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From militant to writer: Sri Lankan Tamil author Shobasakthi.


Shobasakthi's novel Gorilla, written by a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee and former LTTE child soldier, plunges readers into the village of Kunjan Fields, in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. In the essay that follows, Anushiya Sivanarayanan, herself a Tamil whose family left Sri Lanka in the 1980s, introduces us to the world behind this remarkable talent's English-language debut. For an online extra, read Shobasakthi's short story "Barabas" on our website,

My family moved to India after the terrible ethnic violence of 1983, when bloodthirsty Sinhala mobs roamed the streets of Sri Lanka burning Tamil homes, businesses, and the hapless Tamils who fell into their clutches. Witnessing these horrors, and the months spent in refugee camps, convinced many of us to migrate, though the decision to pack up and get out was not an easy one. My parents were in their early forties with school-age children; worse, even though my family was of Indian origin (in that our ancestors had come to Sri Lanka as part of the late-nineteenth-century British colonial plantation enterprise), we knew no one in India. Our knowledge of Indian Tamil culture had been absorbed from the ubiquitous Indian cinema and popular magazines like Kumudam and Ananda Vikatan that arrived weekly from Tamil Nadu. A Sri Lankan Tamil friend who had traveled through South Indian temple towns just before the 1983 riots advised us to choose Madurai, the "Temple City," as our final destination.

Looking back, these early years of the 1980s, when the Indian government and the people of India were deeply sympathetic to the plight of the fleeing Sri Lankan Tamils, seem rather idyllic. The international outcry over a majority Sinhala government that had systematically terrorized its minorities helped in getting us all accepted as victims in our host countries. I was given college admission in the middle of the semester and allowed to join ongoing classes; shopkeepers wept when they repeated to us stories that they had read in the newspapers about our suffering. But all such goodwill came to an end when the Indian army went into the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka in 2987 in a bid to roust out the Tamfl militancy movement. Suddenly, Sri Lankan Tamils everywhere were seen as potential terrorists, and ironically enough, treated in the same fashion as the Sri Lankan government treats its Tamil citizens. The early 1990s saw a fresh exodus from Sri Lanka, and this time they were mostly young boys, who were getting out by any means possible to escape the torture camps that were popping up all over the island.

The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora community buzzed with the various border-crossing methods these young men used. These escape narratives, rather like the fugitive slave narratives of the American slave South, were not only a testament to the ingenuity and single-mindedness of the escapee but also stories signifying hope to a people who felt both scattered and besieged. There were hundreds of such tales--of cutting up passports in airport bathrooms, of forging multiple identifies, of loopholes, of smugglers, of fast boats with two Honda engines that could outrun anything on water, of walking across frozen European mountain ranges, of being caught and questioned by tough-faced immigration officers--that provided us with a common identity of being stateless, diaspora Sri Lankan Tamils. In my view, it was not the idea of an imaginary separate Sri Lankan state for the Tamils--the elusive Tamil Eelam--that conjoined all of us living in and outside the island, but these tales that we shared with one another, of native cunning and the sheer irrepressibility of the fugitives.

The first time I saw one of these stories in print was in the Indian-born North American writer Bharati Mukherjee's prizewinning short-story collection The Middleman and Other Stories, which came out in 1988. To my annoyed surprise, Mukherjee's story on the Sri Lankan Tamil fugitive refugee had all the technical details just right. Some Sri Lankan Tamil in Canada (where Mukherjee was based then and where many hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamils have now ended up) had provided Mukherjee with the requisite inside information. But Mukherjee is clearly clueless about the overwhelming reason for the illicit crossing in the first place. Mukherjee's illegal immigrant is a forty-nine-year-old English teacher who is also a stiff-necked bore; in reality, the majority of escaping Tamils are just boys rounded up under the notorious "Prevention of Terrorism" act that denies all habeas corpus rights. I resented the

way Mukherjee presented her Tamil refugee as a thoroughly anglicized elitist. How is it possible to see in him the desperation of poverty-stricken village boys mentally and physically destroyed by torture at the hands of homegrown militants as well as government forces?

When I read Shobasakthi's first novel, Gorilla, a memoir-of-sorts of a former child soldier with the Tamil militants and now a refugee in France, I was riveted. What had been for years the stories and experiences shared only with other Sri Lankan Tamils was finally in print, presented with such exquisite tenderness and lack of sentimentality that I began translating the book immediately. Gorilla actually opens with a typical petition for asylum, miserably familiar to all of us who have written and rewritten a thousand such pleas to various official bodies, begging to be allowed to stay in a strange land. The meticulously numbered, detailed paragraphs of the appeal (of army massacres, police arrests, incarcerations, beatings, rearrests, border crossings, interrogations, loss, and death), a desperate last-ditch attempt by the writer to avoid being deported to the torture chambers of Sri Lanka, is an overtly plotted self-narrative that uses the given formulaic language structure of modern bureaucracy. The official language demands names and dates only. The rhetorical demands of the petition are ones that the asylum seeker could never fulfill, for it functions upon the principles of documentation and proof.

As Anthony Thasan (the name of the petitioner and the real name of Shobasakthi himself) puts it in the first numbered paragraph of his petition:
 Even after I explained in detail the terrors
 that were inflicted upon me and
 the real danger to my life in my country
 of birth, you quoted the "July 25, 1952,
 Geneva Code, Division II" and refused
 political asylum all three times. According
 to that most unfortunate Division II,
 your explanation is that I face no specific
 danger. You have argued that the perilous
 nature of life that all Sri Lankan
 Tamils face in Sri Lanka is similar to my
 condition and therefore I cannot be given
 political asylum according to the law. It
 is unfortunate that even after I explained
 in detail my individual circumstances,
 you reject my narrative as baseless as I
 am unable to provide you with official
 documentation of my sufferings. Sir, in
 my country, the military does not cut
 up a Tamil and then give a certificate to
 the injured saying, "We cut you...." My
 lawyer advised me to add in my petition
 that there are new dangers to my life, and
 that such a statement would make my
 petition stronger. I am sorry to say that at
 this point, there are no new dangers.

We can see why this particular petition had been rejected. The speaker is opinionated, passionate, and is not penitent enough. He rejects the mode of address he is asked to assume as a refugee, and Shobasakthi, by writing the rest of the novel in the rhetorical model of the petition, where he fills in a circular narrative that nevertheless employs all the formulaic-language forms of the objective documentation style--the dictionary definitions, the copious footnotes, and the supplementary attachments so popular with the bureaucracy--proves that these language forms are not objective, singular entities able to stand on their own but malleable rhetorical forms. If the petitioner fails to persuade the authorities with his appeal, for he could never fill in the blanks in the clean, clear-cut fashion he is asked to do, he also highlights for the reader the utter Kafka-like absurdity of the process itself. For the authorities could never handle the murky truths of the refugees: the memoir could never function according to the rules of the memorandum.

In one of my conversations with Shobasakthi, when I asked about the loss of a unitary sense of self that his youthful protagonist, Rocky Raj, suffers in the novel, and speculated about violence and its effects in ontological terms, Shobasakthi said very simply that political refugees, most of whom are former child soldiers, cannot admit that they ever carried arms, as such an admittance would disqualify them immediately. Therefore, their narratives always begin with a lie. Anthony Thasan's petition tries to present a singular narrative of violence and victimhood. Significantly, in the last part of the novel, when we find out that it is young Rocky Raj (whose story as a child soldier we had read so far) who is the Anthony Thasan of the petition, we also realize from following his convoluted story in the marshes of Kunjan Fields of Jaffna that the step-by-step life-story line he lays out in his asylum petition is a complete fabrication. We also realize that Rocky Raj could never present his story, which is that of a poor rural boy who runs to the militant movement to get away from his sociopath of a father, who then gets betrayed by both the movement and his thief of a father, in a clear-cut fashion. His story is too messy, riddled with Oedipal urges of the kind the Parisian authorities, the ultimate father figures of power (so we realize as they interrogate Rocky Raj in one of the more bizarre scenes in the narrative), would never allow to be legitimized.

Shobasakthi, a former child soldier with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the militant army that has now emerged as the single most powerful force in the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka), lives in Paris and is widely regarded as the foremost among diaspora Sri Lankan Tamil writers. He was but fifteen when the 1983 ethnic violence swept through the island like a tsunami and promptly signed up with the local chapter of the Tamil Tigers. The massacre of Tamils in Welikade Prison by the Sri Lankan government that began the 1983 violence had a profound effect on him and appears in his second novel, Hmm ..., in all its gruesome detail. Shobasakthi explains that he was seduced to join by the rhetoric of social justice that the Tigers were offering during that time period. Now as part of a group of diaspora activist writers and thinkers, Shobasakthi is deeply critical of the various Tamil militant rhetorical forms that keep afloat a death culture in the name of ethnic pride:
 This war has created an accursed generation
 not only within the Tamil community
 but also nationwide. Every single Sinhala
 soldier who is dying on the battleground
 today is a poor village farmer, dressed in
 uniform. In the name of border security
 forces and local militia, Sinhala and Muslim
 children are dragged into the war.
 This miserable war has produced a generation
 that has no faith in democracy or
 in fellow human beings and only trusts
 the power of the gun.


Born J. Antony Thasan in a small, poor island off the coast of Jaffna, Shobasakthi's stories and novels incessantly revisit this time period when the Tamil militant movement with its brutal masculine ethos took root within the Tamil community. I remember how liberating it felt, in the years leading up to the 1983 conflagration, when we Tamils, beaten, taunted, and arrested at every turn of the street comer, rejoiced when we heard of how "our boys" or podiyal (the collective-identity term indicating extreme youth that is used to describe members of Tamil militant organizations) bombed police stations and robbed state-run banks. The Sri Lankan government retaliated by blowing up the Jaffna Library, a venerable institution that housed many original Tamil manuscripts and arresting any Tamil male on the street. (In Shobasakthi's Hmm ..., the young protagonist Nesakumaran leaves the seminary where he was studying to be a priest in the aftermath of events following the bombing of the Jaffna library.) It is important to note, especially in this post-9/11 world, that in the late 1970s and right up to this century, most Tamils felt pride in the activities of the militants, however detached they may have been from the center of the action, as the Tigers provided an obliterating response to a thousand indignities suffered in the name of one's ethnicity.

Now seasoned by riving in places other than our own, unable to vote (as Shobasakthi pithily points out, that in spite of riving all our rives in nations with democratic political systems, none of us has ever been able to cast a vote), and painfully reminded of our country of origin each time someone asks us quite idly whether we are from India (wearily I smile and lie "yes"), we are slowly learning to refuse the easy categorizations of ethnic identities. In Shobasakthi's short story "The Traitor," Stanley, the main character, suffers from having been able to speak Sinhala in an all-Tamil village. For when the Sinhala army came, it became his role to translate their brutal interrogations and finally to translate the order to his fellow villagers to run into a mined beach. Stanley thus becomes a traitor, for it is he who mouths the obscenity and then rives to tell about it. Even after he has rived for many years as a refugee in an unnamed European city, he is still known as a "traitor" within the diaspora community. Shobasakthi's writings pick at the scabs of wounds that many of us wish we could forget. As Shobasakthi puts it: "The moment I left Sri Lanka, my identity as a militant became that of a refugee. But when I began to write, I became a traitor to the race. I have been beaten up on the streets of Paris and on blogs by fellow Tamil refugees for my writings."

The next novel by Shobasakthi, coming out of Adayalam Publishers of Chennai in December, is called One Way and describes the process of the making of a refugee in the diaspora. "What is more painful? Being made a refugee first of all or then trying to prove to the authorities that one is actually a refugee?"

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Title Annotation:currents
Author:Sivanarayanan, Anushiya
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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