“Maybe it’s my sharp tongue that will save me.”
– Dr Rajani Thiranagama
A story of struggle and liberation. A story of speaking truth to power narrated through love, revolution, hope and betrayal. Released in 2005, the documentary No More Tears Sister revolves around the life struggles of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, the human rights activist, professor, mother and “her people”, as she liked to call them. The story is drawn with the help of Rajani‘s letters written during different points of time in her life and by the dialogue between her sister, Nirmala and her husband, Dayapala. The conversations between the two are set at different locations, discussing and remembering different stages of their life linked with Rajani.
Filmmaker Helene Klodawsky unwraps the tale of war and death during the civil conflict in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. The theme of No More Tears Sister explores the life and death of Rajani, a young revolutionary who fought for people’s liberation irrespective of their class and ethnic distinction. She believed in the freedom of individuals and struggled to protect their peaceful right to dissent. She loved and fought with passion. She thought of her husband as her real-life Che Guevara and as Comrade Che said “a true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love”.
This was not the only Che trait Rajani had. She trembled with indignation at every injustice. She held the will to travel back to Jaffna from the United Kingdom even under the threat of her and her children’s lives because she was committed to the cause of the liberation of “her people”. She often used the phrase “my people”. She did not just mean the people of her ethnic community of Tamils but everyone who was under the attack and violence of the State and of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. She knew the importance of agreeing to disagree. A phrase that has lost its essence in the current political scenario (read: fascist uprising) of India. A phrase that is being used to justify hatred and violence.
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No More Tears Sister narrates how Rajani’s elder sister, Nirmala, influenced her to join the LTTE. While reluctant at first, Rajani continued to offer her help to the group time and again but still did not completely associate herself with them. Later, Rajani developed into a leader who recognised and understood her responsibilities in every role. After the arrest of Nirmala, the main aim of Rajani was to build a national movement and get her released. She worked with the LTTE and Nirmala finally escaped prison. Soon after, Rajani began to believe that the functioning of LTTE doesn’t have its base in the armed struggle but in violence against people. This is what eventually resulted in Rajani’s assassination.
Adding to this, I am reminded of how Rajani staunchly stood against armed struggle. However, my place in this vast discourse is not with Rajani, who dismisses the concept of armed struggle in any and every circumstance. I do not view armed struggle as black and white in nature. Arms picked up by the oppressed and the oppressor has different shades. In a society of class/caste divide, the armed struggle cannot be viewed without context or be universalised as unethical because every violence is not the same and I am not a Gandhian.
Although violence seen as the only way out in every situation is a violation of human rights, violence differs with the difference in power. In several contexts, arms picked up by the oppressed class is with the aim of liberty from oppression. However, the use of arms by the LTTE in Sri Lanka was often a form of elimination through violence. Remembering how she influenced her sister into LTTE, Nirmala mourned Rajani while saying, “the fact that I cannot return to Jaffna makes me feel that Rajani is still there”. I like to read this line as a fact which is not measured in the physical presence of Rajani because people sow ideas and ideas are immortal.
The name of the film, No More Tears Sister, is taken from the report Rajani was trying to publish. The report exposed the violation of human rights by all parties. During her visit to England, the Indian ‘Peace Keeping’ Forces (IPKF) ransacked Rajani’s house and got hold of the report along with other documents. She was still standing firm with her ideas. The rebellious character came in before she became a part of organised politics. She dared to love a man. She expressed that love before and outside the compulsory marital ties. She married a man, who was on the other side of the ethnic conflict by the fate of his birth. She stood by her discipline and the concerning students even when her life was threatened.
Rajani, in a true sense, put to practice what she studied in the revolutionary books. This restates that theory without experience and practice makes the theory static. To further the discussion on her rebellious attitude, her prediction should not be forgotten. In No More Tears Sister, Rajani says, “One day some gun will silence me, and it will not be held by an outsider, but by a son born in the womb of this very society, from a woman with whom my history is shared.”
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It is distressing that her words do not send chills down my spine. We always know the price we might have to pay for standing our ground. The horrors we might face for speaking truth to power. The consequences of ‘women in politics.’ Nevertheless, the violent terror and hierarchies within fails to put us to the ground. Us, women of all colours, religions, caste, ability across generations and borders.
While the circumstances of then Sri Lanka and present-day India seem to erupt from different socio-political and historical contexts, they have similar bearings on society and civil life. Peasants, unemployed youth and University students still combine to make the most of political prisoners in India. In the present times, the violation of human rights by the State- even more so in the conflict areas like Kashmir and North Eastern India – and the persecution of various political prisoners has resulted in reiterating the statement by Amnesty International used in No More Tears Sister. Can walls imprison the spirit of their freedom? Can they extinguish the fire of defiance they kindled in the minds of their people?
Klodawsky, H. (2005). No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal [Film].
Featured image source: Helene Klodawsky