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Outside the confines of an interview

Two Saturdays ago, I received an email from a friend saying “you have probably met him”. It was a message conveying the sudden passing of Veerakathy Senthan, an engineer based in Jaffna, in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.

I have met Senthan four times, at his small home in Varany, where he lived earlier, and later in Nelliady, Jaffna. The first time I met him over five years ago, I did not interview him. I didn’t even have specific questions to ask him. I was told he was an “interesting” man, an engineer by profession and Marxist by persuasion.

Like every new person you hear about before you meet, Senthan too raised my curiosity. Irrespective of ideology, every insight or opinion from a senior resident is invaluable for a reporter navigating a new place with many histories, complex and contested. In Senthan’s case, I’d heard more. He was a fierce critic of the LTTE during the war, and the rebel group detained him for months for helping a fellow dissident escape the north.

Trees as neighbours

A narrow, muddy lane led to his small home. Its immediate vicinity had more trees than homes or neighbours. It seemed “interior” and felt quiet. Sporting a checked lungi and a half-sleeved shirt, the tall, lean man came out as he heard my van park. He was in his mid-60s then.

“So, you’re The Hindu reporter. From Chennai?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “What are Vaiko and Seeman saying?” he asked with a smile, not seeming particularly keen on a specific answer. He began speaking of current affairs, as if he were scanning headlines of a newspaper dedicated to world news and analysis. He spoke about Obama, the Democratic Party. He spoke about the Islamic State and of hard-line right-wing forces emerging everywhere. “The RSS too is gaining ground in India, isn’t it?” Between these observations were his own comments or questions, brimming with quiet irony. Though I spent well over an hour with him, he spoke very little about himself or Sri Lanka the first time.

I wanted to meet him again. Barely years after having witnessed and experienced a brutal war at close range, here was a man sitting in his small home in interior Jaffna, talking about the whole world which, to him, wasn’t far away.

“Marxists will tell you we have to mobilise people and build a movement against oppressive states. Don’t listen to them,” he’d laugh, in a self-mocking way. And seeing me tickled by his ready wit and sarcasm, he’d often ask: “Why are you laughing?”

When I met him again, he spoke more about Sri Lanka, its war-bruised north, the Tamil polity that he felt was inadequate in addressing people’s concerns or aspirations. He was critical of nationalist politics in the Tamil-majority north and the mostly Sinhala-Buddhist south. His reflections had both, an unmistakable anger and regret about the past. However, neither sentiment interfered with what he thought could be done in the present. The engineer was active post-retirement and showed me around a local palmyra arrack distillery that he helped run. “Nothing like our palmyra tree to combat poverty,” he told me, the only time I interviewed him about local industries.

Otherwise, Senthan was just happy to talk. In fact happier outside the confines of an interview.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 7:43:15 PM |

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