Excerpts from the book, In the Shadow of a Sword, written by author
The broad spreading paddy fields, the water channels that snaked between them, the gravel paths, the sheltering portia trees: my birthplace of Paranthan caressed you with its show of beauty. Paranthan was a small village where the great A9 highway met the two important roads, the Poonakari-Mannar road, and the Mullaitivu road. It was the people from Jaffna who came here to do cultivation in 1936 who eventually settled down here permanently. Free of luxuries, they lived a life of simplicity. About five kilometres south of Paranthan is the town of Kilinochchi, and six kilo-metres north is the Elephant Pass lagoon. In the old days, in order to prevent the smuggling of ivory and lumber, the Portuguese set up a guard there; then the Dutch built a fort here in 1776, which was taken over by the British, and from 1952 on, the Sri Lankan (Ceylonese) police set up a check point there. Paranthan was well known in Sri Lanka as the site of the Elephant Pass salt flats, and the Paranthan Chemical Corporation.From the early days of the war, Paranthan began to change into a strategically key battle site as well. As a result, the lives of the people in Paranthan were gradually disrupted, and they became like fledglings displaced from their nests. It was at such a time that I was born. My father, Kanthiah Subramaniam, was from Jaffna. My mother, Sinnamma, was born and raised in Paranthan. I was born, the eldest daughter, when my mother was 17. My maternal grandfather, Swaminathan, was an experienced cultivator.
My parents told me that my grandmother, who was a staunch Amman devotee, had named me Sivakami.As I was born when the Tamil people were being engulfed by war, my childhood was spent absorbing its impacts. My father was a humble man, of a gentle, loving nature. He was also a habitual reader. He would read everything from history and purana (religious) stories, to political doctrines. He would turn the things he read into children’s stories and narrate them to me at night. As I was born when my mother was very young, and had several siblings, I was raised mostly in my grandmother’s house, as her favourite. The oldest grandchild in our family, I was loved by everyone. My uncle, my mother’s only brother, chose to stay home and farm instead of looking for a government job, even though he had completed his A levels.
My grandfather’s younger brother, Sethupathy, never married, but lived as a member of his brother’s family. A tireless worker, and a stern man, he managed the welfare of our large extended family. I am amazed even today at their character and disciplined way of life, even though they were not highly educated. They raised us children as if we were their lives. I had never been punished by my parents or elders or ever heard a harsh word from their mouths.The sweetest moments in my memory are of travelling in a bullock cart tied to a pair of buffaloes whose bells made a jingling noise as we travelled to Karadipokku Junction to watch films at the Eswaran or Parasakthi theatres. There we would sit as a family on mats set out over straw and watch ammamma’s favorite Sivaji or MGR films halfway, and spend the other half curled up sleeping on our elders’ laps; we usually arrived home fast asleep.
Their loving guidance gave me a sense of independence even from an early age. Though I was an ordinary girl from a farming family, they never tried to control me, or force their opinions or habits on me. On the contrary, they wanted me to study well and reach a higher level in life. That was their dream as well.I began my studies at Paranthan’s Hindu Maha Vidyalayam and went as far as the Advanced Level. Up to the point where I did my Ordinary Levels, the railway was still operating, and teachers from Jaffna and from our area taught there. There were many teachers in my school who cared for their students as if they were their own children. They nurtured great ambitions in their students for their future lives. I was determined to study and go on to university. I did not know at the time that the cyclone of war that was germinating in the country would sweep away our modest hopes.
From the time I had any understanding of what was happening around me, the tranquil life of our village was frequently disrupted. It became the norm to hear gunshots on the street every day. The elders would secretly discuss who had fired the gun and who had died. Sometimes these kinds of incidents would happen during a school day. At those times the parents would come by, even in the middle of the day, and take the children home. The teachers would announce that the school was closing and leave as well. The shops were closed, the streets were empty, and we would stay shut in our houses for so many days, not knowing what was going on, fearing for our lives. At an age when we couldn’t understand what was happening and why, our tender shoulders bore the heavy burden of this war.
When I was in the sixth grade, I had gone one day to the neigh-bouring village of Kumarapuram for an afternoon class. My school was situated there as well. Shortly after classes began, loud explo-sions were heard from the direction of the Paranthan Junction. The teacher stopped the class immediately. Everyone was in shock. Some students began to cry. As soon as the explosions ceased, the teacher asked us all to run home as fast as we could. When I got home, frightened and in tears, I discovered that the sounds of the explosion had reached the front yard of our house. The neighbours had gathered in our front yard reeling from the shock. Our house was beside the A9 road. Two young men belonging to some group had been putting up posters on the walls in front of our house, when some military personnel who had been doing their rounds in civilian clothing, began shooting at them at random. When this happened, the young men had jumped the wall and begun running toward our house. One youth was shot in the head right in front of our house and died then and there. The other youth ran to the back and escaped by way of the railway track that ran behind our house. While this was happening, ammamma had been winnow-ing rice on the verandah. She walked about in a daze for a few days, from the shock brought on by this unexpected incident; it frightened us to see her this way. She told us that a living boy had died twitching in front of her, and that the body had been dragged away by the army.
It was customary for the Movement’s representatives to organize gatherings for the senior students at my school. They would not include children from my grade in those gatherings. They would dismiss us and chase us away saying that we were only going to be noisy. But we were so curious to find out what was going on there that we would hang on the low walls and peer in, without going home. Every day, different annas with new and different names would come by to organize a gathering. They would speak with great anger and passion. The annas and akkas in our school would ask them questions. Some days there would be heated debates. Even if we didn’t understand all of it, the weapons they carried, and their serious faces left a deep impression on us.In the times following, many of the older students from our school kept disappearing. The students whispered among themselves in the classrooms: ‘These ones went to train with this Movement, the other ones went to train with that Movement.’ Sometimes relatives would gather at the homes of the youth who had left for the Movements from our village, and lament loudly, as if they were at a funeral.It became the norm to put up posters for Movement groups on the tall water tank at our school. The students who were divided in their support for different factions became so competitive that close friends fell out over this. They were often engaged in arguments and fights.When some of the youth who had gone for training returned to the village, they would be completely altered in appearance. They were so highly esteemed in the community that even the village elders treated them with respect. They would advise students like us in the lower grades, saying, ‘We’re going to fight so that you can study well and advance in life.’ The young boys and girls hero-worshipped the youth who walked around with their weapons more than any film stars. Seeing them and being friendly with them elevated you in the eyes of others as well. They too behaved like family, referring to everyone as either ‘amma, appa, thambi or thangachi’ and mingling with ease.
The Kilinochchi police station had been transformed into a military camp. It must have been 1986. One day, that camp was attacked by one of the groups around midnight. The fire burned bright as the afternoon sun in the middle of the night and could be seen as far away as Paranthan. The villages surrounding Kilinochchi were startled out of their sleep. A helicopter circled overhead, firing occa-sionally. Paying no attention to the stalks that tore at our legs in the harvested fields, families fled together in the dead of the night.
The Sri Lankan army continued to strengthen their base in the Kilinochchi area. The Movements’ fighters launched counter-strikes against the soldiers coming out of there. At this time, our family, who lived so close to the A9, suffered untold misery. Every time we heard the news that the army was coming, we dropped everything as it was and ran through the paths in the paddy fields. We would only return home in the evenings, when the sound of explosions had stopped. Until then, the elders struggled to staunch the children’s hunger. Often, we’d be running with our school-bags in hand. Our sinnathaatha would carry whatever food was available and go with us. I was at an age where I could under-stand a few things, and I hated losing our peace and having to run around like this.The army began launching shells in the direction of Paranthan from Kilinochchi. One afternoon, sinnathaatha went to put out water for the bullocks that had been tied up for grazing in the morning. Suddenly we heard the crash of shells landing near where he was. There was a cloud of smoke. When the rest of the house ran out screaming, they saw him hobbling back, holding his shawl to his stomach. A piece of shrapnel had torn through his stomach. Part of his intestine had come out through the wound. Even though my uncle had his own car, we could not drive him to the hospital, because an air-force helicopter kept circling the Paranthan area and attacking continuously. That day I cried with anger and frustration. I was shaking with the fear that we might not be able to save our thaatha. I was resolved that if such a thing happened, I would immediately enlist in the Movement. A little while later, when the helicopters had left the area, we were able to get him to the hospital and save his life. After losing my father in an accident, it was my uncle and maternal grandparents who had raised us. We had such great love for them.
There were now frequent clashes between the Movements and the army in Paranthan Junction. On top of this, the Movements also clashed with each other. I could not understand why the annas who so clearly explained the need to fight against the army in all those gatherings were now warring amongst themselves. The things I saw, because I had to pass by the Paranthan Junction to get to school every day, made me lose hope that a peaceful future lay ahead for us. Instead it paved the way for deeper fear and anxiety.
It was during this time that the Indian Forces arrived. I was in the tenth grade at the time. The elders said among themselves that this would be the answer to all our problems. Like everyone else, we too stood in the streets and waved our welcome to the Indian Peace Keeping Forces.The Indian Forces set up a massive base on the site of the Northern Region Grain Research Centre, between Paranthan and Karadipokku, taking up the huge storehouses as well as the researchers’ quarters. They spoke many languages that we had never heard until then. The long-haired, bearded Punjabis, and the turmeric-skinned short-statured Gurkhas paraded the India we only knew from schoolbooks before our eyes. Our tuition centre, ‘Science Centre’, was situated in Karadipokku. The students from Kumarapuram and Paranthan would go there in crowds. As soon as they saw the girls, the Indian soldiers would shout out: ‘Hey kutti, hey kutti, shall we “get married”?’ and other obscene things in several different languages. We were so terrified of them we couldn’t even turn our heads.In this way the brief time of peace we had was disrupted again. The people said the Liberation Tigers’ Movement had begun a war with the Indian Forces. It had become a dangerous time for young women. Word began to spread that the Indian Forces has sexually assaulted young women in some areas in Jaffna. I did not know if such incidents had also happened in Kilinochchi. Periyappa brought his daughter to our house and left her there night after night because they feared it wasn’t safe to keep akka in their home. It was quite the struggle for our grandparents to take care of us young women, and to send us to school and for tuition classes. At that time, I was preparing for my GCE Ordinary Levels exam.One day, during school hours, we were frightened by the sounds of heavy gunfire. The whole town of Paranthan was surrounded. We students huddled under our desks in fear. Shortly after, the Indian Forces who had entered our school grounds poured into every classroom. They asked our principal some questions and began beating him. When we saw our revered principal being beaten where he stood, in front of us, his lip swollen and bleeding, the students began crying out loud. Then the people of the town, men and women, were brought into the school playground with their hands above their heads and made to kneel on the ground. Their task of searching for the Tigers who had escaped after attacking them stretched out into the evening.