The revolutionary who succeeds underground is not the one who hides like a mouse under the floorboards, shunning the light of day and social involvement. The successful and resourceful underground worker takes a most active part in the everyday life of those around him, he shares their weaknesses and their passions, he is in the public eye, in the hurly-burly, with an occupation which everyone understands… The wisest way is also the simplest: to combine your secret and your overt activity easily and naturally.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lenin in Zürich
On the outskirts of the ancient Swiss town of Bern lies an open space traditionally used as an allmend, or collective pasture. The southern part of the field has been converted into an exhibition hall, used off and on to display and sell agricultural machines. The open ground is still large enough to be known as the grossé allmend. However, no cows graze there anymore. Empty during the week, on Sundays the field is home to groups of little boys playing football, or frisbee, or flying kites, or simply walking with their fathers and their dogs.
Every year, in August, this Swiss field is colonised for a weekend by a crowd of Tamils. Some are resident in Bern, others come from Zürich and Luzern, still others from Netherlands and Germany and England. But they all came, originally, from the northern districts of Sri Lanka, and many still hope one day to return there. That the civil war in their island does not yet permit; hence this annual get-together in Bern, where four or five thousand Tamils gather to underline and affirm their spirit of community.
When I went to the Bern allmend this past August, the weather was wet, but the celebrations were unaffected. The ostensible focus of attention, all the while, was a series of sporting contests, between teams of Tamils representing different parts of Europe. The games played included cricket, volleyball, football and a traditional sport called killitata, a hybrid that mixes running with wrestling. The football took pride of place, with six different cups at stake: separate championships for males under 10, under 13, under 15, under 18, and over 35, as well as one for girls.
The ambience was Tamil but the referees were Swiss and the style of the game German. The boys played the focused, physical football of the Bundesliga, short passes and bold body checks, rather than the long, hopeful balls up front that mark the game in South Asia. Their heading was first-class and their spirit ferociously competitive. It had to be, with teams bearing names such as Super-Eagles, Germany, and Tamil Eelam, Poland. In the under-18 final, I watched Young Royal Sports Club, Zürich, play the Tamil Football Club of Denmark. The coach of the Young Royals kept up a continual stream of advice and (it has to be said) abuse: “apdi ille” (“not like that”), “Ramesh ku kudu, paithiyo” (“pass to Ramesh, you imbecile”)‚ and such like. The object of his ire, a boy with streaked hair, was at length substituted. He came out swearing – in Swiss German.
In the centre of the allmend flew the red-and-yellow flag of the putative homeland, Tamil Eelam. Under the flag, on a table shielded from the rain by a red canopy, rested the prizes of the competition: a row of large silver cups, all looking alike, with ‘TAMIL EELAM CUP’ inscribed at their base, and a portrait of a man holding a flag on the side, his face pencilled inside a map of the island, the Tamil homeland’s borders marked.
Towards the northern end of the allmend, the cricket tournament was being held. This was altogether more genteel, the game played with a soft tennis ball, by men almost all the wrong side of 35. There was one young boys club: Eela Stars CC, Bern, formed by 18-year-old Mahesh in memory of his dead father. But they lost early, to men who had learnt to play cricket under English-trained coaches back in Sri Lanka. The cricket final was played between two German teams. After the match the winners and losers joined in an impromptu sing-song, featuring hits from movies made in Madras.
As foreign as the shouts across the allmend were the smells. The food was superb: those Tamil staples, rice and sambaar and dosai for lunch, as well as snacks such as shundal (spiced chick pea) and bida (betel nut leaf with grated coconuts and other condiments wrapped inside). Other shops were selling saris and salwar kameezes, bangles and other jewellery, videos and cassettes of film songs, and medallions of the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, cradling a leopard cub.
There was one shop selling books. The titles on display included a compendious edition of the Kural, the 1000-page text on life and good conduct by the Tamil sage, Thiruvalluvar. Tamil-French and Tamil-Deutsch dictionaries were also on offer, as were some computer manuals. But, right in front, on the desk that first caught the casual shopper’s eye, were the recommended political texts. These were the Tamil translation of Lapierre and Collins’ Freedom at Midnight, a biography of Ché Guevara, and the newly printed memoir of Adele Balasingham, the Australian wife of the Tiger theoretician Anton Balasingham. There were also two books about Balasingham’s boss, Prabhakaran. The cover of one book showed the Tiger supremo in a forest clearing, wearing fatigues, surrounded by a bunch of adoring boy cadres. The second book’s cover had a large portrait of Prabhakaran in the foreground, with that other successful freedom fighter, Sheikh Mujib of Bangladesh, looking on indulgently from atop.
I do not read Tamil, and had to judge the contents of the books by the photographs on their jackets. I turned for help to the bookshop attendant, a sweet, smiling 20-year-old from Holland, named by his father after the great Indian cricketer of the 1970s, Sunil Gavaskar. I pointed to a book whose cover featured a man in khaki drill, wearing a khaki cap and dark glasses. “Who is this?” I asked Gavaskar Mahendran. “Nehru?” he replied, uncertainly. After I had left I realised who it actually was: Subhas Chandra Bose, the Bengali leader who had allied with the Axis powers during the second world war, and formed an ‘Indian National Army’ composed chiefly of prisoners of war.
A father who named his son after Gavaskar would be the kind of man who admired Jawaharlal Nehru. But, of course, the moderate Nehru would scarcely appeal to the Tigers. Bose, on the other hand, would: his story, made suitably heroic, sat well with stories of Guevara and Mujib and, of course, Prabhakaran. The bookshop was a manifest display of the real intentions of this sports festival, but there were other signs, too. One was the dress code of the organisers: black trousers, white shirt, and a black jacket with ‘WTCC’ on the back (standing for World Tamil Co-ordination Committee), and the logo of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in front. There were perhaps some two dozen such men, all dressed alike, spread out across the allmend, coordinating the various games and acting as ports of authority and call.
The black and white outfit somehow seemed appropriate, given the uncomplicated ideology of the Tamil Tigers and the unforgiving nature of their political practice. A slight variation on this dress code was permitted to Parthiban, the man assigned by the WTCC to escort and direct visitors such as myself. Parthiban was short, dapper, and – for a Sri Lankan Tamil – unusually fair and conspicuously clean-shaven. He also had a better-than-average facility with the international language of spin, English. He wore dark-grey trousers on both days, with a light cream bush-shirt on the Saturday and a light green shirt on the Sunday — shirts that were almost, but not quite, white. He had his lines well prepared: he was a ‘development consultant’ working in Geneva, specialising on issues of ‘sustainable development’. The aim of this festival he glossed as “telling our youth about their culture and traditions”. As we passed the various games, he would repeat: “culture and tradition”, “culture and tradition”. Only once did the guard drop, when, in answer to a question as to why girls were playing football, he answered that the uplift of women in all respects, including the physical, was part of the “agenda of the revolution”.
On instructions from above, Parthiban stuck closely to me. Clearly it would not do to let an ‘Indian journalist from Bangalore’ go about on his own. Fortunately, though, early on Sunday he was taken away by his girlfriend to meet her parents, his prospective in-laws, and I never saw him again. Parthiban’s exit allowed me to make the acquaintance of Astrid, a large-boned and genial Swiss woman who had married a Tamil and adopted both his culture and his football team.
Now 29, Astrid had met her husband Jeyakumar 10 years earlier while playing volleyball: he, a refugee, had been assigned by the Swiss authorities to a village near her own. She was doing a PhD in geography at the University of Zürich; her topic, the impact of Sinhala colonisation on the civil war. In her free time, Astrid helped her husband run his soccer team. She spoke Tamil adequately, had learnt the complex script, and had visited the island six times — though not yet, she said sadly, the northern city of Jaffna, the heartbed of Tamil pride and rebelliousness. She seemed quite starry-eyed about the LTTE. “Every Tamil here supports the Tigers”, she told me: “They have to, if they want to support the struggle back home. Only the Tigers run the schools, and take care of the orphans”. I reminded her that the Tigers were still a banned organisation in many countries. “Not here in Switzerland”, she replied, with uncharacteristic sharpness.
The Tamil boys on the field all called Astrid akka, or elder sister. Seeing this big, blond lady with her arms around little black boys in football dress, my companion that day, the film-maker Sabine Geisiger, exclaimed: “She is the Mother Teresa of the Tamils!” Astrid’s acceptance was aided by precedent: like Adele, the wife of Anton Balasingham, here was a white lady devoted to their language and their cause. Astrid Jeyakumar is a Swiss woman who wants to become a Tamil. Then there was Tommy, the Tamil boy who would much rather be Swiss. A slim and athletic 17-year-old, with glowing skin and large earrings, Tommy was actually named Karthik Sambasivan. He looked askance at his native culture: the Tamils, he said, were disorganised, unpunctual, hierarchical and – in their attitude to women and children – authoritarian. His sister was not allowed to go out alone or date Swiss boys. He would go out with Swiss girls, but was still too scared to tell his parents. He had come to the festival hoping to run in the short sprints, but, to his disgust, the events had been cancelled. There was a consolation: his athletic skills had already put him on the fast track to a Swiss passport.
The motto of this annual festival on the Bern allmend might very well be: ‘No more Tommys’. Its chief public purpose was to allow the exiles, spread in small numbers across Europe, to congregate as Tamils, to play their games, eat their food, listen to their music, meet old friends and make new ones, and make or break matrimonial alliances. But behind this social bonding was an aim rather more sinister – for to consolidate the Tamils as a community was also to remind them of the unfinished struggle back home, thus to forcefully direct their attention to the needs and claims of the LTTE. Each team had to pay an entrance fee; each shop had to pay a cash deposit; and other collections for the Tigers were undoubtedly being solicited on the side. The skill with which the whole show was organised left one in no doubt as to who was in command.
There are 45, 000 Tamils in Switzerland, a number larger than it might at first appear. For there are less than 3.5 million Tamils back in Sri Lanka. And there are only about six million Swiss people. Thus, one in every 80 Sri Lankan Tamils lives in Switzerland. In parts of Zürich and Bern one in every 20 residents is Tamil. How did so many Tamils get so far? They came, in the first instance, fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka. In the 20 years that the war has been on, an estimated 70,000 people have lost their lives. Perhaps five times that number have fled, seeking refuge in India, Australia, Canada and the countries of Western Europe.
From the early 1980s, as the civil war in Sri Lanka became more bloody, Tamils in the north began looking for ways of escape. Typically, each family wanted one of its younger male members to seek refuge abroad. This was a classic peasant strategy: the spreading of risk. Those who stayed back pooled their resources and bought a one-way ticket for their young man. In the early 1990s, the Oxford anthropologist Christopher McDowell interviewed Tamil refugees in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland. Among the testimonies he collected was this representative one from a refugee named Jeyakumara Sinnathamby:
“I left Colombo in May 1984 on an Aeroflot flight to Abu Dhabi and then on to Moscow. From Moscow I went straight to East Berlin. I travelled alone because my friends had decided not to come at the last minute. My father paid 15,000 [Sri Lankan] rupees for the journey and I carried USD 300 in cash.
“I arrived in East Berlin at 9 o’clock in the morning, and I purchased a 24-hour visa for USD 3 at the airport. Then I took a train to West Berlin: I had no problems because of the visa. At about midday I arrived in West Berlin where I was approached by a Pakistani man. I told him I wanted to travel to Switzerland and he said he would show me the way. The Pakistani bought me a train ticket to Neuss and gave me the photograph of another Pakistani who would meet me there.
“Later in the afternoon I took the train to Neuss. For the whole journey I hid myself under a bench in the carriage. I had left my passport with the Pakistani man in Berlin. He said I could have it later. I met the other man in Neuss and he let me stay at his house for a few days. There had been other boys there a few days before. I didn’t like the house. Others said that Tamil boys had gone to work in hotels as roomboys. Two days later the Pakistani put me on a train to Switzerland. He said it went all the way to Zürich, but I should get off at Bern.
“Again I hid myself under a bench. There were four people in the carriage. I did not notice the border… then there were four more people in the carriage… they may have been guards. I arrived late in Bern and spent the night in the station. The next day I went to the Aliens Police and asked for asylum. They asked me where my passport was… I told them it had been stolen.
An alternative route was to flee to India from the Jaffna peninsula, across the Gulf of Mannar. From Delhi one could take a flight to Belgrade, which like Moscow did not, in those Cold War days, require an Asian to have a visa. Sometimes schleppers, or agents, were paid money to ensure the safe passage across the Iron Curtain to Italy or Germany and, finally, to Switzerland. As McDowell found, most refugees did not, to begin with, have firm political affiliations. It was just that the civil war had made life intolerable for the ordinary civilian, and the asylum seeker had been chosen by his family as being the most likely to make some kind of life overseas.
The Tamils came to Switzerland alone or in small groups. They were interrogated by the police, before being assigned to hostels with refugees from other countries. They received a living allowance of four francs a day. After a few months they were assigned to cantons willing to receive them, and also allowed to work. Slowly, the Tamils from the remoter valleys somehow found a way to the city, where jobs paid less poorly, where there were less clearly marked out by their colour, and where they might find some more of their fellows. Now, two decades after the first lot arrived, the bulk of the Tamils in Switzerland are to be found in the German-speaking cities of Zürich, Basle, Luzern and Bern.
The Tamils who made it to Switzerland in the early 1980s were mostly men. Later, they were joined by young girls coming to make an arranged marriage. The Swiss Tamils are, overwhelmingly, from the Vellala or Kariayar castes, that is, from farming or fishing backgrounds. Very few could speak a language other than their mother tongue. Those Tamils who spoke English generally found their way to the United Kingdom or Canada.
As it turned out, most of the Tamils in Switzerland ended up not, as Jeyakumara Sinnathamby had feared, as roomboys in hotels, but as something very adjacent: cooks and cleaners in restaurants. The pizza-olo of the Italian restaurant I patronised in Zürich was a Sri Lankan Tamil, as were several of the waiters. Indeed, almost all the Tamil men I met in Switzerland worked in the catering business. That was where, when they first came, they got work most easily; and that was where, for want of other options, they stayed. The authorities encouraged this, for native-born Swiss did not take readily to these dreary and comparatively low-paying occupations. The other trade where there were openings was construction, but the Tamils were deemed too slight to drive cranes or help build offices in the cold. To these jobs were directed at refugees from Eastern Europe instead.
How do the Swiss view the Tamils? Emblematic here are the shifting views of the popular tabloid, Blick. In the early 1980s, Blick vigorously denounced the incoming refugees as different and strange, and wanted them deported. But by the mid-1990s Blick and its readers had started seeing the Tamils almost as a ‘model minority’, as hardworking and docile, and doing essential jobs that no one else would, at any rate not for those wages. The ordinary Swiss liked to contrast the Tamils with Yugoslavs and Balkan peoples more generally. These other immigrants had also come in the 1980s, but were regarded as a perfect nuisance: as loud, aggressive, involved in drugs and excessively covetous of Swiss women.
Back in 1843, Jacob Burckhardt complained of his native Basel that it was in danger of silting up “without stimulating life-giving elements from outside. There are learned people here but they have turned to stone against everything foreign”. Writing a century and a half later, another fine historian, Jonathan Steinberg, commented that “if Swiss democracy has some ugly features, it shows them to its foreigners”. But the ordinary Swiss, I found, has really no interest in Tamil culture whatsoever. He did not know of, and would not care about, the richness of their classical literature or the subtle beauties of their classical music.
Still, of overt racism towards the Tamils there are few signs. In retrospect, the Tamils were certainly lucky that the Kosavars and the Yugoslavs came at the same time as they did. I asked a Zürich anthropologist what the future held. Would there develop an influential far-right party on the French or Austrian models? The anthropologist pointed out that there was already a party whose one-point programme was: ‘out with the foreigners’. But, he added, their support base was trifling, and unlikely to grow. Was this because their tradition of humanitarian work made the Swiss more tolerant of difference, or because Switzerland had never been a colonising power? The anthropologist felt that more important by far was the fact that this was the most prosperous country in Europe. The Swiss, he said, were simply too rich to be racist.
In Zürich I stayed in the Industriequartier, a district located a mile down river from the main railway station. Its four-storeyed stone apartments were built in the 19th century, but the workers who once lived in them had long since departed. What remained was a large (and now empty) church named for Josef, and the original street names: Heinrichstrasse, Fabrikstrasse and Quellenstrasse. This was now perhaps the most racially mixed of Zürich’s districts, with a fair representation of Italians, Turks, Yugoslavs, Bangladeshis and, not least, Tamils.
On my first night in the city I had dinner at the Santa Lucia restaurant, with its Tamil-speaking pizza-olo. I sat at a table outside and observed the street. A Tamil man with an umbrella, aged about 50, parked himself on a cylindrical pillar meant to mark off the road from the pedestrian area. He bobbed his umbrella up and down, and chatted up the passing Tamils: three boys carrying videos (of Bollywood movies, perhaps), a couple out on a date. Two men in their 20s came and joined him, sitting likewise on the parking pillars. A car stopped for 10 minutes, on the road, the driver leaning out to speak to his fellows. This was so Tamil (or South Asian) and so un-Swiss: the use of public space to ‘take the air’ (hawa khana, in Hindustani), to stand on the road or a street corner in anticipation of other members of the community – whether rich or poor, young or old, men, women, or children.
Another evening I was walking along Josef Park, in front of the old working-class residences. I came across a group of Tamil teenage boys, walking and playing with a football. They must have spoken Swiss German at school, but among themselves they conversed in Tamil: surely, I thought, a unique form of bilingualism. They seemed to know the locality intimately, and appeared very comfortable on the street, gossiping in their own tongue as they kicked the ball off the parapets and dust-bins. Their attention was momentarily diverted when four (white) Swiss girls came and sat on a bench in the plaza. The Tamils cast shy and sly glances in their direction, but made no move to talk or flirt. They could have been a group of loitering boys in any South Asian town, out on the road between six and eight in the evening, after school but before dinner, homework and bed. As in South Asia, this group was strictly male. For the girls had returned home directly from school. They had to help with the cooking and housework, and in any case it was not deemed safe or proper for them to wander about in the streets.
Exiles everywhere tend to stick together, at least in the first generation. But in this case, the natural desire to hang out with one’s (likewise vulnerable) fellows is strengthened by conscious and directed social organisation. In the heart of this immigrant ghetto of Zürich is an office which runs no less than 73 Tamil schools in Switzerland. These schools hold classes twice a week: on Wednesday afternoons, when the regular Swiss schools close early, and on Saturdays. The children come in after they turn five, and sometimes stay until the age of 20. The kids start with Tamil songs and stories, before moving on to the alphabet and the construction of sentences. They use well designed and lavishly illustrated textbooks, printed in Bielefeld in Germany, but with their content supervised by a committee of Tamil professors from Jaffna, Colombo, Thanjavur and Madras.
The association that runs the schools calls itself the ‘World Tamil Education Service’. Its office, on the corner of Josefstrasse and Langstrasse, is equipped with computers and a photocopier, and even an airy and well-lit conference room. One afternoon I met the two main office-bearers: Mahindran, a well-built man about five-feet nine-inches tall, and Sudhaharan, who was much shorter, balding and with glasses. Both wore moustaches, both said they were 33, and both had come in the late 1980s from Jaffna, abandoning their college degrees half-way. And both had worked as cooks in Zürich: Sudhaharan, who helped out part-time at the education service, still did so.
In the early 1990s, some Tamil schools were started in Switzerland on an individual and uncoordinated basis. In 1995, Mahindran took the initiative to hold a Tamil language exam, in which 315 students took part. The next year he held a meeting of Tamil teachers from across the country, which decided to formalise the curriculum and seek proper textbooks. By 1998, there were 35 Tamil schools in Switzerland and about 1400 students. Now there were 73 schools with 4000 students enrolled in them. The teachers worked mostly for free, but a few were paid from a grant given by the aid agency, Caritas.
I asked Mahindran and Sudhaharan whether their schools taught history and politics. No, they said, we want only to focus on language and culture. When pressed, they admitted that the boys and girls did get a political education at home from their parents, who naturally had ideas of their own about the civil war. I then asked about the recent ceasefire on the island. Both of them, mild-mannered and gentle as they appeared to be, were firm and decisive in their political views. They were for the Tigers, completely. When I asked about Tamils who might have reasons for not supporting the Tigers, Sudhaharan answered: “In the early 1980s, there were other armed groups, but these were agents of the Sri Lankan or Indian governments. 15 years of struggle have shown that only the Tigers are trusted by the Tamil people. Of course, thieves and crooked businessmen do not like the LTTE. But all others do”. Then he added, as an afterthought: “Of course, they [the Tigers] are strict”.
I asked whether the Sri Lankan situation could be compared to Palestine. At one level the parallel held: both the Tamils and the Palestinians faced dispossession and a colonising army. But Sudhaharan, small and slight as he was, insisted that the Tamils were far superior. “Look at the Palestinians”, he said, “they are fighting among themselves – one for Hamas, another for Arafat. And some of them are still throwing stones at the Israelis! They must build a united military force”. The contrast could not be clearer: on one side the disunited Palestinians, on the other the Tigers, sole spokesmen for their people and ferocious fighters to boot.
At one point, nervous about the turn to our conversation, Mahindran and Sudhaharan clarified: “These are our personal views. We do not teach them in our schools – no politics there, only language and culture”. Whether they seeped into the schools or not, their own views were pretty direct. Almost my last question related to the aim of the peace talks now being overseen by the Norwegians. I asked whether they would be satisfied with autonomy within a united Sri Lanka, or whether they would still insist on independence. The answer, from Mahindran, was immediate and resonant with feeling. “We have lost everything – homes, lands, forests and families. What for? In 1985, we might have accepted autonomy. But now, after all this struggle and sacrifice, what can we accept? Only Eelam”.
An abiding memory of my time in Zürich is of church bells pealing. I lived across the street from a Protestant Church, but elsewhere, too, conversations were interrupted by the sound of bells rung faithfully every quarter of an hour. Who was listening, or answering the call? Here, as elsewhere in Western Europe, few people under 50 were practising Christians. The indication of this was not merely falling attendance in church. It lay also, for instance, in the divorce rate, which was more than 60 percent.
In this city of the great theologian Zwingli, the community that seemed to most seriously follow their faith was the Tamils. One day I called on a temple priest in the suburb of Adliswil. Dedicated to Shiva’s second son, Subramaniam, the temple is on the banks of a gentle and green river, which was nice, and the priest was short and with a pronounced paunch, which was reassuring. When I had visited Sri Lanka earlier in the year, an experienced political journalist told me that malnutrition was rife in the north: “The only well fed people there”, he said, “are LTTE cadres, traders, and Hindu priests”.
Priests in Indian temples are also always overfed. But the story of Sharma vadhyar of Adliswil was anything but typical. Although from a family of priests, he had rejected the trade and worked in a firm in Colombo for 14 years. He was at the same time an activist with a group affiliated to the Fourth International. When the going got hot in Sri Lanka, fellow Trotskyists in Germany helped him seek asylum there. He found his way to Zürich, where the Tamils urged him to resume the family calling. He taught himself the scriptures, and started naming the odd baby. He graduated to marriages and deaths, and eventually was able to persuade the Swiss authorities to allot him space for a temple.
Fat, affable, wearing a dhoti but with his upper body bare, Sharma was a bit of an operator, but a charming one, and also highly successful. He wore large gold-and-diamond ear-rings, obviously a post-Trotskyist accretion. We spoke in his office, drinking orange juice in plastic cups, amidst a pile of Tamil books. Among them was a new edition of the Ramayan as retold by the legendary poet Kamban, which Sharma said had been gifted to him by the chief minister of Pondicherry, India.
“Communism is service. What we are doing here is also service”. Saying this, Sharma took us to his temple. Here, dozens of young men were cutting vegetables and cleaning idols, in preparation for a prayer to be held later in the day, for which 400 people were expected. We could not stay, so Sharma asked that we come instead for the opening of a 10-day festival, to begin the next Friday.
When I got there the following week, the place had been transformed. The entrance now had a 20-foot-high tower made of cardboard affixed to it, mimicking the traditional gopuram of the South Indian temple. The cardboard was coloured and painted over with deities. On either side flew a flag: the red-and-white Swiss flag to the right, the yellow-and-blue Adliswil cantonal flag to the left. It was nine o’clock when I reached, but the ceremonies had begun. Inside, musicians specially flown in from Sri Lanka were playing their clarinets. Sharma was anointing the idols behind an orange curtain. The devotees patiently waited: women and kids sitting on the floor, the men standing to a side, separately.
After half an hour the curtain was lifted, to reveal both Lord Subramaniam and his attendant. Sharma wore a richly embroidered gold dhoti and a red-and-gold sash on his head. Half-a-dozen assistants began chanting. A young pig-tailed priest with a fine tenor voice did a solo number, reading from a book in which Sanskrit had been rendered in the Tamil script. Altogether, the priestly functions seemed rather ad hoc, learnt from books and improvised rather than traditionally learnt. Yet there was no mistaking the devotion. One of the poems read out was a long invocation to the rivers of the Indian heartland, the waters that had given birth both to the language of Sanskrit and to classical Hindu civilisation. “Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Narmada!” chanted the tenor, “Godavari, Mahanadi, Tungabhadra!” The action was moving southwards, to rivers added on (I suspect) by a medieval Tamil saint. We finally reached as close to Eelam as Tambaraparani, a river that runs in the southern parts of Tamil Nadu.
Worshippers were streaming in all the time, making their way from the outlying cantons. Little boys in handsome kurta-pyjamas, girls in shimmering salwar kameezes – the preferred colours red-and-silver or bright green – women bedecked in jewellery, as if for their own weddings. They came in twos and threes, unobtrusively and spread out in time, then suddenly revealing themselves to be a consolidated and surprisingly large force. By 11 o’clock, there were at least 800 people present. It was at this hour, as Sharma had previously told us, that a Swiss Christian priest of the vicinity was expected to come and hoist the temple flag.
The churchman did not come (“caught in a traffic jam”, was one rumour we heard) so, at 11.15, Sharma came out of the temple, accompanied by young men carrying the deity under an umbrella embroidered in scarlet. The priest hoisted the temple flag, between those of Adliswil and the Swiss Federation, broke a coconut, and formally announced the inauguration of the festival.
The Tiger presence at the temple was muted. There was no Eelam flag anywhere. I did see some teenage boys wearing black-and-white, but their fathers were dressed in gayer colours. Still, the Tigers must on the whole approve of a devotionalism that brings the Tamils together, that endorses their unity as well as their separateness from the Swiss mainstream.
In Adliswil, just 15 minutes walk from the temple, lives a man who is both a devout Hindu and a committed Tiger. His name is Mathialakan, and he is the prime mover behind the annual sports festival of the Tamil diaspora. The chief chef in a Swiss restaurant, Mathi has the sleek and trim body of an athlete. His eyes are soft, almost dreamy, his hair thick, his manner quiet but utterly self-assured. We spoke in his house, amidst a clutter of papers and files from the recently concluded Bern meeting. Mathi’s English was as dodgy as my Tamil. So, for the most part, he spoke in Swiss German, his words translated by Yumi, a Swiss student of Japanese extraction who had come with me. Also in the room were his wife and their 16-month-old-son. On the wall hung photographs of his parents, a red LTTE poster with a growling yellow tiger on it, and a Tamil calendar dominated by a portrait of Prabhakaran.
Mathi had studied in Mahajana College near Jaffna, a place which was, as he put it, “famous in Sri Lanka for its football team”. They had won the district championship eight years in a row. He himself played at that pivotal position, centre-forward. In 1987, he was doing his A-levels in Jaffna, and hoped to become an accountant. But, like so many others, his studies were interrupted by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). The oppressions of the IPKF, remembered Mathi, “had united all the previously quarrelling Tamil groups against them”. A fellow student, Thileepan, went on a fast-unto-death in protest against the alliance of the Sri Lankan army and the IPKF. “Even Mahatma Gandhi drank water during his fasts”, said Mathi, meaningfully, “but not Thileepan”. After Thileepan died, the students exploded in support of the Tigers. With hundreds of others, Mathi was also put in jail. His mother would come to see him everyday, till, taking pity, an Indian Tamil soldier called Narayanaswami allowed him to escape. He made his way to Colombo and, in 1990, to Switzerland.
As an exile in Zürich, Mathi was struck by the divide between parents and children. The problem was that parents simply gave orders – eat this, dress like that, etc – without explaining what the culture was. So, thought Mathi, we need to more systematically teach our children about the homeland. “500 years ago, we Tamils had our own country, our own government, our own state. Colonisation by the Europeans and oppression by the Sinhalese destroyed it. Now we are struggling for the reclamation of our land. Even while we are here, we must prepare to go back to Eelam. Eventually that will be our home, not Switzerland. Here we can never escape being foreign”.
In 1996, Mathi started an association called Tamilar Illam, or the Tamil House. He focused on sport, a medium that would best bring parents and kids together. He enforced a ‘Tamil only’ rule on the football field. In 1998, he held his first tournament, for the under-15s, with seven participating teams from five cantons. Slowly, the scope expanded to include other age groups – under 10, under 13 and under 18. There was no need, in his mind, for a 18 to 35 category, since those who fell within it were, like him, already Tamil in spirit and sentiment. There was, however, an over-35 group for the parents, who would take their kids to the club and end up playing themselves.
The first transnational sports festival was held in 1999. It was a master-stroke: bonding the old with the young, pleasing those parents whose boys played, spurring the ambition to participate in the parents of those who did not. “How does this link to the struggle for Eelam?” I asked. “Our war is not only for the separation of territory”, said Mathi. “It is for the maintenance of language, culture and religion – all together (alles zusammen). The festival brings parents and children together, renews cultural ties, and promotes a unity of outlook among exiles in different countries. I had my own dreams destroyed”, he added, “my own life is effectively finished. But these boys can still, with our help, realise their dreams”. I suppose he meant that he had now to live out his days as a chef in Adliswil, when he hoped to have been an accountant in Sri Lanka. This was said with such finality that it unnerved Yumi, with her own life ahead of her. “It is astonishing, the casual way in which he said ‘my life is destroyed’, she told me later, “That was almost like kicking me off the sofa”.
I asked Mathi who he had supported in the recently concluded soccer World Cup. “Brazil, naturally”, he said. It appeared that he was a fan of the game of cricket, too. “I support the Indian cricket team”, he told me: “even when they play Sri Lanka, and despite the doings of the Indian Peace Keeping Force”. The memory of Thileepan’s martydom could not completely efface the attachment to India, the mother lode of his language and religion. He hoped next year to take his son to the sacred shrine of Tirupathi in South India, to make the traditional offering of his first-born’s lovely crop of black hair.
On that planned visit, Mathi would be accompanied by a bunch of boy footballers from Zürich. “Here we can only teach them so much about our culture”, he said, “they have to go to Jaffna to experience it”. Another (and larger) ambition was the creation of a full-fledged Tamil football team, entered under its own colours in the Swiss National League. Did not, I asked, this dream clash with the other dream of return? In his eyes this was not a contradiction. “All I hope”, he said, “is that our boys should be proud of our culture and history. They can be Swiss by nationality, but they must still be Tamil in spirit”. A Tamil team in the Swiss league would also be consistent with what was still a possible, if worst case, scenario. “If the war gets worse, and there are no Tamils left in Sri Lanka, they will at least be here, with their culture intact”.
Mathi, like others of his fellows, refused to admit of any reason for a Tamil not to support the Tigers. “Without the Tamil Tigers there would be no Tamils”, he remarked, implying that they would all have been killed by the Sri Lankan army. After I had finished interrogating him, Mathi said, “Can I now ask you a question? Why is The Hindu (the Madras newspaper he was told I wrote for) so against the Tigers?” I answered, weakly, “I do not know – I only write on cricket, for the magazine section, not on politics”. “Surely”, he went on archly, “you read the rest of the paper? Why is The Hindu so hostile to the Tigers?”
I now decided that I must be at least half-way honest. “Perhaps because they have more sympathy with the Tamil moderates, such as the leaders of the TULF”. “Then”, continued Mathi, “let me ask you another question. What do you think of the Tigers?” “I share their dream of a just solution for the Tamils”, I began. “I admire their courage. But why did they have to kill Tamils who might have differed from them? The assassination of Sinhala prime ministers and ministers – even that can be understood in the context of army atrocities. But why kill Amirthalingam and Tiruchelvam?”
Mathi turned to his wife, sitting discreetly behind him, and asked her to refresh his memory. She recalled for him who the two men were, and then he proceeded: “Amirthalingam – he was elected on a platform of Tamil Eelam in 1977. But he forgot about it¬ – started looking out for his own interests instead. Tiruchelvam – he might have been of Tamil blood, but he lived in Colombo and could not speak Tamil. And he was working with the Sinhala and the Americans and against the Tamils”. This was crude propaganda, but he seemed to believe it completely. I thought I had to protest, for Tiruchelvam was a scholar of learning and integrity. I had been to his house in Colombo, and had many friends who admired and even worshipped him. A brilliant legal scholar who had trained and also taught at Harvard, he was drafting a devolution package for the north when he was murdered by the Tigers. Ironically, in his last public lecture, Tiruchelvam had spoken out against what he called the “absurd contradiction of imposing a mono-ethnic state on a multi-ethnic polity”. “No, no”, I said now to Mathi, “he was working for autonomy. Maybe not independence, but surely that was not enough reason to kill him?” I tried to explain what ‘autonomy’ meant, but Mathi either did not understand, or chose not to.
Not in 20 years – since I lived with Marxists in Calcutta – could I remember having had political discussions of such intensity. Still, Mathi was not, in the formal sense, a ‘party man’. His admiration for the Tigers was born out of his experiences as a student under the IPKF, and it deepened in exile, as alternatives to their path were crushed or faded away. Even more intense was a talk I had with the leading Tiger ideologue of Switzerland, Anton Ponnarajah. He called himself a ‘human rights activist’, a now almost ubiquitous pose adopted by sympathisers of revolutionary groups across the globe.
I met Anton in the restaurant of the Luzern railway station, as he waited to catch a train to Geneva. The one hour he had allowed me was extended to two, and then to three. Anton was stocky, with puffy cheeks and the obligatory moustache of the Tamil male. His air was well oiled and combed backwards. Like Mathi and Mahindran, he was full of charm. He laughed and smiled easily, and refused to allow me to pay for the drinks. Of all the Tamils I met he was the most articulate and well-read. He had studied in a top Jesuit school in Jaffna where, I guess, he had learnt how to state and defend a case.
Anton left Sri Lanka in 1985. At the time he was in the middle of a degree course in mechanical engineering. But, he insisted, “by profession I am an actor”. He had trained at a once vibrant theatre school run by AC Tarsesius in Jaffna. (The school was a casualty of the civil war, and Tarsesius himself was in exile in London.) After coming to Switzerland, he founded a mixed theatre group, acting with Arabs and Africans in plays with inter-cultural themes. Now he had shifted over to human rights work, but still managed to supervise a theatre school for the Tamils diaspora. He had designed a one-year course, with 500 hours of contact time, funded by the exiles, and with a dozen full-time students. This past year, his students had put on two plays for their commencement, one dealing with the Sri Lankan conflict, the other with the position of foreigners in Switzerland.
Twice a year, in April and August, Anton went to Geneva to meet delegates to the UN Commission on Human Rights. I asked him whether, in addition to the violations of the Sri Lankan army, he also mentioned violations by the Tigers. “No”, he said, “because the Tigers are reacting to their actions”. “What if reaction becomes over-reaction”, I asked. “We are not promoting human rights abuse by the Tigers”, answered Anton, “but you have to understand it as a response to army excesses. You can call it over-reaction, but others will view it differently”.
Anton liked to tell Swiss friends who criticised their country, “For me your political system is heaven. I came from hell”. In this land’s past lay, perhaps, a lesson for his own. “Look at Swiss history”, he told me, “these cantons hated each other, they massacred each other. But finally they have learnt to live with and respect one another”. For all his partisanship, Anton seemed hopeful of a political solution. As we spoke, the warring parties were preparing to talk in Thailand. “Are the Sri Lankan politicians more sincere than in the past?” I asked. “No”, said Anton, “but their military is now certain that they cannot win the war”. He did not think the independence versus autonomy issue would pose a problem. “If the two parties are willing, a solution can be found: federal, confederal, two countries, or whatever”.
This political realism towards the future was, however, markedly absent in Anton’s understanding of the past. I asked whether he felt the Tigers should apologise for having killed Tamils such as Amirthalingam. “He gave a clean shit to the IPKF”, Anton answered, immediately. He then compared the TULF leader to Vichy collaborators who were later hanged. “Whoever is a betrayer will be punished by the masses”.
But what about Tiruchelvam? Why murder a fine and internationally respected scholar? “Because he was working against the interests of the Tamils”, came the very quick reply. “Tiruchelvam said he was against the LTTE, but it is the Tigers who represent the whole community, the whole of the Tamil people. He talked against human rights violations of the Tigers, but never about the army”. He reminded me again of what the French and the British had done to their ‘betrayers’ after the second world war: “If you are willing to be used by the enemy’s propaganda machinery, you should be prepared for the consequences”. Anton added, spitefully, “Tiruchelvam did not know Tamil, did not even know where Jaffna was”. (At least one of these statements I knew to be a lie. When I visited Tiruchelvam’s house in Colombo, his still intact study was lined with rows upon rows of Tamil books.) Later in the conversation, Anton told me of a speech at which Prabhakaran had apparently said: “If I betray the Tamil people, I too will be killed”. This was a chilling justification of political murder, here being quoted with pride.
I insisted on seeking some admission of Tiger frailty. In parts of Mannar and in the eastern region around Batticaloa, the LTTE had mounted savage attacks on Tamil-speaking Muslims who had resisted being taxed. Independent reports suggested that whole villages had been ethnically cleansed. “What about the Tigers’ treatment of the Muslims?” I asked. Pat came the answer, patiently prepared over years, and articulated many times before: “There was never any conflict in the past. It has been created by the government. As Lenin says, the oppressors always try to create clashes between sections of the oppressed. But as Tamils we know what it means to be subjugated by a majority. Give us the chance to decide our own future. Wait for the political solution. Then the Tiger leadership will never allow oppression of another minority”.
The only time Anton stumbled, very slightly, was when I raised the question of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. He first blamed it on the IPKF (original action causing a justifiable over-reaction). In any case, if the Sri Lankan prime minister was now willing to talk to the Tigers after all the killings of Sinhala politicians, why could not the Indians do likewise? But this was different, I answered. One could not so easily justify the murder of a leading foreign politician in his own land. This single act had wiped out all sympathy for the Tigers among the 60 million Tamils of India. Besides, Prabhakaran himself was an accused in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, and the Indian government had demanded his extradition. Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, was leader of the opposition in the Indian parliament, and likely a prime minister-in-waiting. Would not this be a problem for the peace talks? Would not those talks require, for their success, the benign approval of the regional big brother?
Anton sought refuge in his leader’s choice of words. “In his press conference [of April 2002], Mr Prabhakaran referred to the killing of Rajiv as a ‘tragic event’”, he said. “Not, mind you, as a successful suicide operation”. Then, like a good Leninist, he insisted that these questions were at bottom political, not personal or emotional. “Sonia Gandhi or even Mr Prabhakaran will not live forever. A way will be found to resolve this”.
As Anton prepared to pick up his things to catch the train to Geneva, I asked him some questions in quick succession:
Q: “Are you a Christian?”
A: “A Catholic by birth, but I do not follow any religious observances or go to church, although my wife does”.
Q: “Are you a Marxist?” (this provoked by the several references to Lenin).
A: “No, because what Marx and Lenin did or said were appropriate to their context. We have to design solutions relevant to our context”.
Q: “Are you a Tiger?”
A: “I am a Tamil, and all Tamils are Tigers”.
Q: “Really?” (this said quizically).
A: “Let me explain. I see myself first and last as a Tamil. I will always be a Tamil, even if I live 50 years in Switzerland. In my homeland the Tamil people are being oppressed, and only the Tigers are fighting this oppression. So I am a Tiger”.
Anton Ponnarajah had abandoned his baptismal faith for another. Still in the church, and a priest no less, was Father Peppi, who had been sent by his bishop to minister to the 4000 Tamil Catholics in Switzerland. A round-faced and ever-smiling man, Father Peppi had studied in a seminary in Jaffna during the bloody days of the 1980s. The students, he recalled, had read their texts by candlelight, sometimes with the sound of shelling in the background. The father seemed to view the IPKF much like any Tiger did. He was himself picked up one morning by Indian soldiers – at 6.30 am, while he was praying, and released only late at night.
After his ordination, Father Peppi was asked to look after a refugee camp in Vavuniya. There were 30,000 inmates: Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Each family lived in a tiny room, 10 feet by 10 feet, and with no education or health facilities. He remembered a cholera epidemic in which 30 babies died in a month. “Always panic, that time”, as he put it. One of his fellow priests had estimated that there were 30,000 war widows in the north. But, Father Peppi added at once, “Other side also there are many widows in the south”.
The father was proud of the efforts of his church towards reconciliation. His own patriarch, the bishop of Mannar, had collected money for the Sinhala poor. The bishop of Colombo had collected blood for Tamil victims of the war. The Catholics were a minority on both sides, but in the vanguard of the moves for peace.
Father Peppi’s present job was to hold Tamil language services for the exiles. The first and third Sundays of the month he took mass in Zurich, the second Sunday in Luzern or Bern, the fourth Sunday in Geneva or Lausanne. The Swiss church had given him a flat – which is where we spoke – but their flock was completely segregated from his own. They met only once a year, on the second Sunday in November, observed as a ‘foreigners day’ in Zürich, when the Tamil Catholics, along with the Albanians, Serbians and others, were granted 10 minutes of a multi-lingual service that ran for a whole morning. Once this was over, the Tamils retreated to their ghetto.
In Switzerland, Father Peppi stayed away from the Tigers. He did not attend their functions, and they left him alone, assured that he had no political axe to grind. When I asked why they had such a following, he said it was because they were the only organisation now fighting for the Tamils. “They are the only redemption for their sufffering. My bishop recognised this, hence he urged the government to talk to them”. But, I asked, were there problems back home with the Tigers? “Yes, for in their own areas they are like a government. They control everything. They want obedience to their rules. Their pass system proved difficult for us. Our people would sometimes complain about the taxes they levied”. Are they taxing refugees, too, I asked. Father Peppi said he did not know.
How much money do the Tigers in fact get from the exiles? One published account said they collected 50 Swiss francs per month per family. This, accumulated over the community, would amount to five million francs annually. A university professor in Zürich knew someone who paid, he said, as much as 200 francs a month. A Swiss journalist said that a great deal of money was also collected on events like Heroes Day, observed annually on 27 November, when thousands of Tamils would meet to hear patriotic speeches and to commemorate their dead. A male nurse in Basel told me simply that the “Tigers ask many, many money. They ask a lot if you have or if you do not have”. He claimed to know a family who had made a one-time payment of 10,000 francs. Two or three years later, the Tigers came back to ask for more.
The nurse was a Muslim, originally from Mannar. Between 1989 and 1991, he was a medical student in Jaffna. It was hard for him to go home on vacations, travelling to and fro between areas controlled by the Tigers and the army. Then, suddenly, there was no home anymore. His father’s thriving fish business was destroyed by the Tigers, as part of a wider attack on Muslims. The family fled to Colombo and the boy, on his parents’ advice, escaped to Europe. Helped by an agent, he finally reached Switzerland, via Italy, Yugoslavia and Austria.
I spoke to this Tamil Muslim – let us call him Arif – in a Movenpick café outside the railway station. Here, in Basel, he could more easily become a nurse than a doctor. The authorities encouraged educated Tamils to move into this profession, since the Swiss could not decently look after their own elderly. Arif did a four-year course in nursing school, helped by loans from friends, Hindus as well as Muslims. “Among us there is no problem”, he said. “The Tigers are the problem. They profit from a conflict. They incite Hindu-Muslim clashes in the Eastern Province, so that they can gain control”. He now stayed clear of the Tigers, but said he knew other exiles who paid money regularly. This was to prevent harm coming to their families back home. “They pay as otherwise they are worried the Tigers will take away everything – land, jewellery, houses. No one talks about these things because they are afraid. I am also afraid”.
I asked Arif whether he welcomed the ceasefire. “No, not really. I never believe these things. This is to allow Tigers to plan for the next stage of the war. Now they can move freely, bring in weapons and money into the North”. He told me pointedly, “If they really wanted peace, why were they still collecting money? After the ceasefire, Swiss Tamils visited Jaffna and Mannar but came back to tell us: ‘do not go home; the Tigers will take your money’”. Arif said he did not believe that the Tigers were for the Tamils, since they had made so many of them suffer. Then he added, “The other side [the Sri Lankan Army] is also not good”.
The café where we met was crowded. Arif looked worried whenever I spoke loudly, as I have a tendency to do. He himself spoke in a low voice, but with deliberation and an absolute clarity. Arif was reflective and philosophical, wise beyond his years, the wisdom borne out of his own, and his people’s, experience. I should say the same for his almost exact contemporary, Mathi of Adliswil. Yet, how different were their perceptions of the Tigers. One hesitates to ascribe this difference simply to their respective religions. Leonard Woolf, who worked as a civil servant among the Jaffna Tamils in the first decade of the 20th century, wrote of “their strange mixture of tortuosity and directness, of cunning and stupidity, of cruelty and kindness”. Thus the people, and thus also their leaders. The Tamil Tigers are both liberators and oppressors, heroic fighters for freedom as well as authoritarians brutally intolerant of dissent. How one judges them depends on which side you happen to see first, or see longest.
Sometimes, walking the streets of Zürich in between appointments, I would compare the Tamil predicament to others I knew or had read about. The Tamils were certainly not like the Indian professionals in the United States, who come from elite backgrounds and mostly choose to turn their backs on the problems of their country. In some respects they were like the Jews of early 20th century Brooklyn: labouring away in low-paying jobs, but determined to educate their kids, to make them doctors and lawyers when they had themselves been cooks or bricklayers. At other times I thought the Tamils were akin to the Tibetans in India: likewise fleeing persecution, likewise committed to maintaining their language and culture in exile, as preparation for an eventual return. But there was one essential difference: here there was no Dalai Lama. Nor could the Tibetans claim a continuing opposition within their homeland. Their leader preached non-violence from an Indian hill town, whereas the Tiger chief was based in the jungles of Sri Lanka, directing a violent and (it seemed) not unsuccessful battle for survival.
Where would that struggle finally lead? I put the question to Martin Sturzinger, a journalist who is probably the foremost Swiss authority on the Tamils. Now 45, Sturzinger has been following the Sri Lankan conflict since 1983. He had made more than 20 trips to the island. He had never met Prabhakaran, but knew Anton Balasingham very well. Back in 1989, when the Tigers prepared to talk to President Premadasa, he had presented Balasingham with a book in English on the Swiss Constitution. “I do not know whether he read it”, commented Sturzinger, “but he did not look too happy with the gift!” On another occasion, he told the Tiger ideologue, “You are socialists, so why do you not also take up the cause of the poor among the Sinhala and the Muslim?” Balasingham replied, “We are first nationalists, only then socialists”. Sturzinger thought to himself: “Nationalists, then socialists, does that equal national-socialist?”
Martin Sturzinger described himself as “very sympathetic to the Tamil cause”. He had seen that they had no equal status within Sri Lanka. But to the question, “Do all Tamils in fact support the Tigers?”, he replied, “There are now half-a-million Tamils in Colombo. Many of them are migrants from the Jaffna or Batticaloa areas. Would they be in Colombo if life was so good in territories controlled by the Tigers?” Here, in Switzerland, Sturzinger worked as an adviser on Tamil affairs to the Refugee Council. “Sometimes the Swiss people are so naïve”, he remarked. A Swiss NGO, wishing to show its interest in ‘refugee culture’, invited a group of Tamils to put on a dance show. They came, and staged a drama with girls in fatigues, singing while brandishing sticks. The audience did not understand the language or the context, viewing it merely as a pleasing display of immigrant culture.
Sturzinger had spent the better part of a lifetime educating his countrymen about the plight of the foreigners in their midst. About his understanding or empathy there could be no question. Yet he said, “I have reservations about their leadership”. In May 2002, Balasingham visited Switzerland to speak to the exiles about why the Tigers had decided to sue for peace. There was a large rally in Freiburg, organised by Anton Ponnarajah, and attended by more than 3000 Tamils. As in the Bern allmend, there were LTTE cadres placed strategically among the crowd, wearing black trousers and white shirts. “It was almost fascist”, said Sturzinger.
If we settle for less than Eelam, remarked Balasingham back in 1989, our own people will kill us. But now it increasingly seems that autonomy on the Swiss model, rather than independence, is the most feasible option. Would the exiles accept this? Would their dreams of sovereignty and freedom be satisfied with a solution that had been on the table from before the Tigers were born? An answer was on offer in the place where Sturzinger and I met, the Thamillar Restaurant, off Aemtlerstrasse in central Zürich. Here, one wall had a large photograph of Prabhakaran, captioned: “Tamil Eelam National Leader”. He was wearing a bush-shirt and was smiling. It seemed to be a studio photograph. As I stepped up to have a closer look, a waiter commented: “There are thousands of such photos in Sri Lanka”.
More revealing still was what met the eye as one first entered the restaurant. This was a board along whose top ran the legend, “Eelam”. Below was a map of the homeland, coloured green. The borders were marked by a row of blinking lights. The territory claimed extended to at least 150 miles south of the eastern port, Trincomalee. On the western seaboard, too, it extended well below the town of Puttalam, way beyond what any Sri Lankan would concede. The major settlements were well marked on the map: Killinochi, Mannar, Batticaloa, and Jallappanam (Jaffna). Just south of Trinco, a little red dot identified the proposed new ‘capital’. Why, I wondered, had they chosen this place and not the old historic cultural centre, Jaffna? Was this to keep peace with the Muslims, or because of its proximity to the key port of Trinco? Or did it merely reflect the ambition of a new state to build a new capital?
While the territory of Eelam was painted over in green, the rest of the island was coloured a dull brown. On the southern part of Sri Lanka was painted the logo of the LTTE, a fierce yellow tiger against a deep red background. The tiger’s eyes were a pair of orange lights. And what was the symbolism of this? The LTTE logo sat atop, or rather squashed, where Colombo would be on the map. The snarling tiger, with its eyes flashing, seemed to act simultaneously as the watchdog and guarantor of the territory placed above it.
What I had read about the Tigers before I came to Switzerland did not endear them to me. What some Tigers told me in Zürich and Luzern dismayed and even chilled me. And yet, with the exception of the oily spin doctor Parthiban, I hardly met an exile who did not charm me. Despite their profound ambivalence towards India and Indians, I was always treated with respect and courtesy. My sometimes impolite questions were always answered with an equal directness.
An Indian brought up to admire Gandhi and Nehru cannot easily warm to the LTTE. My experiences in Switzerland did not quell my reservations; to the contrary, as when faced with the inflexible ideology of the cadres, it only confirmed them. But perhaps I might still be allowed to separate the person from his faith, thus to remember with affection the cook-cum-sports organiser Mathialakan, the actor-cum-activist Anton Ponnarajah, the school-and-curriculum builder Mahindran.
One memory, above all others, shall stay with me. On the second evening of the Bern festival I witnessed the final round of that famous Tamil game, ‘musical chairs’. Its organiser was a little man named Manoharan, clad in black trousers, white shirt and Tiger jacket. With me was a Swiss television crew who wished to film the event. Manoharan ran to call us from the food stall, placing us strategically in the middle of the ring. We stayed there for 45 minutes, watching a field of 25 women dwindle to two. Also watching were hundreds of Tamils, standing four rows deep, with individual voices alerting wife, mother or daughter to a vacant chair when the music stopped. All the while Manoharan busily supervised the game, signalling to the music with a code of his own, chastising participants who tried to cheat by walking too slowly. He executed his responsibilities with an appealing mixture of charm and authority, and with an absolute and seemingly natural fairness. I cannot speak for his leader in the forest, or of how that man might come to run his Tamil state, but little Manoharan’s conduct of his modest musical chairs did not seem inconsistent with the path of dharma or righteousness.