Tamil Tigress was published in 2011 and ever since I heard of it, I wanted to read it. Who wouldn't? The story of a female child soldier who joined the LTTE and fought in the civil conflict - it sounded a best seller even in the abstract. But for a long time, I was ambivalent on getting the book, finally, I managed to get my grubby hands on a copy and read it over three days.
It taught me a good lesson. When you sometimes hear of something over and over again, especially with regard to books and movies, you might either be put off or have really high expectations that are never fulfilled. It was the former for me, regarding this book. I was put off for many reasons: that she chose a Sinhala name to write the book, when she was clearly Tamil, I was put off by all the comments I heard from friends who read it, who said she trivialized the issue, it was not accurate, etc etc.
But now, here I am, one of those who read it and I am so glad I did. First the debate on the name. Apparently, she adopted the pseudonym in honour of Richard de Soyza. But I still can't think why she chose a Sinhala name. There are so many other Tamil's she could have honoured, if she didn't want to write under her own name. But pseudonyms for no reason are not new at all, even in Sri Lanka (refer Ashok Ferrey) and so I could not hold that against her for too long.
In reading the book, I forgot all the charges. I was totally into it from beginning to end.
The story, is of a young Tamil girl, who moves from Kandy to Jaffna after the riots of 1977. Not many people know or remember that before 1983 there were other riots against the Tamils. Her father leaves her with her grandmother and goes to the Middle East to work, some months later, her mother and younger sister join her. In Jaffna, she witnesses the burning of the library in 1981, and then came the riots of 1983. The young girl, enamoured by the Tigers, romanticizes the notion of freedom fighters. She speaks of seeing young boys casually toting guns around the town, spoken off in hushed whispers with tinges of admiration and the young girl is hooked. It was a time when the Tigers were in charge unofficially. The Tigers would regularly speak to children in school and Niromi heard them speak. I am not sure if that had an impact or not but quite early on she wants to join the Tigers and together with her childhood school friend, off she goes.
At that time, the Tigers were not keen on having female cadres, and not keen on enlisting under age children. A far cry from what they became. But Niromi, speaks of a period, when the Tigers were still forming as the dominant group. There is an air of innocence, of hope in a strange way, of wanting things to be different and trying to find ways, albeit all the wrong ones, of righting wrongs.
Her book focuses on the time of the IPKF mainly and ends in 1988. It is important to remember that time frame, because her experience of the Tigers were completely different to what they later became.
Regardless if her facts are true or fabricated. Regardless if Tamils swear or don't swear accurately, if they had boyfriends or not, to me the story rang true. Her descriptions of the training, of jungle life, guerilla skirmishes and day to day life, reveal a side that we in the south had just no idea what was happening.
In segregated Sri Lanka today, we have no idea how the youth of other communities really live. We think we know, but we don't. And through the ethnic conflict, the complete separation of communities of North and South, made us have images and views of the other, that became embedded in stone.
To me, it was refreshing to read a book where boys and girls are interested in each other, have fun, even amidst the struggle for the rights of their people. Prabhakaran, Mahatthaya, Kittu, and Thileepan, familiar, even fearsome names, became human. Her distant love interest Roshan, seemed very real, even the emotions she captured are real in a Sri Lankan context, where the sexes are distant from each other.
The way she leaves the Tigers, shows that it was a time, when free will did play a part to some extent. There were many who resigned and many who were asked to leave, and also many executions and eliminations to those they perceived as not having behaved properly and who were traitors.
Niromi, left the Tigers, finished her education in India and managed to emigrate to Australia, where she still lives. She has become a prominent literary figure, doing the circuits and speaking of her experience.
It is a good book, well written, and worth a read. If I have one criticism, it is that Niromi does not talk much about Tiger ideology. It is more a recounting of an experience than a philosophical reflection of the Tigers. It makes me wonder, if like in the army, there would have been recruits in the early days among the Tigers, who were all fired up to fight on behalf of their ethnic group but with very little understanding of what it entails.