Cassandra Cry: A woman’s balanced view of the past week Local women in their infinite variety


Dr Rajani Rajasingham Thiranagama

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety…

Thus Shakespeare praised Cleopatra in his tragedy of the love of Marc Anthony for the eternally attractive Queen of the Nile. Cassandra borrows the quote as her mind is occupied with three local women –to be praised or one to be castigated as you readers wish. Also a panel of three brainy, outspoken lovelies.

A man who teaches a woman to write should know that he is providing poison to an asp - Aristotle

Dr Rajani Rajasingham Thiranagama (23 February 1954 – 21 September 1989) Author of Broken Palmyrah

Twenty-nine years after the brutal murder of Rajani Thiranagama, human rights activist and feminist who dared to live and work in Jaffna and criticise the LTTE after first admiring them, is the subject of T.D. Ramakrishnan’s Malayalam book Sugandhi Enna Andal Devanayaki. This chronicle of her struggle will be available in English published by HarperCollins on July 25. The Malayalam work published three years ago was reportedly sensational.

We remember with sorrow this young mother and head of the Department of Anatomy, University of Jaffna, who was shot dead, apparently by an LTTE sniper as she rode home on her bicycle. She bravely broke religious and ethnic barriers to marry a Sinhala Buddhist social activist, and dared to become a distinguished human rights activist herself by criticising Sinhala chauvinism; the fascist nationalism of the LTTE as well as the alleged brutalities of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. Cassandra worked in a human rights centre and she well remembers issues of the UTHR(J) leaflets (University Teachers for Human Rights –Jaffna) being literally smuggled into the library; the organisation initiated by Rajani and others printing pamphlets in great secrecy avoiding detection from the top Tigers and the GoSL Police and Secretariat of Prez Premadasa.

Returning from the UK with post graduate qualifications, Rajani opted to serve in her home area and help build up the Jaffna Medical Faculty. She at first approved of the LTTE believing then to be freedom fighters. Later, their atrocities and ruthless violence disillusioned her so much that she expressed it and paid with her life. She is as yet admired, respected and moaned.

Greek philosopher Hyperides said: A woman who travels outside her house should be old enough that people ask whose mother she is, not whose wife she is. Maybe that’s an apt quote for Cassandra to introduce her next woman subject – Mrs Vijayakala Maheswaran, Ex State Minister of Child Affairs, who has been much in the media.

Now here’s a pretty kettle of mixed up fish wrapped in sari wearing a pottu; a woman much misunderstood or a female turncoat of the worst order. At a government sponsored meeting in Jaffna with a UNP Minister of State and others present, she opens her mouth and lets drop poison: "We have faced three decades in the war. Other than releasing some plots of land in Valikaamam North, the Government did nothing for the people. We are also part of this unity government. If children are to return home safely, the hands of the LTTE should be strengthened." This said loud and clear by the daughter of a land owner of Karainagar, given in marriage to T Maheswaran of the UNP who was a minister in that government until fatally shot by a LTTE sniper while at prayer in a kovil in Colombo on 1 January 2008. Ungrateful, treacherous, toadying up to Jaffna voters, foolish to the utmost and completely happily amnesia-fied over LTTE child conscriptions and child human shields. That’s Vijayakala to Cassandra. To compound these descriptors Vijayakala continued thus: "Our main objective is to resurrect the LTTE in the North and East in order to ensure our survival …) Was she mad when she made these diabolical pronouncements publicly and in Jaffna of all places during this time when a smudge of unrest has ruffled the place? Cassandra desires being velvet gloved to a sister and asks seriously: was an LTTE gun pointing at her or her children? Was she made to say what she said? If not, living in comfort, wealth and safety in the heart of Colombo 7 with her kids expensively and exclusively educated, she is a traitor who is acting idiotic. The worst to Cassandra is that she says the government and Party she belongs to did nothing for Jaffna barring giving back some confiscated land. The Northern people are living better than their equals in the South, one can claim justifiably. She also implies the LTTE is alive and active. So let the blindfolded lady holding a pair of scales deal with the said Vijayakala. Cassandra has no tears to shed for her.

In his funeral speech Pericles said: A woman’s reputation is highest when men say little about her, whether it be good or evil. Maybe that is an apt Grecian quote to introduce the third of Cassandra’s Women of the Past Week – Minister of Justice Thalata Atukorale. She was given kudos before in this column for the stand she took about special courts to hear cases with monks involved and special rules in prisons (or bending existing ones) for those who have taken higher religious vows. Argument arose because Athadaate Gnanasara did not want to wear prison garb while imprisoned, and was encouraged to protest by his followers. She, the Minister said No, rules are rules and to be followed. Yes, since who expects Buddhist monks and members of the clergy whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim to commit crimes and be incarcerated.

She’s placed her neck on the bloc again by instituting special courts to clear the backlog of high profile cases including those against members of the former government. Cabinet Spokesman Dr Rajitha Senaratne, announcing these courts, said they will hear cases involving money laundering, dishonest misappropriation of property and criminal breach of trust by public servants. The first court will open in Colombo and two more outstation before the end of September. Parliament voted thus for the institution of these courts: 119 for and 52 against. Selection of cases to be tried in these courts will be by the Chief Justice.

Why did Cassandra say Minister Atukorale was placing her head on the bloc? Because in this fair isle of ours, we are very adept at shooting or killing in some other way the messenger. The message is forgotten in the furor over killing the message-bearing selalihiniya. Remember Lasantha. Brethren in this land are also given to shout the shout ‘it was done before, so why not now’; ‘he did it so why not me doing it now?’ Thus, most surmise corruption is a way of life, passed down by those who went before. Pride in being a woman was Cassandra’s main emotion as she watched and listened to three women panelists on Monday July 9th Face the Nation programme on MTV channel, the discussion conducted by Sonali Wadigebaduge. Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala (women’s rights activist and mountaineer), Ermizer Tegal (Attorney-at-Law) and Dr Vilesha Weeraratne (Research Fellow, Institute of Policy Studies) sat relaxed, confident, feminine and speaking so to the point and judiciously on conditions of women in this land in relation to rights and how these rights are violated. Laws regards abortion and divorce have to be revised they agreed and quoted archaic laws such as the no-buying-alcoholic-drinks-by-women colonial rule resurrected recently; a throwback to the Victorian era. With women like these hopefully entering Parliament some day, those of the low-down ilk of Wimal W will be eliminated. The single male journalist on the programme asked the most relevant questions, proving we need both men and women, on equal terms.

Cassandra (of epic tradition and prediction)

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