The myth was bigger than the man. That was in the early '80s, when I met ltte leader Velupillai Prabhakaran for the very first time. I still remember that first meeting so vividly. It was a sunny morning in a Tiger safehouse in Chennai, facing the Bay of Bengal. Prabhakaran was meeting a journalist for the very first time in his life. For me, it was a big scoop but I had to cool my heels for two hours before I finally met the elusive guerrilla leader.
Shortly after I was seated in a sparingly furnished room, taciturn ltte cadres switched on a colour TV set (rare commodities those days) and made me watch several video documentaries (even rarer commodities). They were very well-shot...the play of light and the angle of the camera made Prabhakaran seem larger than life. He looked strong, tough, brave. The film depicted the ltte as the disciplined army of a proud nation - Tamil Eelam. And there is Prabhakaran, in fatigues, inspecting the guard of honour. He strides past neat rows of uniformed Tiger soldiers to unfurl the red flag of the ltte. No speeches, all action. As the patriotic music in the background reaches a crescendo, Prabhakaran gazes, clear-eyed and proud, at the tiger emblem on his flag, fluttering against a sun-lit horizon. Che Guevera seemed an untidy pipsqueak in comparison. Prabhakaran was the idealistic macho man - revolutionary and romantic.
But that image met the same fate that many have at the hands of the bombs made by the ltte. Blown to bits, not by an explosive device but by the mastermind of those deadly devices - Prabhakaran. When I saw him in flesh-and-blood for the first time, I was speechless with disappointment. He'd walked into the room but I had not recognised him, hypnotised as I was by the video in which he looked handsome and six feet tall. The man who walked in was short, stocky and looked like a petty Tamil businessman. I assumed it must be a Tiger supporter and just gave him a cursory nod.
Several moments later, a soft voice said in Tamil: "Naan thaan Prabhakaran." Literally translated, "I am only Prabhakaran." He'd figured I had failed to recognise him. I looked at him disbelievingly, saying to myself, "Yeah, and naan thaan Cleopatra." The man was smiling, almost apologetically. I scrutinised his face and realised with horror it was indeed Prabhakaran. So who says the camera doesn't lie!
Prabhakaran was dressed in gray trousers and a sky-blue bush shirt that couldn't quite hide the first signs of an expanding waistline. Had he walked down the street, no one would have thrown him a second glance. Any resemblance between the powerful, confident, camouflage-uniformed guerrilla leader in the video and this mild-looking, self-effacing civilian was purely coincidental.
And I figured why Prabhakaran was silent in the video. Macho man had an effeminate voice that would have undermined the action hero image. I struggled to mask my disbelief and disappointment but then I am a journalist, not an actress. I clearly didn't succeed but fortunately it only amused Prabhakaran. The best way to cover up my gaffe was to get down to business and begin the interview. It lasted two hours and at the end of it I realised I'd met the most remarkable person in my life - a view I still hold, even though since then I have met many remarkable people.
Prabhakaran is the most determined and ruthless man I have met. And his foresight is amazing. He sees today what his opponents do years later.
In the course of that very first meeting, he told me: "Eventually, I will have to battle India." This was years before the ipkf operation, this was years before Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister. This was at a time raw was training, arming and funding the ltte! How could he bite the hand that was feeding him? Even more than ingratitude, wasn't it suicidal?
Iwas flabbergasted and told him I couldn't understand how he could happily take all the help India was giving him while believing that one day he would fight them. "Even more than Sri Lanka, India will not allow us to create Tamil Eelam because of its own 55 million Tamils," he replied. Then why was he taking India's help? "Right now, I am small, I need India's help to grow." And he grew and grew to become a monster in India's eyes.
The other aspect about Prabhakaran that made a deep impression on me was his unwavering commitment to the cause of Eelam - deep-rooted, non-negotiable. I have interviewed him many times. Over the years, there have been many changes in the man - he is older, heavier and no longer sports a moustache. But there has been no change, no softening, no dilution in his commitment to his cause.
In one of her interviews to me, President Chandrika Kumaratunga had said "even the best guerrillas must tire of fighting and war". That was five years ago. Prabhakaran is better than the best. His energy and commitment to his cause show no signs of flagging. From a hit-and-run guerrilla fighter, he has evolved into a mastermind of conventional battles, the commander of a national army that forced the world's fourth largest army to retreat and is now giving the Sri Lankan army a run for its money.
The more wounded Prabhakaran is, the more ferocious he becomes - it's not for nothing he chose the tiger as his emblem. His stealth, timing, cunning, ambushes - all are inspired by the tiger. And like the tiger, his courage is raw and proud. Some time back, I had asked him what he had learned over two decades as a guerrilla fighter. He answered, "He who dares, wins." That was the headline given to the interview when it was published in Time. Five months later, I happened to travel in Europe and the US and was amazed to see the number of Sri Lankan Tamils wearing T-shirts with that legend. Prabhakaran has spawned a worldwide legion.
Today, the man is bigger than the myth.
(All mail may be addressed to email@example.com)