In Absolute Recoil, Zizek makes extensive reference to Hayden White’s Metahistory. I recollected that this was a core reading in my MA history course at JNU. However, JNU was an ‘infantile disorder’ phase for me (a phase that several of my ex-comrades have been unable to grow out of). To me at that time, White along with several other critical historiographers were bourgeois and I studiously avoided studying them, gorging instead on Mao. To be honest, anyone whose language was too complicated was bourgeois to me. Though I grew out of juvenile ultra-leftist leanings by the last semester at JNU, this anti-intellectualist leaning continued into my PhD. Fortunately, a good friend and a great activist advised me to take theory seriously – in quite harsh words. It was the sting I required, without which I might have been immersed in effete activism and not have finished my PhD in time. Of course, I do not regret the experience gained by activism, but I think I got that at the cost of valuable knowledge in the classroom. Of my very few regrets in life, the top most would be not reading Lacan when I had the time and chance! I guess I understood my true calling a bit late, but early enough to make amends. I am an academic with a cause, not an academic in a cause. And as my guru Zizek advised many a time, I have fully overcome the seduction to act! So I think…
I believe there are two really smart decisions I have taken in my life – joining JNU for my Masters, leaving JNU immediately after my Masters. Jawaharlal Nehru University is always a Dickensian scenario. You meet the best of people and the worst of people there; inevitably both will be from the left. Imagine 1968 Paris being repeated over and over again – the slogans, the sexual liberation, the orgasmic enthusiasm for revolution, the wild dreams… and just like the 1968 revolutionaries, the Guevaras of JNU too succeeded in doing absolutely nothing to change the system. But then, JNU’s biggest magic trick is the illusion that it gives you that you are actually doing something. Much like the five star hotel in Chennai that promises to give you an authentic fisherman’s cuisine, JNU too allures you with the promise of being part of an authentic revolutionary event.
But once a while you run into a really genuine character who really believes in the JNU dream. Vidrohi was one of those rare characters. This humble unassuming man was a powerful poet, speaker and a treasure-trove of knowledge. Vidrohi could be seen at several protests, offering his poetry to add color to the demonstrations. His admirers would clap and cheer. But most of his admirers had clear career plans. To them, JNU was a stepping stone to something higher. I know quite some ultraleftists who believed armed struggle was the only way who later joined NGOs, earning good money. But Vidrohi’s universe was the university.
Vidrohi genuinely believed in the JNU dream. He died poor.
He was actually a Brahmin, but
Popularly known in party circles as Comrade Iyer, Balasubramaniam Iyer, or “Balls” as he was affectionately called by close friends and family, was the second son of Vishwanathan Iyer (critically acclaimed director known for his path breaking movies) and Mythili Iyer (classical dancer). When little Balls was eight, the year was 1992, the Iyer family moved into a posh bungalow in Alwarpet, Chennai, the year when Hindu nationalists demolished an old unused mosque called Babri Masjid in the state of Uttar Pradesh triggering riots across the country, an event on which Mr. Iyer senior would make what is now called in Chennai circles ‘an intellectual film’ three years later which would win a few national awards following which your average Chennai film lover would refer to Vishwanathan Iyer as “Iyer Sir” alone because of Iyer Sir’s ability to churn out movies that were placed on par, according to influential journalists like M. Vishnu of the Mount Road Daily, with those of a Scorcese, a Kurosawa, a Satyajit Ray. Vishnu’s review of Iyer Sir’s Roses (1998), a movie about the life of a Madras Regiment soldier posted in Kashmir, proudly concluded that the movie “put the Tamil in the Indian and the Indian in the Tamil.”
Mythili, originally Mythili Seshadri before she became Mrs. Iyer, was a product of Kalakshetra, South India’s world renowned school of Bharatanatyam, a classical dance that has been associated with the urban culture of the socially refined. Prior to the 20th century, it was called dasi aatam, the dance of prostitutes, but that is a different story. Before she met Iyer Sir, Mythili performed at national and international concerts, hosted TV shows, won several awards and acted in a couple of films. It is important to let the readers know here that unlike her father Mr. Seshadri, a conservative Brahmin who frowned upon inter-caste marriages, who suffered a fatal heart-attack in November 2004 when he heard the news that police had arrested the Sankaracharya of Kanchipuram in a murder case, Mythili was of a liberal orientation who did not attach a value to caste and it was just a matter of coincidence that Iyer Sir whom she fell in love with was of the same caste. After she married Iyer Sir she was content to be a happy socialite actively involved in charity. Disabled children, orphans, old age homes, you name it. So, it was into such a family of cosmopolitan high culture and liberal thoughts that Balls, our Comrade Iyer, the future central committee member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), was born.
One thing which struck Balls when he was five was that both his paternal and maternal grandparents, not to mention many of his male relatives, wore a white thread diagonally across their torso. But his father did not have one. “It’s the sacred thread. It means that we are Brahmins, the learned caste,” Iyer Sir told him. “But I don’t believe in this ritual, this caste symbol. So I don’t wear it.” Little Balls asked in all innocence “Can I get to have one?” Iyer Sir laughed. “You don’t need it. It does not matter. It is an old custom.”
By the time he was 15, when he was a student at Krishnamurthi Foundation and was dating Aparna Ramani, Balls was well versed with the classics of world literature. He was familiar with the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita (which he would later, when he was 32, defend as the first dialectical materialist text of the Indian philosophical tradition), works of Homer, the comedies of Shakespeare, the novels of Dickens, Twain, Sterne, Keats, Byron and Shelley. For his 18th birthday, M. Vishnu, who was by now a good family friend of the Iyers, gifted Balls the Communist Manifesto and Motorcycle Diaries. Balls did not sleep that night, and on the next day, was twice-born as a communist. As Comrade Iyer.
Thereafter, he could see oppression everywhere in Chennai. A gigantic Malar hospital in Adyar, one of the most expensive healthcare facilities in the city, overlooked a settlement of the poor on the banks of the dirty backwaters of the Cooum river where malaria and dysentery was rampant. The Marina beach, probably Chennai’s most well known public place, was home to several large slums that figured in the news only when the Tsunami hit them. While working class neighbourhoods were congested and suffered from lousy sanitation facilities, posh localities were emerging, dispossessing the poor of their lands, to provide better services for a creamy layer. In contrast, look at Calcutta, Havana, Beijing, Hanoi…
Comrade Iyer could also not be blind to caste violence in the state of Tamil Nadu. His heart bled for the Dalits, who, he felt, were cheated and oppressed by the successive Dravidian regimes. The DMK, which came into power on the wave of student agitations of the 1960s, Annadurai, Karunanidhi, MGR, the AIADMK, Jayalalitha all contributed to the strengthening of the non-Brahmin castes at the expense of the Dalits. Whereas, in the West Bengal of Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, there was no caste at all! To what sublime heights did the philosophy of Marxism take the people of Bengal and in what squalid wretchedness did Tamil Nadu still suffer! “The problem you see,” Vishnu uncle explained one day at his office “is that the Dravidian movement was ideologically flawed from the start. Periyar, for instance, had no knowledge of political economy. Therefore, the Dravidian movement failed.” A very intelligent friend of the author, however, has a different and more elaborate explanation. To state it shortly, Periyar had no knowledge of phenomenological ontology, therefore the Dravidian movement failed.
In 2008, Comrade Iyer cleared the entrance test for the prestigious Modern History M.A. course at Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU as it is commonly known in Indian academia, the strongest red bastion of India and the nurturing ground for revolutionary conquistadors, and was lodged in Kaveri hostel, which was a five minute walk from Ganga Dhaba, the informal hub of thinker-activists who would breathe Gramsci, speak Althusser and drink to Guevara, and there would be all types of leftists there, those who believe in parliamentary democracy, those who call the parliament a pigsty, those who take a middle-path because Comrade Lenin said so in ‘Left-wing communism: An Infantile Disorder’, those who say that India is semi-feudal semi-colonial and begs for a protracted people’s war, those who angrily reject this thesis and point out that Indian nationalism was and is a bulwark against imperialist expansionism, those who reject both because the day was not far off when the workers of the world will come together to wage the glorious permanent revolution…
Comrade Iyer, much like his roommate Debabrata Ghosh, was convinced that the CPI-M alone represented the best interests of the country and the controversies around alleged police brutalities in Singur and Nandigram were just conspiracies floated by ultra-left and ultra-right groups to discredit the noble work that the CPI-M had done for the people for Bengal, and his passionate commitment to gender justice apart, sheer logic compelled him to reason, in Lacanian fashion, that the rape of Tapasi Malik by CPI-M cadres could not have happened, because had it happened, the perpetrators could not have been CPI-M cadres, and thus, with all sincerity, even as he slogged his behind off for the rigorous papers in his course, he joined the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), his cherished party’s students’ wing.
These were the happiest days for Comrade Iyer, in the company of those Indians who shared his beliefs, in the 1500 acre big JNU campus, probably the only place in New Delhi where a woman wearing shorts and a t-shirt could walk alone without fear at 2am, the discussions on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution over endless cups of tea, enjoying the weekly dinner at Mughal Durbar, where Comrade Iyer would be the only person going vegan, of course, not owing to some caste prejudice as he did enjoy his occasional peg of Absolut Vodka, but rather as a matter of taste.
Being a true internationalist, Comrade Iyer organized meetings, protests and rallies both in and out of campus for the cause of the world oppressed. The sanctions on Cuba. The Iraq war. And when the Gaza War happened, where about 1200 Palestinians were killed, which occurred roughly in the same period when about 100000 plus Tamils were killed by the Sri Lankan military, Comrade Iyer organized a series of demonstrations in front of the Israeli and American embassies notwithstanding the cold, rain, storms and hail for the cause of Palestine because, as I said before, he was a true internationalist above parochial Tamil sentiments and besides, Comrade Iyer intuitively knew that Hamas was progressive and revolutionary but LTTE was patriarchal and fascist, which is actually interesting because his elder brother, Natarajan Iyer, a foreign policy analyst with the LDTV, condemned the LTTE because it was uberleftist. Anyway, it is not productive here to talk any more about the elder sibling because he had never had any influence whatsoever on Comrade Iyer. Yes, while the elder Iyer was into Gayatri Mantra, the younger Iyer was into Grundrisse.
However, not everything was smooth for Comrade Iyer and if he could identify the proverbial fly in the ointment it would be K. Raja, thin, dark, with horn-rimmed glasses, MPhil student at the Department of Sociology, an intransigent pro-LTTE activist, a Periyarite, who became notorious in the campus for burning an image of the Hindu god Rama in October 2008, who wore one shirt for 6 days and a pant for a month, single, from Tirunelveli, president of the JNU Tamil Students’ Union, a three member organization that acted as though it was the representative of all the Tamils in New Delhi. “If Dravidian movement failed because of Kilvenmani, then parliamentary Marxism died with the Morichjhapi massacre,” Raja pompously proclaimed at a SFI public meeting on caste politics in Tamil Nadu.
Comrade Iyer, the archetypal argumentative Indian, believed in convincing individuals through dialogue but Raja was incorrigible. He knew that Raja was a non-Brahmin, probably a Pillai, or a Nadar, and when he asked Raja in the course of a casual conversation what his caste was, the fellow snapped.
“That is none of anyone’s business.”
“I am actually a Brahmin, but I am also a communist. So caste does not matter to me. If it does not matter to you, why can’t you state it?”
“And besides, though you guys have hidden your caste titles, you cannot elude the fact it is only the non-Brahmin castes of Tamil Nadu who oppress the Dalits.”
To which the crazy chap replied, “Well, then I suppose the class enemy of the proletarian is not the capitalist system but the police constable who pushes him around.”
The heated argument continued and Comrade Iyer was firm in his position that it was Marx who mattered more to Tamil Nadu than Periyar. When the irascible Raja accused him of being a Brahminical casteist, Comrade Iyer angrily retorted that Rupini Nair, his Malayalee girlfriend, a feminist and a passionate SFI member (who was later to become his wife), was a proper non-Brahmin. Raja was wrong, as were his ideological forefathers who resorted to unrefined Brahmin bashing to flee from pressing questions of class privilege. Though Raja himself was from a family of agricultural labourers, his reasoning as such was bourgeois and Comrade Iyer would never entertain a debate with him again.
By the time he reached his final semester, Comrade Iyer had gained a goatee, lost a few pounds and his virginity, learned to roll a joint properly, impressed most of the faculty at the History department with his presentations that were proof of his eclectic knowledge, made a name for himself as someone who had a flair for sophistication, and was advised by Prof. Ambika Venkataraman, a party sympathizer, to apply to the Department of History at Oxford where one Prof. Vinay Shastri, an expert in South Asian postcolonial studies, would be an excellent supervisor for his line of research interest.
Needless to say, given Comrade Iyer’s background – his academic background I mean – and the powerful recommendations he got from lecturers at JNU, walking into Oxford, with a scholarship, was a breeze for Comrade Iyer.
And the erstwhile colonized was now at the heart of the Empire, he thought. Ha. Skype calls with Rupini once in three days and not once did he contemplate breaking up. In Chennai, Iyer Sir got his ninth national award for his movie Heart, a touching family drama about a love story of a Telugu guy and a Manipuri girl. It was a beautiful tale much like that of Comrade Iyer who got married to the one true love of his life when he returned home for summer vacations. But Rupini did not change her surname to Iyer but to Balasubramaniam.
At Oxford, Comrade Iyer submitted his dissertation on ‘Parallel voices: Dalit narratives and the Dravidian movement’ which, of course, was a completely non-partisan account of how the Dravidian movement, in the guise of fighting Brahminism, was only interested in constructing a non-Brahmin hegemony caring little about the liberation of Dalits and how Dalits found their own autonomous voice of subalternity by constructing their particularities through lived experiences. Comrade Iyer who had transcended caste long ago could always be objective in whatever intellectual project he undertook and he later got a job as the associate editor of Political and Economic Monthly.
And even though his thesis did not mention Marx even once, his rise in the ranks of the party was meteoric, for the party, which had completely discarded caste, laid great emphasis on promoting persons of merit.
Walking back to the bus stop from Colchester Castle Park, I stumbled on a second-hand bookstore. Bookstores in general pick my curiosity – this one claimed to sell “Rare and Secondhand” books. I had to take a peek.
Exchanging greetings with the person at the desk, a warm old lady who I believe is also manager and owner of the bookstore, I proceeded to browse through the store’s wares. Rare collections indeed! It had books of Dickens that I could not recognize. Works of Dante that I have not encountered on any other shelf before. The finest Greek tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus and of course, Homer, and Roman epic-poetry of Virgil and Ovid. The plays of Beckett and Ibsen. A breathtaking assortment of the finest English poetry, be it those of the classical romantic tradition of Byron or those in the free verse styles a la Whitman. And yes, the entire works of Shakespeare. (Is not any good book collection incomplete without him?)
I was compelled to buy something.
The bookstore is of two floors, divided into sections according to subject. The collections on history and politics are decent, but can be expanded. I found some pretty interesting books there – ancient social and economic history specialist M.I. Finley’s The Ancient Greeks for two quid, R.H. Barrow’s The Romans for 1.50, JS Mill’s ‘Three Essays’ for 3… and I even bought Robert Service’s Lenin, only because the founder of the USSR was the only big guy in the Marxist-Leninist pantheon on whom I did not have a biography on and because it was being sold for the absurd price of 5 quid. The philosophy section didn’t have much to offer – the only book I found to my liking was Patrick Gardiner’s Kierkegaard, a concise work on the core aspects of the Danish intellectual’s philosophical thought.
The literature section is the star of the store, having an entire room unto itself. The first thing I noticed when I entered the room was the smell. The distinct musty odour that one gets from old or aging books was dominant in the densely packed room. If a bibliophile’s love for old books included the smell they emit, this room was a wet dream. Books collected over 30 years, the manager told me. ‘How could they bear to part with it?’ I thought instinctively. Yes, I have always loathed even lending my books, even to close friends. It would have been a nightmare for me to be on the desk of such a shop and watch on as books such as these are taken away, lost to my touch forever.
When reading a good book, for me at least, physical touch is important – especially if it is a work of philosophy or literature. No greater pleasure than sitting down with an engrossing text that reflects on humankind, with a cup of fine tea, in a pleasant evening, in the company of fresh air, in solitude, in tranquillity. Holding the book, folding pages, leaving notes, scribbling in the margins, underlining, all of these gives the owner an intimacy with not just the content of the book, but its physicality as well. That sort of intimacy is needed when one reads literature or philosophy, which can of course never be experienced while reading a pdf file on a computer screen or on gadgets like kindle, no matter how much they try to make it appear ‘book like’. Those who understand the difference between making love and what Zizek calls “the usual masturbation with a living partner” will understand this difference as well and, I hope, will share my righteous indignation at a friend of mine who told me that he read Crime and Punishment on his laptop.
From the perspective of possessing books as a passion, I categorize book collectors of this age of late modernity in two camps – the faithful and the infidel. The former adhere to certain rules in the manner of receiving and reading a book while the latter are indifferent to the same. Note that these categories are fluid and at times the faithful, are persuaded by circumstances to step into the other camp, even if they do it unwillingly. Isn’t it the case that the pure has the greatest potential to be corrupted? Anyway, the friend of mine who read Dostoevsky on a laptop is, and I would like to believe that others agree, an infidel of a particular type. The uncaring disciple – that is, one who would love to the read the work of a great master but is not concerned about the medium through which the master’s message should reach him.
Similar to the uncaring disciple is the copier. The copier’s case is rather sad. He does not have the resources to get the original copy of the classic or the time to sit in a library to read. But he would not read a classic on a computer screen, because he loves the feel of paper. So, he goes for the next best thing to the original. A photocopy. Again, the difference between a photocopy and the original will not be evident to those but the faithful – the feel of the binding, the cover, and the smell of the original is always lost in a copy. To confess, I have also been guilty of this type of infidelity. I read Goethe’s Faust in photocopy.
The first book that caught my eye as I stepped into the literature section in the bookstore was Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, a brilliant tale of terrible vengeance of an individual who had been treated badly by people and circumstances. It was being sold for 3 pounds! Not far from Dumas was a hardbound early 20th Century copy of Upton Sinclair’s A World to Win. Being familiar with his more famous novel The Jungle and intrigued by the title of this book and its smell of an age that I have only read of in history books, I took it – for a fiver. Near it was the Victorian-age English novelist Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which was also published in the same period as the former. The novel came out in public posthumously because of the controversial anti-establishment tenor of the prose. Flipping through the pages I found something like a visiting card which contained only a message, but a message that was rather ironical considering the book it was in – “His majesty greatly loveth courageous souls. St. Teresa.”
Browsing the collection, I hopped on from one delightful author to another, from Chesterton to Flaubert, from Somerset Maugham to Solzhenitsyn, Sophocles to Ovid via Virgil, and so, purchasing their classic works for a pittance. And yes, as I reached the Shakespeare section, I took a copy of Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, the latter purely for the paper it was printed on. Shopping for books in a good store or browsing in the library is a pleasure in itself. Not only do you find other books in the area of your interest, you also stumble upon other interesting books that would elicit attraction in the bibliophile – the journey enlightens you as much as the destination. The faithful appreciates the art of book shopping/browsing. Even if he cannot buy all that interests him, he takes in the titles, authors, scrambles through the book, appreciates words and sentences, absorbs the essence; and the memory of the book, its feel, its touch, its soul is locked away in the head of the faithful, subject to recall at a later date.
Yes, there is a feeling of ‘fear and trembling’ that the faithful feel as they leave a library or a bookstore. The pain that the place you are leaving has a lot more than you can fully appreciate, the apprehension that you are missing out on many other hidden treasures, the pang of jealousy that your collection will always be incomplete without the dozens of books that you are leaving behind, the melancholic sensation of a desire unfulfilled. All bibliophiles undergo this feeling every time they step into a place that has a book collection larger than theirs. Umberto Eco, a bibliophile I admire, envy and hope to equal one day (his collection is of over 50000 books. If we were to allot a day in a person’s life for one book, Eco’s life span would be over 135 years!), opined in an interview on diacritics that to him, libraries were paradise but that he kept away from them as they drove him crazy if they ensnared him. Thus, the faithful book collector is always an unsafe browser. Every minute he is in a bookstore, he places great risk not just to his purse, but also to his senses. His eyes wander all over, his mouth goes dry while picking some work he adores but whose price he cannot afford, his heart pulsates being surrounded by objects of his desire, many of which he cannot possess. It can be said that no bibliophile ever leaves a library or a bookstore without a heavy heart, but he accepts this risk before stepping in.
So here’s the other infidel – the safe browser. He has a book in mind about which he has heard of from elsewhere and he is interested in getting that book alone. Years earlier, he would have had no option but to visit a bookstore and search for the object of his pursuit, but now, with the proliferation of online retailers, his purchase is but a few clicks away. What is wrong with this? Simply that you are not exposed to as many other books as you would be in a bookshop or library which, of course, is a risk as mentioned in the above paragraph. The safe browser does not appreciate the delight of that risk and is saved the tensions that the faithful endure. His options, however, are not vast. The best online retailer can at most give you a list of related books that you might be interested in. But only in a library or bookstore can you find non-related books that you would be interested in. The limited options provided online place you in a comfortable box which you will not cross. Pray, do tell me, how many sites are there that would take you from an autobiography of Sartre to the history of medieval South India? A little bookshop in New Delhi did that for me.
All bibliophiles, at some point of time in their lives, do run into a particular breed of philistines – I have been fortunate to have been visited by only one till now. I refer to the ones who drop by on a fine day, look at your book collection and ask you that insipid question “Have you read them all?” I found the apt reply to this question in the following lines
Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”
That was Walter Benjamin, another admirable bibliophile, citing a bibliophile he admired.
Of the books I purchased, I don’t think I’ll be reading any one fully any time soon. Should time permit, I might try to read The Theban Plays sometime next year. The rest are for much, much later. There is one I will never read fully, CS Lewis’ The Four Loves, an annoying liberal Christian interpretation of love. I’ll probably glimpse through a few pages to remind myself that such annoying opinions and such annoying people exist. I do possess other books, some extraordinarily mundane, in my collection which I will never read. For instance, books like The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui, who was supposedly Mao’s close friend and physician, and The Immortal Contributions of Chairman Mao by Bob Avakian, American Maoist and ‘Chairman’ of Revolutionary Communist Party, two extreme accounts on the same person.
I should state that neither do I have anything against extreme positions nor do I shun books with such positions as useless – I don’t think there is anything called a ‘useless book’. Even right/liberal/left propaganda pamphlets have something to be analyzed and even something as intentionally naive and childish as Harry Potter has implications to be read into. Just that the tediousness of certain texts gets to me, and if I will not read them fully, I might ruffle their pages on occasions to humour myself. Book collecting is a passion, but needn’t always be a serious one.
It requires fidelity though.
Originally published on JDS
I never thought writing would become a passion before that fateful night. In fact, I was averse to writing like most of my classmates in my undergrad course. Surrealist writers have contested that words contain magical powers, that they can provide the reader who listens to the heartbeat of the script a plethora of sounds, images and sensations. I didn’t attach much meaning to words then.
And like many who can talk but cannot speak, I was immune to the magic of the word, deaf to the music that it contains, blind to the colours it shows. Yet, it was through words that I heard of sufferings of Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka. Through stories, I had heard of past and present horrors committed on an ethnic group – one to which I belonged to but rarely identified with till then. Words spoken by those who fled the island country in the past projected to me a picture of what life under totalitarianism is.
But no words prepared me for the shock of the image that came along with a mail in my inbox the 14th night of August 2006.
Event: Chencholai orphanage bombing.
I eventually would meet the person who captured this image, TamilNet’s wartime correspondent from Vanni, A. Lokeesan. As we conversed, our bonding was instantaneous. After all, it was his image that changed forever the way I see things. His image informed the world the intention of the Sri Lankan state that killed children and called them terrorists. His image spoke to establishments that the Sri Lankan military strategy had the Tamil population as such as its target for assault and not the Tigers alone. “The world knew,” he said “that Chencholai was a prelude to something more horrible. But it didn’t care. Because these were orphans. Like the rest of us.”
Orphans of history.
They cried for themselves. They buried their own dead, burying their innocence and hopes with them. Others rarely cared. After this image, I could no longer read news from mainstream newspapers like before. Words started being interpreted differently. When I encounter disparaging reports on ‘child soldiers’, I ask ‘what do children do when their characteristic trait, innocence, has been brutally snatched away from them?’ When I read ‘suicide bombers’, I wonder ‘what do people do when living is dying and only a self-imposed death gives an iota of meaning to an otherwise senseless existence?’ The worst, then, is not ‘terrorism’ or ‘secession’ as those above, those with power over meaning, want us to believe. “The worst is when people – knowingly or not – carry prison inside themselves” (Nazim Hikmet) A better description of the existential condition of Tamils in unitary Sri Lanka cannot be found.
After Chencholai, words and their meanings started changing.
Words like ‘casualty’ and ‘collateral’ gave me images of families killed in air raids. ‘Unity’, a word loved by the Sri Lankan government, became the image of an army barrack in Jaffna while ‘reconciliation’ became the image of the soldier who executed naked, bound and blindfolded Tamil prisoners of war.
The antonym of ‘death’, then, was not ‘life’, but ‘freedom’ and ‘resistance’ was the synonym of ‘justice’. ‘Love’ was a flag held high in defiance of a world that seeks to shun it, while ‘faith’ was commitment to the ideals of those who gave their present so that we could inherit the future. And ‘Tamil’ became not the name of a language or a culture but the political identity of a people seeking their place in the world.
Words gave me ideas in new places, poetry in unexpected corners and prose flowing towards new avenues. Revelations of the higher kind happen, I believe, either with bliss or pain. I found mine in the latter. A revelation that my identity is a weapon and that it fires words.
Words that shall narrate the history of orphans.
It’s a place where famous personalities are buried. A renowned writer and his, if I may take the liberty of using the term, ‘soul mate’ were also interred there. Rebels throughout their lives, they challenged established norms of relationships and family. Probably, they were the most famous polyamorous couple in modern times. They felt that the ‘normal’ monogamous relationship restricted individual freedom, lovers of the concept that they were when they were alive. When the female died six years after the male’s passing away she was buried together with him. Posterity would care less for their other relationships. The grave makes us ponder the intensity of the love and respect they had for each other (that far surpassed the feelings they had for other people in their lives). That is how I shall remember Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as theorists of freedom who were bonded to each other in life and in death. Sartre said that the living choose the dead. So do we choose the images of death and give it meaning. The stone grave of Sartre and Beauvoir reminds me that love, freedom and responsibility are not empty terms, not matter how hard cynics may try to conceive of them as such. They are lifestyles.Sartre died on April 15th, 1980. Beauvoir got a nervous breakdown after that. She writes in her farewell to Sartre “I lay down for a moment by the side of his dead body, knowing that we would never meet again.” This rather sentimental and irrational act, from the author of several books that deconstructed existing ideas of gender and love, should be witness to the greatness of the person to whom it was directed at and the nature of bonding she shared with him. This testimonial of affection from the mother of feminism should melt even the coldest heart of those who claim to be ‘feminists’ in her path but are sceptical of the Beauvoir-Sartre relationship, often disparaging the latter. I don’t think either would have thought much of their ‘criticisms’ though. Sartre himself admitted that Beauvoir was “the only critic who mattered.” Indeed, his adoration and immense respect for her was such that he would discard hundreds of pages of his work should she raise objections against them. This short man who was a giant in the philosophy of ontology found his greatest strength in the company of the tallest figure of feminist thought. Their grave sends us that message.
John Gerassi called Sartre the hated conscience of his century. This was a man, to use a clichéd phrase, that all loved to despise. The Catholic Church passed an order prohibiting the reading of any of his works in 1948. Around the same period, a church of a different kind, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union also banned Sartre’s works, irked over his play Dirty Hands that was critical of the functioning style of the Communists. French nationalists made two attempts on his life owing to his vocal support of the Algerian cause. Liberals like Raymond Aron and Camus, who eventually became hits in the US academia, hated his guts. Structuralists like Strauss, who stood for completely depoliticized academics, condemned him. Foucault and Derrida, the grand champions of anti-humanism, rejected Sartre. So did defenders of a kind of Marxism, that kind that believed in structures like an astrologer believes in stars, like Althusser and co. Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize in 1964 on ethical grounds also added him to the hate list of many others.
Sartre really didn’t care. He knew the intellectual-academicians and the politics that they upheld. He knew that people who treated humans like ants in their study would never take their message beyond a classroom of elites. And he was right. Imagine a mass movement or radical activism propelled by an Althusserian or Foucauldian understanding of politics. Besides, he had his own crowd too. In his heyday, Sartre’s name was popular in the costliest restaurant in Paris and in its cheapest brothel. His books were carried by students of the best universities in town and by blacks working on pavements. And wherever he was, he shocked and he stimulated. One of the foremost theorists of decolonization and identity, referred to Sartre as ‘a living god’ – probably the greatest compliment a thinker could get from a contemporary who was also his critic, an iconoclast like Frantz Fanon.
When Sartre died, his funeral was attended by about 50,000 people, probably the largest in history for a philosopher. It was attended by students, activists, intellectuals, writers and poets. Frenchmen, Germans, Blacks and Mulattos participated. The crowd contained homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes, petty criminals and all those ‘abnormals’ on whom Foucault gave extensive lectures on in his career, along with large numbers of Althusser’s beloved working class. Few of these people would mourn Foucault’s or Althusser’s demise. The loss of these intellectuals was felt only in the spaces where they had created most impact – among NGO activists and academics – while the loss of Sartre’s was felt by a diverse section of people even after his political thought fell out of fashion in academic circles. That a philosopher should have left such an impact should speak volumes about the dynamism of his philosophy.
If one considers an intellectual to be someone who has written and reflected on a wide variety of complex issues, in a complex manner, then probably Foucault is the better intellectual than Sartre. One can spend years studying the works of Foucault but manage to grasp only a part of his thought. One needs to spend twenty minutes reading Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth, with something akin to a conscience, for one’s own thoughts to be radically altered. Foucault may be the better intellectual; Sartre was the better man.
And what a preface it was! A better text to claim humanity for the oppressed could not be found and a better preface could not have been written. Sartre’s words to French citizens condemning their silence on their state’s crimes in Algeria “It is not right, my fellow countrymen, you who know all the crimes committed in our name, it is really not right not to breathe a word about them to anybody, not even to your own soul, for fear of having to pass judgements on yourselves” are still as applicable to citizens of so many oppressor regimes today. Sri Lankans, Indians, Turks, Israelis, Chinese can place this statement in the right context today, provided they have an iota of sensitivity. One can see the Sartrean spirit operating through a Jude Fernando or a Viraj Mendis, Sri Lankan intellectuals who faced death threats and had to undergo exile for standing by the struggle of the Eelam Tamils. But the world that we live in now, such intellectuals who have made enormous personal sacrifices to stand by an ethical position are rarely highlighted in the news. Only the shrill-tone empty-content kind catch eyes and ears. Maybe this is somewhere connected to the general amnesia prevailing among the intelligentsia of the existence of a man called Sartre…
I have told quite some of my friends that there are no post-modern intellectuals. Only post-Sartrean intellectuals. You had those post-structuralists who talked about everything but took a position on nothing. You had those on the ‘left’ taking positions only on those issues that would give them instant attention in the media. You had those Marxists giving moral lectures on the bankruptcy of capitalism and imperialism but rarely turning a critical eye towards themselves and their own positions in society. Intellectual activity became a matter of convenience when it should have been of responsibility. Sartre, with the kind of intellectual courage that only an anarchist could possess, was never shy of making his position clear. Even should it alienate him from his fellow people. A trenchant critic of capitalism, Sartre, along with his partner, knew that socialism was meaningless without individual freedom. He realized that irrationality and emotions were as powerful forces as reason and logic in driving political movements. He gave theoretical justification to the violence of the oppressed, even if it was on identitarian lines, and acted in their support while others on the left were toying with terms or were just weak-kneed to take a stand. He had neither the comfort of a party like the communists nor the company of the elites like the liberals. As a person, he was alone but for Beauvoir. And that was his integrity.
We need to remember Sartre today. We need to remember him to remind intellectuals of their role in a world where there is such rampant oppression and few credible solutions. We need to remember him if we are ever to understand why in certain circumstances terrorism needs to be defended. We need to remember him to frame out a human and humane alternative to a world pillaged by capitalist machinery, an alternative that would not further dehumanize man under the illusion of taking him to some predestined goal. We need to remember him to make ethical choices in politics, in life and in literature.
We need to remember Sartre because we writers live in his shadow.
To his memory…
I am talking with a friend yesterday on the pathetic joke that the world is. Few hours later, I hear that tsunami strikes Japan.
6.33 PM, 11th March: I ask a FB application “When will the world end?” It answers “Without a doubt”. Stupid application doesn’t say when.
11 PM, 11th March: Thousands feared dead in Japan. Atomic reactor damaged. The pictures of the devastation are cruel. And beautiful.
December 2004: Tsunami kills over 2 lakh people. Nations, communities, families devastated. Remember listening to Tamil song at that time. A rather provoking line hits me “If the earth dances a bit, the human drama ends.”
9 PM, 11th March: People are drowning a few thousand miles from where I stay.
10PM, 11th March: I am drowning myself in alcohol and thinking about them. About the frailty of human existence.
Let us consider nature as a person. Culture teaches us to gender nature in the feminine. So be it, for now. Nature is unpredictable. She is chaotic. Has no patterns, no designs, save what we humans choose to imagine. And she is amoral. Waves drowned the rich, the poor, the fair, the dark, the good, the mean, the corrupt, the upright alike. Along with gutter rodents, stray dogs and termites. Impartial. Her cold stare never discriminates as she pronounces her judgment.
People make plans. Parents planning their children’s education. Lovers planning their trysts. Businessmen planning their ventures. Pimps planning their business. Nationalists planning their nation. Communists planning their revolution. Most have a blind faith in the future. The very essence of planning is to believe in a future. The possibility of no future doesn’t occur to any. The possibility of an element of chaos ruining the best laid plans, mutilating them, or radically altering them. The possibility of an earthquake or a typhoon. Nature respects no plans.
3 PM, 12th March: I am reading a report of an explosion at a Japanese nuclear plant caused by the natural disaster. Did those who built the plant consider this in their plans? I doubt it. I believe that the primary purpose of nuclear research is dual – as a threat to other countries and to develop their own. Nice plans. Now the Japanese are struggling to prevent a nuclear disaster in their soil. What new plans will they make? Curious…
5th February, 2011: I have finished reading Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, an apocalyptic book and a brilliant novel. I had underlined much earlier the following line in page 185. “She (nature) shewed us plainly, that, though she permitted us to assign her laws and subdue her apparent powers, yet, if she put forth but a finger, we must quake.”
11 AM, 12th March: I wake up with a hang over. I am thinking of man’s pathetic attempts to control nature since time immemorial. I am thinking of capitalists ravaging forests and water resources in Latin America, in the heartland of India, for the future of nations that may actually cease to exist in the future. I am thinking of George Thomson who wrote approvingly of the vain boasts of the Chinese communists that they have tamed nature by building some dams. Man over nature? I realize I am not the only person who cracks bad jokes.
4 PM, 12th March: I am having tea at Mahaveer dhaba. Watching ants below my foot. Imagining what they would think, if they could think like humans. “We have a higher purpose! Our anthill will withstand any assault! We are destined for a better future! Let us control nature to achieve that end!” I crush two ants that come too close to my foot. Man over nature?
January 2005: Tsunami has caused extensive damage to the Tamil Tigers. This is a force even they cannot fight. Contrary to what he said, nature was not Prabhakaran’s friend then. The Tigers could have compromised on their goals like the Aceh movement, which was also hurt by the tsunami. They chose not to. They fight for justice. Never compromised. Not even in the face of total annihilation. The Tamil poet Bharatiyar said “Even if the skies break and fall on our heads, never fear!” It wasn’t the skies. It was the sea that went against the Unceasing Waves. Nature recognizes no causes, just or unjust. In the final reckoning, we have no choice but to submit to her will.
Nature’s force looms over the revolutionary and the reactionary, the fascist and the anarchist alike. When she acts upon us, she does so sans bias, sans prejudice. The actions of the most efficient individual means no more to her than those of the most efficient bug. We humans would like to think that we are special. Man, of course, has the power to destroy the human race many times over. The nuke ends human life and most animal life but not life per se. Cockroaches survive. And bacteria. Man over nature?
4.30 PM, 12th March: I look at the time. I need to attend a meeting at 5 PM on suicides in Tirupur. My mind is occupied with the idea of nuclear meltdown in Japan. Must finish writing.
10th March, 2011: I am writing in my diary that if god exists, his (?) idea of a practical joke would be ‘humankind’. I put up a slightly altered version of this on my blog the next day.
4.40 PM, 12th March: Going back to Shelley, “we must love the living smile, the sympathetic touch, and thrilling voice, peculiar to our mortal mechanism. Let us not, through security in hereafter, neglect the present. This present moment, short as it is, is a part of eternity, and the dearest part, since it is our own inalienably.” The person who says this in the novel ends up as The Last Man. The funny part: he doesn’t know that that is his future.
Gauged against nature and her powers, our own mad race towards self-extermination seems pointless. We would like to hasten Judgment Day on our own, even before it is due. Arms proliferation, chemical bombs, nuclear plants, pollution of air-soil-water, holes in the ozone… All in the name of a future which might never be. For a meaning that never was. Yes, I agree with Jung that there needs to be a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being. But is this meaning pushing us into a deeper abyss, where we just swallow anything that justifies our existence?
12.30 AM, 12th March: I am having tangri kebab at 24/7. Alcohol generated hunger. The kebab tastes good on my tongue. A pretty girl passes by me. The aroma of her deo penetrates my nostrils creating pleasurable sensations. A cool breeze fans my face. I blow a puff of smoke against it. Stupid is placing his paw on my foot, his tongue lolling in the anticipation of a delicacy. I throw him a bone. This life, for all its flaws, is beautiful. Why? Because I recognize the element of improbability both in nature and in humankind. Because life can change for the worse or end brutally anytime, without notice. Because nothing is permanent. Because I live to feel this moment.
And the Japanese who died don’t.
“தமிழர் காணும் துயரம் கண்டு
தலையை சுற்றும் கோளே அழாதே..
என்றோ ஒரு நாள் விடியும் என்றே
இரவைச் சுமக்கும் நாளே அழாதே..”
Its been a year since that dreadful day when Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse declared that the war against the LTTE is over. War, being the ugly thing it is, it would seem ironical to say that the day it ‘ended’ was dreadful. But that’s Sri Lanka for us, full of ironies. We are aware of the means employed by the Sri Lankan government to crush the Tamil Eelam liberation movement and the genuine demands of the Tamil people. We know the thousand untold sufferings that the forcefully detained Tamil civilians are facing in the IDP camps. We also know the role played by the international imperialist powers and the regional big brother, India, in facilitating the genocide of the Eelam Tamils. Numerous debates, discussions, conventions, protests, demonstrations and tribunals have been organized to highlight the plight of the Eelam Tamils. Yet, things continue as before in Buddha’s country.
A Tamil from Tamil Nadu, I write this with great shame and frustration, but also with hope. Shame at our inability and impotency to do anything solid while you, our brethren, got butchered. Frustration with the Tamil politicians-cum-agents who built their political castles with your bones. If the way the various TN political parties manipulated mass sentiments was bad, the way the Tamil society slipped into inertia after the war was worse. What happened in Sri Lanka was not a war on the LTTE, it was a war on the Tamils. Unfortunately, the Tamils here did not respond to the situation in the way they should have. This is but a reflection of the rotten socio-political order that exists in TN and it will take quite some time before the scenario changes here. But I have hope, I have faith that the Eelam Tamils will not take these humiliations lying down, that the ‘defeat’ of the LTTE is only a temporary setback to the struggle.
As Tamils, we are used to hearing stories of the military exploits of our ancestors, sagas of heroic personalities and tales of daring kings. Today, we can say confidently that the Tamil Tigers have outshined all the accomplishments of our past heroes and stand as examples worthy of emulation not just for the Tamils, but for all struggling peoples the world over. Indeed, Prabhakaran is a revolutionary icon for the Tamil youth of the world just as Che Guevara is for the Latin American youth. However, I fear that just like Che, Prabhakaran will be reduced to T-shirts, banners and posters while his message for revolutionary political action takes a backseat.
Of late, the Tamil diaspora has been busy with procedures regarding the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam. While I don’t underrate the importance of such measures, somehow I feel that it is being considered as an end in itself. Comrades, Tamil Eelam can be established only through struggle IN Eelam, BY the Eelam Tamils. That is primary. The activities in other countries complement that struggle, but they can never replace it. As Prabhakaran said, “the success of our struggle depends on us, not on the world. Our success depends on our own efforts, on our own strength, on our own determination.” The priority now is to revive the movement in Tamil Eelam. For as Com. Ravindran points out, “The war led by the LTTE was an inspiration for all those who are fighting against exploitation, injustice and oppression” (People’s Truth, Sep 2009). Likewise, the defeat of the LTTE was not only a blow to you, but also a boost to the various reactionary governments facing similar movements. The Indian ruling class and their media agents find the Sri Lankan solution appropriate to crush the various struggling nationalities as well as the people’s revolutionary movement in central India. Even far-off countries like Turkey, Israel, Colombia and others feel emboldened that they can finish off their problems through such brutal military means. The Tamil movement has to rise again now, not just to prove the Tamil Tigers right but also to prove these paper tigers wrong. Also, you will have to come out of your isolation and join hands with revolutionary forces and oppressed nations across the world. Yours is but part of a global struggle for freedom and justice.
But the Lankan state is triumphant, all-powerful and is aided by big powers, is it not? Comrades, the Sinhala-chauvinist ruling classes are not fearful, they are fear-full. Like all tyrants and enemies of the people, Rajapakse and co. are afraid of the people they oppress. They fear that someday, someway the hand of justice will rise to hit back at them and their oppressive machinery. This is the reason why they seek to turn the captured areas of Tamil Eelam into Sinhala colonies and inflict horrors upon the Tamil people. They seek to crush you politically, physically and psychologically because they fear your strength. But as Prabhakaran observed, “As long as there is oppression and suffering, as long as there are people deprived of freedom, there will be liberation struggles.” It is in this dark hour of brutal repression that you need your strength more than ever. The Indian govt aided Lanka’s genocide, but the struggling masses of India and the nationalities she oppresses are with you. The Tamil Nadu govt and the political parties might have betrayed you, but the Tamil masses are with you. Even should you lose faith in us, the inactive activists, please keep faith in your people, the goal of Tamil Eelam, the sacrifice of your martyrs. The Unceasing Waves of Tamil resistance cannot stop. They should not.
Submitted as a part of coursework at Asian College of Journalism
A FUTURE OF UNCERTAINTY: TAMIL REFUGEES AT THE MANDAPAM CAMP
The activity on the street was dull. There were some shops on both sides of the road, albeit without many customers. Vendors were squatting on the road, selling fruits and vegetables, though there were not many takers. An old woman had her cart parked in a shade and was swatting away her customers of the day – flies that were hovering over her fruits. Only the tea shop was a bit crowded. Yet, the people there spoke in low voices, as if they were under close scrutiny. The aura of pathos in the whole locality was unmistakable, it hit you in your face. Welcome to the Mandapam refugee camp.
The Mandapam refugee camp, which is at a distance of about 25 km from the temple town of Rameswaram, was originally built to accommodate Indian Tamils from Sri Lanka who were repatriated to India after the island country gained independence. After the civil war erupted in Sri Lanka, the Mandapam camp served as a transit camp for Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka. In his book Between Fear and Hope, Dr. Suryanarayan states that “geographical contiguity, easy availability of boats and ethnic affinities made Tamil Nadu a natural choice when large sections of Sri Lankan Tamils were forced to leave their country.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 1967 Protocol pertaining to refugee law defines a refugee as a person “who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” The protocol also has regulations for the treatment of refugees by the host country. However, with India not being a signatory to the UN convention on refugee law, there are no concrete law for refugees as such in India. The only instances where the UNHCR could intervene was in cases of forced repatriation. Thus, as far as the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are concerned, they are almost entirely at the mercy of the Indian state.
The Mandapam refugee camp is strictly off limits to the media and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO). The constant patrolling of the police and the omnipresence of the Q branch make it almost impossible for outsiders to enter the camp without being noticed. Photography or videography anywhere near the locality is frowned upon. “The tight vigilance is mainly due to security reasons,” said A. Arunachalam, Assistant District Collector, Mandapam, “This is the government policy towards all camps and this one is no exception.” However, he admitted that the security in camps hosting Sri Lankan Tamils was tighter owing to a strong fear by the government of possible militant infiltration. Dr. V. Suresh of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties alleged that the government was not willing to allow NGOs or the press or even human rights organizations into the camps because the conditions prevailing in the camps were so pathetic that it would provoke a scandal. A policeman who did not want to named said that post-Rajiv Gandhi assassination, there has been considerable paranoia among the state authorities about a possible presence of Tamil Tigers among the refugees and hence, there are restrictions on people entering the camp.
After the refugees arrive in Rameswaram, they are taken to the collector’s office and registered. Meanwhile, the intelligence and the Q branch do a background check of the person. If the person is suspected to have militant links, he or she is sent to the special “camp” for militants at Chengalpet. The Mandapam camp then serves as a transit camp. Most of the refugees, after a brief period of stay, are sent to camps across the state. There are currently 117 camps across the state which are home to over 78000 refugees. The Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR) plays an important role in coordinating the process of settlement of refugees in these camps. Even after the refugees are transferred to the various camps, they are under constant scrutiny and are routinely subjected to checks.
The most closely monitored camp, of course, is the Mandapam camp. This camp is currently home to over 3200 refugees. When Dr. Abdul Kalam visited Rameswaram on the 2 October, 2008, each and every house at the camp was checked and the police were on rounds the entire day. This routine is repeated every time a celebrity visits the city.
Sukumar*, a native of Jaffna, said that it was only because conditions back home were far worse that he put up with difficulties here. “It is impossible to live with honour here, but at least, we get to live,” he said. He accused the officials of high-handedness and rude behaviour while dealing with the refugees. “I have seen cattle treated better,” he said.
42-year old Sukumar, who is married with 3 children, ran a trading business back in Jaffna with a decent income. He fled Sri Lanka for India in November 2006, after the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers began worsening. He spent a sum of 5 lakhs to get to Rameswaram. “I lost all my property,” he said, “I have now been reduced to a status of a beggar.” He then added, with unconcealed pride in his voice, that there are no beggars in Jaffna.
Housing is a chief problem for the refugees. While the houses are barely sufficient to accommodate the refugees, most of them are in poor condition. These houses, most of which are 40 to 50 years old, have feeble walls and improper roofs, making them all the more miserable during the rainy season. Sanitation is yet another problem. The camp does not have adequate toilets. Sudhakaran*, a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee who works at the ADC’s office, said that long queues outside the toilets every morning has become a hallmark of the camp. The most affected by the absence of adequate toilets are the women, who find it most difficult to relieve themselves anywhere else.
The financial problem compounds all other problems faced by the refugees. There are about 980 families in the camp. The head of the family is allotted a sum of Rs. 400 while every other adult is allotted a sum of Rs. 288. The first child is provided a sum of Rs. 180 and other children are provided a sum of Rs. 90 each. 12 kg of rice and 5 litres of oil are provided to every family. But many refugees allege that it is hardly sufficient to meet daily expenses. The refugees are allowed to go to nearby locations to earn their wages, after registering the details of their work with the authorities concerned. Most of the people working in the stalls and as vendors on the street leading to the camp are Sri Lankan Tamils. Many also find employment as helpers in fisheries nearby, as housemaids or as daily wage labourers. They have to return to the camp by 8 PM.
Wilson* (35), a merchant from Vavuniya, lamented that the basic amenities provided in the camp were hopeless. “The rice that is provided is so bad that some people actually sell it outside to buy better rice.” While telling that he and his family were not used this kind of “cheap food,” he added ruefully that even dogs get better rice back in Eelam. He said that the authorities were reluctant to let outsiders inside the camp because it would bring out the government’s failures to light. “When people like Vaiko and Nedumaran were not allowed entry, how can journalists get in?” he asked.
Wilson also accused the authorities in the camp of corrupt practices. “We do not get the amount of oil that is due. Most often, we get a litre less.” Sukumar, who agreed with Wilson’s allegation, said that the sentries at the gate frequently extorted money from those who had gone out to earn. “They know who is working where and get a commission accordingly. They don’t even spare the fruit vendors,” he said. Wilson remarked that “Back home, we try to give to the needy even if we have less. Over here, the politics and society has become so morally corrupt that people steal even from the poorest of poor, even if they have enough.” He also said that back home, “Annan” would have had the corrupt shot.
The admiration that Wilson and Sukumar had for “Annan” – Velupillai Prabhakaran – was evident from the deferential manner in which they referred to him. Both held the Tamil Tigers in high regard. “It is sad that they had to resort to violence, but what other option is there?” asked Wilson. He also said that many “valiant freedom fighters” had given up their lives for the sake of the Tamil society and that it was impossible to think of a future for the Eelam Tamils without taking the Tigers into consideration. Sukumar said that most of the refugees supported the Tamil Tigers heart of hearts and wanted Prabhakaran to emerge victorious in the conflict. They were afraid to come out in the open for that would lead to interrogation and possible detention by the authorities. When asked whether the refugees were not aware of the fact that the Tamil Tigers were an organization that received less support even among Tamil Nadu’s political parties, Sukumar replied sarcastically “Where did these political parties go when our houses were bombed?”
It is hard for the refugees to not have such leanings. According to Dr. Suryanarayan, “Every refugee is a tale of human suffering. Every refugee is an illustration of man’s inhumanity to man.” He contends that the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are a product of a particular political process and it would be naïve to expect them not to possess strong political opinions. Their resentment against the state that has offered them succour is credited to the fact that they are currently leading lives that are far below the standards they once enjoyed.
K.K. Mathivathanam, Co-ordinator of the OfERR centre at the Mandapam camp, had a more charitable view of the Indian government. “Despite India not being a signatory to any refugee law, the fact that it is allowing sanctuary the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees speaks volumes about its magnanimity,” he said. Claiming that the refugees ought to be grateful to India, he said that some of the grievances were overplayed. “While it is true that the sudden change of standards is difficult for many to adapt to, we should realise that we have come from a poor country to a poorer country. We cannot expect to be served biryani in a country where there is no rice for many of its own citizens.” He pointed out that there were no starvation deaths in any of the camps while there were many cases across the country and that while water supply was a problem in many parts of the state, it was never a problem in the camps.
Accepting that sanitation and housing was a problem, he said that OfERR was taking all efforts possible to find a solution. “We are also conducting coaching classes, right from the primary level to the graduate level. We facilitate self-help groups and promote adult literacy. OfERR also offers counselling and various medical and health programmes.” Claiming that there were not many instances of harassment by authorities, he said that it would be immature to expect the state to allow a free run of militants.
Mathivathanam felt that it would be great if the refugees were allowed to apply for Indian citizenship. “After all, despite all inadequacies, one can find peace here. We can be sure that houses wont be bombed, that our women and children are safe. We can sleep knowing that we will wake up to the next day. We can say that we are Tamils without fear.”
A young girl, probably in her late teens, walked out of the gate of the camp. Wearing a red churidar, with a wheatish complexion and her waist length hair let loose, she was strikingly pretty. She smiled at the old woman with the cart, but it was a lifeless smile. Her brown eyes revealed something else. They revealed tragedy.
A friend asked me to look at the last page of the Hindu today (July 4th, 2009). At a first look, it appeared as though there were a lot of advertisements on the page. After a closer observation, I found out that I was not far from the truth. The lead article “Visiting the Vavuniya IDP camps: an uplifting experience” is nothing short of an advertisement for the Lankan government. The article flows like a good corporate ad – the (non-existent) virtues of the Lankan state have been overstated while its miserable failures have been understated.
I’ve been associated with the media enough to know how the Hindu functions, what are its holy cows, and its perception of “ethics.” I understand ‘Manufacturing Consent’ well enough to know how your dependence on being in the good books of the government and the corporates influences your paper’s stance. But what I don’t understand is your paper’s belief that your reader will accept your stories as gospel truth – this reflects in the quality of quite some your articles which are ideal cases of pamphleteering. And today’s article by Mr N. Ram takes the Oscar.
I fail to understand how a visit to any refugee camp can be an ‘uplifting experience,’ as Mr. Ram describes it. Every refugee is a tale of tragedy, a product of unfavourable circumstances beyond her/his control. And in Sri Lanka, they are products of an ethnic war, the roots of which lie in decades of state sponsored discrimination against the Tamils. Do you seriously think that all of your readers would fall for those pictures of all smiles and no tears? Do you think that we would believe that the Tamils would be happy in camps set up by a government that massacred their people by the thousands to apprehend a handful of so-called “terrorists”?
Never would the Hindu publish a story that is even mildly in praise of Israel. Never would the Hindu miss an opportunity to highlight the plight of the Palestinians. But different standards for genuine movements in India, Sri Lanka and China. But then, you have no interests worthy of concern in Israel. The Israeli govt doesn’t give your journalists free access like Sri Lanka or China. You don’t ruffle feathers in the Indian govt by adopting a pro-Palestinian stance but you might lose your precious government ads by being pro-Tamil or even mildly supportive of those brave tribals of Lal Garh. And let us not forget the Sri Lanka Ratna conferred on your Editor-in-chief by the Lankan state. Thus, the mistakes of the Lankan govt and the misery of the Tamil people – they don’t exist for the Hindu.
You try to portray a picture of being an “ethical” newspaper but your selective morality stands exposed in your coverage of people’s movements in and around India. You are no where near radical – you want to play it safe, be on the good side of the establishment. And your leftist stance? A farce, that will dropped at the first instance of trouble. I am willing to bet that if the Maoists target your interests tomorrow, you will sing paeans to the Salwa Judum. Even pro-right media orgs are better than you. At least they are honest about their stance.
PS I know that this letter will not be published. Truth hurts, and a paper like yours that lives in a world of constructed falsehoods wouldn’t want to face it. This exercise was to let you know that your readers are not fooled by your stories. That there are quite some who know the Hindu for what it is – a pro-establishment, bordering on the reactionary newspaper. There are others who are willing to wage an ideological war against such forces of reaction – through written letters, e-mails and blogs. Of course, we do not have a media mafia to back us, only the truth. And our conscience which we haven’t sold for some Ratna.
I wrote this letter as a response to the article “Visiting the Vavuniya IDP camps: an uplifting experience,” by N. Ram in the Hindu, Saturday, July 4th, 2009. A reliable contact within the Hindu told me that it was highly unlikely that my letter would get published. It was expected. My intention was to get the point across to the paper that there is resistance to their propoganda.