“The Whirlwind” taken after “Elephant Pass”: of putting Santhan and Nihal in the ring.

by Vihanga

Aiyathurai Santhan’s “The Whirlwind” came under public discussion after its being shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize for 2009 (awarded in 2010). Egghead – the blogger at ‘srilankan books’ (http://srilankanbooks.blogspot.com/) – was among the first readers to write on the novel. In her/his May 30th entry Egghead takes a schizophrenic stance by partly denouncing the book mainly on technical grounds, while, at the same time, applauding the writer. According to Egghead, “The Whirlwind” requires much revision, it is grammatically awkward at times and is more focused on the “hardships” and “relationships” of the people concerned – and does not, for instance, pay sufficient heed to the characterization of the IPKF, the actual carnage etc. However, s/he compliments Santhan for his delivery, as “The Whirlwind” pins down a crucial historical phase of the island, and – as Egghead points out – “it is important that all Sri Lankans be able to read about our history, and what better way to do it, than through fiction”.

In my judgment, there should be no schizophrenia over “The Whirlwind”. From a purely political perspective, the novel stands out as an account of the interruption of civil life in a Northern Lankan Tamil village upon IPKF entry. This interruption and the dilemmas that follow of having an “alien” on your “home soil” – an “outsider” that neither speaks your language nor can read your culture, but who has been invested with unlimited power and guns – is graphically captured by Santhan. Perhaps, “The Whirlwind” is an unambitious statement, when we set it aside with some of the more “juicy accounts” coming from more established publishers and more catchy blurbs – novels such as “The Road from Elephant Pass” by Nihal De Silva or “A Cause Untrue” by David Blacker.


There should be little political reservation in our reading of “The Whirlwind”, I repeat, for a definite reason: this slim novel, unpretentious and un-flashy, intimately empathizes the confusion and trauma felt by the villagers of whom Santhan speaks. This is a vibration that I have not often heard in Lankan literature focusing on war and conflict; specially, where the Tamil identity is concerned. Note that Santhan’s narrative covers no more than a week’s occupation of a village by the IPKF – and here, we are familiarized with the solidarity among the villagers, their “pride”, their “values” – both domestic and social – and cultural definitions: factors that had marked their humble statuses for generations. The benefit of “historical knowledge” informs us how cruel and harsh the post-1987 climate would be for the same people: that their “troubles” were just beginning; that their “culture” would be torn to shreds in the years to come – years which Santhan does not locate in his text.

At the base of all our politics and positions are our emotions and sentiments. What the IPKF entry unsettles is those very values and convictions of the Northern Tamil; and the issuing organic solidarity of their culture. The literature on conflict has hardly given a “voice” to the Tamil identity. This has been a void to which no writer has done any justice. The most celebrated novel on the subject in recent times is Nihal De Silva’s “The Road from Elephant Pass”. Here, the co- protagonist is an LTTE informant named Velaithan. But, Velaithan comes across as a contrived character: the shadow of a LTTE rebel, made and dished out by a “Sinhala Consciousness” trying to be “creative”; but, by no means representing a “voice” for the Tamil. Rather, Velaithan comes across as a kind of wikipedia entry for “post-war Northern Tamil consciousness”; and a bad entry at that.

In fact, Aiyathurai Santhan takes up from where other (Southern Sri Lankan) writers (have) fail(ed). His preoccupation in the novel is decidedly with the psyche, the sentiments and fears of the village people: the initial shock and confusion of being “hunted” on one’s own land. As noted at the outset, there has been much literature on the cliché “Sri Lankan conflict”. The fortunes of several prominent writers and poets in English, in fact, were made entirely on this subject. However, few of them have, if at all, ever succeeded in digging into the actual sentimental and emotive pulse of “conflict” as Santhan has done.

A "pearl" in SL Lit in Eng

Let me refer to Nihal De Silva’s “The Road from Elephant Pass” as an example. As Nihal is / was from the right class, had the right contacts, wrote the “proper kind of book” to complement the tide of the time (2002/03 was thick with reconciliatory blueprints between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka), won the Gratiaen Prize etc his “Elephant Pass”, in the mainstream, is passed around as a milestone in Lankan English creativity. Nor is there a more self-conceit and reactionary novel which banks on class narrow-mindedness and a-political, wishful thinking. In short, the “Elephant Pass” kind of text, irrespective of its grammar, its editing and blurb on the cover – “winner, the Gratiaen Prize 2003” – looks at conflict and war through the syrup and marshmallow of “class ivory”. It is a novel which “pretends to be” concerned and national-minded. But, it fails to touch the emotions and the sentiments disturbed by the war; nor the complexity of its political and social atmosphere.

Santhan’s “The Whirlwind” cuts through this surface to bank on the villagers’ anxiety and inner confusion. Its ambitionlessness and the fact that Santhan focuses on “lesser realities” (as opposed to “going global”) are the defining elements of his work. The IPKF enters. But, Santhan strives to define their intervention more from the reaction – or the uncertainty of reaction – shown by the villagers; and not by the physical destruction caused by the “intruder”. Even when the village huts are tampered with, houses are forcibly occupied, sheds removed, the landscape and topography altered – all these are seen through Sivan’s and Thevar’s disbelieving eyes. That is what makes the “loss” more intense and relevant.

No google returns for Aiyadurai Santhan

As Egghead meditates “The Whirlwind” is pivotal for it is a novel written of the “conflict” by a Jaffna resident. Except for translations, the Northern consciousness of war is hardly represented in Lankan English writing. Perhaps, Nihal De Silva’s apparently “surface” response is partially motivated by the fact that he has nothing intimately to do with the war of which he is writing. He is/was “beyond” being physically touched by it, both in ethnic and class terms. Therefore, he writes of a sequence based on the “fringe of experience”. His characterization of Velaithan – the LTTE informant –, for instance, is both weak and unconvincing. In fact, Nihal De Silva, in the face of his “unfamiliarity” with Northern culture, is forced to make his heroine to be from Colombo; where Velaithan spends her childhood dreaming of being a doctor until “1983” forces her family to migrate to Jaffna. Her decision to join the LTTE comes after her father’s death. Why cannot Nihal De Silva fashion a resonance as what comes from Santhan’s Sivan, Thevar Maama or any of the minor characters? The reason is that Nihal De Silva, unlike Santhan, cannot wholeheartedly relate to or empathize with his subject.

“The Whirwind” is compact and intense. This is commendable in Santhan. It is the inconclusive five days’ wait and expectation / anxiety that make the novel “speak”. Santhan is firmly focused in awakening the response of the hapless and the fragile; and does not deviate into theatrics to cater to a “bestseller pulp”. For the reader defined by the consumer market of book reading, “The Whirlwind” will come across as hollow and off target: without sudden entries made by leopards, crocodiles and – least of all – army deserters. The point is, “The Whirlwind” doesn’t fit into the parameters of a “popular novel” or the “bestseller” frame. This partly explains why Egghead misreads the work as lacking in creative energy. The novel begins abruptly and ends without resolution. It is almost a reflection of the very displacement that is dealt with in the work.

On the long run and where Lankan literature, in general, is concerned, “The Whirlwind” would not be a whirlwind to reckon with. But, its entry has bettered our judgment on several issues. For one, the immediateness it shows to the Northern consciousness, its anxieties and antipathies is fresh for the reader in Sri Lankan English Literature; and is set apart from popular work that have risen out of the same political context: work, for instance, such as “Elephant Pass”. Therefore, where the “Literature on Conflict” is concerned Santhan’s is an assertion of the Northern Tamil consciousness; which has, often, remained an unfilled vacuum in Lankan English creativity.


2 thoughts on ““The Whirlwind” taken after “Elephant Pass”: of putting Santhan and Nihal in the ring.

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