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Sivaram at Memorial Meeting
New Jersey, USA
5 June 2005
[see also One Hundred Tamils of the 20th/21st Centuries - Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)]
|God knows how much I wish, that I am not here today, to
make this speech.
I last saw Sivaram only a few months ago. This past January, he came to visit with me in Poughkeepsie. At that time I had no inkling that I would be standing here today, to eulogize Sivaram. This is like a bad dream.
During one of his earlier visits to Poughkeepsie, I had brought up the subject of the dangers Sivaram faced, because of his work, in a country like Sri Lanka. But that was soon after Kumar Ponnambalam was assassinated, in addition to a few journalists. And it was during the war years. At that time he downplayed the dangers he faced. And he scoffed at my suggestion that he, and his family, move to Canada. “What will I do in Canada?” he asked. “I will be useless”.
But, in January of 2005, there was a ceasefire in Sri Lanka, for nearly 3 years at that. I didn’t think that there was a problem about Siva’s safety. Therefore, I did not raise the subject. And he did not either, during the Chinese meal we shared.
We were up well past midnight, TALKING - Siva talking, and me listening.
I first met Sivaram in July 1997, at a hotel-bar in Lucerne, Switzerland. It was after dinner, around 9.00 p.m. We were among the invitees to a conference on ‘Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka’. It was sponsored by the International Alert and the Swiss government.
When I first saw him that day, Sivaram was perched on a bar-stool, facing away from the bar, and at the tables nearby. I was seated way in the back, at one of those tables. I remember nudging someone seated next to me, to ask “who is he?” I was told “Taraki”.
An impressive array of VIPs from India and Sri Lanka attended the conference – General Kalkut (Indian Army), Ambassador J.N. Dixit, M.K. Narayanan (ex NIB Chief & current National Security Advisor of India), Bradman Weerakoon (ex-Presidential advisor), Harry Goonetileke (ex-air Marshall of SLAF) , Kumar Rupesinghe, Stanley Kalpage (ex-Sri Lankan ambassador), N. Ram (editor Frontline)… Many of them were at that bar that night.
How I happened to be there in such company is something I would rather not discuss – an embarrassing episode in my life for me, of defending the Tamil cause, at the wrong time and at the wrong place.
Let me get back to the story of Sivaram on the barstool.
Sivaram, a drink in hand, was giving a lecture. He was talking about the vagaries of the Sri Lankan armed forces. He was talking about the sizes of the ‘battalions’ and ‘divisions’ of the Sri Lankan Army, and how the SL army was ‘top-heavy’, with too many generals and too many commanders, than infantrymen, etc. Half of what he said was in military-jargon, which I didn’t quite understand. The way he said it, however, seemed to make sense. His explanation, as to why the Sri Lankan army was loosing battle after battle against the LTTE forces, sounded plausible. This lasted about 3 hours.
Sivaram’s audience at this bar - which included decorated generals of the Indian and the Sri Lankan armed forces - sat there listening with practically their mouths open. The only interruptions were questions for clarification. No one challenged him. Sivaram - that night - was in command.
I was, obviously, quite amused by this bizarre scene. This poorly dressed and somewhat unkempt Sri Lankan Tamil, Sivaram, having the Army Generals, and also the seasoned politicians, of two countries in rapt attention. At first, I thought that they were being merely polite.
But this impression of them being polite lasted only a few days. That was until I read the following weekend’s Sunday Times.
Fredericka Janz (the Times/Mirror Journalist), who was also present at this conference, had had an exclusive interview with General Kalkut. This dialogue was published in the Sunday Times, the following week – in a Q&A format.
I was shocked, to say the least, to read General Kalkut repeating what Sivaram had told him that evening, practically verbatim. Mind you, he was the Indian Army General, who led the IPKF mission to Sri Lanka,
It was beyond belief for me, that this Army General had actually ‘learned’ military strategies from Sivaram for his interview with the Sri Lankan Sunday Times!
This was the Sivaram who I had first met in 1997.
I have read virtually every article Sivaram has written, before and after 1997. But up until this encounter, he was just a talented journalist to me. This encounter in Lucerne in the summer of 1997 was an eye-opener for me.
His in-depth understanding of everything that he talked/wrote about makes him one of the most outstanding journalists/writers, Thamileelam has ever produced.
Subsequent to 1997, I have met Sivaram at a few functions, and had the opportunity to say hello and chat briefly. I have also had a few e-mail exchanges as editor of Sangam.org. Nothing personal.
I had concluded that this was the extent to which I will have a relationship with Sivaram. But, all of a sudden I received a call from him - I think in 2001- asking me if he could come to visit me in Poughkeepsie. I was thrilled. So I got into my car and drove 70 miles to New York City to bring him home.
On the way to my place, he told me the ‘real’ reason for his request. He has a friend, he said, an American college professor, who happened to live in my town.
This is a fascinating story. Mark Whittaker, his friend in Poughkeepsie, had spent some time in Batticaloa, during his research for his doctoral thesis. There he had met Sivaram, spent time at his mother’s house, and there grew a great friendship.
Mark was intrigued and captivated by Sivaram’s intellect.
He had traveled halfway across the world, and in a little town, in a third world country, he had found this ex-militant, and a college dropout at that, who not only had such command of the English language - but also one well versed in the western literature and western philosophy. To cut a long story short – actually, Mark is here today – and he can tell you the rest of the story.
This led to Prof. Whittaker writing a chapter about Sivaram in a book called “Collective Identities”. This story doesn’t end here.
The publisher of this book, intrigued by this strange phenomenon commands Whittaker to write a whole book about him. This book titled, ‘Learning Politics from Sivaram’ is in the works and is due out soon. Prof. Whittaker can tell you all about it.
Here is Mark.