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 up...to 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?"
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 Wembley...an 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.