Christie and Mary listened eagerly to the story of Devanayaki. We discussed the Susaana Supina until dawn. Mary liked Devanayaki. She said that it could not have been easy for a woman who lived centuries ago to think and behave the way she did. Christie was thinking about how he could use the myth in his movie. He said that, like Devanayaki’s story, the lives of the women fighters in the Iyakkam exhibited the complex situation of female empowerment and misogynistic stances existing simultaneously. Mary did not agree with him at all. She felt that it was wrong to trivialise the life of a great woman like Devanayaki in this manner. Their argument hadn’t ended even when I left. Christie asked me to rewrite the script of The Woman Behind the Fall of the Tigers to include Devanayaki’s myth. I was happy because that is what I wanted to do, though I was not sure how.
When I said that I would need to go to Sigiriya, Christie joyfully agreed. Neither of them had seen Sigiriya before. Samaraveera and the colonel tried to dissuade us from travelling by road, saying that there were security problems. Samaraveera asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if you went back to Colombo and flew to Sigiriya?” But Christie insisted on driving down. He wanted to see Mullaitivu and other war memorials along the way. Samaraveera had no answer when Christie asked him how he could make a movie without seeing the places that were an integral part of the story. Reluctantly, he asked the colonel to help us with our trip. Anuradha Mendez called her friend in Sigiriya and made arrangements for our stay. I was glad to get a chance to meet the archaeologist who had evaded my mischievous questions.
The next morning, we set off in a black Mercedes Benz. Christie had insisted that the security guards not travel with us. I too felt that if they accompanied us, we would not be able to discuss anything.
But the colonel had given our vehicle number to all the checkpoints en route to ensure a safe journey. Perhaps that is why our vehicle was not checked anywhere along the way. Sivapalan, a middle-aged man from Jaffna, was our chauffeur. Even while he was manoeuvring the vehicle with great difficulty on the Jaffna-Kandy A9 highway, which was in the process of being repaired, he continued to talk to me. His conversation centred on gossip about the Tamil film industry. From Rajnikant’s and Kamal’s new movies to the personal lives of actors, he had something to say about it all. When he heard that I had worked as Balu Mahendra’s assistant, he was overjoyed. With pride, he said, “Balu sir belongs to my country.” He wanted to know if any popular actor or director would be part of our movie. When I told him that it wasn’t a commercial movie, he wanted to know what kind of film we were making. But he fell silent when he heard that the movie was about the murder of Rajini Thiranagama. His face fell.
“Why have you stopped talking, Sivapalan?”
“Because I’m scared.”
“Why do you fear Madam Rajini?”
“I’m not afraid of Madam. Doctor Madam was a nice lady. If Prabhakaran had taken her advice and become a leader of the people, the Iyakkam wouldn’t have suffered this fate. But no one in Jaffna dares to speak about her murder.”
“Please don’t ask me. Both my sons died in the freedom struggle. My only daughter was raped and killed by soldiers. They did not even leave my wife. She lost her leg in a bomb blast. I am her only support. Nobody talks about politics here. Let’s talk about movies, about Ajit, Asin or Vikram. Let’s leave politics alone.”
His words shocked me. I felt a deep sympathy for this man who was trying to drown his painful memories in movie trivia. Unable to continue my conversation with him, I sat silently looking out of the window. We were driving through the Elephant Pass with the sea on either side. Christie and Mary were recording the sights on their Handycams.
“Christie, we are passing through the area where decisive battles were fought by the Iyakkam.”
“I know, Peter. I have visited the places around Mullaitivu twice. I insisted on this journey for Mary’s sake.”
“That’s right. The person who is going to handle the camera must see these places.”
“Such wonderful landscapes! Perfect frames from every angle. This is great. But I’m fed up, Peter. There are war museums and war memorials everywhere, and ghoulish tourists gaping happily at them.”
“This is the time for war tourism in Sri Lanka. Hundreds of tourist buses come to Jaffna every day from the south. The word ‘war’ has assumed the status of dignity in the Sinhalese community. Nobody talks of peace or democracy. That’s why Rajini and what she stood for has become relevant.”
“But nobody here realises it.”
“Well, there is a small group that does understand such matters. There are Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims among them. I’m not talking only about intellectuals. Even among ordinary people, there are those who think differently. Our movie may become an inspiration for them.”
“But Peter, I don’t understand how you can link Rajini’s life with Devanayaki’s myth in the way that Christie wants you to.”
“I’ll tell you my idea. We can use the ritual performance at Lahugala. The Susaana Supina does say that if the mind or body of any woman is hurt, she will take divine birth.”
“That’s not a bad idea. Christie, we can portray the scene where Devanayaki walks, towering above Lanka with one foot on Sigiriya and the other on Sripada, with the help of graphics.”
“Sorry, no graphics. I insist on making movies that are 100 per cent realistic.”
“Then what can we do? Peter, do you have any other ideas?”
“Devanayaki’s story itself is unrealistic. I feel that most of it is Sree Vallabha Buddhanar’s imagination. If we use that story, then how can we make realistic cinema? But I feel there is the possibility of exploring meta-reality.”
Immersed in these discussions, we did not realize how time flew. When we reached the city of Paranthan, the car turned from A9 to A35 towards Mullaitivu. At around 11.30 am, we arrived in Pudukuduirippu. My heart beat faster when we reached the place which had witnessed the last battle. Though I had several opportunities to come here after May 2001, when the freedom movement ended, I avoided it. There was an unknown fear in my mind. I could sense VP’s presence here. Perhaps because they had no close ties with the Iyakkam, Christie and Mary were unperturbed. They were joking and laughing as they got out. I saw Sivapalan’s eyes fill with tears. He did not get out of the car. I felt that this place too was a Susaana Supina – a burial ground where the dreams of an entire society were interred.
Major Pinto of the Sri Lankan army was waiting for us. He took us to the military camps. After meeting the senior officials there, we had lunch and went to visit the war memorials. Naturally, we went to VP’s bunker first. It was built in the middle of several small bunkers in an extremely secure place. From outside, it looked like a single-storeyed building. But it was a four-storeyed building built forty feet deep, and it had served as the administrative centre of the Iyakkam. The bunker still showed signs of having been an extremely secure construction with many amenities. Mary was recording it all on her camera. In the operation rooms, we could see the stands on which maps would be placed when strategies were being planned. When Mary asked me, “Isn’t it here that VP would have taken many tough decisions,”
I was shocked by the thought. It must have been the place where the decision to kill many people, like Rajiv Gandhi, Premadasa and Rajini Thiranagama, had been taken.
But Major Pinto told us that all important decisions need not necessarily have been taken here as the Iyakkam had many such centres. The dimly lit room did not have much air. I felt suffocated and wanted to get out.
Our main purpose was to visit Sigiriya, so we did not spend much time here. The war museum displayed several weapons used by the Iyakkam. As in Divine Pearl, the military officers here also explained how they were used. The steel cage used to torture rebels in the Iyakkam looked horrifying. It had just enough space for one person, and was filled with sharp thorns. If the person inside moved, the thorns would wound him. This was the symbol of the Iyakkam. Unless one was extremely careful, anyone connected to the Iyakkam would be wounded mentally or physically. The destroyed tanks and abandoned vehicles seemed like absurdist art installations. The place where suicide boats and submarines were manufactured was similar. The pool made to train the Sea Tigers was the biggest in Sri Lanka, said the military officer. When the Jordanian ship, MV Farha III, had dropped anchor near Mullaitivu due to some mechanical fault, the Iyakkam captured it. They used its parts to make tanks and other weapons. It is said that they got fourteen thousand tonnes of food-grain from the ship. We saw their jail, which had more than sixty cells. But what remained etched in our minds were the words inscribed on the wall of the house that belonged to Soosai, the chief of the Sea Tigers:
“Our enemies are our best teachers.”
We left Mullaitivu in the evening and reached Sigiriya late at night. Perhaps we were fatigued by the journey, or drained emotionally by the sight of the war memorials, but none of us spoke much. Mary switched her camera off and dozed. Sivapalan drove carefully without disturbing our sleep. Though the road to Sigiriya was as well maintained as the A9 to Dambulla, we were delayed by traffic blocks and intermittent rain. I thought that the forests described in the Susaana Supina must have now become thickly populated urban spaces. We checked in at a hotel in Sigiriya at 11.00 pm and within minutes, I received the expected phone call. She said, “I’m the archaeologist.” I felt quite happy. “I waited at the hotel until eight for you people. When I heard that you would be arriving late, I decided to put off our meeting until tomorrow. You must have explored Mullaitivu very thoroughly. Was your journey comfortable?”
“Actually, we couldn’t. But that disappointment has passed, now that I’ve heard your voice.”
“But we have never met.”
“Anuradha told me that heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”
I felt that the archaeologist was confused. I disconnected, saying that we could meet the next day. But she rang back immediately. “Don’t forget to look at Sigiriya from the west, as the sun rises. It’s a beautiful sight.”
As I sat on the balcony after a bath and dinner, I saw Sigiriya dimly lit by stars. It was a new-moon night. At midnight, I sent a text message to the archaeologist: “Why are you not responding to my mails?” Her reply was immediate: “Though the Lion is dead, his spirit still guards me.”
The journey had tired me out, and I fell into a deep sleep. I saw a dream that night after a long time.
Devanayaki from the Susaana Supina came to me, alighting from a white horse. She was dressed like a celestial nymph from Kambuja. She spoke to me as if she had known me for a long time. The first question she asked me was, “Have you come to see my palace?”
I don’t know what my reply was, but she took my right hand and kissed it. Then she pulled me onto the horse and rode up the steep mountain. I shook in fear when I saw that the horse was walking straight up the vertical rock face. Within seconds, we reached the top. She jumped off the horse, pulling me along with her. The horse suddenly disappeared. Sinha Saila still had the old gambling halls and courtesan’s quarters. There were gamblers and beautiful women wherever we looked. Everyone was bowing respectfully to me and Devanayaki. Finally, we reached the main hall. Padmasambhava mandalas still adorned the walls. The lamps were lit and a map of Sri Lanka was drawn on the floor. Devanayaki came in after changing her clothes. Everything was arranged for tantric rituals. It was only then that I remembered I had been her disciple, learning these rituals for many days.
Excerpted with permission from Sugandhi Alias Andal Devanayaki, TD Ramakrishnan, translated from the Malayalam by Priya K Nair, HarperCollins India.