In Prabakaran’s birthplace, a different kind of hero

Murugapillai Navratnaswami

Murugapillai Navratnaswami

In the town that cradled Sri Lankan Tamil militancy and was the birthplace of its most ferocious exponent Velupillai Prabakaran, a legend of a different kind is now getting belated attention.

VVT, as this north Jaffna coastal town is known, is planning to erect a statue to a less famous son, V.S. Kumar Anandan, who did a record two-way swim from Thalaimannar in Sri Lanka to Dhanushkodi on the Tamil Nadu coast.

Anandan’s son, Rajan, is the present head of Google India.

“Recently, we had a small ceremony to honour Kumar Anandan. We’re now discussing erecting a statue to him. His wife’s family has promised to help with funds,”’ said M.K. Shivajilingam, once a militant in TELO, and now a member of the VVT Urban Council.

“A resolution has been passed in the Council. We need to raise some public contribution too. No date has been fixed for installing the statue, but I hope we will be able to do it 2-3 months after the current spell of rains,” he added.

Anandan’s uncle, Murugapillai Navratnaswami, the first person ever to swim the Palk Straits, in 1954 — he took 28 hours from VVT to Point Calimere — is being considered for a similar honour.

Three years after the LTTE was defeated by the Sri Lankan military ending a war that spanned three decades, the country’s Tamil community is confused and dejected about its place in a Sinhala majoritarian Sri Lankan state.

Post war, little headway has been made on devolving federal powers to Northern Sri Lanka, seen as crucial for the development of the province as well as for the welfare of its predominantly Tamil community.

The conflict consumed two generations of Tamils. The community is left with few role models. VVT had a reputation for Tamils who walked with an extra swagger. Even in the pre-militancy days, its sea-faring community was known for its daring contraband runs to Tamil Nadu and South-east Asia.

Today, it is a subdued little place. The house where Prabakaran grew up and that he slipped out of as a teenager to become a full-time militant, has been demolished down to the last brick. Only the floor of a bathroom and a well remain. The Army did not want it to become a shrine of sorts for the dead LTTE supremo.

People are wary of speaking to strangers. A woman in the neighbouring house would only say that lots of people started visiting the house after the war ended. No one had been living in it since the 1980s, and it was in a decrepit state. One night, soldiers came and levelled it to the ground.

Everyone in VVT has the same refrain: “Things are normal here now. It’s not like before.”

Clearly, people want to put the past behind them. It was here that the original Tamil militant groups, TELO and TNT, were born. From VVT alone, 500 boys who became militants were killed, or just never came back.

A group of fisherfolk, gathered near a community hall near the sea, said their main problem now was Tamil Nadu fishermen, who came in trawlers, indulged in bad practices like “double-netting,” and to add insult to injury, ripped the nets of the Jaffna fishermen.

Close to the Prabakaran family home, VVT residents had put up a statue of AIADMK leader M.G. Ramachandran in 2003-04. As Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, MGR had been a patron of the LTTE, giving Prabakaran large donations.

The statue’s arms were cut off once — no one knows who did it on either occasion — in 2008. There were no plans to repair it at the moment, Mr. Shivajilingam said.

With the limited funds at its disposal, the Urban Council was planning only to resurrect the memory of Anandan and his uncle.

In a volume titled Dictionary of the Biography of the Successful Tamils of Ceylon, by S. Arumugam, and seen on the Internet site, Anandan is listed as a lawyer, but his penchant for setting records is better known than his law practice.

His first long distance swim, from VVT to Point Calimere, was in March 1963. He took 42 hours to complete it, double the time it had taken his uncle. Eleven years later, his two-way swim between the two points, in 51 hours, saw him enter the record books again. He went on to amass other more quirky records — for non-stop twist dancing for 128 hours, non-stop cycling for 187 hours, covering a distance of 1,487 miles; balancing on one foot for 187 hours; doing 165 sit-ups in two minutes; and treading water for 80 hours non-stop at the Anna swimming pool in Chennai.

He died while attempting to swim the English Channel from Dover to Cape Griz Nez on August 6, 1984. His death prompted British authorities to make it mandatory for all swimmers attempting the Channel challenge to produce a fitness certificate.

That VVT adulates him after all these years was left in no doubt recently when Mangala Samaraweera, a Sinhalese politicial leader from southern Sri Lanka and a close relative of Mrs. Anandan, was given a rousing welcome when he visited the town recently.

Navaratnaswami, Anandan’s uncle, did the swim one-way across the Palk Straits in 1954. Among those who congratulated him were his country’s Prime Minister, Sir John Kotelawala, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Queen Elizabeth, the British monarch.

The Hindu paid tribute to his ‘epic feat’ in an editorial, writing that he “blazed the trail (if one may employ such an incongruous metaphor in the aquatic context) as surely as Captain Webb did, when he crossed the Channel in 1875.

(With archival inputs compiled by A. Srivatsan)

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Printable version | Jul 31, 2022 4:27:34 pm |