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Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

Venugopal Master: 60th Birthday Tribute

Sachi Sri Kantha, 29 March 2004
Courtesy Sangam

Words most often mutate when they get borrowed by another language and one among the many meanings which they imply gain precedence over other meanings. A good example is the English word 'master' [whose root was from Latin, magnus, = great.] Whatever its deflated status in American English now -mainly due to the past practice of slavery - 'master' retains the positive, endearing connotation in Eelam Tamil language, as a borrowed English word for teacher or mentor. There is an equivalent word sensei in Japanese language, which carries the same endearing connotation carried by the word 'master' in Tamil. It should also be noted that the perfectly equivalent word guru in Oriental Indian languages, referring to teacher, has gained a pejorative meaning in English, partly due to the antics of some Indian holy men since the 1960s following the emergence of Hippie values in America.

How many can claim the status of being a mentor to the LTTE leader V.Pirabhakaran? According to my count, five deserve notice; in chronological order, they are namely P.Venugopal, P.Nedumaran, Anton Balasingham, Adele Wilby Balasingham and M.G.Ramachandran (MGR). Among these five, all except MGR are still living. Also worthy of attention are that, (1) all except Venugopal Master are household names to Eelam Tamils, and (2) all except Venugopal Master are photo-familiar to Tamils. Thus, with a fervent belief that his importance deserves wider recognition, I pen this tribute to Pirabhakaran's first mentor, Venugopal Master from Valvettithurai, whose 60th birthday falls on April 6. He was the prime influence on the young, teenage Pirabhakaran from 1967 to 1972. To his young protégé, he instilled the pride in being a Tamil, and espoused Tamil nationalism. He also opened the windows of the world to his protégé - especially the depleting fortunes of many heroic tribes in America and Indian subcontinent, who succumbed at the hands of colonisers to their lands, for want of new armaments and strong leadership.

M.R.Narayan Swamy's flaunted 'first print biography' of Pirabhakaran [titled, Inside An Elusive Mind, 2003; reviewed by me in a previous sangam website posting] does not even name Mr.Venugopal. He makes a cameo appearance as an unnamed tutor in a couple of sentences. So much for the quality, or the lack of, of this Indian journalist's hatchet job.

During my recent visit to Kilinochchi, I was offered a rare privilege of meeting with Venugopal Master for two days [on March 3rd and 4th], for a total of nearly five hours. Until I met him in person, I had erroneously believed that Venugopal Master was not among the living. When we faced each other, he apologized for being a little 'under the weather.' In return, I also apologized to him for my erroneous belief. He smiled and without taking any offence quipped that 'Don't mind it. I'm being written about by quite a few, without they even hearing my voice or looking at my face.' The Master is of medium stature by Eelam Tamil reference, and had unusually sparkling, rolling eyes - especially in illustrating or emphasizing a point to his listener.

Venugopal then settled down to reminisce on his relationship with his famous protégé. He also leveled my position with an encouraging comment: 'I'm glad that you came and I have heard about you. Only those with sincere interest in Eelam affairs and an impeccable track record as a chronicler are shown the path to my current residence.' Following my response that I'm a Point Pedro native and that my grand uncle [my father's eldest brother] was S.Pathmanathan Master in Puloly East - a locally recognized school teacher from 1940s to early 1970s -, Venugopal Master warmed up to me.

I asked the Master, what specific aspects of his daily discussions seemed to have lit the flame in Pirabhakaran's heart? He identified three. First, is that historically Tamils in the island had their own flag, had territory and had conducted their own political affairs before the advent of Western colonialists. The terminology of Sinhala majority and Tamil minority was a recent introduction following the Lord Donoughmore Commission of late 1920s. Second, is that the parliamentary road of Tamil salvation (preached by the political leadership of advocates/proctors) since 1948 had led to disaster for the Tamil ethnics, within one generation. Third, is that the only available path to regain the Tamil initiative is to work on establishing a true military unit for Tamils.

Then, as an aside, Venugopal Master chuckled and reminisced an anecdote. One day, young Pirabha came to him and asked, "Master, Thuvakai Thaango" [translation: Master, give us the gun]. For this demand, the mentor responded meekly, "Muthal, kambadi payilungo." [translation: You all should develop your physique first, and start practicing kambadi; literally, stick-fight - but in Tamil figuratively, referring to skill in traditional martial arts]. This tangential answer by the mentor temporarily floored Pirabha, the serious protégé, and he went sulking, "When we ask for a gun, our Master was preaching us to learn kambadi." Having lived to see how Pirabhakaran had taken his mentor's words seriously and established a full-fledged Tamil army, now Venugopal Master's eyes glisten with admiration on the mental toughness of his protégé. Master also mentions about the inevitable loss of lives; his guestimate of a serious, violent campaign by Eelam Tamils to regain their lost political rights; i.e., 'nearly 100,000 deaths' and told it straight to the LTTE leader, for which Pirabhakaran listened aptly - but with hardly any visible emotion in his face. Also, Mr.Venugopal informed me that in his discussion on strategy, he reinforced the themes that 'What were politically correct thoughts of the 19th century [such as racial dominance, servility and colonialism] are unacceptable to 20th century living.'

I also asked the Master, whether historical or social presentations of cinema, particularly Madras Tamil cinema of 1950s and 1960s, had any influence in their mentor-protégé interactions. Mr.Venugopal answered in the negative and merely stated that he considered the presentations of Tamil cinema as 'nothing more than entertainment and stretching the historical facts, whenever they were presented.' Thus, I indirectly deduced that the celebrated 'Clint Eastwood influence' of Pirabhakaran should have entered into LTTE leader's psyche in his post-Vengugopal Master phase.

Taken as a whole, the distinguishing characteristics of the eclectic group of Pirabhakaran's five mentors also deserve some attention. Two (Venugopal and Balasingham) were from the Vadamarachchi region, two (Nedumaran and MGR) were from Tamil Nadu and one (Adele Balasingham) was from Australia. Also, this group consisted of four Tamil men and one 'nominally non-Tamil' woman; alternatingly, three nominal Hindus and two nominal Christians. None of the five held a snobbish Harvard or Oxford pedigree, but each of the five were distinct in their upbringing and intellectual make up. Even in their primary professions, each of Pirabhakaran's five mentors differed like five fingers of a palm; a secondary school-grade teacher, a politician turned social activist, a journalist-translator, a nurse and a successful stage-movie actor turned politician; in short, these were not eggheads floating in the illusory world of academia. Due to this distinct intellectual tapestry of his five mentors - rooted in native region, neighboring Tamil Nadu and Adele's Australia-British upbringing - Pirabhakaran was a beneficiary of multiple and complimentary influences.

For the record, I inquired about Mr.Venugopal's family background. He said, he was the middle-born [born in 1944, as fourth among seven siblings] of Ponnuswamy-Sothimuthu couple of Valvettithurai. His father was known as Ponnuswamy Sastri (1909-1969) in the locale. Financially, their family was not well endowed. At Valvettithurai, he studied at Sivaguru Vidyasalai [known then as Aaladi Pallikoodam] from 1949 to 1952. Then, he was at Chidambara College from 1953 to 1963. He studied natural sciences in high school, with chemistry, physics, botany and zoology as subjects. Due to his family's limited means, he could not enter the university then, and thus settled for a life as a tutor for school students in English and science subjects, in the locality. The then prinicipal of Chidambara College of 1950s, S.Vanamamalai Aiyangar, and another teacher called Subramaniam Master were the two who had strong influence on him.

Mr.Venugopal's political thought process were kindled in 1958-59 by the influential short tracts of C.N.Annadurai, the founder of the DMK, which he read avidly from the local library. Then, in the early 1960s, he interacted with the Tamil political leaders of the North Eelam such as C.Suntheralingam, G.G.Ponnambalam, K.Thurairatnam and V.Navaratnam - all representing a Tamil constituency in Ceylon's parliament in 1950s and/or 1960s. Two character-traits he found on these Tamil legislators of that past era was that though they were personally affable, uncorrupt, civic-minded leaders, their chief concern was nothing but a 'parliamentary chair' and their thoughts were concentrated on 'inheriting these parliamentary chairs' as 'their own dowry property'; and the plight of Tamils was subsidiary to their chief concern. I sensed that Venugopal Master had a soft spot for Chellapah Suntheralingam, the only elected scientist (mathematician)-politician Eelam Tamils have ever had. It goes without saying that Prof.Suntheralingam was also the father of the Eelam concept in the second half of 1950s. Venugopal Master told me, 'Suntheralingam's brain was on a different plane from others. Regrettably, he was an eccentric individualist - as typical of mathematicians - and he couldn't nurture a team of followers. Thus Eelam nationalism didn't catch fire then.'

From 1983, for the next 18 years, Mr.Venugopal lived beyond the borders of Sri Lanka; which partly explains why he remains a less-known figure in published Pirabhakaran stories. He returned to Eelam, on the special invitation from his famous protégé and is now engaged in teaching the younger generation of students. His family remains dispersed now. His wife is currently in India, undergoing medical treatment. His children are settled in other lands.

It is said of Socrates that, though he didn't write anything, he was an exemplary teacher who was listened to seriously by a young fellow named Plato, who turned out to be a super scribe cum philosopher. This link alone covered up Socrates's deficit in penmanship. Similarly, Venugopal was listened to seriously by his then young protégé Pirabhakaran, whose script on Tamil nationalism now echoes highly on the tutorial caliber of a town Master. I didn't take any audio or video recording devices with me during my two-day interaction with the Master. Thus, when I took leave from him, I requested that for posterity, he on his own, should write - without further delay - about his salad days of late 1960s when he tutored Pirabhakaran regularly, in the evenings from 6:15 pm for nearly three hours. The Master quipped, that the same suggestion has been made to him by quite a few other well wishers; and if God and health were willing, he would endure to comply to our requests. Before parting, the self-effacing teacher strained to make a point in an easily understood metaphor of devout Hindus; that it was his good fortune to have lit the camphor (karpooram) in the temple of Tamil political revival, and he wouldn't claim any more credit than this. 'Thamby's brain was the karpooram.' Thamby, of course, was his pet diminutive for Pirabhakaran.

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