Poet-author Theepachelvan on living through the war in Sri Lanka and its impact on his writing.
Theepachelvan, christened Balenndram Pratheepan, is the author of 11 books, including five collections of poems, three of articles, one compendium of short stories of people from the war-scarred land, and one anthology of poems by Eelam poets.
His most recent book, Pray for My Land, is a collection of poems translated into English. Born in 1983, his writings bear the imprint of the war on the life of a young boy who cowered as IPKF tanks moved past, of a child who only saw the most unpleasant and gory images life could offer.
In Kilinochchi Central College, University of Jaffna, where he pursued a degree in Tamil literature, he was a student leader braving threats to his life and constantly under scrutiny of the Sri Lankan military forces. His poems echo with the hopelessness of the situation that people like him were thrown into. His writings have won him recognition from the Sri Lankan Press Association and more recently from the Tamil literary magazine Kanaiyazhi. He is currently in Chennai pursuing a master’s degree in journalism and communication at the University of Madras. Excerpts from an interview:
Why choose Theepachelvan for a pseudonym?
It is a pure Tamil name. A pseudonym helps when you choose to write.
Tell us about your family.
I am the second of three children. I have an older brother and a younger sister. She is in std. XIII. (Smiles at my surprise) Yes, we do 13 years of schooling. She was in a home run by the LTTE when she was separated from my mother. When the war intensified, all three of us were in different places. My mother worked in a residential home caring for the children of LTTE military officers. It was only in 2009 that my mother was reunited with my sister and they were sent to a detention camp by the Sri Lankan military. My brother Prasanna was two years older than me and he joined the LTTE when he was 16. He died five years later in 2001. He had been interested in becoming a fighter since the age of 10. He tried too join LTTE five times but they sent him back. The last time he left home, never returned. He has influenced my view of life.
My father works for the electricity department of Sri Lanka and lives in Colombo. He is a civilian Tamil and had nothing to do with the LTTE. The first time I saw my father, I was 10 years old. My sister has never seen him. He did not come to meet us even after my brother died. For many years I was upset that he did not live with us. I wanted him to be with us the way my friends’ fathers were. We went through a lot of hardship during the war but he made no effort to see us. I did not bother to reconnect with him even after the war. as there seemed no point. He called me after I had been selected to study Tamil literature in Jaffna University. Selection to degree courses is through entrance examination, which is taken by all students. Only 30 candidates are selected for a course though thousands may appear for the exam. I scored very high marks and was the only one to be selected from my district. Father called to say that he would support my studies. I said I didn’t need his help. That is the last time I spoke to him.
Could you describe your town? Is it well connected with other parts of the country? Does it have trains and buses?
(Laughs) I have seen a train as a child. The railway link was destroyed 30 years ago. They were destroyed in one of the battles. There are roads but they are not in a good condition.
When did you consider writing as a career?
I began writing poems in std. VIII. They were mostly about school life and nature. I don’t have any of them as they were destroyed in the war. My brother’s decision to become a fighter and later his death affected me a lot. I was born in Ratnapura and grew up in Kilinochchi. In 1996, we were sent to Akkarai as my town had become a battleground. I dropped out of school and did odd jobs. I rejoined school in 1998 and studied through the war. When I went into college, I began reading a lot and started writing poems again. The years that mother and sister spent in detention camps prompted me to write about life in the camps. As a Tamil literature student, it was the natural next step to write for Tamil magazines and newspapers.
Favourite authors, poets?
Pablo Neruda and Palestinian poets like Mahmud Darwish, Eelam poets Seran, Jayapalan…
Your writing revolves around life in the war-torn areas. One article is about photographs. Why are photographs so important?
I had seen my father in a photograph when I was a child. There were a few photographs of my brother taken before he went to war. They were the only memories we had of him.
After the first battle we lost all our possessions, including the photographs. After the battle, I located the photo studio and the owner allowed me to rummage through the rolls and I found the photos of me and my brother. These were also lost in the subsequent battles.
When I began covering the war-torn areas as a journalist, I came across several families like this. That prompted me to write about them.
Writing about detention camps came from my experiences while visiting my mother. In an article, Yaazh Sumantha Paiyan, (the boy who carried a violin) I featured a boy who ran through the battleground in Mullivaikkal with a violin. I read about him in Tamil magazines and finally found him. He lives in a village next to Ratnapura. I featured him in the article. It was articles such as this that brought me recognition.
Do you think your writings have helped your people?
I have written about people displaced in war. We have lost our home. Many of us have lost our family. I wrote about these experiences. I was recognised twice with awards by the Sri Lankan Press Association. Featuring these issues has brought some changes. Some villages that had been encroached by the Sri Lankan military were returned to the Tamils. But there are other villages under military control that have not been returned. I will continue to write about them.
Your writings refer to returning home.
(Smiles) We had a tiny mud house with a living room, a kitchen and two rooms. But that was my home. Today, we live in a shed with half a mud wall. The rest of it is tin sheet. I want to go back to my land. I fear for my life but that is where I want to live.
Would you consider moving to the U.K. or Canada?
No, I will not consider relocating. I only want to live in my land and write about my people.
You have been in Tamil Nadu for two years. But you have not written much about it.
I have written only two poems about Tamil Nadu. One is about a visit to the Marina Beach. Every time I write I can only think of my land. For many people, Tamil Nadu is like another home as people speak the same language but not for me. I am a displaced person. The country is alien to me. Other writers have overcome these inhibitions but not me. I don’t feel at home here. The language I speak is different and the culture is alien.
How do you see your future?
It is going to be a struggle I know but I am not going to give up now.