After the B(al)last, Resonance of Futility. On Reading Shobhasakthi’s “Gorilla”.

Shobasakthi’s Gorilla – translated into English from the original Tamil by Anushiya Sivanarayanan – intimates us with multiple spaces which, in the face of militancy, have been torn open. In a broader sense, the novel is partially set in the Northern Peninsula of the 1980s, with the struggle for Eelam gathering momentum in the formative years of the LTTE. The second half of the novel is set in diasporic France – where the narrator relates to a cluster of displaced Tamil nationals with obscure pasts, volatile presents and unclear, blurred futures. In many ways, the second section functions as a foil to the opening; and highlights the sense of utter loss and displacement as it relates to the history, present and future of the Tamil identity. The confusion with which the novel ends, with the whole group of Tamil refugees being either compromised or dead is symbolic of the chaotic and unsettled fate the Tamils, in their landless state, have come to embrace. In the concluding pages, Jeevarani is found killed by her husband after she is caught with another man, Rida (in spite of them – Jeevarani and Thaninayagam – twenty years before, braving an escape from Sri Lanka to avoid the sting of caste), while Thaninayagam (Lokka), Anthony and the narrator are in turn detained by the French Police on homicide and impersonation charges.

However, what detained my attention the most in Gorilla was the oscillation of power and displacement, which works as a recurrent motif. The novel, as such, is a meditation on changing warlords who dictate, dominate and perish; or are, in turn, dictated to or are compromised. For instance, the coming of the Tamil rebellious youth groups in the 1980s show an organization of power and authority, taking control of issues in the regions they operate in, while sidelining “thugs” in the caliber of Rocky Raj’s father, “Gorilla”. At one level, the novel’s focus is on Kunjan Fields’ coming to terms with the emergent LTTE order, while the notorious Gorilla-types lose hold. The contest is dramatically portrayed where Ravi, Majeed and Rocky Raj encounter Gorilla in his own front yard. This is followed by the latter’s being stripped and tied up for three days at the LTTE sentry point.

The detached tone Shobasakthi at times assumes, with the innocuously inserted “asides” (such as footnotes whenever a new character is introduced) have an overwhelming effect for several reasons. Primarily, the flat, distancing, even cynical delivery tends to “objectify” the narrative from being identified as being too close to one side or another. The footnotes are even more intriguing for they bring forth the utter waste of human lives lost and carnage sustained when things are duly set in a larger historical frame. Consider the following citations at random, as they relate to both major and marginal characters in the text:

Character Name Major / Minor Status Description on Footnote
William Manuel Jesurasan (Gorilla) Major 1944-1996: While travelling with a boatload of refugees on the Mannar sea to Mandappam, south India, he was shot to death by the Sri Lankan navy
Gnanaprakasam Goncelas Jesurasan Minor 1933-1984: was killed by two armed youth in his home in Annaikottai.
Genoa Rajeswari Major 1949-1990: During the early days of the second Eelam War, she was killed by the army as it was moving along the greater North Road to rescue the soldiers who had been surrounded by the Tigers in the Dutch fort in Jaffna…
Sundaram Sabarathnam Mentioned in Passing Alias Periya Sri. On 06.05.1986 was killed by the Tigers in the village of Kondaville Jaffna.
Jesurasan Princie Nirmala Minor 1974-1990: Died in the last suicide attack of the Tigers against the Indian Peace Keeping Forces, a bomb tied to her breasts.
Ravi Sinaandy Thiruketheeswaran Minor 1970-1990: Stabbed to death in a London theater hall by three young Tamil men over internal disagreements amongst the British diasporic Tamils.

Almost all characters we meet perish at the expense of a Tamil bullet, a Sinhala bullet, or a diasporic knife. The heroes and playmakers of a moment become the inglorious victims and bastards of time. Oshiela, Raj’s area commandant – who mocks Raj when he, at a point, questions the purpose of war – “disappears” one morning and is unaccounted for. The mysterious poster which appears in town demanding Oshiela’s whereabouts hints that there is some unpublicized ambiguity about the “vanishing”.

Gorilla

Shobasakthi writes in 2001, but the overwhelming sense of futility the lives, injuries and deaths of these human beings, as recorded, have a timeless relevance. When set in the wide expanse of time, the losses sustained and brutality inflicted echo a poignancy which cut through hollow mandates of political kingpins. The fatal note with which Shobasakthi marks every footnote was felt by me when statistics and ledgers reading out numbers of dead and of casualties were read out in an even blander and detached a manner by newsreaders, leading up to May 2009. Indeed, the barely passive enthusiasm of the newsreader – and the active energy it was meant to excite in the Southern Sinhala viewer – is a different aesthetic from Shobasakthi’s detachment: for the latter is a distance one strikes in the face of futility and loss.

In the closing stages of the North-East Civil War there were reports of many frontline LTTE leaders, alongside numberless others killed. I remember making a personal reflection as to how much energy we – as a geo-entity with different political faiths – were collectively losing in every death that was heroically reported. What makes one a militant or a terrorist is one’s inability to stand and write history at the end of a battle. War, in other words, leaves no tales to be legitimized for the losing party. In purely human terms, concerning the physical and mental richness of labour, the thousands of carders killed in those final stages – specially, if there were vases where death could have been prevented – is a slippage of vanity and the unwillingness to compromise. The sense of loss and futile inevitability I see in Shobasakthi’s novel is something very similar to these lines.

As a conclusion to this piece, I wish to record my thoughts at the death of one particular LTTE frontliner – S.P. Tamil Chelvam. When this one time Political Wing leader’s death was announced on TV – with his secret hideout bombarded – my mind couldn’t resist playing in its eye a series of stills and captures of the fellow’s political career. The ever-beaming smile to the camera, of his seated with negotiators at peace talks, of him in camouflage outfit etc – the thought that struck me was that, had he – Tamil Chelvam – been on the “right side” of history-making, how different things would have been: as to how essential that mind would have been counted to be. You feel the same for every hero and every villain the novel offers us. For on hindsight, we know something those fatally treated did not: that their passion would one day be thwarted; and that their project will be brutally compromised.

[Written for the Lakbima News]

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