Inside an Elusive Mind - Prabhakaran: the first profile of the world's most ruthless leader
Narrating a story interesting enough to capture the reader's attention requires skill. Narrating a story that has been told by hundred others but continuing to receive the reader's undivided attention requires Narayan Swamy. The book, Inside an Elusive Mind - Prabhakaran: the first profile of the world's most ruthless guerilla leader is not only a testimonial to the author's narrative talent, but also one of the finest descriptions of contemporary Eelam history and the crisis looming large over the small island country of Sri Lanka.
The narrative begins with the seemingly insignificant but emotive incident that eventually snowballs into the first anti-Tamil pogrom - Seelan's death. Fleeing from Sri Lankan soldiers who were on his tail for an ambush weeks earlier, "Seelan kept running, painfully realizing that the bullet wound he had suffered in the knee during an earlier attack on a police station was slowing him down.... Panting and unable to run any further, he asked his friend to kill him. The friend was stunned by the bizarre request. He pleaded with Seelan that they only had to run a few minutes before they reached a village where they could hide. But Seelan would have none of it.... 'shoot me, please' he begged, gasping for breath. The friend had no choice, and time. His hands trembling, he aimed his rifle at Seelan's forehead. He saw tears welling up in the eyes of the self-condemned man. Seelan, though begging for death, seemed wanting to be alive to continue to fight on for the cause." (p.4) Seelan was not only a close confidant of Prabhakaran, but also his good friend. Naturally, Prabhakaran decided to strike back and he did it with the help of Chellakili, another close and trusted confidant. The revenge was the ambush on the Sri Lankan army resulting in the death of 13 soldiers - the worst casualty suffered by the Sri Lankan army since the beginning of insurgency - which in turn precipitated the anti-Tamil pogrom that followed. Prabhakaran lost Chellakili in the ambush - a loss that left Prabhakaran inconsolable having lost Seelan only a fortnight earlier. "Prabhakaran broke down, sobbing inconsolably. It was the first and last time anyone saw Prabhakaran cry." (p.9)
Through adept narration of this poignant episode, Narayan Swamy establishes a few characteristics of Prabhakaran as well as the struggle for Eelam that is manifest in the entire book through various incidents. One, the rebels are no fanatic robots carrying out the orders of a megalomaniac leader. Each cadre is as passionate for the cause as the leader himself, and, to this end they will readily give up their life. Many have wondered how the Sri Lankan insurgency continues unabated for more than two decades with the same fervor it started despite heavy losses. Maybe the reason lies in the fact that every fighter is as committed to the cause as the leader; and Prabhakaran has ensured that it stays that way by ruthlessly weeding out the doubting Thomases.
Two, Prabhakaran will have his vengeance. There is no escaping it. His retribution has been strongest when it involved betraying the cause of the Tamils. This is apparent in the execution of Amirthalingam, the TULF leader, who Prabhakaran perceived to the have sold out the Tamils and their just cause to Sri Lankan chauvinism. Even his close confidants and deputies have not been spared, especially when they have questioned Prabhakaran's orders or advocated the need for an alternative end to the struggle. Uma, once chairman of the LTTE, was stripped of his position and thrown out of LTTE. Mahattaya, deputy leader of LTTE, was not so lucky and was executed after a kangaroo court sentenced him to death. And the list goes on.
Three, Prabhakaran is susceptible to human emotions as any ordinary person notwithstanding his generous display of ruthlessness. Seelan's loss brought tears to Prabhakaran's eyes. This did not remain a momentary feeling. Prabhakaran named his first son Charles after Charles Lucas Antony alias Seelan. He mourned the death of Kittu, another ruthless LTTE leader and loyal friend of Prabhakaran since childhood. Shankar's death left an indelible mark on Prabhakaran. Shankar, wounded in a battle in Jaffna, was shifted in serious condition to a hospital in Madurai (Tamilnadu). "The LTTE chief held Shankar's hands and then took his head in his lap even as the wounded man kept calling him by his nickname thamby.... 'They kept gazing at each other...' Nedumaran recalled. 'Prabhakaran kept looking at him intently, as if he was silently pleading with him not to go away.' And then, Shankar died." (p.72) Year after year, 27 November, the day Shankar died, is celebrated as heroes' day and the LTTE remembers its martyrs - Shankar and countless others after him - with great reverence. Prabhakaran's directives and stubborn means to achieve Eelam may have resulted in the death of many cadres. However, Narayan Swamy's narrative reveals that each life lost is precious to Prabhakaran as made apparent by the importance he gives to the martyrs. It is probably this respect for human lives that compels LTTE cadres, especially the Black Tigers to make the supreme sacrifice for the cause of Eelam.
Narayan Swamy explains in his preface the impetus behind his current volume: A chapter on Prabhakaran in his previous volume Tigers of Lanka was the first published account on the LTTE chief. Sri Lanka watchers wanted more, and hence this book. Weaving through the profile of Prabhakaran is the story of the Lankan crisis, which heard a hundred times, still interests the reader not because of the content alone but because of the narrative talent of Narayan Swamy to thread the tale along with its main protagonist - Prabhakaran. While his previous work is a narrative account of the militancy, Inside an Elusive Mind dwells deeper into why Prabhakaran does, and will continue to do, the things he does.
While the ruthless side of Prabhakaran is most apparent, what Narayan Swamy has achieved most efficiently is to expose the little known informal side of the LTTE leader.
As a child, Prabhakaran was a loner with a shy disposition. His solace was reading and books his favorite companion, though he showed little interest in studies and eventually dropped out of school. As he grew up, his shyness developed into reticence; almost everyone who interacted with Prabhakaran has revealed that their first impression of Prabhakaran was that he was a very quiet, unassuming and shy person. Adele Balasingham, recalling her first meeting with Prabhakaran and his confidant Baby noted: "Their appearance belied their reputation. Both were short, neat little men who looked like butter wouldn't melt in their mouths." (p. 53) However the restiveness in his heart has been very apparent in his eyes, which, again, almost everyone has noted. For the Tamilnadu politician Janardhanan, "Prabhakaran looked shy but restive young man with big piercing eyes." (p. 29) Prabhakaran enjoyed cooking and many a times treated his fellow cadres to good meals. An excellent marksman he liked to showing off his talent to visitors at his camp. He fell hopelessly in love, which resulted in the removal of the LTTE bar on love and marriage.
Puritan about cleanliness, Prabhakaran "dressed up neatly and expected other LTTE members to do so as well.... His fetish for cleanliness became an obsession. Only a handful of LTTE guerillas were permitted to grow beards." (p. 69) "At the LTTE office in Madras, he would often run a finger under the windowsill or the armrests of chairs to feel for dust. If he found any dirt he would react angrily." (p. 105) "His fetish for cleanliness continued even in the forests of Mullaitivu where flies were a major nuisance. Prabhakaran did not like pesticides, instead he asked young cadres to swat them. There was even a competition to see who swatted the most number of flies." (p. 205)
Even as Prabhakaran grew, did he plan and prepare himself to lead the struggle for Eelam? Narayan Swamy narrates few incidents that suggest that this could be the case. "To anyone who cared to see, even at that early age Prabhakaran was already showing signs of being different from the rest of the crowd. Some of his actions and behavior betrayed an evolving ruthlessness that was to become the hallmark of his terror campaign later in his life. He would often stun his family members by tying himself in a gunny bag, lying in the sun the whole day.... He would wrap himself with bags used for carrying red chilies or insert pins into his nails. If all this appeared to foreshadow a man preparing himself for a life that demanded great levels of physical endurance, Prabhakaran added a twist to it by pricking insects to death with needles.... In hindsight it seems disconcerting that he could have charted his life ahead with so much cold calculation. It was a measure of how much he was thinking ahead that he took away or destroyed all of his photographs in the family album. The apparent logic was to create elusiveness about himself since he knew what he was planning to become." (p. 27) And, this logic actually proved correct years later as the Sri Lankan forces were hunting for Prabhakaran without knowing how he looked, and no "wanted" poster in the early resistance days carried his photo for the simple reason the police did not have any.
Prabhakaran's meticulous planning is also apparent in a particular episode narrated by Narayan Swamy. "Once Janardhanan took Prabhakaran to a quiet spot along the vast seaside in Madras. Prabhakaran was fascinated by what he saw: 'This is the kind of place we need for military training.' Janardhanan ignored him, not quite recognizing the import of that comment." (p. 30) Prabhakaran was still in his teens when he made this remark and still a long way off from heading a guerilla outfit that eventually received training along the shores of Tamilnadu.
Through his narrative, Narayan Swamy has made Prabhakaran more human beset with his share of emotions and weaknesses. This not only helps the reader to associate with Prabhakaran better, but also in some way justify his behavior. "It is doubtful however if Prabhakaran could have traveled thus far but for the obduracy of the Sri Lankan establishment and a perverse Sinhalese-Buddhist majority mindset that consistently refused to accept the moderate Tamil leadership and put a lid on the boiling ethnic volcano. Instead, the problem was allowed to fester. Today, many Sri Lankans readily admit that Sinhalese chauvinism went to absurd lengths to impose its will on the Tamil minority - with catastrophic results. The refusal to shake hands with moderate Tamil politicians led to a vacuum in the Tamil society that mushroomed militancy. The militants saw violence as an answer to state repression. Prabhakaran was thus made." (p.267)
Narayan Swamy's book is about profiling Prabhakaran. So how does one answer two serious questions that the author raises in his preface: Will Prabhakaran give up his claim for separation and settle for autonomy? Will the man, in a burst of fury, unleash again, with all the power at his command, his self-styled war for separation, as he did thrice before after professing to renounce the path of violence? After reading the book, the answer is apparent. Prabhakaran will never give up his demand for a separate Tamil Eelam. To this end, he will not hesitate to unleash another war for separation if that is the one thing that will help achieve Eelam. Prabhakaran's profile reveals that he, his cadres and the Tamil people have sacrificed too much to settle for anything less.
The volume is well priced, affordable and finely produced. And any reader, informed or otherwise, can enjoy it as much as Narayan Swamy, who seems to have enjoyed scripting it.
The author's comments on the review....
When I read Mallika Joseph's review of my book Inside an Elusive Mind, I felt justifiably elated as I realized the result of my efforts spanning several years had been amply appreciated. Since its publication in October 2003 the book has generated several reviews, in India and abroad, and each one has been positive. Mallika's review made it emphatically evident that my endeavour to weave together history and investigative reporting had been roundly recognized. My thanks!
Yes, I very much enjoyed writing this first biography of Velupillai Prabhakaran. The idea of putting together Prabhakaran's life story was born in my mind, as I say in the preface, shortly after my first book, Tigers of Lanka, came out in 1994. But few people were aware that I had spent much of my own money researching for that book. My 11-day trip to London in April 1992, for the first book, was self-financed. I wonder if many Indian authors would have ventured so far! Thanks, however, to my friends (the late) Jaswinder Singh and Suzanne Goldenberg, I stayed free in their house in London.
I was stubborn enough not to spend more than 10 pounds a day, surviving on bare minimum food! It was tough but satisfying. Later, however, I decided that I would not a biography until a publisher was willing to fund my travels. That opportunity came about in 2001, quite unexpectedly. My thanks to two men who made possible my trips to Britain, Canada, Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu: K.P.R. Nair and Mayank Chhaya.
Although I have been a student of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict since 1983 and had collected a huge quantum of information about Tamil militants by the time I brought out Tigers of Lanka, I was conscious that Prabhakaran's story needed to be told. Much of what is happening in Sri Lanka, I feel, can be linked to the fact that so few people have understood Prabhakaran and his uncompromising mindset. Actually, I did not want to write anything that would look academic, peppered with footnotes. I wanted to write a fast-paced book that would combine Prabhakaran's gripping but gory rise in Sri Lankan's contemporary history, in a style that would engage the readers, both in narration as well as presentation. Mallika's review proves I have not failed.
But long before Mayank and Nair entered the picture, I had begun collecting notes and news. This was made possible by a large crop of friends, both Indians and Sri Lankans. Most of them spoke freely and frankly, at times for hours and over more than one session, sharing with me some of their deepest secrets. It was in 1998 I met Prabhakaran's father in Chennai, thanks to a long-standing friend. Of course it wasn't smooth sailing all the time. There were frustrating moments. But overall it was experience and I could feel I was writing history!
It is during my research for the two books I realized how woefully inadequate were the facilities in India for those who want to delve into the depth of contemporary history but had no connections with even think tanks. Research involves travel and travel means money. India may aspire to be a global power but it will not become one until it sets up an effective mechanism, through think tanks or otherwise, to fund intellectual pursuits. It is no wonder that even after two decades of insurgency in Sri Lanka, there was so much that was not known about the man who is at the heart of a dragging conflict that continues to cast a shadow on South Asia and beyond. Hopefully, Inside an Elusive Mind will help shed valuable light on Prabhakaran, his worldview and the seemingly unending Tamil Eelam conflict.
MR Narayan Swamy