Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Fight for Tamil Eezham - Sinhalese Forces, LTTE and Beyond

செந்தமிழ் நாடெனும் போதினிலே
இன்பத் தேன் வந்து பாயுது காதினிலே
எங்கள் தந்தையர் நாடென்ற பேச்சினிலே
ஒரு சக்தி பிறக்குது மூச்சினிலே

- Subramaniya Barathiyaar


Hearing the phrase "Senthamizh Nadu"
Feels like nectar against our ears
Talk of the land of our forefathers
Feeds firepower into our breaths

Most people are apprehensive about asking a Tamilian (and an admittedly militant one at that) what her position where the Sri Lankan Tamils issue is concerned, is. People at work have got used to my snubbing them with vile sarcasms when talk of "Sauth Indian" comes the extent people who thought Tamilians wanted Tamil Nadu to conquer Sri Lanka now ask me politely whether I can follow Malayalam (note: 'Malayalam', not 'Malayali'). At a time when the Tamizh Eezham issue is being bandied about so Telugu politicians like Vaiko can win brownie points and the DMK can divert attention from the power supply problems, amid the political mileage of sundry parties and political incorrectness of particular news channels (which come up with stings as creative as 'Politics of Tamils'), here's an extremely honest, extremely subjective, and therefore extremely biased perspective.

Rajiv Gandhi's assassination was, like for many of my age and generation, my first encounter with terror. We had been brought up to think he was the face of New India...a progressive individual who had married outside his religion, caste and country, a man who had pleaded with rioters to "stop this madness" soon after his mother died, a young Prime Minister (the first and last, possibly), an approachable, open-faced achiever and the idealistic scion of a family of political heavyweights.

I remember someone in my family screaming, "Rajiv Gandhi is dead! He's assassinated!" It was also the first time I heard the word "assassinated". Television footage showed bloodied roads and body parts, and we heard something about a bomb hidden in a garland, and something else about a belt of explosives. A few days of mournful music on Doordarshan, interrupted only by the funeral. The Italian wife of the dead Prime Minister wore a white saree and dark glasses at his funeral, and his teenaged children stood grim.

As LTTE became a household name, everyone knew Dhanu and Nalini and a few other people were "bad", and Prabhakaran was evil. I could never understand why anyone would want to secede from a nation. Having grown up in Madras, until a move to London quickly followed by a move to Delhi disillusioned me, I believed one's nationality superseded all other allegiance. I'm Tamilian, Hindu etc., but an Indian foremost. I still see it that way, although now I know not every Indian does. The same went for Sri Lankans. To me, it was as ridiculous as Kashmiris wanting to be part of Pakistan was, back then. Why cross over to the enemy? It didn't help hugely, of course, that Ravana was from Lanka and they had set Hanuman's tail on fire etc. etc., and therefore India and Lanka were not the best of pals from time immemorial. Why had India chosen to intervene in their affairs now? And for all that, we had lost a promising Prime Minister.

Sixteen years down the line, though, I see things rather differently. Part of it has to do with the knowledge of Rajiv Gandhi's political failings and administrative ineptitude having overshadowed his image in the late eighties and early nineties as some kind of hero. But most of it comes from meeting Sri Lankans face to face. With the exception of a forgettable woman who went to my forgettable college and a writer called Elangovan, I had not met any Sri Lankan Tamilians till I went to the United Kingdom. There, I met three people who changed the way I perceived things.

BBC Worldwide Headquarters, Bush House, Holborn, London, June 2006:

Yashoda was polite and genial, but unlike the typical Tamilian, who would rather struggle to speak in English with a fellow-Tamilian than celebrate the camaraderie of a shared language, she addressed me in Tamil. We were waiting for a BBC Tamil interview. Her accent and the linguistic correctness of the first few words told me she wasn't from Madras. A couple of sentences later, she said she was from a village near Colombo.

"Ah, Ilangai!" I said.

"Aam," she replied.

She lived with her husband and children at Harrow, and had been working for a Tamil television station for more than five years. After the customary exchange of invitations to come home and eat, we moved on to other subjects. She said I didn't look Tamilian, and I returned the intended compliment by saying she didn't look like the mother of two. I asked her how long she had been in London, and she said, resignedly, "fifteen years."

I was aching for Madras one year after flying into Heathrow. A trip back to film a documentary had interrupted my stay, but even so, it felt like aeons since I had seen home. Fifteen years of living away must have been hard! I asked her how many times she'd flown back. Yashoda was silent for a while. Then she shook her head.

"Never? Not once?!"

"No. Angu poga iyalaadhu," she replied, in Sri Lankan Tamil. ("I cannot go back".)

Her parents lived with her sister in Colombo, and hadn't seen their grandchildren. Probably wouldn't ever, because they did not intend to leave their country, and Yashoda couldn't go back. It was soon after Yashoda's marriage that their house in Killinochchi was bombed. One of her sisters had died. The family was away, visiting her husband's place when the incident had taken place. The Sri Lankan army was conducting air raids. Yashoda and her husband fled to London, while her parents moved in with their other daughter and her family, in Colombo.

Yashoda harboured no illwill for the Sri Lankan army, no resentment, no hatred. Just resignation. She only wanted to go back, just to see her parents and show them her children. She was afraid she wouldn't be able to return because of the stringent immigration laws. She was not part of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eezham. She was not part of the Sri Lankan government. She did not have a side. She only had a past she could not go back to, and a dead sister, the prospects of meeting whom were higher than those of meeting her living parents.

Pizza Hut, Harrow Town Centre, London, August 2006:

"Naan netru idhey sonnan! Order eduththukollungal, piragu meendum solgiran."

Hearing Tamil in London comes as a pleasant surprise. Hindi, Punjabi and Gujarati were a lot more common. I couldn't help smiling as I waited for the cashier to turn his attention to me.

"Sorry, madam, one moment," he said, and turned to explain how to take an order to his colleague. I would find out she was his sister.

"Illai, paravalley," I said. ("That's all right".)

He turned back to me, thrilled. "Thamizhaa? Colombo?"

"Illai. Madras."

"Oh, Indian."

I went back to Pizza Hut several times, and spoke Tamil to him each time. I never found out his name or his sister's. Our first few sentences had taken us to a level of familiarity beyond which an exchange of names would be embarrassing. He had come to London as an asylum-seeker, and had now made a life for himself, working out of fast food joints. His sister had been able to join him a few years later, and hopefully their parents would too, in time.

"Ungalukku thirumba poganum enra aasai illaya?" I asked, speaking written Tamil in my attempt to communicate better with his dialect. ("Don't you want to go back?")

He looked at me, first in surprise, and then thoughtfully.

"Why?" he asked.

"Don't you miss home, miss your country?"

"Don't you ever think about settling down here?" he asked me.

"I do, at times. But I know I won't. For one thing, I don't want my kids growing up here, and I would never want to change my nationality. I feel a sense of patriotism when I see my passport," I laughed, "besides, it's hard enough to speak proper Tamil in Madras, leave alone in London!"

He smiled, as one must, with eccentric customers. "I am here now. There's no point going back. I miss family, and I worry about them, but they will come here. Why go back to a place where there's always war and fighting?"

Wembley, London, September 2006:

She was a famous "organiser". Dancers and musicians approached her when they wanted to perform in the United Kingdom. A Sri Lankan Tamilian who owned ten houses in and around Wembley, and several businesses to boot, she lived in the sort of house NRIs in Indian films are portrayed to live in. She was gracious, and spoke to me about Carnatic music and Bharathanatyam at length, dissecting the talents of stalwarts, discussing whose abhinayams were better, and whose bhavams. I had met her about a concert my guru was performing in. She travelled to Madras and Colombo quite often, she said, and her three children spoke Tamil and English fluently. They were all trained in singing and dancing. In other words, she lived like the more successful Indians who had set up their lives in America. While speaking about her, with a degree of admiration, to someone else, I was warned, "but be careful...she must be having LTTE links if she's doing so well. You don't want to get caught for being associated with someone like that!"

As it turned out, she had no LTTE links whatsoever. All these people were just regular citizens, trying to live a normal life...trying to find normalcy outside their country, because they couldn't find it inside. Some might call them unwilling victims of the Eezham struggle. Some might call them success stories. Some might call them pawns of destiny. Whatever dramatic title one chooses to bestow on them, all of them were people to whom their ethnicity was manifest in the way they looked, the language they spoke, the clothes they wore; not in their political leanings.

Their Eezham is not the Eezham of Dhanu and Nalini and Prabhakaran. Their Eezham is not the Eezham of Karunanidhi and the other links in his human chain. Their Eezham is not the Eezham of the Sri Lankan or Indian governments. Their Eezham is not a movement; it is a place they once called home. A place lost to them now. A place from which they have been uprooted, or moved on, as the case may be. Generations from now, a writer may spring from amongst them, speaking of the angst of being lost between cultures, might use their stories to write a book that wins awards...a writer with a British accent and Sri Lankan features; a writer whose house would not be ransacked like Elangovan's, and whose works would not be burnt; a writer whose protagonist could be Yashoda or the man at Pizza Hut or the organiser at ancestor whose story had been passed down. And till that writer comes, Yashoda waits to go home, the man at Pizza Hut waits for his parents to come, the organiser at Wembley waits for a clean chit...their waits may come to an end at the epilogue of his or her book.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

When You're Far from the Madding Crowd...Live Free, Die Hard

A bout of illness was what got me thinking about this. For years, almost ever since I earned enough to eke out rent for a tiny apartment, I dreamt of living alone. Finally, it was circumstance rather than freewill that necessitated a move to my own quarters. For a year, I only had to share a kitchen with roommates, and to my surprise, was quite glad to move back home, and to Madras, which I never thought I would leave again. On my last visit to my hometown, though, I found myself wondering if I would live there again. Now, I have five rooms all to myself, about two thousand kilometres away. And while the advantages are apparent, I wonder what changes the luxury has brought about in my personality.

Given the poise with which I climb the stairs and grace with which I go about my daily activities, I have often wondered what would happen if I were to break my neck while pirouetting down the stairs, and find myself not able to call for help. Some of my fears were brought to rest, though, when the paranoia of a friend and the power of cough syrup came together to cause my landlords and parents a panic attack. To put it in layman's language, a very unfortunate colleague was sent home to check on me, and when my drug-induced sleep proved too deep for the bell to have any effect, a phone call from my landlords to my parents ensured I was woken up by the secret landline...which resulted in my very unfortunate colleague receiving a barrage of abuse when I got through to his mobile.

But there's another side to living alone which hadn't quite struck me until recently. The time and the silence afforded to one by the absence of roommates ends up making one analyse things to a much larger extent. Close friends of mine know I've had more to analyse recently than is the norm, but the more thorough analysis of these more-than-the-norm number of things has had an impact on my personality, I find. To some degree, one becomes surer of oneself, and the things one wants. But, theorising has inclined what I had always believed to be a relatively androgynous mind to a higher proportion of femininity.

Contradictory, perhaps, but true. Writing my diary, recalling and dissecting events of the day, emotions passing through me, doubts and worries about various aspects of my life, have made me more of a philosopher-thinker than I was used to being. The epiphany struck me while I was writing my diary today. Through a process of analysis, I had arrived at the metaphoric oxymoron that my problem was I analysed too much, weighed words too heavily, interpreted stray phrases beyond their elasticity and split facts into answers to too many questions.

It is perhaps an advantage that living far from the madding crowd, one has conditions conducive to such epiphanies.

All said and done, though, the biggest advantage to living alone can always be sure the toilet seat has not been left up.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Unbearable Politeness of Being Indian

(With apologies to Milan Kundera for the bastardisation of his brainchild)

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 18th October 2008)

"Could you kill the sharky for me, please?" my two year-old cousin from Birmingham looked up at me with an appealing face, and added, by way of justification for her murderous streak, "he is going to eat up akku and me. Could you save us, please?"

It was possibly the politeness of the request that got a hardcore animal rights activist to pierce the photograph of a shark ride at Disney World, and therefore save the two little girls grinning inside its mouth. As my cousin smiled and said, "thank you!" and trotted off to tell her parents the shark had been killed (and the photograph mutilated), I remembered a friend's dire warning, just before I had left for London.

"Never say 'yeah'," she had said, with all the drama of passing down a secret family recipe, "always say 'yes, please'." It turned out Londoners didn't care too much one way or the other, but apparently it was a big deal in the rest of the U.K., and somehow, I got into the habit of saying "please", "thank you" and "sorry".

I hadn't quite kicked the habit a few weeks after I landed back home, fresh from my year-and-a-half long stint, and so it happened that once, I asked my mother, "ma, could you bring me my coffee, please?"

"What's wrong with you? Why're you shouting? You just asked for it now, no?" my mother snapped.

And that's when I realised I had completely forgotten the rules of Indian etiquette. We only say "please", "thank you", "sorry" and "excuse me" when we are annoyed with something.

"Can you please do this, if it isn't too much to ask?!"

"No, no, thank you very much, I'll do it myself!"

"Okay, okay, everything I do is wrong! Sorry!!!! Happy?!"

"Excuse me!!! What do you think you're doing?!"

Having thought it out, I didn't quite blame my mother.

I tried to explain with, "no, I wasn't trying to shout. I was just requesting..."

"That's enough sarcasm!"

"No, ma, really..."And then my mother looked at me closely, and the familiar look of anxiety that accompanies the announcement of a cold or some equally serious ailment crossed her face.

"Are you all right?" she asked, in a milder tone than I had heard so far that morning.

Of course, we're quite justified in construing those four expletives as sarcastic, given we dismiss any attempt at politeness with "don't be so formal!" What is it about us Indians that makes us so resistant to politeness of any kind? We're known worldwide for our hospitality, but why do we reserve that for the expat population? The Iranians called it "tarof" and we call it "pehle aap, pehle aap." But surely, there is something that makes for a pleasant atmosphere all round when one addresses another with the respectful plural before being asked to switch to the informal singular, and when one asks before reaching out for a sandwich on another's plate!

The most annoying manifestation of sacrificing politeness for this all-important "informality" is this habit people have of stretching out their hands for a book you happen to be reading intently. You pretend not to see them, and then they, at best, snap their fingers in front of your eyes and go, "hello!!!" or, at worst, spare you the trouble and snatch the book out of your fingers. Then they look at the blurb, flip over to the back, read out three sentences, which, in keeping with Murphy's Law, will break the suspense that's kept you reading the book and finally flip their oily hands through the pages, leaving a couple of dog ears, before asking you, with this bright-eyed intellectual alertness, "how's the book?"

Having been victimised in this manner for more than a decade, I once replied with, "oh, I don't like showing books to people...I think of them as personal", to which my interlocutor responded with a grin, and the riposte, "then what do you like showing people?" I believe the problem where he was concerned was solved when I replied, "one particular finger."

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Horror of Living Among the "We" Species

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 4th October 2008)

When one runs into someone who occupies the friend-acquaintance border, after a really long time, and both parties have feigned delight at seeing each other, and hidden the dismay of not knowing how to start a conversation, given one has forgotten whether the other is married, has siblings, is employed etc., the safest question to ask is, "So, what have you been upto?" Which is exactly what I did. I wasn't quite prepared, though, for the answer.

"Oh, we went to ma's place first thing, then we went shopping, and we had lunch…oh, you should check out this new place on Chamiers Road! We simply loooove Italian food, so it was awesome! And then we've come here to do some more shopping! Puja time, na?"

You would empathise with my apprehensions if you had lived in the room next to the one occupied by a woman who suffered from schizophrenia. That individual, who had three personalities, had once threatened me with a knife, only for an alter ego to take over and ask me why I looked so nervous, and then a third to invite me to chop vegetables with her. Two years and four thousand miles down the line, I was confronted in my own hometown, by someone I had known well enough, I thought, who obviously suffered from the same ailment.

It was with a mixture of relief and horror that I realised this was not the case, as a man laden with shopping bags and smelling of takeout food, which I attributed to the plastic bag he was carrying, materialised next to the friend-acquaintance-border-occupant. This, clearly, was the other half of the "we".

"Arindam, meet Nandini," the occupant pronounced.

The horror had come because this was confirmation that the "We" species had taken over the world. They're everywhere, and the numbers are increasing. Popularly known as the "we" species, the Wecallourselvesweites refer to a brand of scary individuals of the suborder Couples, order Human, typically having an exaggerated sense of their own selves and their importance to the rest of the Human order, two pairs of arms, two pairs of legs, four eyes, two noses, two mouths, four ears and therefore twice the number of body parts an Individual of the order Human does. They also have a propensity to know each other's email and other passwords, have access to each other's mobile phones, and often trade levels of intimacy with each other's friends. That is to say, the Female of the Couple might well infiltrate the Male's circle of friends to the extent the Male's circle would find itself more loyal to the Female, in the course of time, and vice versa. They also tend to email everyone of their faintest acquaintance links to their Picasa web albums, showcasing romantic getaways, along with apologies for not sending them earlier.

To someone who has a live-in relationship with her laptop, television, DVD player and shruthi box, and whose roommates are books and slippers, which keep mostly to themselves, there can be no graver cause for near-suffocation than meeting a member of the Wecallourselvesweite species. Indeed, some have known to have reacted in much the same way as Casanova would have had he bumped into an enthusiastic girlfriend toga-shopping for him with his mother. The immediate symptoms of such we-induced-attacks are a spell of constrained breathing, barely disguised choking, a severe ache in the antisocial recesses of one's brain and a complete loss for words. Long-term effects include severing of ties with the Couple.

Some former friends have scared me by saying "we're talking to a friend of ours, so we'll call later", "we're not well, so we won't be able to make it" and "we're checking our email", but one particular incident has scarred my memory forever. The Female of a Couple once whined to me, "they've been asking us to get pregnant, but we really don't know if that's a good idea." My response that a doctor in Bangkok would be very interested in trying the case out, and had in fact advertised for Male volunteers for the experiment, ensured that was the last time I spoke to Them.
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