Forbidden Fruits?

Niromi de Soyza, Noumi Kouri and Helen Demidenko?


Michael Roberts, 31 August 2011

The literary world is now poised on the brink wondering if the Tamil Tigress (Allen & Unwin, 2011) is going to join Forbidden Love (Random House, 2003) and The Hand that signed the Paper (Allen and Unwin, 2000) in the house of literary infamy. Has the Tamil lady who uses the nom de plume Niromi de Soyza1 woven an autobiographical tale of lies that match those coined by Norma Toliopoulos and Helen Darville who wrote their memoirs as Norma Kouri and Helen Demidenko?

When Kouri’s book was challenged by the Jordanian National Commission for Women on the ground that it contained 70 exaggerations and errors, Random House Australia indicated that "they were satisfied with the veracity of the story, [though] names and places had been changed to protect the identities of those involved."2 Their defense did not hold up for long as Malcolm Knox spearheaded the media questioning in Australia. Random House pulled the book from the shelf 3 – but that was after the first run of this memoir had sold over 200,000 copies in Australia alone and after "enthusiastic Australians voted it among their favorite 100 books of all time."4

When Demidenko’s manuscript was submitted to the University of Queensland Press in 1993, they had rejected it,5 but The Hand That Signed the Paper appeared in print under the masthead of Allen and Unwin in 1994. It is said that the Allen & Unwin editorial staff believed that it was essentially autobiographical, though they persuaded the author to alter the family’s name in the book to "Kovalenko."6 The book won the Vogel Award for a first novel in 1994, which was followed in 1995 by the most prestigious literary prize in Australia, the Miles Franklin Award, as well as the Gold Medal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. When it was subsequently discovered that Demidenko had no Ukrainian background, a literary storm erupted. This furore was further exacerbated by Darville’s continued evasions as well as her manifest anti-Semitic prejudices.

The issue facing us today, therefore, is whether Tamil Tigress is going to join such ‘august shelves’ in some attic that contains Forbidden Love and The Hand that signed the Paper. The latter books are placed within the context of serious issues, honour killing in Kouri’s case and the tragedies faced by the people of Ukraine in the time of Hitler and Stalin. By their fabrication of tale both ladies diminished the agonies of those real life experiences (mostly untold) faced by some people in those settings. Tamil Tigress bears a similar potential.

In her interview with Margaret Throsby Niromi de Soyza said that she adopted this particular nom de plume in honour of Richard de Zoysa,7 a TV personality who was murdered by state agents during the Premadasa regime. We are told that she began writing the story 22 years ago, but only took it up again when adverse publicity emerged around the Tamil asylum-seekers arriving by boat at Australia’s shores from 2009. She considers her tale "unique" because she was a female fighter and a "child soldier" at that, albeit much like the many young Tamils who were ready to sacrifice their life for a just cause.8 Completing the tale, she adds, was "cathartic" for her. Thus, we could say that she presents herself as a driven force telling the world her truths.

Both in book and interviews we are told that she was a child of a love marriage between a Jaffna Tamil gentleman from the north and a lady from a merchant family from the Malaiyaha Tamil (that is Indian Tamil) peoples of the central regions of Lanka, a cross-community connection9 that created intra-familial tension according to her autobiographical account. This was a Catholic family, a sociological fact that is some consequence because of the type of schooling she received in Sri Lank and, subsequently, in India after she gained release from the LTTE’s ranks.

Whatever the verdict on the authenticity of the biography, Tamil Tigress is a captivating read. It is crafted with skill, with each chapter ending on a note of suspense or moment of change in her life world, so that the readers are brought in tantalising fashion to a threshold of change at the end of most chapters. All this occurs after a dramatic start where we face "The Ambush" in Chapter 1, an occasion when the neophyte teenage fighter Niromi receives a baptism of fire as her platoon is ambushed by enemy soldiers. Thereafter, de Soysa plunges her readers back in time by moving to her autobiographical family history and its various ethnic, intra-ethnic and caste tensions before bringing us back to her decision to join the LTTE and the events that followed. We are thrust back into the fight which launched the reading in "The Last Few Moments of Life" (Chapter 14) where her pal Ajanthi as well as platoon leader Muralie were killed. Thereafter we are taken through the events that moved her to extricate herself from the Tamil liberation struggle.

Through the characters in her life world de Zoysa cleverly speaks in different voices and conveys a complex body of political commentary that builds up a picture of a sturdy and resolute young woman who is alive to the faults on many sides, but stays firm in her dedication to the justice and cause of Eelam. She provides us with notable one-liners throughout her book: by way of illustration note these

* "bottle up your anger and let it explode" through the mouth of Pirapaharan (24);

* "anyone who kills the voice of dissent is a tyrant" (49);

* "I am leaving my home so my people can have a homeland" – (her departing note to her mother – 69).

So, there is much that is stimulating in this vibrant tale.

Market Pitch, Fundamental Error

The dramatic beginning via "The Ambush" is geared to the book’s market pitch. Both the back cover and the cyber-world notices advertising the book tell us that "two days before Christmas 1987, at the age of 17, Niromi de Soyza found herself in an ambush as part of a small platoon of militant Tamil Tigers fighting the government forces that was to engulf Sri Lanka for decades (emphasis mine)."10 The appeal here highlights the pathos of her journey in life by underlining her youthfulness and placing the encounter just prior to the natal day of Jesus Christ.

But within this little tale within a biographical tale lies a fundamental error. Once the uneasy relationship of ‘alliance’ between the LTTE and the Indian government (the LTTE’s ‘mentor’) unravelled in September-October 1987, the Tigers were engaged in a guerrilla war with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the northern and eastern parts of the island. As the details below reveal, the armed services of the Sri Lankan state (GoSL) were not directly engaged in this war and did not have joint operations with the Indians on the ground. In brief, the December skirmish could NOT have been against Sri Lankan soldiers!

It is not an Allen & Unwin mistake. When de Soyza was interviewed by Margaret Throsby, she remarks "when I joined, the Indian forces had arrived and the Tigers had chosen to fight the Indian forces as well as the Sri Lankan forces."11 Such profound ignorance suggests that she was not in Sri Lanka then and that her tale is a fabrication fashioned without adequate homework.

The sales appeal of Tamil Tigress, let me add, is accentuated by the presentation of photographs in one cluster in the middle. These include several of Tiger leaders and fighters. One photograph also depicts Muralie, the middle-level Tiger who features in "The Ambush." His face is (perhaps conveniently?) obscured by the body of Amirthalngam Thileepan as the latter lay fasting on a platform beside the grounds of the revered Nallur Temple in Jaffna town during his protest against the intervention of the IPKF. This link is no accident. For one, both Muralie and Thileepan are said to have screened and finalised Niromi’s enlistment in the LTTE army. Secondly, and more vitally, Thileepan’s fast-unto-death occurred during a highly significant period for all the Tamil people of the north and east. Once war erupted in early October 1987 their main enemy became the IPKF, with the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhalese people receding into the background as the distant enemy (albeit the ultimate future enemy). For outsiders to comprehend this vital context, an outline history has to be inserted here.

Dramatic Shifts in the Year 1987

1987 opened with the LTTE firmly at the head of Tamil resistance to the Sri Lankan state after they had ruthlessly decimated the fighting capacity of two other militant Eelamist groups, TELO and EPRF.12 However, a major government offensive in May-June known as the "Vadamarachchi Operation" threatened the territories in the Jaffna Peninsula that were under LTTE control.

The Indian and Tamilnadu governments had participated actively in training all the Eelamist groups, with some 20,000 Tamil personnel receiving induction to warfare in India between August 1983 and 1987.13 As this "investment’ was now threatened by the seeming success of the Sri Lankan state offensive, India flexed its military and diplomatic muscles in June 1987 to halt the suppression of the Eelamist movement.

In effect, India browbeat Sri Lanka into accepting a dilution of its sovereignty by admitting Indian troops into the relevant parts of the island to "keep the peace." Though motivated in part by a desire to protect the Tamil people, the principal goal in this intervention was the creation of a client state, thereby boosting India’s status as regional super-power.14

JR Jayewardene’s government accepted this imposition reluctantly. Its terms were embodied in what became known as the Indo-Lanka Accord. Rajiv Gandhi flew to Colombo to sign the accord on 29th July 1987. Indian troops comprising the "Indian Peace Keeping Force" flew into the Palaly airport in the Jaffna Peninsula even as the Accord was being signed. While violent protests erupted in the southern parts of the island, the IPKF personnel were greeted with rapture by most of the populace in the north.15

Though the other militant Tamil groups welcomed the Accord, Pirap?haran had accepted the terms of the agreement "only as a temporary measure" in circumstances where he was under detention at the Ashok Hotel in Delhi.16 Tiger personnel showed considerable belligerence during the first week of the IPKF’s imprint. When Pirap?haran was eventually brought back to the island by the Indians, he revealed his profound antipathy on several occasions to the disarmament enforced upon the LTTE by the agreement. This opposition as well as his ambivalence to the situation was evident to perceptive observers when he addressed a massive crowd of some 50,000 people at the grounds near the Sudumalai Amman Temple on the 4th August 1987. "We love India," he said on the one hand, while other remarks expressed his opposition to the reduction of the LTTE’s clout in the northern parts of the country and the potential revival of militant Tamil rivals whom they had weakened by killing force in 1986/87.17 In surmise, one can also say that Pirap?haran was deeply embittered by the humiliations imposed upon him by the superior demeanour of Rajiv Gandhi and the other Indian "Brahmins"18 in Delhi and the humiliation imposed upon the LTTE by the proposed removal of its main source of power, their weapons.

August-September 1987, therefore, was a period that saw political manoeuvres by the many parties in the political dispensation. In the east and the north these moves involved sporadic killings as the principal Tamil militant groups indulged in pre-emptive murders or reprisals at the local level.

The LTTE decided to turn the tide. Thileepan was their weapon of transformation.19 On 15th September he commenced his fast-unto-death. His progress to death was converted into a mass rally with his own speeches, music and fanfare working up the emotions of those around and then circulating along Tamil networks throughout the world. By the time he passed away on the 26th September, the tide of Tamil fervour for their cause under the LTTE banner had grown to tsunamic proportions.20

To be continued on Monday

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