Book Review: Malaravan

‘War Journey: Diary Of A Tamil Tiger’

Malaravan War Journey Diary of a Tamil Tiger

by Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan, South Asia Analysis Group, Delhi, September 3, 2013

Though some diaries are written with publication in mind, the tendency is to think of them as being private. Ben Bavinck wrote his Sri Lanka diary in Dutch: see, Sarvan, online edition of the Sunday Leader, Colombo, 6 November 2011.

It is a dialogue with oneself; privately putting down thoughts or describing events so that they are not forgotten or misremembered later. In turn, it leads us to think of the diary as a truthful document. But while the diarist may not mean to tell lies or even to prevaricate, what he sees and writes down as truth may not be fact: after all, it is the perception of a subjective, fallible, self. In other words, what’s written is only the opinion and understanding of one individual.

Malaravan was not an objective spectator but a partisan, an active combatant. One cannot be certain whether he intended to make public his diary: it appeared after his death. That the Tigers published his diary indicates they found nothing in it that would work against their cause. The aim here is to draw attention to this volume: a small piece that goes to form a very complex, contradictory and contested, reality. Though not specially and cumbersomely made clear each time, most of what follows is the perception and reaction, the thought and feeling, of Malaravan.

War Journey, originally published in Tamil (1993) under the title Por Ulaa, is a slim volume, a little more than a hundred pages. It was translated into English by Ms N. Malathy who found the text in 2007 “in a library in the town of Kilinochchhi”. The author was born in 1972; joined the Tigers in 1990 and fell in combat two years later, aged twenty.

The Tigers tend to excite extreme reactions, ranging from hatred and “bloody” satisfaction at their destruction to admiration, regret and deep sorrow. It’s not easy to take a balanced perspective. Besides, the Tigers themselves changed with changing times and circumstance. The volume is valuable, at the least because there is little documentary evidence due to factors such as the burning down of the Jaffna Library in 1981; the mass exodus from Jaffna in 1996, and the destruction that followed the defeat of the Tigers. The Indian government too is alleged to have seized material in the safekeeping of various groups in Tamil Nadu (page xviii).

It is remarkable that Malaravan (“nom de guerre”) in the midst of war, its chaos and carnage, destruction and death, had the drive and discipline to write a diary. But he was an exceptional individual, one who, among other things, together with his gun and equipment, also carried a bag with books. It points to one of the greatest tragedies of war: young potential early and cruelly cut off. There is so much to do before I die (Malaravan, p. 36).

Though it may seem strange in association with a war diary, the words that came most to my mind when reading the book were terms such as love, compassion and idealism. The love is for his people, his homeland, culture, comrades-in-arms and nature. The land is soaked with the sweat of labour; the blood of those who sacrificed themselves, and with the tears of grief. A comrade earnestly whispers to Malaravan not to abandon him but it is the comrade who is “leaving” by succumbing to his wounds and dying. A mother goes into (what‘s known in psychology as) ‘denial’, and will not accept that her beloved son is dead, and will never return to her. They suffer and die so that future generations can live free. (The words and thoughts here, as also largely elsewhere, are those of Malaravan.) Through their sacrifice, they’ll create a “sweet life” for others (p. 55). Malaravan recalls words of Tagore: “Mother, it is for you. The time has come for me to go. Farewell, mother. When you stretch out your arms, in the quiet darkness of dawn… I will no longer be there”(p.81). There is no self-pity. the pity is for the people, for their poverty, and for what they endure. Houses and huts destroyed, and land laid waste, they have to constantly move and start again, each time with diminishing health and spirit.

The author observes fresh shoots of grass emerging from a pile of ash, and wonders how that was possible. Most likely, seeds were dropped by birds and, after a shower of rain, the grass grows again. This he sees as symbolic, and as an inspiration. His observation of nature is detailed and responsive: “The tiny coconut-oil lamp struggled to stay alive. An insect fell on the flame, briefly making it brighter”(p.11). A white heron flies in “the reddened wind” (p. 18).

Writing almost two decades before the end of the war (2009), relations between the Tigers and the civilian Tamil population, as described by the author, are positive. The poor villagers share what little they have, and wish them well. As the translator observes, old women make small balls of food and place them on the palm of the cadres: a gesture most Tamils will recall and associate with their mothers (p. xv). Yet another old woman blesses them by placing holy ash on their foreheads. When news of Malaravan’s death is brought to his family, they hand over the money they had saved for his education with the request that it go towards a particular children’s home, and for the treatment of the war-injured. Yet there is incipient disappointment with the people, even resentment: they briefly talk about a battle and then return to their “selfish” lives (p. 74). “The attitude of some parents saddens and disappoints us, and it can even get to the point where it affects our resolve” (p. 75).

The ancient and pernicious caste system was rejected by the Tigers. Sadly and ironically, Malaravan sees a temple and recalls how different castes fought over the right to attend it. Now the temple has suffered the worst possible desecration: total destruction, by the government army. Women begin to rise up from centuries of traditional male domination (p. 64). At one outpost, the author notes that all the cadres were female. As Paul Moorcraft writes in his Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers, women fighters were known to have put male government soldiers to flight: see my review, ‘Colombo Telegraph’, 9 June 2013. I have not come across allegations of sexual molestation of women in Tiger controlled territory. (The Tigers were strictly disciplined and, for instance, weren’t permitted to smoke: p. 94.) The situation of women now is far worse than before the war. See, for example, the documentary under: Malaravan is taken aback and disgusted by the mutilation of the bodies of fallen Tigers by government soldiers. “It is considered the duty of the battling sides to bury the bodies of enemy soldiers with respect. This custom has existed throughout the ages, and throughout the world” (pp. 85-6).

There are several reasons why we read diaries, among them, an interest in the author, the insight into a past time and individuals the work provides, and for what may be termed in short as its literary merits. The last brings us to translation. If to translate even from two related languages, such as French into Italian, is a challenge, translation is far more difficult when it involves not only a completely different language but also a totally different culture and reality. It has been said that a translation that is totally true to the original is often not good, while one that is successful runs the risk of not having been strictly faithful to the text. The best of translations has both fidelity and beauty. In such cases, the reader forgets she is reading a translated work because the text has the flexibility, the cadences and the richness of her or his first-language. Whether Ms. N. Malathy achieves this and, if so, to what degree is for each reader to decide for herself. Be that as it may, she has rendered signal service in making this moving document available to a wider, international, readership. It is hoped others will follow her example, rescue, translate and preserve for posterity.

Malaravan believed totally in the Tiger movement; volunteered, fought and died. What would he make of the Tigers who are now widely described as “a murderous organization” (Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Colombo, 31 August 2013)? Reading of his hopes and dreams for the Tamils and their homeland; understanding what he endured and died for, and then looking at the present reality of the Tamils is very sobering.

(The author is an English Professor, stationed in Germany)

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