The palmyra trees have grown. The sad broken tips of these majestic trees that had haunted visitors in 2004, when I last visited Jaffna, have given way to a fresh growth. The bullet-riddled buildings, which never for a minute allowed the war tourists of the Peace Accord to forget the gruesome realities of the violence, have disappeared. Only the white-washed, painted new looks of old houses were visible. The others that were resistant to this new kitsch touristy image, presumably, have been flattened out. The new look was a reminder to be grateful that now, only bird-drops fall from the sky. And gratitude is a dangerous thing, especially when our rulers demand it from us.
The skepticism towards this fragile calm notwithstanding, we were on our way for a commemoration of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, which was organized for the first time in Jaffna after 25 years. The invitations asked that we show solidarity with the people of Jaffna. How could we not, after everything that Jaffna has given us?
Many who remember Dr. Rajani Thiranagama tend to emphasize her work as a human rights activist, feminist, and a fierce dissenter in Tamil society. But the journey to Jaffna, an almost 10-hour bus ride from Colombo, was an occasion to reflect on her place in the national political imagination. Would this be a form of appropriation that she herself would have rejected? Or is this even the right gesture when the ethnically divisive politics of post-independence Sri Lanka has made it difficult to even discuss our history as one about a common struggle? Even if this be so, it would do no harm to pose the question, perhaps to reject the claim later.
Year 1990. Forced into witnessing the 1987-89 insurrection and the carnage that followed in the South, the Sinhalese youth in the southern part of the country were largely oblivious to the suffering of the Tamil people in the North – a suffering carried out, supposedly, in our name. Moreover, the then dominant popular politics of all the major political parties did much to propagate the idea that the Tamil people were our enemies, hell-bent on destroying the Sinhalese. We had heard the bombs go off in Colombo; some Sinhalese people felt deeply hurt because a few of us had ventured to save some Tamil lives in 1983, and thought, for that, we were incapable of being racist. As during the 2009 military confrontations between the government and the L.T.T.E., even the Sinhalese who were not viciously racist, were blinded by their narcissistic ideal of a false self-magnanimity. And so, we did not see. Or, we did not dare to look.
And then came The Broken Palmyra. In the early 1990s. The Yukthiya newspaper, then one of the few dissenting newspapers published in Sinhalese, carried pieces about the struggles of the people in the North. It published parts of The Broken Palmyra in translation along with other articles that showed what life had become to young people in the North. It presented an alternative to the platitudes of the Three-Sinhala Lion Cubs rhetoric of the 1980s and stretched the political imagination of its readers across the tears of the Kilali crossing. Rajani Thiranagama was already dead by that time. But for young people like me, hungry for some meaning amid the violence we had witnessed, her work had just begun.
In 1993, a march was organized from Koralawella, Moratuwa to the Viharamahadevi Park to commemorate Richard de Zoysa and Rajani Thiranagama. As it was with the march in 2014, that march too was banned. Young men and women wore T-shirts with the smiling face of Rajani and the serious contemplative face of Richard. “Freedom from Fear,” the motto read. Rajani had had the courage to be unafraid of the brutal power of the government of the time; she criticized the I.P.K.F. and the L.T.T.E. That was a lot of powerful enemies to make. Her death, like that of Richard de Zoysa, signified something that stood for something other than unremitting violence; the possibility of courage. At that event, a nascent counter-power was claiming Rajani as a point of solidarity between the Tamils and the Sinhalese to recognize that we were all victims of a brutal regime. As such, her memory became something dangerous, something worth suppressing.
In hindsight, I feel that this was an important point in the history of leftist politics in Sri Lanka for those of my generation. We were commemorating the memory of a Tamil woman as a political ideal. It was doubly daring, because she was a woman and she was a Tamil. And for me, she stood for something other than herself: that possibility. That we could remember her past as our past when we read her writing and heard about her life. That she could take us to the parts in our country that we had never been to, and help us remember that other past–the one we hadn’t known, but that nevertheless was ours. That through her life and death, we would be introduced to anonymous people who would help us remember their memory of being hemmed-in between competing military powers that were equally ruthless; that her writing would occasionally let us share the little pleasures rendered by such staggering violence, such as seeing women become involved in revolution, maybe even carrying guns.
She helped us remember the disappointment we had never known, when people began to say that the boys’ determination was weakened by the presence of women in the war. She helped us taste the bitterest of fears – that of knowing that you will be killed by a son of the people you love. More than ever, she stood to remind us that justice is above all political calculations, and that the Sinhalese dominated governments (in various hues) had committed a grave injustice against the ethnic and religious minorities in the country. That was her gift: stretching our political imagination so that we would remember a past that those born into the Sinhalese ethnic group rarely experienced; so that we would have the imagination to know what happened to her—our—people.
That is of course, not to deny the presence of groups comprising of Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, and other ethnically diverse people, who recognized, even then, the importance of a shared struggle; not at all. Moreover, The Broken Palmyra itself recounts the presence of Sinhalese people in the North during the Peace Accord, and the Tamil people’s hospitality towards them, even as it recounts atrocities committed against these civilians. But those who recognized the importance of the Tamil struggle for self-determination, as it was defined at the time, were rare. That they were a precious few reflects the importance of the work of many like Rajani who were determined to bear witness to that struggle and that possibility of solidarity, with their life, if need be.
Since that first commemoration that I had seen in the South, that spirit of solidarity was largely overcome by an identification of a different kind. For marginal fringe groups voicing solidarity with the Tamil people, the L.T.T.E.’s politics became the rhetorical point of identification. Many of us chose to ignore its violence. Peace became a president’s slogan; war an excusable means to an unclear end. After all, the reasoning went, who else but the L.T.T.E could represent the Tamil people? On the other hand, there were war professionals; there were peace professionals; there were those who fell through the cracks. Many we had held as our ideals slowly gave in to the pressures of this new reality of professionalizing political struggles.
In 2005, the documentary No More Tears, Sister was released and it premiered on PBS in 2006. The name Rajani Thiranagama emerged once again, this time, in the world documentary scene. The Canadian director Helene Klodawsky had found a poetic language in which Rajani’s short and meaningful life became couched within a family drama, drawing attention, not only to her work, but also to her family: her sisters, husband, and daughters. It was a harrowingly tragic depiction of her life.
But the true significance of this film, to me, was in its timing. In 2004, the JHU had won eleven seats in the parliament. The Buddhist right wing was emerging strong, whipping up an unprecedented war rhetoric. The L.T.T.E., allegedly, became complicit with voting the Rajapakse regime to power. The winds were shifting again to full-blown war. The palmyras must have shuddered.
In 2005, a few activists in Colombo organized, for the first time in the South as far as I know, a commemoration of those who died in the 1983 Black July attacks. Some of us wanted to show excerpts of No More Tears, Sister at this event. But even as late as 2005, some of the organizers objected, apparently because she had been a tad over-critical of the L.T.T.E.; and anyway, as it was said those days, she was killed by the I.P.K.F. Even at that point, Rajani remained a point of non-assimilation into easy politics. We missed an opportunity to stretch our imagination a little more and learn to never compromise, for the sake of practical necessity, the political integrity of one’s work. This too was a lesson that Rajani would teach us. That politics is an ethical commitment.
Rajani showed us that betrayal has an ethic of its own. When one finds the courage to question one’s political past, take responsibility for it, and stand up to the unbecoming powers that sometimes, we ourselves help raise, and when we do so with no guarantee of a place in history’s balance sheet, we are remembering the unbroken spirit of the palmyra. At those moments, we are remembering Rajani.