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May 29, 2005

No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal, 2004

tears_sister.gifOn an unassuming afternoon in September 1989, Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, a 35 year-old physician, medical university professor, and human rights activist, was riding home on her bicycle after having finished grading the final examinations from her Anatomy class when she was gunned down on an anonymous street in her native city of Jaffna by unknown (or at least, publicly undisclosed) assailants. Over fifteen years later, the still-unsolved murder continues to reveal the trauma and underlying senseless tragedy of her assassination on her family - her two young daughters, her estranged husband, her parents, her younger sisters - and especially, her older sister, Nirmala, who blames herself for initiating Rajani into the ethnic struggle that would ultimately claim her life. Virtually inseparable during their privileged, upper middle-class, westernized Christian childhood, Nirmala and Rajani's seemingly disparate ideological trajectories - Nirmala in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) movement and Rajani in the Marxist movement of the 1970s - would converge towards their homeland's post-colonial struggle for national identity as the Tamil minority (who were perceived to have been favored by the British and subsequently, were systematically marginalized under the government of the newly formed country) and Singhalese majority engaged in a bitter and protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. Nirmala, then a member of the Tamil tigers fighting for an independent state, had repeatedly sought assistance from her sister to secretly treat the wounds of injured guerillas - an act that, from the LTTE's perspective, can be construed as a validation of her allegiance to the organization. However, Rajani's political motivation would not be so easily defined. Championing instead the cause of the silent, innocent victims of the devastating, multi-pronged conflict among nationalists, Tamil separatists, Marxists (People's Liberation Army), government forces, and even Indian peace-keeping forces, Rajani defied the role of partisan revolutionary and instead, focused her energies on creating some semblance of normalcy and rebuilding a future for the people of Jaffra by helping to re-open the region's bomb-damaged university and forming the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) who sought to chronicle the human rights violations perpetrated on the people of Jaffra irrespective of factional responsibility. Even Rajana's husband Dayapala acknowledges his own (then) limited view of the significance of his wife's activities during this period, commenting to Nirmala that his concept of political activism had been of armed struggle and not humanitarianism, commenting "We didn't consider human rights as politics." However, as Rajana became more outspoken and internationally recognized in her group's efforts to document the atrocities, culminating in the publication of the manuscript, The Broken Palmyra, insurgents began to view her activities as undermining their cause - a perception that is widely believed to have contributed to her death. Through filmmaker Helene Klodawsky's evocatively interwoven composition of nostalgically rendered re-enactments, archival footage, spiritual hymn performances, and dislocated personal interviews, No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal transcends the immediate political specificity of the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka to create a broader portrait of the human toll of colonialism, civil war, and ethnic conflict that contribute to a population of victims. Contrasting Rajani's ill-fated plight in returning to her native land in order to work towards breaking the cycle of violence with the guilt and demoralized melancholia of her exiled family, what emerges is a tragic, cautionary tale of idealism without action, nationalism without inclusion, and revolution without conscience.

Posted by acquarello on May 29, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Human Rights Watch


i liked the concept of no more tears sister, it brings very painful picture of ethnic conflict in sri lanka, as sri lankans we all suffered of this conflict so its good thing to do docu film like that ,thanks for that any way i like to see the film

Posted by: priyantha kaluarachchi on Jul 15, 2005 3:45 AM | Permalink

It was definitely an illuminating film for me. I knew about the (leftist) political agitation during the 1970s, as there was in other parts of the word, but it's interesting how this conflict seems to be stuck in a kind of unresolved limbo and fragile peace. Human Rights Watch will be announcing their traveling series program in August and the series will play through the first half of next year. No More Tears Sister could very well end up on the slate. Incidentally, here's the film's official site.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 15, 2005 11:43 AM | Permalink

As a friend of the family, particularly a teacher of the youngest sister, I was very much moved by the film, the actual shots of Dr. Rajani, the weaving of the various interviews, and the narration. The death of Rajani was a momentous event in Jaffna at that time and generated a huge outpouring of love and sorrow, for the family--the parents, and particularly the two daughters, and the sisters, all three. I was lucky that the film was shown at the Seattle Film Festival where I live.

Posted by: Robert Porter on Jul 19, 2005 4:19 PM | Permalink

I found the film quite moving as well, particularly in the context of what she was trying to do: get the university back up and running as soon as possible after the bombing so that her students wouldn't fall behind in their studies. It was such an incomprehensible betrayal for someone who just wanted to help everybody.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 19, 2005 5:50 PM | Permalink

It a film made using some real life events and some fiction to elevate the image of Nirmala. It is plotically motivated film to justify the actions of Nirmala and her family. The truthid they are totally isolated from the Tamil community.

Posted by: Girtharan D on Oct 29, 2005 6:00 PM | Permalink

The film definitely made a point to mention several times that they were exiles, and that she came back essentially knowing that it would probably mean her death but, nevertheless, felt a moral imperative to make a difference in her wartorn ancestral community. Yes, they were outsiders, but outsiders caused by pervasive fear and distrust.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 30, 2005 3:33 PM | Permalink

I finally got to watch the feature film “No More Tears, Sister” on the PBS, more than a year after it was first aired in Toronto. I was there then, but due to time constraints I couldn’t see it. However, at that time I had heard some negative comments. Now that I have seen it, I must say that I have a different take on this movie. It is a beautiful, and yet a very sad, story about two idealistic and courageous sisters, and I must say I admire them.

The film moved me to write this review primarily because I too come from a background similar to theirs, and as a teenager I too was idealistic as they were. As I reminisce about my own teen-years in Sri Lanka, of a near fifty-year vintage now, I can identify with them completely. We were Tamils in a predominantly Sinhala country that oppressed us in countless many ways, and continues to do so, primarily because we are Tamils. I am a bit older than the two sisters (by a decade or so), but the bigotry we faced as Tamils in Sri Lanka were similar.

Although Rajani and I both ended up as medical doctors, I give credit to Rajani’s achievement more, because the hurdles for her as an aspiring medical student were greater than mine. I had entered medical school several years before her. In my time ‘merit’ was the only criterion for admission; whereas when Rajani tried and succeeded, the barriers for the Tamil students were harder, with convoluted schemes to favor Sinhala candidates. Rajani must have performed a lot better than I did at the entrance exam.

Nirmala, the surviving sister, tells the story of her beloved sister Rajani, who was obviously a smart and courageous woman. In fact, they were both courageous in different ways. To start with, they both broke the mold of the middle-class Jaffna Tamil society. Children there (especially girls) were expected to stay clear of politics, or for that matter anything controversial, and most did. Participation in ‘politics’, in particular, was a taboo. I vividly remember being scolded by my mother, even as a 16-year old boy, for having attended a late-night political rally in Jaffna in 1960. Despite this scolding I did join the 1961 Satyagraha.

My participation in the ‘non-violent’ Satyagraha was, however, the extent of my own ‘rebellion’ as a teenager. I now wonder as to what I would have done if I had been presented with the choices Nirmala and Rajani faced a decade later. The documentary ‘No More Tears, Sister’ walks us through the options they had.

Nirmala’s generation was presented with the option of only an ‘armed’ rebellion (or do nothing), unlike mine which was entirely ‘non-violent’. Nirmala joined this ‘armed’ rebellion (LTTE), and sought the help of her doctor sister’s help for the injured rebels. Of the two sisters, the reluctant one ended up being dead. What a burden of guilt Nirmala must carry to this day.

What would I have done in the shoes of the two sisters, is something that I still agonize over. My choice, even though it cost me three-years in my career-path, was far simpler. Joining a non-violent movement was a cake-walk compared to joining an armed insurrection. By the time the two sisters came of age, the days of non-violent protests (Satyagraha), having failed to win Tamil rights, were over. An armed rebellion was taking roots, and their choices were very different to mine.

Before I get to the point about the two sisters joining an armed rebellion, I need to say one thing about the attitude of my own generation of youths. Many of my schoolmates at that time, of the middle-class Jaffna Tamil variety, didn’t join me in this ‘non-violent’ political movement. Their parents forbade them, and my ‘friends’ simply complied. In this context, I find two middle-class-Jaffna-Tamil-girls joining an armed rebellion most fascinating, and in my view, most admirable.

But then, they were no ordinary girls. They rebelled against every tradition of the Jaffna Tamil middle-class society of their time. They both found their own life-mates, in a society where parents found husbands for their daughters. Nirmala found hers in a university professor (who was ‘happily’ for her parents, a Tamil). Rajani on the other hand went further, crossed ethnic lines, and married a Sinhalese, an idealistic Sinhala boy, who himself was a rebel. How much more dramatic can this story get?

In the movie, Nirmala tells the story of the agonies and the ecstasies of their escapades well. Caught and imprisoned by the government of Sri Lanka, Nirmala talks about her own incarceration in solitary-confinement in a ghastly Sri Lankan prison (where Tamil political prisoners had been summarily executed before), and a dramatic jail-break to escape to India, helped by the LTTE. Jail-break and a clandestine escape by a night-boat to India, by a Jaffna-Tamil-middle-class-girl – this story is incredible!

Later, in the nineties, Rajani too leaves the country to go to England. She had been in England before, but even after her second trip abroad, she returns. After she left Jaffna for the second time, her belongings were ransacked by the soldiers of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), who were reportedly infuriated by her record-keeping of the human rights violations by all parties, including the Indian army.

Rajani returns to Jaffna with full knowledge of the fact that she was hated by all actors. She returned, according to Nirmala, because the medical students there needed her help. It was a troublesome period, because ‘human rights’ was at its lowest ebb then, as it has been in 2006. Rajani believed that she was up to the task, but obviously she was mistaken.

Rajani’s efforts to document human rights violations in Jaffna had angered a lot of people, any one of whom could have wanted her dead. But, in the movie Nirmala asserts that Rajani was killed by the LTTE. This is by no means certain. At that time, no less a person than the Catholic Bishop of Jaffna, in an interview with a British journalist, had alluded to the Indian army involvement in the killing. I find Nirmala’s categorical accusation unreliable, considering the fact she was (self-admittedly) publicly estranged from the LTTE on ideological matters. Nirmala’s criticism of the LTTE in the film on other unrelated matters, such as the child-soldier issue, I must say, diminishes her credibility further.

Ideology and methods in a war takes us to another plane. ‘All is fair in love and war’ is not just a cliché; it is a fact of life. All through human history and up to now, the use of violence to further political-aims has been the norm – ‘terrorism’, as it is now called. The world history is choker-full of examples. Regardless of what the Americans, the Europeans, the Japanese and the Australians want to tell us now on how to behave, their own histories belie what they now wish to condemn.

Be that is it may; let us just look at Sri Lanka. What does one do with a state that unremittingly and unrepentantly (to this day) oppresses a nation of people living in its territory? A thirty-year ‘non-violent’ rebellion had already failed by the time the youths of Rajani's and Nirmala's generation decided on an armed rebellion.

An armed rebellion has its own sets of rules, which the two sisters obviously didn’t consider. Before I reflect on any kind of judgment on this matter, I must admit that I too would have had a difficult time with this. While I admire, to the point of veneration, the tens of thousands of young Tamil men and women who joined, I am not sure if I could have done it myself. Would I have considered taking up arms, or even a jail-break? Would I have gone back to Sri Lanka from the safety of London, after my residence was ransacked by a visibly irritated armed-force of whatever persuasion?

It is quite evident that the two sisters, one more than the other, didn’t think this matter through well enough. An armed rebellion against a government is not like an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: A Lot of Violence, But No Blood! Obviously, they didn’t know this then. If they had expected an armed rebellion against Sinhala tyranny and see no blood, they were obviously mistaken. I don’t quite blame them for this – they were young, idealistic, and obviously very naïve.

Nirmala left the movement when it got too hot for her comfort level, and this is totally understandable. Hundreds of others have done the same, safely and without retribution. I have met quite a few young Tamils who claim to have been LTTE fighters, and had left the ‘movement’ without reprisals, but nevertheless have remained loyal to the ‘movement’. But Nirmala claims that this is not the case for those who want to leave the LTTE.

Nirmala carries a burden of guilt – she introduced her sister to an armed rebellion, herself not comprehending the consequences fully, and now her sister is dead. As to who fired the bullet is still uncertain, but she needs to blame someone for her loss.

Men and women who act with courage, for their beliefs and convictions, deserve a special place in human history. The sisters, Nirmala and Rajani, were two daughters of Thamileelam who rebelled with admirable courage and sacrificed a lot. Thamileelam is blessed with tens of thousands like them, and as Tamils we should be proud of them all. Rajani and Nirmala, even with Nirmala’s regrets in the movie, deserve a special place in our collective memories.

Posted by: Rajan Sriskandarajah MD on Jan 11, 2007 11:04 PM | Permalink

Thank you for taking the time to write this insightful comment. It was quite illuminating to hear the experience of the sisters placed in the context of the broader national experience, particularly of other idealists of their generation. I agree with you, Rajani and Nirmala's experiences are indeed courageous in their own right, their stories reveal a profound love and respect for humanity that transcends the petty divisions of politics and ideology.

Posted by: acquarello on Jan 12, 2007 7:19 PM | Permalink

This is quite a tragic saga, no doubt. A well educated young tamil lady who had enjoyed a westernized middle class upbringing, having quite a radical approach compared to the others, yet one who valued democracy over the terrorism was finally brutally murdered by a gang of people coming from her own origine. I'm a Sinhalese Sri Lankan, 25 ears younger than her & not quite even 30 yet, but I have heard of the story of this extraordinary character. At least with the war over now, keep aside how bitter the way it ended, Sri Lanka would hopefully be able to rise forgetting her early blemishes. Sad, but this has to be expected given the turbulances overthere in Jaffna in late 80s.

Posted by: HLANGL on Sep 20, 2009 5:51 AM | Permalink

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