Shirani Rajapakse’s Breaking News – a collection of nine short stories – first hit the limelight when it was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2010. The back cover tells us that “four of the short stories are about the effects of terrorism on the lives of the people…while one story is set in the…height of the Marxist JVP violence in the South.” The remainder, we are told, provide “glimpses of the humorous side of life in Sri Lanka” (what a server, methinks, of the tragi-comedy in one breath). Shirani’s main focus is on violence and social disturbance; and here, too, with the exception of one story, “LTTE fetish” is her perdominant point of focus.
To the Southern writer in Sri Lanka and her expatriate cousin, the LTTE, in its post-1983 aftermath, has been a savoury item: an obsessive fetish and a desire. Between the 1980s and 2009 very few works of fiction relating to Sri Lanka was deemed complete without a reference – even at the margin – to the LTTE, a bomb blast or a militant, no matter how anomalous or irrelevant such an insertion at times made things sound. Incidentally, Shirani’s collection is one of the first post-2009 outputs that deal with the much licked LTTE lollipop. However, Shirani’s reading of the LTTE and its presence in the discourse of Sri Lankan politics remains hollow to the touch; as she becomes yet another uncritical, mainstream penpusher of a naïve, superficial “Southerner’s gaze” who contents herself by replaying the same stereotypical material of the LTTE as ruthless bloodhound.
Mine is not to deter an individual from charging the LTTE with manslaughter, kidnappings, child recruitment to their ranks, terrorizing civilians, bomb explosions etc. What concerns me is the assurance with which the “Southern writer” deems to construct “what really happened” with the LTTE in the Northern peninsula. Shirani enters the discourse of “narrativizing the LTTE” as an alien and as a virtual voyeur of the Northerner’s crisis. The battle fought by the LTTE (on behalf of what it deemed was the right to self government) was not the same war for Shirani. The political and historical specifics by which such otherwise unwarranted undertakings became inevitable falls outside Shirani’s consideration or purview. Yet, Shirani sets out in taking Prospero’s mantle in telling us (the “North” included) as to “what possibly happened” in the war torn lives of affected destitute people. She, however, occupies neither that geography, nor that time. Shirani is a mere fantasizer of that “emotional space” of the war torn. The main thread of her stories, therefore, is the climax of the same.
For purposes of reference, I will consider two of the four pieces which deal with the “LTTE fetish”: The Boarder and Photographs in Her Mind. The first story deals with an LTTE suicide bomber who infiltrates Colombo. The story is both predictable and hackneyed, in terms of plot. A girl from Jaffna – Selvi – comes in search of a boarding, submitting a sob story of how her family has been crushed by her father’s murder by the LTTE. The father, who was demanded of a monthly ransom by the LTTE, fails to do so for a few months owing to a injury. The LTTE comes over and kills the man who “opened his mouth to plead, and that”, wea re told, “was when the bullet entered his brain. He fell dead immediately” (10). The ruthless, emotion-drained LTTE membership is a stereotype in Sri Lankan fiction. Shirani is merely rewinding the clockwork.
In Photographs in Her Mind Shirani constructs Engamma, a Northern village woman whose husband is shot by the LTTE before her two children are forcibly dragged away to be trained as soldiers. The two children are “five and seven years old” (39). The husband protests against the “men in tiger stripes” as they drag the children out of the house. These men simply “emptied the contents of a barrel of fire inside [the husband’s] stomach…the barrel spat out fire into the core of his belly” (40). The vivid imagination of the writer takes over and with her stored treasury of “LTTE violence” stereotypes, she elaborates the victim’s death:
“The outer cover splattered in tiny fragments flying in all directions to fall like a design against the wall closest to where he stood. The intestines jumped out and slithered all over the floor like snakes thrown out from the old charmer’s basket. Five rivers of red spluttered out like the water from the holes made in the polythene bad the children played with” (39).
The ascribed brutality to the killing is further intensified as the LTTE carders are seen to laugh heartlessly and as they kick aside Engamma, who supplicates before them. “Their laughter mocked her as they left the house dragging the boys like rag dolls against the harsh, dry earth” (39). An element of perversity is thus injected into the LTTE carder – who, in addition to his mission of “collecting child recruits”, is seen to enthrall and relish in random shootings and kicking aside innocent women.
Coming back to The Boarder the story has no suspense, as at the opening of the story itself Selvi has already blown herself up. What we go on to learn is the history which leads up to the explosion. Selvi is seen as silent, detached, passive and unfriendly: the qualities which are periodically assigned to the stoic LTTE carder by the Lankan author. The woman, finally, blows herself up: “Everyone froze as she let out a loud cry like an animal and lifted her arms above her head. There was a flash of bright light and then a loud noise like nothing they had heard” (17). So far, to say the least of it, the suicide bomber is like everything we have already heard. The naturally good-hearted Sinhala middle class landlord and land lady are shown to be worried and in earnest for their young Tamil tenant’s welfare when she fails to return from work. The dead woman’s head is later found “against the side of a ditch”. Furthermore, the woman was provided employment in Colombo by a NGO – is it a fondness of socially palatable stereotypes? Or, a simple lack of creativity?
In George Orwell’s 1984, there is a term; “duckspeak”, which loosely refers to mass uncritical reproductions by citizens in whom the state ideology is drilled and naturalized. Similarly, Shirani’s is a feed of Sinhala / Southern images and stocks of a Sinhala / Southern voyeurism. In this “Sinhala gaze” of war and carnage, the Sri Lankan Army is seen as the humane and compassionate agency – a deliberate binary opposite to the brutal and ruthless LTTE. In Photographs In Her Mind the army, in due course, delivers Engamma’s village from the threat of the LTTE: “The men in green camouflage (the army) told Engamma that she could return to her home in her village if she wanted. There were men in green camouflage there too, and it was safe” (41). The departure of the compassionate army makes the villagers anxious; and duly the LTTE returns with its “unthinkable” (41) violence:
“The men in tiger stripes strutted in wagging their tails and waving their fire irons. Her sister’s daughter was dragged out from school. The neighbour’s son was thrown into a jeep they had stolen from somewhere” (42).
This absolute polarization – and the recognition of one form of violence over the other – and the binary values attributed to the two conflicting armies come across as primitive and shallow.
In yet another story – Breaking News – Shirani demonstrates a form of meanness and arrogance in relation to the capture and extra-judiciary execution of the late Rohana Wijeweera. The story, here, functions as a caricature of the late leader of the JVP and, upon extension, the JVP cause as a whole. In an insensitive class-centric undermining, the rebel leaders of 1988-89 are seen both in dehumanized forms as well as a band of selfish cowardice. The story opens with Pauline – a hi soc girl, while “relaxing with a beer at Otters” – sees on paper that Wijeweera was killed and her response is an astounded cry (56). Later, after much deliberation, we are told that the reason for Pauline’s start is that the photo of Wijeweera on the paper did not correspond the (popularly promoted) image of Wijeweera in the posters.
“It is not that the facial hair that is missing” we are assured, but that “his skin is fairer” (63). The young hi soc girls come up with suggestions as to why this could be. One suggestion is that – alike Michael Jackson – Wijeweera, too, has a skin disease. Another argues that he might have “kabara”. It is supposed that “maybe he applied make up and wore a wig and pasted a beard for the other photograph…Boy, he may have felt like a real kabaragoya” (63). Amidst giggles they playfully assume that a life in underground bunkers and being refrained from sunlight for long periods may have made his skin turn white. By extension, they attribute the same “kabara” feature to Prabhakaran of the LTTE: “Do you think he has also turned into a kabaragoya?… I hope the army captures him soon. We can compare the pictures” (64).
This form of upstart dehumanization, in fact, is arrogant enough; but, Shirani’s relation to Wijeweera’s actual killing has no softness, in spite of its inhuman extra-judicial manner:
“They said [Wijeweera] howled like a jackal and begged them to spare his life. The army wasn’t interested…and shot him dead… Maybe his blood ran cold all over the floor and over the walls and tried to make it out of the window into for some fresh air… They say he died before he could negotiate a deal for him to move to Russia…along with his colleagues, although no mention was made about their begging. But it is safe to conclude that they followed their leader’s example and burst into many tears” (56-57).
Being produced at that crucial juncture of immediate post-2009 Sri Lanka, the collection, overall, shows no empathy or sensitivity in viewing the Civil War or its Northern stakeholders in a critical, perceptive light. In her restricted reach, what the writer manages to give voice to are a familiar assortment of cliches relating to the “LTTE fetish”, while betraying an arrogance and meanness towards the collective dissenters of the state – in context, the LTTE and the JVP.