What made the late Ram tick?
I remember it well and I remember it poorly - the conversation at the
Arts Centre Club. It was quite remarkable, actually, in that bar where
more than half the regulars were my friends, in that bar where I am sure
I had my first drink - either a rum and coke or a gin and lime,
certainly, but again I don't know for sure, although I swear I remember
who paid for it - that we appear to have had an uninterrupted
How do I know that? Because parts of it were published a few days
(maybe weeks) later in the pages of The Sunday Times. (On the 27th of
September, 1987, for those bibliographically inclined.) I called him
Naresh, then, to preserve his anonymity.
He was a member of one of the Tamil militant organizations, of that
fine generation of Tamil youth that refused to shirk its
responsibilities. And more. He was by any standards brilliant.
He was that rare undergraduate who, when he dropped names, could back
it up with a relevant quotation and an intelligently coherent argument.
A first class was his for the taking. But he wasn't a nerd. Sivaram was
up to painting the town red. Then, in the second term of his first year,
he dropped out.
This might have been 1982, though 1983 is more likely. I could check.
But who cares! History is for those without imagination. (I got that
line from a fortune cookie.) I next met him three years, a race riot and
many deaths later. He turned up at my doorstep one evening and asked me
if I remembered him.
Vain question; he wasn't easy to forget. He looked very different:
shaggy hair, scraggy beard, spectacles tied together with wire, torn
track-shoes. We proceeded to talk - or, rather, he did - till the early
hours of the morning.
Most of the talking, no doubt, must have happened in a bar somewhere.
But, surely, we'd have eaten at home first. Indeed, to this day my
mother doesn't know how many Tamil militants she fed over those years.
And I'm not about to tell her.
I asked why he joined up. He replied as if he was saying something
self-evident. "What else is there to do?" Then proceeded to relate story
after story that gave life to the facts and statistics of Tamil
grievances...The idealism came out clearly, as did the commitment, the
purpose, the dedication.
That last statement reads embarrassingly now. Idealism is not
something I have associated with Sivaram for a long time.
Today he looks like anybody's favourite son. The beard was trimmed
neatly enough to make a naval officer jealous; the jeans were Jordache;
the t-shirt, Lacoste; the run down spectacles had given way to Daniel
Ortega-style tinted glasses; he had even polished his shoes. After three
weeks of the good life in Colombo, one saw the beginnings of a pot.
Maybe that's when he changed, after the Indo-Lanka Accord. But then,
again, who knows? The conversation turned to the PLOT critique of Tamil
separatism and its argument for co-operation with the radical southern
He had been drinking arrack all evening. Then he lit a Bristol and
said: "The whole enterprise was doomed to failure from the very start.
"Our first mistake was theoretical. We called it a national
liberation struggle and compared ourselves to Cuba and Vietnam and
Nicaragua. We should have thought of Biafra, of Basque Spain, of
Eritrea. They have been fighting for years in Eritrea against Ethiopian
repression and nobody cared.
You know what Harold Wilson said about Biafra? He said he didn't care
whether a million Ibos had to die, that Nigeria had to remain unified."
Wilson, we might remind ourselves here, was supposedly a leftist.
"The postwar international system does not permit the creation of new
states." How about Cyprus, Bangladesh? He smiled, lit another cigarette.
"Turkish Cyprus has not been recognized by any other country apart
from Turkey. Bangladesh is a special case. Pakistan was the artificial
creation of the British. From the start, the Bengalis had problems with
the west Pakis. And it suited India's geostrategic interests to
bifurcate Pakistan." What would Sivaram have said today about the many
recently-established states, especially Eritrea? I don't know.
I stopped reading his stuff when he became an unapologetic Tamil
nationalist. The 1987 Sivaram's explanation would have gone something
like this: The new states emerging from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia,
like Bangladesh from Pakistan, could be explained by the artificiality
of the old states' argument. Eritrea, in contrast, would be the perfect
example of the PLOT thesis: they got nowhere for years until they made
an alliance with anti-Mengistu Ethiopian forces.
But, for our purposes, what is relevant today, what might be useful
to think about, is the PLOT assessment of the specificity (or, for the
more theoretically minded, singularity) of the Sri Lankan situation.
For, I would hold now, as a card-carrying literary critic, that
analogy - making comparisons or, in this instance, arguing that merely
because something happened or did not in one place, it can happen or not
in another - is just a plain and simple literary device; not the truth.
Those who say we can learn from history forget that history is, to
use a term from Aristotle, emplotted: it is something that is made,
written. Events do not narrate themselves; they are narrated, ordered,
structured - indeed, made into objects we recognize as events - by the
discipline and discourse of history.
As for analogy, a clever enough person can compare anything to
anything else. Or not, as the case might require. Example: pineapples
and oranges are both fruit. They are both sweet, and soury; therein
lying their appeal. They are both juicy and are guaranteed to wet the
fingers while being eaten. Their colour is usually similar. On the other
hand, one grows on trees, the other from the ground. One has a smooth
skin, the other a prickly one. One has a navel, the other a crown. You
get the point...
At a certain stage of the evening, Sivaram got really angry. "What
the bloody hell, I say! All those statements against Thamileelam made by
India. Couldn't they realize? India had nothing to gain from creating a
separate state here...We had no mountains, no jungles to retreat to and
attack from. The Sri Lankan state was so developed that there was a
police station within fifteen miles of any place in the country. We had
to use India as a rear base. From that point on, we were pawns in a
larger chess game, a tool that was going to be used by India to achieve
Some of those police stations, of course, have been destroyed by the
LTTE; not to mention many army camps. And the Wanni jungles have turned
out to be surprisingly attack-proof. But the gist of the argument is
"Take the border. It is more than three hundred miles long - and
there are Sinhalese at every end of it. Nobody ever thought of this.
Nobody in any group came up with an intelligent idea of how it could be
secured and then maintained." The LTTE had an idea, of course:
exterminate all the Sinhalese on the border. But not even an intelligent
feline could call it a smart one.
He went on to examine the Tamil economy and ecological environment,
as he put it. The Tamils did not have a separate economy. They were
dependent on the south for a market. Separation would have caused havoc
here. Agriculture was the mainstay of the economy. The two eco-systems
were inextricably linked. The east got its water from rivers that began
in the Sinhala areas. What if something was done to the rivers? This
sounded persuasive to me then. It still does.
Electricity schemes were in the south and supply could be knocked
off. And then, he said, take the nature of the state. It was
all-pervading and centralized. There was no local capital that could be
captured, leading automatically to separation.
Yes, the LTTE has won some remarkable military victories. But they
have been unable to refute this thesis.
"And what about the Muslims. We had in our midst a large minority. We
artificially tried to make them a part of us by inventing this nonsense
of a Tamil-speaking people. They never wanted Thamileelam and we didn't
know what to do about them." As with the Sinhalese on the border, the
LTTE had a plan for the Muslims: it tried what, in some parts of the
world, is called ethnic cleansing.
But the more important, more general point is that, for all these
reasons, PLOT rejected separatism in favour of the emancipation, or
liberation, of all the people of Sri Lanka by the people of Sri Lanka.
He then defended the Accord. "We fought for our rights. We have not
got everything, but all fights must end some day." The conversation
ended on this mournful note: " As guerillas fighting for Tamil rights,
our historical role is over." ?
What changed? What transformed Sivaram from a socialist into an
unalloyed nationalist - and, even worse, eventually an LTTE lobbyist?
Again, we'll never know.
Some have said it was the continued racism of the Sinhala state. That
argument has some merit. But, then, not all of us opposed to the racist
Sinhala state - now looking amazingly like it did then, during its
Jayawardene/Premadasa incarnation, with the ultra-racist JVP in
government (and I am making an analogy here, not a truth-claim) - chose
the LTTE as the mode to resist it.
Not all of us believe the stupid political science clich that the
enemy of one's enemy is one's friend. (I mean, look what that logic has
done to U.S. imperialism: the enemy - the Taliban - of its one-time
enemy - the Soviet Union - is now its nemesis.)
Some will say, given D.B.S. Jeyaraj's reporting that Sivaram was
first rejected by the LTTE, by no less than Mahattaya himself, before he
joined PLOT, that his political instincts were always pro-LTTE. That
argument also has some merit. But it does not explain his advocacy of
the PLOT position that night at the Arts Centre Club.
Others will say that he was simply an opportunist. That is, that he
never really changed. Sometimes, I think so too. (After all, he wooed
Vijaya Kumaratunga and his killers, the JVP; he hated India - and yet
informed the High Commission about his comrades during the Maldives
But it takes guts to promote the LTTE openly, in print, from the
south. Opportunism cannot explain that. On the other hand, there are too
many stories about Sivaram's activities within PLOT, going back to the
early 1980s, for anyone who knows them to accuse him of courage. The
mystery, then, remains.
So what, you might ask, is this all about? Am I mourning, in some
eccentric or even perverse fashion, the death - nay, the murder - of an
old friend? Yes, of course. But I'd rather than dwell on death, take a
lesson from his life. From the time we were friends. Good friends.
From the time parts of the Tamil resistance, the radical Tamil left -
EPRLF and PLOT - was so incomparably superior, politically and
ethically, to the genocidal brutality that was and might still be
Sinhala nationalism. (After all, if the JVP controlled the government,
we'd surely be at war again by now. Although the president - what on
earth is she doing allied with the JVP? - could very well take us down
that road, too.) Or, for that matter, the Tamil nationalism of the LTTE.
That ethical time, of the EPRLF and PLOT, need not be understood as
past - because it was never really a historical time. Indeed, it is
better understood as a moment of the imagination. A moment, unlike now
perhaps, when anything seemed possible.
In his famous essay, Freud makes a distinction between mourning and
melancholia: the mourner accepts the loss of the object; the melancholic
desires its return.
Will we ever see a Tamil left quite like that again? EPRLF and PLOT
at its best? (And, yes, I am familiar with PLOT's atrocities.) Probably
not. Though you never know. But we can well insist that we must, and
will, be inspired by that imagination.
Qadri Ismail was an attesting witness at the marriage of Sivaram and
Yogaranjini. He remembers drinking and laughing a lot that night with
some of his funnest buddies: Richard de Zoysa, Newton Gunasinghe, D.B.S.
Jeyaraj. (Qadri Ismail is Associate Professor Department of English
University of Minnesota]
(This article appeared in the Lines Magazine in August 2005)