This item is an audio file.

Nirmala Rajasingam Oral History Interview


Nirmala Rajasingam is an Ilankai Tamil Feminist activist and renowned as a dissident leader in Sri Lankan political history. Born and raised in Jaffna, she attended college in the United States, and is a graduate of Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She returned to Sri Lanka after her time in the United States and became steeped in political activism at a time when ethnic tensions boiled over into armed violence. She was the first woman detained under Sri Lanka's draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, before escaping from prison and eventually defecting from the Tamil Tigers, for whom her initial support is what got her imprisoned. Nirmala's sister is the esteemed late physician and human rights activist Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, who was gunned down by the Tigers after she too defected and contributed to the publication The Broken Palmyrah. While Nirmala Rajasingam and her family's contributions to dissident Tamil and Sri Lankan activism are well known, Nirmala's time as a college student in the United States is not documented. This interview is conducted in multiple parts, the first of which covers her earlier years growing up and her time as a student in the United States. The latter parts provide an epilogue to Nirmala's life in the United States by speaking to how these experiences provided an emotional and social context to her return to Sri Lanka and ensuing years of political activism.

This multipart interview series is an important part of the overall project for two reasons. The first is that it captures a stage in Nirmala Rajasingam's life and the impact that stage had, both of which are not commonly known. Secondly, it shows how the politics of a prominent Tamil activist was partly influenced by personal experiences that many of us in the diaspora share: being alienated in predominantly white spaces, getting to know and organizing with vulnerable people in urban America, falling in love and enduring heartbreak, keeping the intimacies of romantic and familial relationships separate from each other, witnessing forms of physical and sexual assault, and returning to one’s family after experiencing alienation in America only to be alienated by your own family and community. Part 1 of this interview was conducted with the help of Maithreyi Rajeshkumar, who served as an interviewer, and is Nirmala Rajasingam's daughter. The interview was done after over 20 unrecorded hours of preliminary conversation, in which Nirmala recounted memories that she had not consciously revisited for decades.

Activism, Family, Memory & Remembrance, Political Engagement, Civic Engagement, Reflections on America, Identity, Law & Justice

Duration: 03:22:08

Date: March 31, 2022
Subject(s): Nirmala Rajasingam
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Kartik Amarnath
Contributor: Nirmala Rajasingam, Maithreyi Rajeshkumar
Location: London, United Kingdom

Collection: Kartik Amarnath Fellowship project
Donor: Nirmala Rajasingam, Maithreyi Rajeshkumar
Item History: 2022-06-24 (created); 2022-09-28 (modified)

* This digital object may not be sold or redistributed, copied or distributed as a photograph, electronic file, or any other media without express written consent from the copyright holder and the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA). The user is responsible for all issues of copyright. If you are the rightful copyright holder of this item and its use online constitutes an infringement of your copyright, please contact us by email at to discuss its removal from the archive.