Nihal De Silva’s The Road from Elephant Pass is a book with all the right ingredients which a pleaser of the state mandate could have written between 2001-2005. Published in 2003 and winning both the Gratiaen and State Literary Prizes for that year, the book deals with an army officer’s adventures in his escorting of a supposed LTTE informant to Colombo through the Wilpattu. To say the least, the book is lukewarm in the suspense and adventure it promises at the outset and is shallow where it engages with the political and historical threads by which the tangled Civil War had ensued. De Silva’s work would have died a natural death with the lapse of two or three years – one would have felt – if not for the novel being included in the GCE A/L English Literature syllabus from 2009. Now, it sits there somewhat sheepishly with a certificate given by the Syllabus Maker, beside Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Nadine Gordimer.
De Silva, in his work, improvises on numerous stereotypes. His chosen protagonists are two militants with diverse backgrounds: backgrounds which are lower than what one would call the “upper middle class” socio-economic bracket. In any case, both chief characters – Captain Wasantha and Kamala Velaithan – fall outside the leisurely socialite nest from where De Silva writes / types his manuscript. Captain Wasantha hails from a rural hamlet off Akuressa and has been supported by a NGO fund on his rise from being a potential school drop out to being a high profile captain in the Sri Lankan Army. Velaithan, on the other hand, has a secure childhood in Wellawatte, couched in her father’s moderate teacher income. Her life’s ambition, we are told, was to become a doctor. All this is violently unsettled and displaced by the riots of July 1983. Velaithan, thenafter, is transferred to Jaffna with her family; where, after her father’s demise, she joins the LTTE.
Where the novel fails to intrigue us in depth of political consciousness, it plays a dominant role in substantiating patriarchal models and structures. This is more evidently seen in how Wasantha and Velaithan – who begin their trek as “equals” of two opposite ideologies – gradually fall into a seamless role playing of “husband and wife”, the more they venture into the thick of lawless jungle terrain. While, at the beginning, there is no demarcated division of labour, the relationship develops along “conventional lines” of domestic labour distribution – with the “male” doing the hunting and gathering; whereas the “female” does the cooking. At a critical juncture, the duo come face to face with a group of deserters, who launch a desperate “operation” to capture Velaithan; who, it is implied, would have been used for their sexual gratification.
At this point, Wasantha launches a determined and ruthless counter-offensive against the deserters (his sexual opposition) and, in an outnumbered game, he “hunts” down one by one the whole predatory bunch. Almost nearly 80 pages of the book is dedicated to this encounter and its consequences, which indicates the importance De Silva attaches to this battle of lust. What these men – the deserters, collectively and Wasantha on his own – contend for is the body and the flesh of Kamala Velaithan. Wasantha, in the process, gravely injures at least two and kills one other deserter: men, who, at one point, would have fought in the same militant force as he. With the killing of each potential sexual enemy, Wasantha becomes more and more the “legitimate possessor” to Velaithan’s body.
With the sexual predators partially dismantled, “Kamala [stands] patiently for [Wasantha] to show the way” (272). Thus, with a subtle shift the gendered division of domestic labour is finally satisfied. The domestication of Velaithan is followed by yet another development in the plot and storyline. Victorious in the “war against sexual predators” Wasantha engages in sex with Velaithan. At the risk of sidetracking, one has to point out that the Wasantha-Velaithan “sex scene” is one of the most pathetic dramatizations, by which we are exposed to the “holier than thou” brute in Nihal De Silva. De Silva’s supremacist mentality and his undermining of the common villager as one who has no “sexual instinct” (but, as one who has to painstakingly “learn” sex) is clearly portrayed; and to one’s dismay, too:
In the heart of carnal intimacy, Captain Wasantha is made to confess that he learnt kissing from English movies (348) and he is seen licking Velaithan’s chest (as De Silva makes Wasantha say) in imitation of “mammals…on Discovery Channel” (349). Elsewhere, Wasantha is seen musing of his fiancee Sriyani and is “made dizzy” by the “prospect of marrying and beddingher” (226; italics mine). The implication is that while the likes of De Silva – regulars from the socialite metropolitan VIP club – “make love” in their leisurely honeymoon, common village kids such as Captain Wasantha – the state paid bodyguard of the VIP – “bed” their women without finesse or poetry.
Wasantha and Velaithan, thus, become a shadow for the smooth, defined patriarchal “male” and “female”. This structural complementation goes as far as to dismantle the very operation on which Velaithan is initially sent. The LTTE carder’s mission, upon departure, was to trick the Lankan army with information which she (on pretext) was to trade. She was sent as a Trojan Horse who would give out coordinates relating to the location and time of a visit by Prabhaharan. In reality, this visit is to be of an Indian human rights worker: a thorn on the LTTE’s hide. The outcome of the mission – if successfully completed – would be the disgracing of the Sri Lankan government. The growing intimacy finally makes both Velaithan and Wasantha “betray” their causes on one another’s behalf. However, the initiator of this “disowning” of the cause is Velaithan – it is she who reveals to Wasantha her “true mission”, minutes before being summoned by the Director of Military Intelligence.
Velaithan’s revelation – on closer analysis – is a securing and safeguarding of the patriarchal mantle at two levels. At a “domestic” level, she thus safeguards Wasantha’s career and reputation, which would have otherwise been ruined, had her “sent objective” been fulfilled. Secondly – and this is what is more crucial where we relate the novel to the larger political context of national traffic – she safeguards the integrity of the “Sri Lankan state”: the over-arching chauvinistic, patriarchal force in the context of protracted Civil War. The Pro-Sinhala Sri Lankan government’s conduct and response to the “Tamil Issue”, over the decades, had been resonant of a vehement patriarchal spirit. The Tamil identity, on the build up to what erupts in 1983 as an armed rebellion, is under-accommodated both at negotiation tables and at policy implementation. The “compromise or perish” policy had been the stem upon which such exchange was often carried out. The novel ends with Velaithan being given the promise of a new identity and a safe passage to Vancouver, Canada. This is her reward for serving and safeguarding the integrity of the patriarchal structure which battles to humble the subversive “national other”: the LTTE.
The “father figure” is a centrally focused motif in The Road from Elephant Pass. Velaithan’s life is well placed and comfortably maintained until the death of her father. It is her father who nurtures in her the love of nature and birdwatching. The death of the father snaps the last strand for the young adult in Velaithan, making her a diehard carder of the LTTE. Wasantha, on the other hand, is in search of a “father figure”; his own father being a drunkard and a terror at home. He, in this regard, is a shadow of Telemachus and his search for a mentor is satiated when he meets Mr. Karl. Karl becomes the guiding spirit to the young Wasantha, influencing his tastes and habits; cultivating in him the “gentleman” which he strives to become. The Karl-Wasantha relationship, at times, has definite homo-erotic hints; but, that would be the topic for a different article.
The aspect under study, by no means, has any pretensions of being one of Nihal De Silva’s chief concerns in writing the book. This is all more in the way of generating an academic interest. Since the war affected De Silva from beyond the edge of his armchair’s foot rest, the engagement he offers is no advanced than where he sits. But, in an age where films such as “Selvam” are shot (the way we are told they are being produced) and are screened without a hint of impunity or disgust, let us be more tolerant of what in The Road from Elephant Pass in its harmless naivety has to offer.
[This was run in the Nation on Sunday]