Profile: Unassuming greatness, unforgettable charm

By: Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby

  • D. P. Sivaram

    Looking at the responses evoked by Sivaram’s death, I wonder whether I could indeed claim to be someone close to him in terms of journalistic experience. The fact that many journalists and writers of distinction have so courageously agreed to identify themselves with him personally, despite political differences, leaves me rather bewildered.

    Sivaram was close to me and my family. He was so close that each member of my family deeply and sincerely feels his absence and genuinely mourns his death. I am afraid that it is the professional and human faces of Sivaram that are going to be missed by colleagues, acquaintances and fellow-professionals, which very rightly highlighted his commitment to Tamil nationalism and more than that, his expertise in communicating it to, very often, unreceptive readers.

    Before dwelling on the personal side of his life, it is important to locate Sivaram and his contribution as a journalist who stood for and advocated Tamil nationalism. It was the late Mervyn de Silva who first assessed the importance of Sivaram’s contributions as a journalist. Taraki (the pen name of Sivaram), remarked de Silva, brought to Sri Lankan English journalism a new depth and vision in writing about Tamil militant youth.

      "...No other Tamil journalist, or a journalist who is a Tamil, could have achieved such heights in so many different fields..."

    Sivaram brought out in clear, unambiguous terms, what the Tamil militants demanded. He highlighted in his writings how they had organised themselves militarily, which led to the Sri Lankan security forces having to accept a number of strategic and battlefront reversals by 1990. His writing opened the door for the non-Tamil reader to get a glimpse of the single-minded devotion with which the militants were demanding a more just, equitable and dignified place for Sri Lankan Tamils, either within or outside the polity.

    Sivaram’s presentations commanded attention in the manner in which they highlighted the Tamil struggle. He did not wish to contextualise it in terms of the ahimsa tradition of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the bellicose rhetoric of G. G. Ponnambalam, or Sir P. Ramanathan’s Hindu aristocracy. Sivaram traced the causes of militancy to the martial traditions of the Tamils, evidence for which exists in pre-colonial Tamil literature since the ‘Purananuru.’ He was especially interested in military castes and tribes, which British colonial governments dubbed as criminal tribes. His series of articles on Tamil militarism in the ‘Lanka Guardian’ opened more Tamil eyes than non-Tamils ones about the cultural roots of contemporary Tamil armed nationalism.

    Equally important as his elucidation of the part played by militancy in taking forward the Tamil struggle, was his reading of Tamil politics, which present him as a writer with a Tamil worldview. Sivaram was rooted firmly in the Batticaloa tradition, of which he was very proud, but also saw Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism as something overarching and encompassing all Tamils whether from Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Amparai, Vanni, Jaffna or Mannar. The manner in which he presented the Tamil cause drew the attention not only of the Sri Lankan establishment but also of countries interested and involved in Sri Lanka’s politics. This made Sivaram a perambulating journalist than one confined to the armchair or well heeled beats in Colombo.

    Perhaps Sivaram’s most enduring contribution to journalism was TamilNet, the website which he founded and ran very efficiently. With the Tamil diaspora ever keen to know minute-by-minute developments in Sri Lanka, TamilNet became an immediate success. Sivaram’s professional expertise automatically made the worldwide web an appropriate medium to report the Tamil nationalist struggle with the LTTE at its very forefront.

    Sivaram was also a stickler for the appropriate word when composing his journalistic pieces and was known for his unusual combination of words and sentence structures, which provoked debate. He was a highly accomplished bilingual writer (Tamil and English).

    The greatness of Sivaram as a journalist lay in the fact that he was able to be all these, while also being highly professional about them. He was so professional that every professional in the field loved him for the commitment, the expertise and, especially, the nicety with which he performed his tasks. Had it not been for this trait of professional brilliance coupled with human warmth, it would never have been possible for a Sri Lankan Tamil journalist to be a friend of Gamini Weerakoon and Rajpal Abeynayake; Dayan Jayatilleke and Ajith Samaranayake.

    With all intellectual humility and genuineness it could be said that no other Tamil journalist, or a journalist who is a Tamil, could have achieved such heights in so many different fields. It is in this sense Sivaram becomes an exemplar Tamil journalist – the man who could be friend of both the Pentagon and South Block.

    But to say he was this and this alone, even though such conquests appear more than what a single individual could achieve, is far, far from the truth. There was also a deeper Sivaram – Sivaram the keen student of Tamil history and culture incorporating fields as diverse as politics and anthropology, economics and cultural studies, linguistics and literary criticism. He was aware of the work the anthropologist Dennis McGilvray had undertaken in Sri Lanka’s east, and in touch with American scholars such as Margaret Trewick, who is interested in Tamil studies. But the same time he was also delving into Sri Lanka’s history and the interdependence between the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities. He was well read in Tamil Buddhism, especially on how Tamil Nadu played such an important role in shaping Sri Lankan Buddhist traditions.

    It was Sivaram’s interest in the foregoing, which brought him to me. To me in the early 1990s, travelling to Colombo from Jaffna every month on relief and rehabilitation matters, acquaintance with Taraki was a great asset. It was something more than I could hope for. Through conversations with him I got to know what was happening – who was doing what, where and how. Sivaram always chided me for my ‘involvement’ in matters political. When he found that I was going beyond the intellectual need to study problems facing the Tamil people, becoming involved in Citizen Committee politics and rehabilitation matters, he urged me very firmly to get back to my research work, which, it is true, I had abandoned by 1984. It was Sivaram’s efforts that made me feel I should get back in a more committed way to academia.

    Sivaram was a great interlocutor. He could find out everything that lay in a person. Answering his questions, one was prone to feel one’s own inadequacy rather than one’s authority. Above all, replying him meant being well versed in state of the art. It was in the course of these interactions that I found that Sivaram’s strength lay in his intimate acquaintance with Tamil history. This made him write and speak not only with dedication but also with authority.

    These intellectual interactions also made us discover each other’s idiosyncrasies. In Sivaram’s case they were not idiosyncrasies either. They were the other side of a very busy person – a man who was a loving husband and a fond father; a man who would not only enjoy good wine, but also better poetry. Further, though he never betrayed such feelings to me personally, I found he treated me like his teacher by avoiding drinking, or smoking his favourite Manila cigars in my presence.

    Speaking academic matters with an active journalist like Sivaram demanded an appropriate time. He openly confessed that his office hours were in the evenings when he had drinks with friends and colleagues. So it was usually in the morning or in the early noon that we sat down for a chat. He thus became a friend of the family. It was at these moments the ‘human’ side of Sivaram was opened to us. It was then I discovered he was a great connoisseur of good food. From discussing the finer points of Blue Stilton cheese and mellow wine, he could speak about the merits of puli chatham and thayir pachchadi with not only ease, but also evident relish. Sivaram’s wife said he would often speak about the meals he had under our roof. My wife would say it was a pleasure to feed him, while my daughters – especially the younger two – used to debate the relative merits of different recipes – both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

    To Sivaram, the one-time militant who had injured himself, the easy chair (hansie putoova) in our overcrowded drawing room was something in which he could rest his back with ease, arms folded behind his head. As he relaxed I came to know that Sivaram the great journalist and globetrotter, was also a very caring and fond father who wanted to take his children out for a good meal and spend more time with his growing son and daughters, as well as a devoted husband concerned about his wife’s health. One could also see other emotions running through him, those of self-pity and even self-indignation.

    It was also in such moments of domesticity that he would reveal his familiarity with the gossip surrounding Tamil cinema and, even, his enjoyment of very average Tamil films. The songs, lyrics and shots – all attracted him. Very few people know that this busy journalist could steal a few hours to enjoy a popular film. To me it brought out the child in him – the simple son of the Tamil soil.

    Sivaram was not a single person. It is true that the great ‘Taraki’ resided within him, but he was also the researcher who never published his very important findings, alongside which was the very cautious Sivaram who was keener to listen than to speak, and to measure the person in his company before making his own position clear. It was this complex combination that made him who he was.

    In a way Sivaram achieved the impossible. His death made Tamil nationalism from east to west and the world over, a household word. How is it that he could invoke within his friends and acquaintances that sense of debt, which made his passing away such a tragic event? Surely, it is not possible for one man to provoke such a universal response?

    In my 15 years of knowing him I was always the butt of his criticisms and subject of annoyance for not doing I what I should be doing. Let me now at least confess that there were moments when I imagined he would say something nice about me – a word of praise or a gesture of appreciation. It never came – if at all he scolded me, cajoled me and urged my children to chastise me. But as he closed behind him the door of my flat, his criticism would seem the biggest compliment I could have. Today, my heart is full, but tears inevitably fall.

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