Rathika Pathmanathan’s Northern Memoir

Light to shed darkness on Southern war-myths

by Lanka Associate blog, December 19, 2019

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Rathika Pathmanathan

In her There is a Darkness Called Light and I Grope for Myself in the Thick of It (2016), Rathika Pathmanathan recounts the following episode, experienced when she was receiving treatment at the Colombo National Hospital in the aftermath of the war in late-2009. A combatant conscripted to the Liberation Tigers (LTTE) during the last year of the war, Rathika had sustained a grievous injury closer to the war’s close. Upon the LTTE’s defeat she had been sent to a state-run detention camp before being directed to the hospital in Vavuniya in the north. Later, her being transferred to the National Hospital in Colombo is evidence for the precarious nature of her injury. The war being just over, the intolerance of the vanquished at the hands of the Sinhala (?) mass is seen represented in the hospital experience of which Rathika makes note:

When I was in the Colombo Hospital some minor employees offended us in various ways. So many young girls injured in the war had been admitted there for treatment. We were subjected to incessant interrogation and constant surveillance. I had to suffer this humiliation and indignity for over a year. They would not allow anyone to visit us. They would send them away. Only a few influential people were able to obtain permission and visit us. They offered us consolation and tried to help us in various ways.

Sometimes even the doctors, nurses and the other employees cracked jokes at our expense. One day a catering employee came distributing food to all the patients. They looked in my direction and said “Get up and walk. You LTTE girl, come and get your food”… The other Sinhalese patients laughed at his humiliating words. I felt uncontrollable annoyance and anger. They would scold me in Sinhala. At that time I did not understand anything said in Sinhala. However, I was able to understand their feelings when I saw their facial expressions. (49-50).

Rathika’s is a concise and intensive narrative: one in which she captures an uncertain childhood lived under the smog of militancy, and the depth to which militancy had penetrated the lives of people like her. Even as a trainee, Rathika’s niggling fear is of being “captured alive by the army” (43). Though the origins of such fears – even Rathika admits – cannot be verified, horror stories with brutal endings had become a probability ordinary girls were already internalized with. Says Rathika, “[The villagers] would discuss stories like the Army had sent parcels to people that contained the body organs of girls whom they mutilated and lifeless bodies full of cigarette burns” (43). The young Rathika didn’t know to what extent these stories were true, but the impact they had on her was decisive: “I made a firm resolve that if ever I found myself in a position where capture was possible, I should shoot myself. And I garnered within myself the courage that would be needed to do so.” (43).

Rathika-book-570x300.jpgA phrase Rathika repeatedly uses in her narrative has to do with her self-identification of being a “victim of circumstances”. Indeed, her conscription with the LTTE comes as a result of the movement’s drive, as the heat of battle increases in 2008, to have at least one member from each family. At that point, Rathika is a high school student preparing for her GCE O/L examination. When the general call for membership fails, the movement stepped up and forced conscription:

Boys and girls were forcibly taken for training. We were taken initially much against our wishes. We were victims of circumstances. I was terrified and held on to my sister and cried. They would not relent. At the same time they explained to us patiently the exigencies of the time. Then I allowed myself to be taken by them. I went with one of them on a bicycle. Fear gripped me and assailed me as my sister came running behind me crying broken-heartedly. (39).

The recollections humanize a side to the story that is disallowed by triumphal and euphoric narratives of cheap nationalism. The extremely poignant play between two sisters at the verge of separation aside, Rathika’s narrative also makes us rethink the equation of options and available avenues for a marginal community seized by war. The fact that Rathika is taken away from the throes of her education – often, the only guaranteed way out for suppressed and under-privileged communities in a country like Sri Lanka – and her being initiated into a war culture has to be reassessed with pronounced understanding. The men and women who ill-treat Rathika at the Colombo Hospital are oblivious to the human story behind the injured woman; and hence, Rathika’s agony as to “why could [they] not think that… I am first of all a human being?” (50).

Rathika’s narrative builds through her experiences as a trainee in an LTTE camp, her brief war experiences, and the last days of battle after which she enters military-held ground as a maimed combatant. There is very little bravado or heroism carved into her retrospection. The memories are scarred by human suffering and the poignancy felt by a woman pressing on, caught between uncertainty, personal tensions, and the movement’s virtues. The narrative at no point assumes to judge or mete out blame. It offers a deeply human series of responses, mapping back through agony and grief of a people and a historical moment in our recent past.

Like a stubborn hair that resists the comb, Rathika’s difference towards the Liberation Tigers occasionally stands out. The discipline within the movement, the comrade-feeling and sharing culture, the amicability and the smiles all around are juxtaposed with the “air of freedom” (40) Rathika claims the Vanni breathed under the movement’s watch. “When I was studying,” she remembers, “we could attend classes at 11.00 or 12.00 at night without fear. Parents had no fear in sending their children alone… The girls and women had the absolute freedom to move about on the streets at any time.” (40).

English Cover FBAssessments such as these by survivors like Rathika bring the myths and truths of the Sinhala south regarding the pre-2009 north into crisis. Such assessments put friction on the demonic characterizations of the de facto state the LTTE administrated in the Vanni in the first half of that decade. The final war, in particular, was advertised to the south as a redeeming thrust – one aimed at delivering the north of terrorism – aimed at bettering the lives of ordinary men and women represented through Rathika’s narrative. And then, Rathika’s assessment of the defiled war graves of men and women who had lost their lives as martyrs: “The willful desecration and destruction of the graves and monuments of our martyrs caused us agonized grief. This destroyed our sacred right to honour our dead in accordance with our religious traditions.” (44).

The spirit that echoes through these words is that of a modern day Antigone – a woman protesting the state’s encroachment on the divine-sanctioned right to memory and burial. Her protest is for a fundamental allowance, so close and bound as a central tradition of even the most primal of communities. It is at once a redemptive cry on behalf of a civilization and a people for whom death-related rituals and community and personal memory are so crucial; and for a recognition of the undermining of what is sacred and human as a result of overpowering militarism over a ethnic minority.

The title of Rathika’s book brings forth the oxymoronic and antithetical energies of her situation: there is a ‘darkness’, she insists, called ‘light’. Amidst mutually frictional situations of displacement she ‘gropes’ in search of herself: a search for reconciliation within her and with the surrounding universe at large in a post-conflict Sri Lanka where, at every step, such reconciliation is slowed or retarded.

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