Tamil Tigress – a review

29 Aug
Can a tigress change her stripes? And did she in fact make up some of her encounters in the wild? Image

Tamil Tigress: my story as a child soldier in Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war by Niromi de Soyza (nom de plume inspired by murdered journalist / activist, Richard de Soyza) is a very interesting book published by the Australian company Allen and Unwin in 2011. It has caused waves in both the international and local scene since. The Australian Ministry for the Arts has included it in its ‘50 books you can’t put down list’, published to promote its local readership.

On our own shores, however, the book has attracted some well-publicized negative reviews. Two fellow Tamil reviewers have alleged that hers is not an authentic story based on some claims she made about Jaffna life and her experiences as a tigress, while another Sri Lankan-Australian from the South has also lent his voice to the clamour that the book is not authentic.

Some of the arguments put forward to question the author’s authenticity, such as the claim that bananas and palmyrah fruit do not ripen around the time she has described, is a load of nonsense. Others such as the Jaffna University not having an Engineering Faculty, though she describes defending the building, have some veracity. However, if allowances are made for memory lapses of someone writing a memoir more than 20 years later, it can still pass.

Most of the debunking allegations as it happens are rather arbitrary and petty. As many Jaffna Tamils who have actually read the book have pointed out in comments of online articles, de Soyza’s portrayal of Jaffna life, mentality and state of affairs circa the 1980s is quite authentic.

It also happens to be a very well-written and engaging book that proves educational on the issues of the Tamils; the mentality of Tamil youths who signed up for the ‘cause’ and the evolution of Tamil militancy through its early stages.

niromi-22

Written by one of the first female LTTE cadres to join the movement, the book provides a number of different unique insights – that of a ‘child’ soldier (she was 17 at the time), that of a female from a repressive patriarchal society as well as that of an offspring from a ‘mixed race’ marriage in parochial, caste-conscious Jaffna.

Unlike many of her contemporaries in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ( LTTE), de Soyza could speak fluent Sinhala and even had Sinhalese relatives on her mother’s side. Her father is a high caste Jaffna Tamil while her mother is a high caste Indian Tamil whose relatives married into Sinhalese families in the South. She herself was born in Kandy, where she spent many happy childhood years among both Sinhalese and Tamil friends.

How did such a child run away, not once but twice to join the LTTE at the age of 17?  In the telling of her personal story, she manages to also tell the story of many other Sri Lankan Tamils. Although a memoir, the book therefore has valuable anthropological and historical import. As someone who spent her first eight years in Kandy and only the next 10 in Jaffna before moving to Australia where she has lived now for more than 20 years, she is sufficiently divorced from her former self to see herself, her life and her people through an objective lens in order to relay their story, warts and all.

For that reason alone, this book is worth reading. As a Jaffna Tamil of the repressed gender myself, I found the book refreshing on several scores. Many issues I find annoying or disappointing about my own community has been relayed with wit and grace by the author. While my own memories trigger only anger or sadness, the way she has relayed hers triggers amusement and laughter. To be able to relay the faults of one’s own community with such aplomb is a sign of maturity that is worthy of being appreciated.

The book is well-paced, a fast and engaging read of 300 pages. Before becoming a guerrilla, she had aspired to be a writer. She is a highly qualified professional now but this book proves her original ambition right. Even people who know nothing of Sri Lankan Tamils and the LTTE would find this book riveting, such is her skill as a storyteller. The book has all the ingredients needed for a bestseller; suspense, drama, terrorism – and as if all that were not enough, even some poignant romance.

It is a uniquely Jaffna Tamil romance that is touchingly portrayed. Her tender recollections of a budding crush provide the much needed light moments and comic relief needed in the book. It also affords the reader many moments of amusement and indulgent smiles.

Perhaps due to the fact my youth and idealism has not faded enough, the only thing I didn’t like about the book was the abrupt end this romance comes to. One can’t help feeling terribly sorry for Roshan, her enterprising young admirer. But the book is a dose of real life, not feel-good fiction, and considering how the lives of young LTTE cadres turned out in most cases, this story as a whole has not too bad an ending.

If you are interested in knowing about the history of early Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka and what prompted Tamil youths to take up arms, read the book.  It will give you not only knowledge and insight but also many hours of entertainment.

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