgets and technical know-how. Most of all, India was shielding the Rajapaksas with its silence and complicity. Tamils in the northeast of Sri Lanka were carpet-bombed and cluster-bombed. They were asked to go into no-fire zones and, once herded there, were killed by the thousands. By the summer of 2009, when Rajapaksa gleefully announced the end of the civil war, more than 40,000 Tamils had been (officially) killed. More than 100,000 remain unaccounted for.
Perhaps there is no need to preface with ‘perhaps’ any of my reasons for being sympathetic to the Tamil struggle.
This was the first time we (as Tamils) had witnessed killing on such a scale. In 2009, I wrote a book of poetry called Ms Militancy. The titular poem recast the story of the Tamil epic heroine Kannagi as a bomber, outraged over injustice, blowing her city to smithereens. Another poem, ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’, chronicled how Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism ended up in Tamil genocide. The transgressive heartbeats of these poems were feminism, caste annihilation, Tamil liberation. In Sri Lanka, the horrors continued. The surviving Tamils and Tigers both – it was difficult to tell them apart – were sent to rehabilitation camps where the worst abuses continued to be perpetrated. Women and men were subject to torture and rape, and the Sri Lanka Army could visit this intimate violence without any fear of revenge or retribution. Political dissidents, including those who surrendered in some kind of spotlight, were being killed or disappeared without a trace.
Visiting Sri Lanka to see the camps first-hand was out of the question. In the days before the end of the war, the Sri Lanka Army had raided the premises of a left-wing Sinhala journal-website based in Colombo, and threatened its editor Krishan Rajapaksa (no relative of the President) for having published a translation of one of my English op-eds that had originally appeared in Outlook, demanding to know if he had any links to me. I was acutely aware that I was a marked person to the Sri Lankan state, and I didn’t want to endanger my life or those of others I knew by visiting the island.
Years afterwards, these men and women would begin smuggling themselves out of Sri Lanka, taking perilous boat trips, flying to any country they could, with the embattled hope that somehow, in a foreign land, they could manage to speak and to be heard.
That is where I found the stories that form this essay.
THE STORY OF GATHERING THE STORIES
In 2010, less than a year after the war had ended, news reports appeared in the Tamil media of the untold horrors of rape and violence in the Manik Farm camps. This military-run internment camp, situated thirty kilometres outside the former Tiger stronghold of Vavuniya, in the Northern Province, housed 225,000 internally displaced Tamil refugees. Conditions were so bad in these camps that 1,400 Tamils were dying there every week. Set up immediately after the end of the war in 2009, this camp would only be shut down in late 2012. In these interim years I had finished my PhD, bid farewell to a full-time teaching job, and given up on academia. I had married, unmarried. In October 2012, I had handed in the final draft of my first novel to my agent. It had taken me seven years to write. Finishing it left me with a vast emptiness. I was restless, eager to be telling some other story, and I knew that it was going to be about Eelam Tamil women in the aftermath of war. The self-realisation that I was a painfully slow writer who wrestled for years with one subject made me abandon the idea of a book. I decided I would shoot a documentary film.
I wanted to document the lives of the women who had survived these camps, and I sought the help of everyone I knew: Tamil journalists in India and the diaspora, Tamil refugee aid organisations abroad, refugees who were sharing their stories on social media, priests and doctors who were helping victims cope, Indian Tamil politicians who were supportive of the Tamil struggle. The help of Jeyachandran, my mentor-editor at Tamilnet.com, proved invaluable: he had reporters on the ground in Sri Lanka, and he passed on to me the details of women who had escaped these camps and were willing to talk about their experiences. Those with families in Europe could put themselves on a flight to claim asylum in the first world, but for the majority who came from poor, working-class backgrounds, the first step towards finding a way off the island was to go to Malaysia or Indonesia. Given that getting a visa to visit Europe as a single Indian woman was an insurmountable difficulty in itself, I chose to follow the refugee women who were in Southeast Asia, in countries that still used a visa-on-arrival scheme for Indians.
Initially, the decision to make a documentary seemed crazy. It was a new medium for me, and was expensive, laborious and intensive. As a journalist, I had recorded video interviews merely as a means to an end: getting people to remember the horror of the Kilvenmani massacre where forty-four Dalits burned to death for striking for higher wages in 1968; asking the Dalit people of Dharmapuri what they had witnessed when dominant-caste Hindu Vanniyar mobs burnt their homes in retaliation against an inter-caste love marriage in 2012. Making a documentary was not the same, and I spent months learning, experimenting with the grammar of this new medium. I wanted my subjects to have autonomy, I wanted them to speak for themselves. I did not want their words coming out filtered through a writer’s pen.
Advance money from my first novel and crowd-funding from Tamil friends enabled me to hire equipment and pay a cinematographer for her services. Uma Kumarapuram, one of the few female Indian cinematographers, turned out not only to be brilliant at her work, but also became a sister-like figure to me. It was a time when budget airlines were opening up all over the region, and we were lucky to ride the wave. It was a hectic trip to Malaysia and Indonesia, spread over three months in the summer of 2013.
Although I eventually got all the footage I had sought, the film was never made, for many of the million reasons why films never get made. But five years later, a dear friend of mine, the feminist scholar Dr Nimmi Gowrinathan, asked me if I at least had the raw material for inclusion in a memorial archive that she was curating. Travelling between countries, I couldn’t locate the original hard-disc, but eventually I found access to an online drive where we had uploaded the audio files.
Going through these files, I decided to write this essay.
The stories that I have picked out to share here show two different faces of women in war. The first is the story of a woman married to a male Tamil Tiger, as narrated by her. The second, unbroken transcript, containing only the answers to my questions, forms the testimony of a female Tamil Tiger, filmed with the purpose of being used in an international war-crimes tribunal, should the occasion arise.
Typing out their words from the mp3 files, I escape the moving image altogether. I work with chunks of conversation. Their voices are not grounded: they appear in snatches; any narrative cohesion has to be imposed from above. By not experiencing their physical presence on a screen, and by replacing the raw emotion of the women’s first-language speech with a second-language rendition here, a distance is created between the subject-matter and the storyteller, a distance in space and time and language that allows for reflection.
Having worked all my life with words, this transition from raw documentary footage into an essay feels natural to me. There are decisions that were important during the filming that do not weigh so heavily when rendered in print. I remember the ethical tensions inherent in my position as a young woman trying to make two other young women tell their story before a camera. Their identity had to remain a secret – that was the first constraint. But close-up face-frames, stock choices for celebrity activists, angry farmers, disenchanted workers, wouldn’t fit. Faces are the opposite of anonymity. Faces lend themselves to surveillance. Identifiable features would allow the Army to trace these women, putting their families back home at considerable risk.
At once, I wanted to show the militant’s wife and I wanted to hide her. I do not believe in blurring or disembodiment: they feel like acts of violence. Searching for places to hide her, I looked no further than domesticity. There are no parallels to its anonymising ability. To remain engaged in housework is a stand-in for erasure. We placed her in a kitchen, cleaning. We placed her in the living room, folding clothes. We placed her in the bedroom, changing sheets. We placed her in the little garden, her nervous hands kept occupied with pruning. This woman, doing housework, is Wife. As I made these directorial choices, I’m convinced that I was channelling my own experiences of being trapped in an abusive domestic situation, where individuality disappears. Meanwhile, my cinematographer arranged every frame in the most aesthetic, artistic manner possible. Sunlight, a splash of colour, windows, curtains, a splash of colour, clotheslines. It is the only element within our control, the only space where we can reaffirm beauty and humanity. Working with the awareness that anything said on screen would reflect horror, we made the backdrops peaceful, humdrum.
S never joined the Tigers. Her husband was a guerrilla; she fell in love, married him. The price she had to pay for her choice of spouse was the torture she was made to face in the camps. She is initially reluctant to share her story, for fear of being identified and incriminated. ‘Justice’ is a word women like her have learned to disbelieve; ‘retribution’ is another. Telling her that her story is important, insisting that it would make people enraged, could halt what is happening on her island, are promises she has heard too often. At this moment, other people are not her concern: she is not obliged to share anything. Her past, her trauma is her own.
I am torn as I try to make her speak. Why should one woman ask another to remember, recollect and narrate the very things she wants to forget? Those around her intercede, appeal on my behalf. She listens to a man who goes by the name of Master, a suffix of respect for male commanders who used to train new cadres in the Tigers, and who appears to command immense goodwill among the small Tamil-speaking refugee/asylum – seeker community here in Cisarua, Indonesia. Uma and I assure her that we will not show her face, and that we will work towards protecting her identity. Eventually, she agrees to speak.
I am a writer making a documentary, feeling my way through an uncharted terrain. My intention was to make a documentary about women who were victims of sexual violence during the war. Here, far away from all our homes, I realise that these circles of exploitation never end. These women’s vulnerability – as women, as poor, as people with – out papers, as strangers in a new land – makes them easy prey to sexual harassment, rumours, ostracisation.
Women survivors of violence and abuse are often told to take it one day at a time. It is a regular prescription. But this one day, this everyday, becomes impossible under the weight of social judgment.
The people who promised to help S with her eventual asylum process in Europe disappeared from her life overnight. ‘They told me they could not bear my expenses any more,’ she said. ‘They asked me to borrow money from home and buy my own safety. No one picked up our calls, no one made any arrangements, no one bothered about what happened to us.’ Because she is a woman who has suffered sexual violence, she is seen as someone with compromised morals (being with more than one man is a judgment that condemns a woman to shame in the Tamil moral universe) and any man lending her a helping hand is construed as receiving sexual favours. Such gossip destroyed S.
Raped women who are not broken down by the experience are seen as continuing to exercise their sexual autonomy: they are condemned by a spectre of fear that they will wreck families.
Women raped as a weapon of war are potent tools for political mobilisation and grandstanding oratory, but in everyday life, they are viewed with derision, suspicion, shame.
In the midst of making arrangements to film in Cisarua, S goes out of reach for a couple of days. I assume that she doesn’t want to talk to me and has switched off her phone to avoid me.
When I ask her in person about her silence, she retorts: ‘You have never been on a boat, have you?’
I shake my head.
‘How would you know, then? We are taken on Wednesdays and Saturdays. We are thoroughly checked. They go through all our stuff. Everything. That’s why we do not have phones – they’re taken away from us – so that we do not call anyone, so that our locations are not traced, so that they do not get into any trouble. They are taking a risk for us – and they do not want us to put them at risk either.’
I am thrown into disbelief. I had read her as a victim, as someone who suffered, but underlying all her desperation was a courage that cannot be contained within the words I know.
During the course of this documentary-making, I realise how hard I have to work within myself to avoid collapsing into a weeping heap. Some days, I smoke two twenty-packs of cigarettes, and drink shots of double espresso at every chance I get. The 24-hour kopi tiam near our place doesn’t help. Within a few days, the baristas know me on a first-name basis, and three of them have asked for my phone number. The pointless flirting provides distraction, holds down the waves of revulsion and physical terror that I experience when rape is being discussed.
Why was I this chain-smoking, bitter-coffee guzzler when I was working on this story of rapes by the Sri Lanka Army? Why did I so desperately crave to come across as a tough bitch? Was this exterior necessary to facilitate others to place their confidence in me? Or was it a facade, so others might think I knew what I was doing? Tigers were teetotallers who most likely viewed cigarettes as a suspect activity, so was my behaviour, clearly marking myself as outside the domain of the good-Tamil-girl grid, an effort to masquerade as an outsider? Tamil enough to be in their midst and win their trust; modern enough to ward off probing questions about my personal life, about the enormous stigma of my divorced-woman status? Was I constructing this persona for my own benefit – so that I would not break under the trauma, so that when I looked in the mirror I would see a woman who had stopped caring? Was I tailoring myself to look the part? Was this what they call imposter syndrome?
As I was working on this story, a journalist with close ties to the Tamil Tigers called me up to ask if I had links to any white documentary filmmakers. A senior Tigress, very influential in the political department, was dying of cancer. He felt that her thoughts and experiences should be recorded on tape, made into a film and shared with the world. Why white? I asked him with trepidation. He replied, ‘So that it appears like a balanced account.’ That is what whiteness means. An automatic stamp of neutrality, balance, sound political judgment. The whiteness of the artist enriches the subject.
I do not have that with all my brown skin.
I do not have even the semblance of neutrality here, in starting this project as someone with deep sympathies for the Tamil struggle for self-determination, with a childhood history of adulation and fangirling over Tigresses that could border on the problematic.
I do not aspire to this whiteness that I cannot attain anyway. I only aspire for my right to tell a story on my own terms, and on the terms of the women whose stories I am telling.
S’s lack of interest, almost aversion to talking about the war, underlined the magnitude of what she must have endured. She did not choose or anticipate such tragedy. By contrast, the female fighters I met, whether in Tamil Nadu, Malaysia, Indonesia, Norway, or in their own homelands, were constantly in combat mode. When S opened up, it appeared like an act of charity, as if she had taken pity on me. She was not doing this for herself, she was doing it for me. Within the course of that afternoon, I realised how easily power had switched: I was no longer the writer-filmmaker helping her, she was the woman helping me.
Does telling a story change a storyteller? Does making others tell their own story demand a different game with a different set of rules?
THE STORY OF THE MILITANT’S WIFE
in her own words
Akka, they said that if I spoke about this to anybody they would kidnap my child. Murder the baby. That’s why I never spoke about this to anyone.
I committed suicide. It was my mother who took me to the hospital. I was very serious.
I was under the impression that I would die. I am alive because of my child.
My mother is old. She does not have anyone. I do not want people to say she has a daughter who does not take care of her. I must one day live without fear. I thought about all of this. I wanted to take care of my child and I must be able to look after my mother.
I tell you this, placing my faith in you. When we came here, we stayed with a family, and even there, I had to face sexual torture. They locked us up. They locked up all my things. Even when my child was ill, they would not take her to the hospital.
I have left everything to God. I came here to flee the difficulties. But here again I had to face the same. It was Master who took me out of these problems. I must worship him. I suffered there. I suffered here.
We were staying in someone’s house. There were two of us, battleworn. In every house, there are chores to do. I cannot help as much as the other person because I have a small child. If someone becomes cross with me because of that, because I cannot do as much work, what can I do?
I have lived through so much humiliation and torture.
If there was anyone else in my place – anyone at all – I am sure, promise, they would not have stayed alive for so long. They would have committed suicide, they would have died long ago.
When I came here, the torture continued. Behind where I stayed, there was a waterfall. I wanted to drop my child and jump myself so that all of this would come to an end. Eventually I had to call Master and tell him what was going on. It was he who came and saved me.
Let those who slander, slander. Let those who praise, praise.
This child is the reason I put up with so much torture, so much sorrow, so much difficulty. That is why I refuse to talk about my story to many people. Tomorrow, I do not want this child to carry the shame.
In the end it was Master and N who helped me, who got me a separate house to live in, who cared for me. But do you know what followed? They called my family back home and told them that I had eloped with N. That boy is like my brother. It is horrible to hear the things they say. He is doing the most he can – will God tolerate all this slander against him? I sometimes want to stop praying to God because he does not seem to know the difference between good people and bad people.
My parents advised me against marrying that man. It’s because I married this child’s father that I’m undergoing all this humiliation today. That was how I sinned against my parents. I made them shed all these tears and today I’m being punished for my own sin, I’m shedding all these tears. They were against this marriage. But I married this militant and I’m bearing all the consequences of that. I had no connection to the liberation movement. But because of his connection I became a victim. If I had been a part of the liberation struggle and I was bearing those consequences – that is an entirely different story.
I do not know anything about the movement.
Today, when someone comes to help me – they are already creating gossip about me – how is it possible that they expect me to survive without any help from anyone?
When I call my mother, I tell her that I’m happy. I tell her I’m at peace. That is true. When I was there, the CID would call me any time of the day. I would lock up the house and remain indoors. I’d escape unseen through the back door. She is still being harassed by the CID, asked about my whereabouts. When she is suffering that kind of torture, why would I tell her that I’m going through such times?
For a woman living by herself, life is hell. It is easier if she is single. But if she is married, if she has lost her husband, or he has abandoned her, or if she is divorced, or anything of that sort – you cannot speak of what we go through.
I do not know if you will get angry at me, but I have to say this: this Tamil society is useless. Why do they not work towards the betterment of their own condition? Instead they are putting all their time and effort into slander. Instead, they dial long-distance to Sri Lanka to tell this story. All of this because I do not have a husband.
THE STORY OF THE FEMALE TIGER
in her own words
This is my name.
This was my name in the movement.
I was born in __________ , Jaffna.
I came to Malaysia in November 2012.
I joined the rebels in December 1999.
I joined them because of what happened to my family. I was not old enough to fight when I joined them. They waited until I was eighteen. No, that’s not the right way to put it – I was asked to wait until I was eighteen. Child soldiers were a big issue at that time.
Here, I live with the constant fear of being taken back and tortured. Here we have no recognition as Tamils.
I need to save my sisters and my mother from the trouble. My brother died when he was thirteen. That’s my younger brother. I have an elder brother who died too.
The Tigers took care of my basic needs. They let me study. They trained me when I turned eighteen to be a combatant. There were no violations.
I surrendered in April 2009. I surrendered along with other people who surrendered. I told the army that I was in Vanni on work.
I was asked to go to the ____________ camp in Vavuniya. We were in a girls-only camp. The rapes started before the war even formally ended. The first rape happened on 5 May, 2009. That was two weeks before the final days of the war.
The rapists. Everyone from a top army official to the low-level soldiers wanted a piece of my flesh.
I was released in ____.
The camp is where it all begins.
No, the rapes do not wait. It does not begin after the war. There is no patience. My people were braving bombs, and here I was being raped.
I did not go into rehabilitation. Rehab was risky – it meant telling them everything I knew. I was working for the intelligence – it would have meant selling out the movement en masse. I pretended to be a civilian. Even if the pretence came with the pain of being raped. Once I claimed I was a civilian, there was no going back. Rehabilitation meant going into their custody. I thought being a civilian would give me freedom.
Yes, I was conscious when I was raped. At least the first time I was.
The first time there were four men. Later on, the numbers would increase. In the worst episode, seven men were involved.
No, I cannot tell you how often it happened. I was released from the camp with the warnings: ‘You must come whenever we call you.’
No, the rapes happened while I was at the camp too. I did not keep count of the number of times this happened. But let me tell you this: the days on which I was raped exceeded the days on which I was not.
How did that work? I was meant to go when they called me.
Why not? They had it all figured out, they knew I had lied. ‘You could only have been a fighter – no one else was in the Vanni. If you want to avoid going to the rehabilitation for fighters you must come when we call you.’
So you think I should have gone to rehab? No. Many who went never came back alive.
You want to know why I wanted to stay alive so badly? Say it, say it. I’ve heard worse. No, I attempted suicide, I could not take it any more. But they took me to the hospital, pumped my stomach and saved me. That moment I decided that I would expose all these men.
Why these rapes? I asked them too, just as you ask me now. They wanted the wombs of our women to bear their children. That’s what they said during the rapes.
Yes. The men who ruined me, the men who ruined so many, many women – yes, I can identify each of them.
I did everything about it that I could have done in the circumstances in which this was all going on. I threatened to complain. ‘I shall tell your superiors.’ And the men said, ‘These are their orders. The orders were to rape you.’
This is what happened last time. I would say: ‘I do not want to leave the camp with you. My body cannot take it. I cannot bear it any more.’ And what did they say? ‘I am not like him, I am a good man.’ And that is what they all said, all the time.
The heat in the camp, under those tents, it was something. There was no water in the camps. The thirst killed us. We would have drunk even poison. They would give us cool drinks. I never knew that the first time – that it was drugged, it was laced with alcohol. Only when we returned to our senses, we knew what had transpired. It was easy, clear-cut – seeing the state we were in.
Because of what happened with me, my family is ill-treated.
There were seven of us in the camp, it happened to all of us.
There is a constant fear in my heart that this will happen again.
It is a shame. Women keep it hidden. It is a society where the story cannot cross your doorstep. Even if we say that the army called us for questioning, the people would say, ‘If the army calls you, would they let you be? Would it just be questions? They would have tested and tasted every part of you.’
The immediate implication was that we had slept with the army. This happened with thousands of women.
When I ran away my family began to suffer. My little brother was taken for interrogation. Where did your sister hide her weapons? To my family, the bomb is not the weapons. Nor the beating. It is my youngest sister, fourteen years old. The fear that she will have to face the same fate as me when she grows up.
Who do I see in front of my eyes?
Not my mother. Not my father. Not my family. I see the army. The soldiers. Even in my sleep. Even now I live in fear.
Why do I stay alive?
To get justice. To expose the army and the EPDP dogs.
Why me? Because I am a Tamil woman. But also because I was a fighter. And my family background didn’t help either – my elder brother was a martyr. And in the last days of the war, a younger brother too. They saw the rapes as avenging my brothers.
On camera, the Tiger spoke like someone who had long awaited her turn.
When she spoke of wanting to stay alive to get justice and to expose the army, she really meant it. A new life held meaning only because it would allow her, someday, in some form, to strengthen the dreams she held in her life on the island. The lengths to which she was willing to go in this regard were admirable, but sometimes they left me terrified.
I met the Tigress in Kuala Lumpur, in the offices of an NGO which was assisting with her medical needs and arranging for counselling to help her cope. She had been staying in the home of the woman who ran the NGO, but both of them were frayed, tired of the effort this cohabitation required. Hardly a day after my arrival, I was tasked with finding her a safe place to stay. This was my first time in Malaysia, and I was myself relying on friends. While the war was on, Tigresses were objects of worship. After the war, they were unwelcome in other people’s homes. I decided that I would stay in a cheap suburb outside the city, and until we found a safe Tamil home for her, she could sleep in my hotel room. Suddenly, she went from being the subject of a documentary I was making to someone who shared my room.
A journalist-friend whom I knew through Facebook put me in touch with Ray, a Tamil speaker who made arrangements for me to stay in Puchong Jaya, a working-class area beyond the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. It was clear from the stylised number emblazoned on his right arm that Ray had once been part of a gang. In Malaysia, rife with Chinese triads and their rival groups, gang membership was highest among Malaysian Indians, a result of their exploitation on plantation estates, their history of secret union organising and neglect by a religious state. The Tigress – no stranger to inequality and violence – was quick to read the situation too, and to see how she could work it for her own ends.
After our first meeting with Ray, the Tigress told me she wanted to see him again. I did not think it was a good idea; after all, his role in our story was finished. Now that we were safe in our Chinese-run hotel through his connections, I had no reason to reach out to him. What I didn’t admit to her was my own reading of Ray: stylish, flashy, flamboyant, he was bristling with uber-masculinity and quick to speak in the trademark double entendre that Tamil men employ when they are courting, and I did not want to get entangled.
I saw Ray exclusively through the lens of a tense sexual chemistry, but she had thought of other uses for him. To this end, she told me that she had worked out an elaborate plan. She would meet him. She would get him talking. She would achieve intimacy with him. She would recruit young Tamils from Malaysia, and he, as a former gangster, would help her find ways to get weapons. She would make the Tamils undergo arms training in the forests. Then, they would all leave for the homeland (Eelam) and fight for their liberation. She was absolutely serious as she outlined her plans, and I was totally petrified. None of this was practical, or even in the realm of something that could be realised. But the way she spoke about it made clear that she was not talking about this as a joke. Everything that had unfolded in her life after the war appeared to have no effect on how she felt about the armed struggle. It seemed to me that she saw the present events in her life (being stateless in Malaysia, the impending asylum process in Europe, starting a new life in a safe country) only as temporary measures. I did not want to contemplate whether she was merely unwavering in her pursuit of her people’s liberation, or if this adventurism was her way of compensating for having left her homeland.
What left me bewildered was the contrast between her ambitions and her reality. Days before I was to arrive in Kuala Lumpur, the journalist-friend who had put me in touch with the Tamil Tigress called me to ask if I could take her to a doctor in the city to obtain an official report corroborating her claims. He believed that such a medical report would bolster her case for asylum in Europe. Online friends from the Tamil newspaper scene in Malaysia stepped in and on their recommendation, I took her to a private hospital. The doctor running it was a Tamil gynaecologist and very sympathetic to my requests. Several generations ago his family had come over from Jaffna in the Tamil-speaking north of Sri Lanka, and he saw this act of providing her with a medical report as the smallest thing he could do. In person, I revealed to him the more pressing and urgent reason for a medical examination. The Tamil Tigress had been intermittently unwell and wanted to rule out having ‘caught AIDS’. She was afraid that in an Islamic country like Malaysia, a positive screening might cause deportation. She said that she would rather die than face a situation of being back in the hands of the Sri Lanka Army. I asked the doctor to ensure her anonymity. Days later, he sent me a medical report by email, and in the body of the email, I learned that she had tested negative for HIV. I hugged the Tigress with the good news, and forwarded the report to a doctor who had requested it, but never looked at it myself. Who am I to know what she endured? Knowing first-hand about the violence that was inflicted on her, what sort of voyeurism would it be to look through her report?
Her testimony takes me back to my own experience of rape.
There is something I know about medical evidence – not in the journalist-activist sort of way, but in the shameful, beaten-up wife sort of way. Two days after my marriage, as a result of sex whose spite I did not anticipate, I had to be hospitalised for heavy bleeding that couldn’t be stemmed. The doctors who examined me, both women, had a good laugh. Were you a virgin? No. More laughter. That shut me up for the many months that followed – knowing that a mocking laughter would be the reception to rape within a marriage.
I was given a patient card by Father Muller Medical College Hospital, Mangalore, containing my name and the date of admission (4 September, 2011) in a laminated card holder. I kept this card with me through the four months of marriage, and I kept it in my purse when I came back to my parents’ home. It was a keepsafe and a talisman: a proof for those who would demand proof of mistreatment; a testament to myself of my ability to overcome adversity.
A corpse in a wake is looked upon with more respect, the Tamil Tiger told me over coffee. A corpse is superior, to them, to a raped woman like me.
That was the cost of war, that women were paying.
When I first heard that from the militant’s mouth, I wished that I was not making any documentary. I wanted my teenage memories of Tigresses to live on: untouched by the external world, where they were valorous and magnificent, went around on speedboats, or did their target practice, or crawled on their stomachs with guns on their backs. To watch them live at other people’s mercy, to know that they were being condemned by the same people whose lives they had sought to defend and protect, was shocking.
It is six years since I first met these women. Both of them have now moved to advanced capitalist countries, and I reliably learn that they have managed to get their papers. Strangely, I too have lived for the last four years in a first-world country, and feel uncomfortable about not being on home ground, where my work can have more meaning.
Meeting a female Tiger in the flesh broke my own naïve carnivalisation of war. When I encountered these women personally, the image I had constructed of female militancy shattered. Nothing had prepared me to brace the reality that these powerful women would be so vulnerable.
I have learnt a lot else in these intervening years.
From the academic work of my friend Nimmi Gowrinathan (see: Emissaries of Empowerment), I learn how rehabilitation programmes targeting women militants end up domesticating them, teaching them to make cakes and rear chickens and do embroidery – tasks for which these women have no patience or interest, skills which do not contribute to any empowerment whatsoever. I learn how female militants in Sri Lanka remain under heavy surveillance, given mobile phones by the army so that all their movements are tracked. From the work of other academics and journalists, I learn of the debt traps into which Tamil women fall, and the systematic land-grabs carried out by the army. I read up on how Tamil women have become easy tools for factory labour and the cannibalistic micro-credit enterprise. From friends who are working in Tamil areas I hear how rapes by the occupying Sri Lanka Army have become a routine feature of life in one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world.
Most of all, I learn that the genocide of a people does not end with their physical extermination: it continues when they are not allowed to remember who they were and what they fought for. Today, the people of Tamil Eelam are denied the right to commemorate and remember their martyrs: their brothers and sisters, their lovers and comrades, their heroes. As the fierce Tamil Tigresses of the last three decades become the nameless-faceless-helpless asylum seekers of today, what is lost is not only their struggle for a separate homeland. What is lost – behind news reports, medical documents, academic papers – is the dynamic, explosive manner in which they defined a cultural moment in Tamil history. We are a people with a written literary tradition that commenced two thousand years ago.
Looking back, never have Tamil women burned so bright, never have they dazzled so much, as when they were Tigresses.
This essay is the smallest attempt to reclaim that memory of a revolution: individual and collective. To document what we feel in this fragmentary, feminine, feminist manner is also to say that we still believe in the lifeblood of our shared dream: a Tamil homeland. Puligalin thaagam, tamil eela thaayagam.