Photo – Kalyananda Perera
We came out of the Weerasingham Hall and crossed the road. A cemetery. The Alfred Duraippa Stadium could be seen in the distance. We walked under watchful eyes. Inside the hall, preparations were still being made for the cultural show. Although the memorial event organized to remember the work of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama had had to change venues the events were still on. The march was banned. Twenty five years after her death, and five years after the cessation of the military hostilities between the L.T.T.E. and the government of Sri Lanka, it was still dangerous to remember Dr. Rajani Thiranagama. Was it fear? Revenge? Ignorance? The main thing was that more than a few people had defied fear and petty-mindedness and participated actively in the events. They had dared to laugh, dance, cry. The little god skipping away while history walks the dog, Arundhati Roy would say.
Remembering Dr. Rajani Thiranagama is not dangerous simply because of who she was. There were many like her: unbending, unrelenting, and uncompromising. Many of them paid a heavy price for dissent. In those terrible times of political revenge and indiscriminate murder, both in the North and South of the country, her death was but one among many. The organizers of the memorial event already recognized this in their slogan: “Remember Rajani, Remember All Who Stood for Justice and Democracy.”
It was dangerous to remember Rajani because one couldn’t talk about her without resurrecting the memory of all those who strive to rescue justice and democracy from the clutches of vacuous speeches made from flowery podiums. Not without remembering the dead and the undead who knew that these values are crucial for an equitable society. And that, by any account, is unacceptable in the North and in the South.
Photo – Buddhika Bandara
The many speeches at the commemoration event organized in Jaffna on September 20-21 made reference to Rajani’s life and work. Family, friends, and colleagues remembered the various roles she played in her short, but eventful life. One woman spoke of Rajani as a mentor to herself and others who had been tortured. The theme song, Rise, Rise, Future Generations, was indeed a tear-jerker. As Rajani’s three sisters sang this song, I could not have been the only one who remembered those of our own generation who chose to arise and were bitterly betrayed. Twenty five years ago, before, and after. The cultural show, the songs, the drums, the young men and women: a sense of continuity amidst a profound sense that so much, so much more than an individual life, has been lost.
However, the most striking part of the event, to me, was the discussions on the second day. One key idea to emerge out of the forum, to me, was the need of a kind of paradoxical political move: the need to de-ethnicize the problems faced by Tamils, and recognize how these problems are intersected by class, caste, gender, and other forms of discriminatory social structures. Simultaneously, it is necessary to situate this move to de-ethnicize structural violence within the larger economic and political climate of the country, and thereby recognize how proletarianization and privation are enacted in specifically ethnicized ways.
For example, the discussion on the pervasive problem of caste emerged as a powerful antidote to the push to understand structural violence only as an ethnicized one. This struck me as paradoxical for someone from the South, because among the Sinhalese, the main task still seems, sadly, to endlessly clarify the particularly ethnicized nature of economic and political deprivation in the country. How are we to understand the trans-ethnic nature of neoliberal policies, while simultaneously recognizing their ethnicized manifestations? What strategies would work in a context that demands ethnicizing and de-ethnicizing a struggle for justice, simultaneously? A conversation perhaps more urgent than even before.
Photo – Kalyananda Perera
What would Rajani say, I wondered, as one man argued that some Sinhalese films and literature show the problems of Tamils, and that he didn’t know any Tamil writers who have talked about the problems that the Sinhalese face. After the bombings, after the scrambling to survive amidst a ruthless military operation, after the palpable violence of peace, after the ceremonious fire-crackers and milk-rice on the streets in the South—after an unforgivable complicity on our part—you ask this? I asked in my head. Perhaps not all was lost. A firm head on confident shoulders, although slightly bent by time and perhaps adversity. It was a living lesson on solidarity, and I had never heard that argument before. I thought I saw a fleeting twinkle in Rajani’s eyes.
I think of the chapter “October Nights” in The Broken Palmyra, which, in an important aside, describes how some people in Jaffna were offended when Sinhalese civilians, who had returned to Jaffna during the Peace Accords, had been killed by the L.T.T.E. in Jaffna. They felt it was a “breach of hospitality,” a dishonor, to kill someone after inviting them. The report even claimed that “many women felt that it was very wrong to have killed those soldiers who had been fed with their own hands for several months,” after eight Sinhalese soldiers, whose release they had thought was “imminent” had been murdered. The Broken Palmyra called the day of these events “The Night of Shame.”
It would be easy to be skeptical about that kind of sentiment. After all, given the level of the tragedy, a modest discomfort here, an occasional criticism there, would really not make that much of a difference. But that is the point. Literature, art, memory, tradition, and other cultural matter help keep the cracks open, the doubts alive, the gaps visible, so that we would not be trapped within a blind self-confidence that refuses to admit our own shortcomings. Truth is what matters in literature, a woman said. After all the hub dub of postmodernism, far from the gurus of linguistic constructionism and self-ironizing skepticism, literature, apparently still mattered because the truth was at stake in it. How much more worth literature would become, I thought, if truth could, again, become its stakes. There must be something unbroken about that spirit of the palmyra.
Photo – Buddhika Bandara
Perhaps it was the fear of that spirit of the palmyra that invited the repression and the banning. Perhaps it was something else. It was the third time, in my own experience, that I had seen censorship at work when it came to remembering Rajani. Writing this, I begin to realize that commemorating Rajani has taken a life of its own, because when we remember her, we memorialize so much more that would otherwise be forgotten. Her life and her work, and above all, her memory, continues to be an unassimilable point for political opportunism, so remembering her becomes dangerous. She becomes something other than herself, something that could be made ours, but never assimilated into a party, a slogan, or a program owned by individuals.
How dangerous the heroes that cannot be turned into idols are. I think back over the tens of political platforms I had seen. I have never seen her face hanging above a politician’s desk or on a propaganda poster. I think that that is history’s ultimate compliment to Dr. Rajani Thiranagama. The palmyra, battered but unbroken, sprouts again: it is unassimilable into the vulgar landscape of white-washes and red bricks scattered by the history of the powerful. Greenery in the blue sky. A song about a rising future generation. A twinkle in a dead woman’s eyes. A tribute to the human capacity to imagine, remember, and never, never forget.