The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
NO MORE TEARS SISTER. No More Tears Sister documents the life of Sri Lankan human rights activist Dr. Rajani Thiranagama. Above, Sharika Thiranagama portraying her mother Rajani. (Photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada) At right, Rajani Thiranagama. (Photo courtesy of the Thiranagama Family)
From The Asian Reporter, V16, #25 (June 20, 2006), page 10.
A lot of love, as many tears
The tender, determined, and short life of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama
No More Tears Sister
A documentary of the life of Sri Lankan human-rights
advocate Dr. Rajani Thiranagama
No More Tears Sister is a love story. A story of great love — of often non-rational and always blindly passionate love. The kind of love that leaps great chasms of harsh history, the divisions of race and religion and caste. The kind naturally harnessed by ugly politics. It’s the kind of intimate bond that, when fractured at the far end of love’s arc, makes for mythic human tragedy.
Dr. Rajani Thiranagama’s dedicated but short life was all about that kind of love. She was born in 1954 to a middle class Christian Tamil family in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Out of adoration for her older sister Nirmala, as much as out of what Nirmala characterizes in the film as the Christian ethos of "loving thy neighbor as thyself," Rajani commits herself to social reform in newly independent Sri Lanka. No small task.
As a stellar medical student, Rajani falls in love with Dayapala, a leftist university activist, a penniless Buddhist Sinhala raised out of Sri Lanka’s rural poverty. Dayapala and elder sister Nirmala and Rajani converge, energized by their bond and idealized by their greater transpersonal love to eradicate the crippling poverty and the colonialized politics destroying their nascent nation. It was the ’70s. A time of romantic revolutionaries.
In the sobering ’80s, older sister Nirmala becomes a political science professor, marries another outspoken faculty member, and gets pulled into frightening power politics as Sri Lanka is splintered into brutally warring ethnic factions. Rajani is inevitably drawn in by her love and loyalty to her sister. Dayapala and Rajani marry, they have children, but because he has become a locus for oppositional political organization he must live underground. "We didn’t live month to month, but hour by hour, day by day," Dayapala says of those bad times.
While husband Dayapala ducks from safe-house basements to attics and sister Nirmala speaks out safely from neighboring India, Rajani works daily her passions of teaching and practicing medicine, in wildly veering Sri Lanka. By then death squads from innumerable and unnamed factions abbreviate all political processes. By then Indian "peace-keeping" troops, initially invited into Sri Lanka in an effort to restore order like all occupying armies, had become terribly compromised to context, and added their instruments of mechanized war to the awful mix.
"I think what was most terrifying about the (30-year sectarian) war was how helpless all these people became, all the adults, all the community," says Dr. Rajani’s daughter. "They couldn’t do anything to stop the bombs … to make you safe …."
But when she looked at her mother, Narmada says, she "saw someone very self-confident … determined and purposeful. She liked to have order in the house and this increased more and more because everywhere else became so disordered …."
In all that dark but deliberate chaos, Dr. Rajani organized an inquiry to document her aching nation’s political murders and disappearances, its recurring massacres and intentional neglect. She called her report "No More Tears Sister."
She was shot while biking home from school.
That fateful evening, daughter Narmada was putting off her homework, making tea, and playing with her sister. She knew her mother would be home soon and recalls telling herself she should get to her books at 6:00pm. "I remember exactly what time it happened … I remember someone saying ‘I wonder who they’re shooting now.’"
No More Tears Sister is narrated by Canadian Sri Lankan novelist, poet, and performance artist Michael Ondaatje, the author of Anil’s Ghost (Knopf, 2000), also set in war-torn Jaffna, but probably best known in this country for The English Patient, the book and the movie.
Love survives and inspires
The film’s director Helene Klodawsky is a graduate of Queen’s University and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Her social and political documentaries have screened and won more than 25 awards internationally. About making No More Tears Sister, Ms. Klodawsky says she knew it would be a hard undertaking. Fifteen years of dread and silence have intervened between her project and Dr. Rajani Thiranagama’s assassination. "There were no surviving archives, few photos, and, due to security concerns, no access to filming in Jaffna where Rajani worked. Most of her friends, former students, and colleagues were far too fearful to speak about her on camera."
"Luckily," she goes to say, "Rajani’s older sister and husband were willing to come aboard, joined by Rajani’s younger sisters, parents, daughters, and fellow activists, some still living underground."
No More Tears Sister is an expression of deep love, of passionate commitment, in a mean world feeding on itself. Tenderness and beauty may be the first to go. With so few people and so little physical evidence to support this film as an accurate statement of the late Dr. Thiranagama’s suddenly ended life, we’ll have to take director Helene Klodawsky’s intimate and intense representation as the truth. No doubt, her great truth. Tender humanity, thanks to Ms. Klodawsky, survives after all.
Further readings and media on Sri Lanka and on No More Tears Sister, as well as discussion with director Helene Klodawsky and her production crew about their work, is available online at <www.nfb.ca/webextension/nomoretearssister/film.html>.