A claim made by a ministerial secretary (Gotabhaya Rajapakshe) in the height of Kumar Guneratnam’s “abduction” by alleged government proxies is well echoed in Shobhasakthi’s Gorilla. This statement – flippant as it sounded when submitted by a bureaucrat – is to do with diasporic refugee identity: where the secretary in question hinted at how people “disappear” and “re-appear” in foreign soil, under “new” identities. Hence, the “disappeared” are never accounted for; for the simple reason that they, in the process of “going missing”, shed an identity and pick up one. In the context in which it was spoken, I felt this reference as a convenient generalization, which smears across an essentially violent and complex discourse the trajectory of one form of disappearance. One is equally tempted to pose the question as to why individuals or groups are forced to go “underground”; or, to forge an identity? The reasons, to say the least, are multiple and should not be reduced or generalized based on the whim of a bureaucrat. Shobhasakthi, in his story of Anthony and Rocky Raj, highlight but one such aspect.
Translated into English from the original Tamil by Anushiya Sivanarayanan Gorilla has two sections. The novel is partially set in the early formative days of the LTTE, as the movement takes shape and forges the identity of a “state” by its own. The protagonist, Rocky Raj is in his mid teens, and the narrative builds up through his joining the rebel group, his education as an activist and his activism. Raj is finally dismissed from the LTTE and he forges his identity, on his escape to Colombo. The second half of the novel is set in diasporic France – where the narrative familiarizes us with a group of displaced Tamil nationals with unclear pasts, shady, fugitive presents and hazy futures. The forging of identity that was introduced in the “internal” homeland context is thus externalized in this gripping passage of play. The novel ends with the main protagonists of the second section – Thaniyanayagam, Anthony and the narrator – detained by the French Police. The immediate cause of arrest is when Anthony – who is made to pose as Thaniyanayagam, in order to get an odd job at a restaurant – is detected. Thaniyanayagam, too, is arrested when he stabs to death his wife, who is caught with a mutual “migrant” acquaintance: Rida.
The steady face which Anthony puts out against all threats and humiliation breaks down when he is subjected to a lie detection test. He, who up to then, (with us not knowing) passed off as the hunted, fugitive ex-militant of part one, is detected as being – yet again – duplicitous. His desperate cries to the narrator with which the novel ends, “tell them I am Gorilla” (the name by which Rocky Raj was known), destabilizes the whole body of the narrative; further tilting the “compactness” which we often associate with personal identity. Our discussion should align on the impetus which dictates people such as “Anthony” or “Rocky Raj” to move from skin to skin – which are motivated by compulsion, lack of choices and the love for life. The history of displacement should not be tested with the same logic of state bureaucracy; and the regulatory processes through which identity is often reduced to the basic of functionality. Identity is rarely functional, even at the guise of being so.
The ministerial secretary to whom I referred at the outset, too, has a logic behind his statement. His defense is governed by the logic of state regulation and the state desire to know who-is-who: mandates by which government and surveillance are made easy. In the true colonial ethic, there should be but “one person” and “one (body, ID card etc in) representation”. In short, the deficiency in our reading the diasporic situation where displaced individuals “reappear” metamorphosed (when and as they do) is the disregard that the fugitive logic dictates such a trajectory. Our blindness to the governmental word and bureaucratic definition as a de facto norm corrodes our appreciation of “villains” from “heroes”. Colonial logic dictates that to “duplicate” is a sin. Our reading of Anthony’s case, therefore, has to be closely meditated as a reading that can assist in understanding the identity-related complexes of our trans-national, displaced communities.