Novel on Rajani Thiranagama gets ready for English readers

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Offers a powerful account of the life of an activist who dared to speak out against both Sinhala chauvinism and the LTTE’s narrow nationalism

Twenty-nine years after the brutal murder of Tamil human rights activist and feminist Rajani Thiranagama in Jaffna by an assassin allegedly deputed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a powerful Malayalam literary work chronicling her struggle is breaking the language barrier to reach readers across the globe who continue to remain concerned about the cascading effect of the decades-long ethnic strife in Sri Lanka.

T.D. Ramakrishnan’s Malayalam work Sugandhi Enna Andal Devanayaki created a sensation when it was published three years ago. Now, HarperCollins is bringing out its English version on July 25, targeting a wider audience outside Kerala.

Crusader for justice

The novel is a powerful account of the life and times of the then head of the department of anatomy at the University of Jaffna, who broke religious and ethnic barriers to marry a social activist with Sinhala Buddhist background, and dared to become a distinct human rights activist in Sri Lanka by criticising both Sinhala chauvinism and the narrow nationalism of the LTTE as well as the alleged brutalities of the Indian Peace Keeping Force.

“Most of the fiction written in Malayalam is located in Kerala. Very rarely are narratives placed outside this space. But Mr. Ramakrishnan’s narrative spaces are never confined to the geographical terrain of Kerala. Sugandhi, though set in Sri Lanka, brings the world into its ambit. The author uses a large canvas to depict his fictional narratives and, in so doing, he often challenges cartography, implying that borders are abstract and cannot be reduced to mere lines that exist to exclude,” said Priya K. Nair, a teacher of English at St. Theresa’s College in Ernakulam, who translated the work to English.

“I felt that this novel is extremely relevant in contemporary times as it is a powerful articulation against authoritarian power structures. This novel should not be confined to the readers in Kerala, rather it is relevant to any culture that has experienced the horrors of war,” she added. She had previously translated Mr. Ramakrishnan’s works Alpha and Francis Itty Cora into English.

A retired senior official with Southern Railway, Mr. Ramakrishnan had translated a number of Tamil literary works to Malayalam and constantly followed the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka for several years.

“Sri Lanka’s contemporary history is the background of my novel. I have taken a different approach in the novel with historical facts as solid background for weaving fantasy,” he said when asked about the novel.

“It was Rajani’s assassination that forced me to look into the complexities of the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka. Inspired by her elder sister Nirmala, a LTTE member, Rajani also got involved with the ultra nationalist group mainly by administering care to those wounded in action,’’ he said.

Would never settle

“In 1983, Rajani travelled to England under a Commonwealth scholarship for postgraduate studies in anatomy at Liverpool Medical School. Even that shifting from the troubled nation to a far better living atmosphere had not deterred her from raising her voice against injustice.’’ She was sympathetic to the LTTE but she later realised the futility of armed struggle and became a critic of the Tigers’ atrocities.

“What really moved me was her return to war-torn Jaffna to rebuild the university and work there for her own people. I am not sure it was the LTTE who killed her. But it was her sincerity to the cause and boldness to say the truth that resulted in her murder and that had inspired my novel,’’ says Mr. Ramakrishnan.

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