There are pillars of a society and there are the even stronger yet unseen foundations of a society. And that is how I think of my good friend Somesasunthary Krishnakumar (January 17, 1956 – August 6, 2018). She was scathingly critical of Jaffna society, but was deeply committed to rebuilding it. Somes was a woman whose heart reached out to deprived and suffering women. A lecturer to many university students over the decades, a dissenter who lived through the war in Jaffna, a mother of five children and a supportive partner of her husband Krishnakumar.
Somes belonged to the first batch of the Jaffna University in the mid-1970s. I remember her from my childhood as she was one of my father’s favourite students. That educational relationship with my father for decades, continued into many discussions between Somes and myself, and more recently with her daughters pursuing post-graduate education. During a formal meeting earlier this year, she introduced herself, as lecturer at the Jaffna University, and that she liked to proudly identify herself as someone who studied with intellectuals like K. Kailasapathy, K. Indrapala and S. Kadirgamar. Somes carried that tradition of commitment to education and intellectual engagement through the difficult war-times in Jaffna.
While I remember Somes as a child growing up in Jaffna, I reconnected with her after almost two decades, when I went on a short visit to Jaffna during the ceasefire period in 2002. I wanted to meet my father’s colleague and literary critic A. J. Canagaratna, who for almost two decades before he passed away in 2006 lived with Somes and her family. That is when I realised, that even as there was an exodus of Tamil intellectuals during the war, it was people like Somes and Krishnakumar, who kept a quiet but dissenting circle alive amidst a climate of fear and repression.
For the many meetings and discussions over the years relating to issues such as the legacy of the anti-caste struggles, on Tamil-Muslim relations and the socio-economic challenges facing Jaffna, Somes would without fail come on the back of the scooter driven by Krishnakumar. The two of them, known for their impeccable intellectual honesty, would make their points softly but forcefully. Somes’ wide understanding of the historical and sociological make up of Tamil society, would dispel many of the myths that underlie the conservative and nationalist discourse prevalent in Jaffna.
With decades of experience of living through troubled times, she would caution against any quick moves to change society
Somes’ politics was both personal and public. For Somes, the most important aspect of the years after the war she would say, was that women like her did not have to worry about children being forcefully recruited into the war. Sometimes the only woman present in a discussion, when women were put down by a conservative proponent, she would shoot back with piercing questions. At the same time, with decades of experience of living through troubled times, she would caution against any quick moves to change society. Her approach was to step by step build the political space to have critical discussions and build a society that can again find the path of compassion and progressive aspirations.
As her life became difficult with the onslaught of cancer, she fought it with courage despite tremendous pain. During our last meeting, a couple of months before she passed away, when she knew the end was near, she said with conviction and determination that she had no regrets about her life, and that she had lived it fully. Even at that moment, she wanted me to meet with a young woman, a friend of her twin daughters, who was interested in pursuing research. Her heart and mind fought hard to the end, never giving up on the personal and social challenges in life. For many of us who have learned so much from her, depended on her work and solidarity, and been nurtured by her warmth and smile, she leaves behind a void that cannot be filled.