Writing from a Tamil nationalist position which occasionally earned the LTTE monster’s ire, David Jeyaraj has provided the world with invaluable service over the years. He had considerable information on both the Tiger operations and behind the scene events in the Tamil north. I have utilized his articles on numerous occasions.[i] However, in jumping to the defence of a family friend who has presented a “true story” of her engagement in the Tamil liberation struggle, Jeyaraj has recently provided one with a meandering exercise in obfuscation and deception: see his “From Shenuka to Niromi: True Tale of a Tamil Tigress.”
Jeyaraj dazzles his readership by revealing that he knows her real identity in the course of presenting Tamil Tigress as a tale of Niromi-Shenuka’s disillusionment with the LTTE and her recovery of everyday life till she crafted her book as a “story of redemption” and a “classic immigrant success story.”[ii]
He then challenges those who have read the book as a literary forgery by depicting them as “conspiracy theorists.” Rather daintily he avoids naming these critics, namely, Ambalavanar, Roberts, and Sarvananthan, and proceeds to lump all three together in his review with casual disdain for the differences in argument. He dismisses the various charges as “unsubstantiated” and “unfair.”
Jeyaraj affirms that Niromi’s tale is entirely credible because it is a “memoir,” not an “auto-biography” (his words, his casting). In this assertion Tamil Tigress is a “mixed genre” – a book in “memoir format with the characteristics of a realist novel.”
The affirmation is a gigantic bluff. Any glance at the English Thesaurus[iii] or the Oxford English Dictionary would indicate that an “autobiography” and “memoir” are synonyms, though a “memoir” has a wider compass in that it embraces biography. In its autobiographical form it may, however, focus on just one episode or event in one’s life (and thus, like autobiographies, on persons and events around one’s activities). Let me cite the OED (p. 905) in full:
Memoir 1 A historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources; 2 an autobiography or written account of one’s memory of certain events or people. 3a an essay on a learned subject specially studied by the writer treatise. 3b the proceedings or transactions of a learned society.
Jeyaraj’s assertion that Niromi’s blunders are matters “of minor detail” and a sign of some “sloppiness” is built on this foundation, a colossal misreading of the category “memoir.” Thus, in claiming that my previous reviews do not amount to a credible challenge,[iv] Jeyaraj builds his critique on a conceptualization that is not merely erroneous, but also amounts to an act of deception (one that, significantly, seems to have taken the Tamil world by storm).
Besides, he sidesteps the critical bone of contention, a contextual statement of major significance in Tamil Tigress, which had aroused my doubts in the first instance and which has directed all my articles on the subject: namely, the claim by both Niromi and Allen & Unwin that the ambush which Niromi’s platoon faced in December 1987 was a skirmish involving “government troops,” that is, soldiers of the Sri Lankan Army rather than soldiers of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).
Let me provide a basic timeline for Niromi de Soyza’s pertinent biography:
1. In mid-1987 she joined the LTTE (aged 17)
2. The IPKF was in Jaffna from 29 July1987 to 1990.
3. Early October 1987 LTTE commences battle vs IPKF and India.
4. Niromi resigns from the LTTE in 1988 (aged 18)
5. She arrives in Australia in 1990.
6. She presented her first version of her memoir in newspaper outlet in May 2009.
7. She collaborates with Allen & Unwin to present a book-length autobiography in 2011 (aged 42).
All accounts of Eelam War One agree that during the phase October 1987 to late 1989 the LTTE was pitted against the enormous contingents, sometimes amounting to over 100,000 personnel, of the IPKF. This error of central background fact, no “minor error” in any credible reading, informed my two overlapping articles:
A] “Another Demidenko? Niromi de Soyza as a Tiger Fighter” in my own web site http://thuppahi.wordpress.com on 21 August 2011;
B] “Forbidden Fruits: Niromi de Soyza’s Tamil Tigress, Noumi Kouri and Helen Demidenko?” which appeared initially in Groundviews on 31 August 2011.
The question marks in the titles indicate that my arguments were not full-proof in my own mind and that I was raising a probability for people to consider.
Subsequently, however, I discovered that Niromi de Soyza had presented her biographical journey in the 1980s as a short story of some nine pages in the Daily Telegraph in May 2009 as the LTTE army was on the verge of defeat. This tale was entitled: “Life as a female Tamil Tiger guerilla relived by one of first female soldiers.”[v]
This tale too is launched in melodramatic fashion by an account of de Soyza’s first battlefield skirmish: “At dawn that day, Indian soldiers had surrounded our hideout” she says in 2009 (emphasis mine). Later in this same account she notes that “fighting the Indian soldiers made no sense to me.” This realisation is presented as one factor inducing the decision to extricate herself from the commitment to fight for Tamil independence under the LTTE.
So, when she spelt out her biography in 2009 Niromi knew who her adversaries were in December 1987. In contrast, in the opening account in Tamil Tigress in 2011, the enemy are just “soldiers;” while the back cover explicitly proclaims 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 government forces in a bloody civil war that was to engulf Sri Lanka for decades (emphasis mine).” Again, when she was interviewed by Nikki Barrowclugh for the Good Weekend in July 2011, Niromi indicated once again that her unit spent “most of the time … running and hiding from government soldiers.”[vi]
In brief, the Indian presence has been obliterated in the critical opening lines and cover page in her book version of 2011 and interviews around it — even though their presence is noted on occasions at other points deeper in the book (pp. 162, 164, 168, 227, 264). We face a stark contrast which no amount of obfuscation can smother.
We thus have strong circumstantial proof of deception in 2011 as distinct from 2009. This leads to my suggestion that the fabrications in 2011 were directed by (a) the propaganda war that was peaking in late 2010/early 2011 and (b) the Western world’s sustained criticism of the Sri Lankan state in 2011 within a backdrop created by the disclosures in Killing Fields and an UN panel report by so-called “experts.” Whether this deliberate shift in background emphasis was informed by the advice of the Tamil Tiger lobby in Sydney and the several Australians who are affiliated in various ways with them (Gordon Weiss[vii] Jake Lynch, Antony Lowenstein, Bruce Haigh, James Dowd in the Sydney-Canberra circuit for instance) is a further possibility that one has to keep in mind – for Allen & Unwin would have deployed reviewers and this process could have informed the adjustments that I have identified.
This new information and its implications were incorporated in my third article, entitled “Niromi de Soysa’s Path of Redemption with Deception? Or Both?” which I sent to several news outlets in Lanka and eventually inserted in my web site on 27 October 2011. Since the Lankan agencies did not print it, few readers have consulted this article; so this present essay is a re-iteration of its claims in the new context created by the articles on Tamil Tigress penned by Cooke and Jeyaraj.
I do not have problems with some of the motifs in Tamil Tigress that are praised by Cooke (2011) and Jeyaraj. It is the degree to which it is a true historical account in its central details that is at issue here. The critical issue remains the question who, in Niromi’s mind, the Tigers were fighting? The remarkable fact is that while the first skirmish of December 1987 was an encounter with Indian troops in her 2009 recollection, in both 2009 and 2011 she keeps insisting that the LTTE was fighting both Indian and government troops at ground level. “The war resumed, just as Prabhakaran had predicted, though now we were fighting not only the government troops but the peacekeepers, too” she says in the Daily Telegraph account in 2009. This is a consistent aspect of her stories at both points, an aspect reiterated during interviews for radio and magazine.
Niromi de Soyza seems to have the theatrical ability to support her claims with vales of tears during some of her public presentations. At the “Missing Peace Exhibition” on 16th October 2011 organised by the Eltham Bookshop in Melbourne, her talk was interrupted by emotional tears of grief. I was not present, but Jeremy Liyanage, previously amenable to her moderate position, was quite disconcerted because he interpreted it as an act. I may not have accepted his reading; but when I made inquiries from my Scottish wife she reminded me of a Sri Lankan friend in the old days who could turn on the tears at will to persuade recalcitrant bureaucrats at the customs office.
So, we face a major puzzle. Virtually every Tamil resident in the northern and eastern reaches of the island would have known that the LTTE faced Indian troops in the period 1987 to 1989. The LTTE successfully resisted the might of over 100,000 Indian troops for over two years in a sturdy guerrilla campaign. Indian accounts leave one in no doubt that this resistance was based on popular support and a remarkable grassroots intelligence system which enabled the LTTE to track troop movements out of their camps and even heli-gunships on sorties.[viii] Note too that the camouflage uniforms of the IPKF and the turbans worn by the Sikh regiments who were part of the IPKF were distinct from those of the SL Army outfits. In such circumstances how could a Tiger fighter be unaware that those shooting at her platoon did not include SL army soldiers?
It is this huge error that led me to question the authenticity of Niromi’s alleged battlefield experience and her opening gambit of “Ambush.” In a scathing comment in GV, Vijayaraghavan Sakthivel, writing as a Tamil nationalist, has endorsed my reasoning in his own vocabulary by marking the red-hot political context of 2011 and sensationalist commercial imperatives as the stimulus for the twist inserted into the “major political detail” surrounding the late 1980s battlefield context. We can conjecture, therefore, that this fabrication was the work of author, advisors and/or publisher acting in concert.
Niromi de Soyza’s other accounts of warfare compound one’s astonishment. In 2009 she tells us that “during battles we had been trained to fire in the general direction of the enemy, not at individual targets, and I am not sure whether any of my bullets hit anyone.”[ix] Again, in 2011 she told Barrowclough that during her skirmishes as a guerrilla she may have shot at someone running, but “didn’t ever see a face… I would have frozen if I’d seen a face.”[x] It is no wonder that after he met her, the journalist Windsor concluded that the LTTE was an amateurish outfit. A few months later, in October 2011, she led Mark Furier to quote the Allen & Unwin book-blurb identifying “government soldiers” as the adversaries responsible for the “ambush” in the course of his interview-article for Serendib News (page 23).
Nowhere do Jeyaraj and Cooke address this shortcoming. Jeyaraj deploys his longwinded virtuosity to trail several red herrings and a range of smokescreens around this issue. Reports elsewhere indicate that he has shut out Ratnawalli’s direct questioning of his essay.[xi] In a personal communication Ambalavanar now informs me that his review article, published initially in Thesamnet.co.uk, was sent to Tamilweek (one of Jeyaraj’s websites), but rejected; while all Ambalavanar’s efforts to contact Jeyaraj were spurned. That, of course, is an editor’s prerogative; but it does suggest that Jeyaraj will not face up to such challenges in an open manner. Indeed, I now wonder if Jeyaraj has actually read the whole book (no page references are provided anywhere) and has been induced to spin his article after working the phone (this has always been his forte) and viewing Niromi’s interviews etc.
Jeyaraj also plays word-games with Niromi, Shenuka and Sharmila as part of his box of magic tricks. Can we not conclude that his essay is as much an act of deception as the Tamil Tigress book? We have now seen Jeyaraj the Illusionist.
Lapping it up
His magic worked. The overwhelming majority of cybernet comments within his own website, and several within GV, have bought his performance hook, line and sinker – though there were some notable exceptions (e. g. “PK,” “sambar” and “Offthecuff”). This line of reaction has now continued in juvenile manner in the new discussion around my Groundviews article. This type of outcome is itself cause for comment.
On both a priori grounds and the names/nom de plumes adopted by the bloggers we can conclude that most of the comments have been presented by Sri Lankan Tamils in various corners of the world,[xii] though there may be the odd Sinhalese among those inserting approval of the claims of Jeyaraj (and Cooke). Thus, we can move to the conclusion that the anguish these Tamils have suffered over the last forty years and the heightened emotions arising from the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 directed their reading of the Jeyaraj article. From cyber-world commentary at that time in 2009 and images of demonstrations in the West it seemed to me then that even Tamils who had reservations about the LTTE programme were agitated by the humiliating defeat of a renowned Tamil leader. The subsequent propaganda campaign on war crimes has probably stoked their nationalist sentiments yet further. In brief, then, “Tamilness” is the condition of being[xiii] that has sponsored such a favourable reading of the Jeyaraj article.
This could be a charitable reading of the widespread favour and fervour generated by Jeyaraj’s acts of obfuscation. Others might suggest that all those who lapped it up have displayed a lack of intelligence and discernment. Indeed, some of the comments seem incredibly juvenile and determined to kick that man Roberts, not the ‘football’ of data and argument. Since I am embedded in the debate it would be best if a person who is not Sri Lankan, that is, someone clinically dispassionate, dissects the commentary and tells us whether this reading of the comments is valid.
[i] See Roberts 2010 and Jeyaraj 2006, 2007 2008 and 2009 for illustrations.
[iii] Geddes & Grosset, English Thesaurus, 2006, p. 156.
[iv] I speak here for myself because Ambalavanar and Sarvananthan can fend for themselves.
[v] See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/ worldnews/asia/srilanka/5283438/Life-as-a-female-Tamil-Tiger -guerilla-relived-by-one-of-first-female-soldiers.html).
[vi] Nikki Barrowclough, “Tigress, interrupted,” Good Weekend, 9 July 2011, p. 28.
[vii] Note “Futura Book night – Gordon Weiss and Niromi de Soyza,” in http://www.facebook. com/event.php?eid=137919256296979 and the notice re Niromi’s “amazing autobiography” in the Weiss website (http://www.gordonweissauthor.com/links.html). Re Weiss’s dubious presentations, see Tekwani 2011 and Roberts 2011b.
[viii] John Taylor India’s Vietnam.” 2000.
[ix] [De Soyza] in Daily Telegraph 2009.
[x] Nikki Barrowclough, “Tigress, interrupted,” Good Weekend, 9 July 2011, p. 28.
[xi] See http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2011/12/18/and-quietly-ignores-them-hoping-they-will-just-go-away/ AND http://ratnawalli.blogspot.com/2011/12/dbsjeyaraj-finds-some-fatal-slips-in.html.
xii It is not unknown for some writers to insert their own comments or induce acolytes to insert ra-raa praise blogs within their own articles; but that sort of activity is hard to demonstrate in any instance and I have no doubt that most comments in the Jeyaraj site as well as GV are genuine supporters of the Jeyaraj viewpoint.
xiii On “Tamilness” and “Sinhalaness,” see my essays in Fire and Storm (2011) as well as “The Sinhala Mindset” in http://thuppahi.wordpres.com