hairy ISSUE: At war (below, with moustache) and in talks (without moustache). Prabhakaran, seen here with his wife, said, We grow our moustaches only when we fight.
Cleanliness and discipline came naturally to him. This was evident to anyone who visited the offices of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Chennai. Even in the earlier uncertain days when getting enough to eat was a problem for him and his friends, Prabhakaran would tell everyone to be crisp and clean. It didnt matter if the clothes they wore were old, he would decree, but they should be washed.
If seated on a sofa at the LTTE office, he would wipe the armrests if he spotted dust. He hated cobwebs. If he found any dirt, he would express his displeasure to his cadres: What is this? Is this your way of maintaining cleanliness? LTTE members were also expected to keep the toilets in the office spotlessly clean. As the LTTE grew and grew, the trait spread to all the training camps in India and Sri Lanka.
Even when Indian troops waged war against the LTTE, Prabhakarans fetish for cleanliness did not desert him. In the thick forests of Mullaitivu district (where he would die one day), flies were a constant source of irritation. Since he did not like pesticides, the guerrilla asked his cadres to swat them. There was even a competition to see who swatted how many flies! Some killed as many as 1,000! The fly killing competition gave him immense joy. He also ordered that flowers be grown in and around the training camps.
It was this Prabhakaran that I first met in 1985.
The LTTE chief was in New Delhi in the company of other Tamil militant leaders for discussions with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. They had been put up in the small but comfortable Hotel Diplomat on the tree-lined Sardar Patel Marg. When I was introduced to Prabhakaran, he was seated on a cot and seemingly lost in thought. He looked anything but a rebel leader.
During the conversation, I asked Prabhakaran if he would take me to Jaffna in one of their speedboats that plied between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. He pondered over my question and said: Leave your details and we will get back to you. He never did. Only much later I realised how perennially suspicious the LTTE was of all outsiders.
Even as I followed the Sri Lanka story for decades, I did not get to meet Prabhakaran again until April 2002 when he addressed his first (and what turned out to be last) major press conference. That was in Kilinochchi, a northern Sri Lankan town the LTTE had made the hub of its de facto state. By then, the Prabhakaran I encountered a long time ago had grown into a legend. He was described by his adoring ideologue Anton Balasingham as the Prime Minister and President of Tamil Eelam.
The boy who had fled his home in Jaffna way back in 1972 after a police crackdown had come a long way.
What conquered him early on was love — love at first sight.
The year was 1984, and some Jaffna University students were on a hunger strike. The increasingly assertive and intolerant LTTE decreed that the era of peaceful protests was passé. It packed off the hunger strikers to Chennai. One of them was a pretty young woman with big eyes, Mathivathani. In Chennai she was put up with Adele, the Australian wife of Balasingham. One look at her and Prabhakaran concluded she was for him. Adele would later say: He was absolutely besotted with Mathy and she with him.
Balasingham prodded Prabhakaran to marry Mathy. In the presence of a small group of friends and family members, the two exchanged garlands at a Hindu temple not far from Chennai on October 1, 1984. The rebel tied the thali around her neck, putting the religious seal on the marriage. A beaming Prabhakaran wore a tie — for the first time in his life. The couple had three children: two sons and a daughter. The elder son was named after Charles Lucas Anthony, a buddy from Trincomalee who fell to security forces a long time ago.
The marriage created a sensation because Prabhakaran had only some years ago sacked a senior love-struck colleague, saying that romance was not for revolutionaries. In 1985, during a visit to the LTTE office in Madras, he noticed a girl in a nearby house waving at someone in his office and disappearing into her house. He was told that she was probably having an affair with an LTTE member. Prabhakaran did not like the idea of one of his boys falling for an Indian girl. He packed off the erring guerrilla to Sri Lanka.
Behind his shy frame and quiet nature lay a man with a penchant for unlimited violence that virtually destroyed Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran had all the traits of one capable of supreme destruction. He also had a photographic memory and would remember people he had only fleetingly met years earlier. He was paranoid about security. As he built the LTTE, he created a corps of personal bodyguards supremely loyal to him. It didnt always work that way. Karuna, the eastern regional commander whose 2004 revolt seriously weakened the LTTE, was once Prabhakarans bodyguard. So was his younger brother Reggie. After Karunas rebellion, Prabhakaran had Reggie murdered. Prabhakaran also killed countless other Tamils, often simply for differing with him.
Years earlier in New Delhi, Prabhakaran went one evening to the Chanakya cinema near the diplomatic enclave and saw an English movie The Blue Lagoon with three friends. On another occasion, the Indian government arranged a tour of Delhi for Prabhakaran and other militants — after pressure brought on them to talk to Colombo led to tensions. At the Raj Ghat, the mausoleum of Mahatma Gandhi, the LTTE boss grabbed the hands of K. Pathmanabha, leader of the EPRLF, and told him sarcastically: Look, let us give up our violent path and take to non-violence. This is what the Indians want us to do.
Years later Prabhakaran felt no guilt when he ordered his assassins to mow down Pathmanabha and his friends at a Chennai house with AK-47 assault rifles. This too was Prabhakarans trait.
During our 1985 meeting in Delhi, I had thrown one last question at him. Why have you taken off your moustache, I wanted to know. Prabhakaran was clearly taken aback. He managed a quick reply: We grow our moustaches only when we fight. We take them off when we come for talks. It may have been an off the cuff remark but Prabhakaran did not have a moustache when he signed the Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement with Colombo in 2002. And when he died, he did.