If love is the first inspiration of a social revolutionary, as has sometimes been said, no one better exemplified that idea than Dr. Rajani Thiranagama. Love for her people and her newly independent nation, and empathy for the oppressed of Sri Lanka — including women and the poor — led her to risk her middle-class life to join the struggle for equality and justice for all. Love led her to marry across ethnic and class lines. In the face of a brutal government crackdown on her Tamil people, love led her to help the guerrilla Tamil Tigers, the only force seemingly able to defend the people. When she realized the Tigers were more a murderous gang than a revolutionary force, love led her to break with them, publicly and dangerously. Love then led her from a fulfilling professional life in exile back to her hometown of Jaffna and to civil war, during which her human rights advocacy made her a target for everyone with a gun. She was killed on September 21, 1989 at the age of 35.
As beautifully portrayed in Canadian filmmaker Helene Klodawsky’s No More Tears Sister, kicking off the 19th season of public television’s POV series, Rajani Thiranagama’s life is emblematic of generations of postcolonial leftist revolutionaries whose hopes for a future that combined national sovereignty with progressive ideas of equality and justice have been dashed by civil war — often between religious and ethnic groups, and often between repressive governments and criminal rebel gangs.
Speaking out for the first time in the 15 years since Rajani Thiranagama’s assassination, those who knew her best talk about the person she was and the sequence of events that led to her murder. Especially moving are the memories of Rajani’s older sister, Nirmala Rajasingam, with whom she shared a happy childhood, a political awakening and a lifelong dedication to fighting injustice; and her husband, Dayapala Thiranagama, who was everything a middle-class Tamil family might reject — a Sinhalese radical student from an impoverished rural background. Also included are the recollections of Rajani’s younger sisters, Vasuki and Sumathy; her parents; her daughters, Narmada and Sharika; and fellow human rights activists who came out of hiding to tell her story. The film rounds out its portrayal with rare archival footage, personal photographs and re-enactments in which Rajani is portrayed by daughter Sharika Thiranagama. The film is narrated by Michael Ondaatje, esteemed author of The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost.
It is the testimony of Nirmala and Dayapala, along with Rajani’s own voice in the form of her letters, that create the dramatic core of the film. Nirmala, a well-known Sri Lankan activist in her own right, still cries for her sister, for their shared dreams and for their war-torn country. Dayapala is the student revolutionary from the countryside who fell in love with Rajani and never expected, after failed insurrections, imprisonment, torture and exile, to be the one to survive and to care for their two daughters. Nirmala and Dayapala’s grief for Rajani is as palpable as their grief for the war-torn island once thought as close to paradise as any place on earth.
Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, was one of the longest-colonized countries of South Asia, occupied for significant periods by the Portuguese, the Dutch and lastly the British. Ceylon was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country made up of Burgers, Tamils, Muslims and Buddhist Sinhalese. Under British rule, these groups had to compete for political representation and economic advantages. Ordinary Sinhalese, the ethnic majority, felt that the minorities — the Tamils and Muslims — were sheltered and privileged at their expense. Once independence came in 1948, elections swept ultranationalist Sinhalese politicians into power, and a dramatic reversal of fortune began. The Sinhalese wanted to reassert their culture, language, schools and religion. As the majority, they voted to replace English with Sinhalese as the country’s only official language. The Tamil minority, on the other hand, wanted a federal system of government, with more local autonomy in the main Tamil-populated areas. They also wanted official recognition of their language.
Born in 1954, only six years after Ceylon gained independence, Rajani followed her sister, Nirmala, who is older by two years, through childhood dreams ranging from starting an orphanage for the poor to self-education with revolutionary western and anti-colonial writings. When Nirmala returned from the United States, where a scholarship had landed her in the middle of the anti-war 60s, the sisters’ activism took a more radical turn. Only 22, Rajani was a strikingly unusual figure, a woman and a medical student who was also a left-wing activist and a leader of the student Christian movement. Like Nirmala, she advocated social and political equality for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity or religion. The sisters even looked into starting collective farms in the vicinity of Jaffna. Later, it was Nirmala who induced Rajani, by then a doctor, to help the Tamil Tigers in what she saw as the only available way of resisting the extremist Sinhalese central government. When Nirmala was jailed because of her invoivement with the LTTE, Rajani was thrust into prominence, leading the campaign for her sister’s release, which brought her into further contact with the Tigers. Rajani then became deeply committed to fighting for the right of self-determination for Tamil communities, a cause the southern Sri Lankan left had neglected in the Tamil areas.
Dayapala shared the sisters’ commitment to a revolutionary universalism that transcended ethnic and religious divisions. By the time he met Rajani, he had already participated in a disastrous 1971 antigovernment insurrection by unemployed youths, mostly Sinhalese, under the banner of a “People’s Liberation Army,” that left 25,000 dead. Dayapala was thrown into prison and tortured. Between bouts of prison, exile and underground work in Sri Lanka, Dayapala never wavered in his commitment to a nonsectarian vision of social justice. But even as government repression drove more and more Tamil intellectuals into the arms of the Tigers, he warned the sisters to stay away, not only for ideological reasons but because he knew the Tigers never let anyone leave their ranks.
Nirmala faced the truth when she joined Tiger exiles in south India and found the leaders would not allow literacy or any political education of their young troops. Not long thereafter, Rajani confronted the truth while speaking to Tamil refugees in London, where she worked as an anatomy professor and had become the de facto spokesperson for the Tiger organization in Europe. Both Nirmala and Rajani had the courage to break with the Tigers — a move that was considered a virtual death sentence, as Dayapala had warned.
The sisters also had the courage to confront the moral crisis presented by their failed association with the Tigers and by the defeat of nonsectarian revolution in Sri Lanka. For Rajani, the search for the truth and a way to act on it led her back to Jaffna, where she opposed all the men with guns and helped organize the underground University Teachers for Human Rights, which works to document human rights abuses and to protect the most vulnerable victims. Given the conditions under which Rajani lived and worked, a late letter predicting her own death (“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…”) hardly seems melodramatic. Rajani seemed to have lived more than one lifetime of struggle when a bullet, undoubtedly fired by a Tiger gunman, brought her down in the prime of her life.
No More Tears Sister is a riveting story of love, revolution and treachery that explores the price of truth amidst militarized and authoritarian governments on one side, and rebel groups driven more by gangster principles than ideological beliefs on the other. Rajani Thiranagama was a woman of great courage as well as ideals, and her tragic fate demonstrates the internal forces tearing at many nations today.
“In making No More Tears Sister, I wanted to understand how ethnic conflict and nationalist struggles impact women, be they victims, fighters or peacemakers,” says director Helene Klodawsky. “Rajani Thiranagama was part of a generation of young political activists in postcolonial countries around the world whose idealism continues to be ruthlessly thwarted by narrow nationalist agendas.”
“I knew that creating a portrait of a slain human rights activist would be no easy feat,” she continues, “especially given the fact that there were no surviving archives, few photos and, due to security concerns, no access to filming in Jaffna where Rajani lived and worked. Most of her friends, former students and colleagues were far too fearful to speak about her on camera. Luckily, Rajani’s older sister and husband were willing to come on board, and were joined by Rajani’s younger sisters, parents, daughters and fellow activists, some still living underground. Cinematically, I wanted No More Tears Sister to reflect the passion and beauty of Rajani’s ideals. Together with my talented team, I aimed at making a film that is political, feminist and aesthetic.
“As a daughter of Holocaust and concentration camp survivors, I am drawn to individuals who, in spite of their very personal encounters with brutality, are committed to bringing light into our world,” Klodawsky concludes. “Rajani and her family give hope that the struggle for human rights and justice will never be vanquished.”
No More Tears Sister is a National Film Board of Canada production.