A Hollywood crew lands in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the civil war to shoot a movie about slain human rights activist Rajini Thiranagama - ostensibly murdered by the LTTE. The crew enjoys the government's support. But then of the crew members, in search of an LTTE member who is the love of his life, finds himself entangled in a plot to kill the president.
The winner of the 2017 Vayalar Award and the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, TD Ramakrishnan's novel, Sugandhi Alias Andal Devanayaki, is translated from Malayalam by Priya K Nair. An excerpt:
‘Mary, we know a lot of facts, but there are certain things that we need to find out. When Sugandhi and I were working together, we made many shocking discoveries that led us into danger. The most important discovery was that Rajini and VP, as Prabhakaran was known, had met a few weeks before she was killed. He requested Rajini to stop her activism that criticized the Iyakkam and go abroad. During that meeting, Rajini realized that she could be murdered. That affected her later activities.’
‘I can’t believe this.’
‘Neither could we. Initially, we found it difficult to believe that a man like VP would agree to such a meeting. Due to security reasons, such a meeting was almost impossible. But it was true. They spoke for almost fifteen minutes at a secret place in Kilinochchi. VP and Rajini were alone. But, unknown to VP, their entire conversation was recorded.’
‘Have you heard this recording, Peter?’
‘Yes. A leader high up in the Iyakkam hierarchy had recorded it. When the Iyakkam floated a political party in 1989, Mahattaya was its leader for a short while. Rajini had given medical assistance to some of the wounded activists of the Iyakkam. Differences of opinion with VP had led to Mahattaya’s death in 1994. By then, this recording had reached the person who gave me the cassette. Sugandhi and I listened to it several times and she transcribed the entire conversation. Based on that conversation, Sugandhi and I wrote a script portraying Rajini as a victim of the Peace Keeping Force’s atrocities.’
‘That was a great blunder. The production of the movie was completely controlled by Thambimuthu. I never got the opportunity to meet VP or any other prominent leader. I gave the full script to Thambimuthu for final approval. As VP himself was acting in the movie, the media wing sent him the script for consent. When he saw the transcript of his secret conversation with Rajini, he was shocked. He shook with rage. More than the fact that the conversation was part of the script, it was the fact that people knew about this highly guarded meeting that enraged him. He summoned Thambimuthu and two others who were connected with the movie. Sugandhi was also called. VP firmly believed that Thambimuthu was responsible and did not suspect Sugandhi at all. He had always treated her in a special manner since she joined the Iyakkam. Maybe it was because she spoke English fluently and was very smart. Luckily, Bhuvana and I were location-hunting on the Jaffna Medical College campus at the time. Acting upon information that the situation was becoming tense, some teachers helped us go into hiding.
‘By evening, Thambimuthu was dragged to meet VP. Within minutes, Thambimuthu was shot dead after being accused of revealing highly guarded secrets of the Iyakkam. He didn’t get the opportunity to speak one word in defence. Thambimuthu struggled in the throes of death, unaware of what his crime was or why he was being punished. He kept trying to say something until his last breath. Seeing Thambimuthu struggle, Sugandhi lost her mental balance.
‘She felt that her parents and brother were lying there gasping for breath. Forgetting all the rules of the Iyakkam, she rushed at VP screaming, “Are you mad?” Several guns were aimed at her immediately, but VP stopped them from firing. She put the tape recorder on the table and switched it on. When the conversation between VP and Rajini flooded the room, silence fell upon the listeners. VP shouted, “Switch it off.”’
When Sugandhi and I were working together, we made many shocking discoveries that led us into danger. The most important discovery was that Rajini and VP, as Prabhakaran was known, had met a few weeks before she was killed. He requested Rajini to stop her activism that criticized the Iyakkam and go abroad
‘Was she shot dead as well?’
‘No. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be wandering around looking for her. Switching off the tape recorder, she asked VP, “Does the king of the Iyakkam fear the truth?” Fearing that Thambimuthu’s fate would be hers as well, she shut her eyes. But nothing happened. For the first time, VP pardoned someone. Who knows why? Sugandhi continued to work for the media wing for a while. Eight days later, on 27 November 2002, during the celebrations of Hero’s Day, she made the arrangements for our escape.’
‘Do you have a copy of the recording?’
‘I lost the cassette. Only Sugandhi knows where the transcript she had written is now. I have a copy that I wrote down from memory. It may have errors.’
I gave Mary a copy of the transcript. She read it with surprise.
The Last Meeting
VP: You must forgive me, Rajini. I wanted to discuss some important issues. That is why I brought you here.
Rajini: Prabha, what is there to discuss? You are not interested in hearing names like Arulmozhi or Sivapadam.
VP: We are speaking from different perspectives. To attain a free land, we will have to sacrifice a lot. The Iyakkam is nearing victory. We can ensure it only if the ordinary people support the freedom fighters. It is certain that V.P. Singh’s new government will withdraw the Peace Keeping Force. The number of countries supporting us is also on the rise.
Rajini: I’m not really interested in politics. These are topics dear to people like you who thirst for power. I only think of ways to bring peace to this land.
VP: When did you lose interest in politics? It was you who explained politics to me when we met at the age of seventeen. Why don’t you realize that unquestioned authority is necessary to maintain peace and order?
Rajini: I don’t trust you there, Prabha. You always have some excuse whenever a possibility for peace arises. Why are we wasting our time talking about this?
VP: I called you here to congratulate you as well as to request favour. I really appreciate the fact that you chose to come back here rather than become a refugee in Europe. You could have lived comfortably abroad, satisfied with your degrees and pursuing your research activities. Instead, you came back and reopened the Jaffna Medical College after the Peace Keeping Force had destroyed it.
Rajini: Thank you. But I don’t think it’s a great sacrifice. I came with the kids you sent to fetch me to discuss some unpleasant issues. You were absolutely wrong to kill all the leaders of the Iyakkam and other freedom movements in order to secure your position. How could you act like that, despite having read the works of Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose? It was wrong to forcibly recruit women and children to the Iyakkam. And to enlist anyone in the military before they become mature is a crime.
VP: I cannot win this argument with you. It was necessary to build up the movement. You must understand that I was not working with selfish motives. I have only one aim – a free land. Once I attain that I will, like Gandhi, renounce power.
Rajini: Somehow, I don’t believe you. You behave as if you are intoxicated with power. Tell me, how can I help you?
VP: You may be surprised when I ask you the first favour. You must go back abroad to continue your medical research. You must take up full-time research at some university in the UK or the US. That is the best option for you and your daughter.
Rajini: This is indeed hilarious. First you appreciate my decision to return, then you request me to go back. Are you in your senses?
VP: Yes, I am conscious of what I’m saying. You are a personality of international renown. Your words are given great importance. You criticize the activities of the Iyakkam, the Sri Lankan military and the Peace Keeping Force. Neither you nor your friends pay any attention to the good intentions of our struggle. When you talk about the women in the Iyakkam, you forget the fact that we respect each and every member, especially women. Not a single crime against women has been committed by our members – nor will any violence be committed in the future.
Rajini: Prabha, this is nothing great. Any government should function in this manner. But the Iyakkam lacks freedom and democracy, the most essential concepts for the success of any movement. Now, what is the second favour you want?
VP: You might think that this is a joke. I need this second favour only if you reject the first one. You must develop the infrastructure of Jaffna Medical College and raise it to international standards. Channel your energy into medical research. Don’t waste your time and energy in human rights activism.
Rajini: Prabha, things are very clear. You are not in the least bit concerned about whether I do any research or not. You just want me to stop my activism, particularly my criticism of the Iyakkam. That is impossible. My student days are definitely over. I have decided to spend the rest of my life as a full-time human rights activist.
VP: If you criticize the Iyakkam, we may have to intervene. Then I might not be able to think of you as my friend or remember that our fathers were friends.
Rajini: Are you trying to scare me? I may not be able to think of you when I expose the human rights violations of the Iyakkam.
VP: So, we need not speak any further.
Rajini: I don’t think so. I still expect you to give up violence, though.
VP: And I still hope that you will consider my requests. The first option is the best for you.
After reading through it, Mary asked me in wonder, ‘Is all this true?’
‘I’m not sure. I have my doubts. But they were of the same age and very conscious about their rights and freedom. They fought for their rights. It was during this time that Rajini’s sister joined the Iyakkam and became an active member. When she was in London, Rajini too was an active member of the London committee of the Iyakkam.’
(Published from TD Ramakrishnan’s Sugandhi Alias Andal Devanayaki, translated by Priya K Nair, with permission from HarperCollins Publishers)