Three Sides of the Fence: Contrasting “Biographical” Moments Of the War (In Malaravan, Boniface Perera and Shobhasakthi).

Boniface Perera, in his adventure novel Avi Bimaka Hadha Gaesma (2011), alike Malaravan’s War Journey (first published in English in 2013) and Shobhasakthi’s Gorilla (published in English in 2008) manoeuvres narratives of war as a tool in creating/legitimizing “history”. As a collective, these narratives are often set in and represent key historical junctures of the Civil War between the forces of the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). All three texts insist on (or, bank on) the biographical status, or as being fashioned by “true incidents”, thus sustaining their legitimacy in constructing “what is real”.

Malaravan’s War Journey itself is presented to us as a “Diary of a Tamil Tiger”, supposed to have been introspectively written in the battlefield itself, corroborating to events in November 1990, as Malaravan and his comrades travel from Manalaru to Mankulam in order to battle the Sri Lankan Army. Malaravan’s narrative is both a “travelogue” and a “journal”, as he constructs for the reader the field of battle as well as the larger geo-cultural landscape of the Northern peninsula. The same battle – and the atmosphere of the “war-torn North” – is centrally focused on by Boniface Perera in his Avi Bimaka Hadha Gaesma, as well, which is published in 2011.

In juxtaposition, both Malaravan and Perera write in a propagandist vein, highlighting a desired masculine appeal and commitment in their respective camps. Their projects are equally resonant of clichéd masculine values which are attributed to military propaganda such as “chivalry”, “sacrifice”, “camaraderie” and “selflessness”. Malaravan – who, for me, is the better “story-teller” – manages to harmonize his propagations within a well-seamed fabric of human suffering, conflicting emotions and sense of perpetual danger. The unexpected injury to his closest friend Vasanthan (Malaravan, 11) and his thoughts that return to his maimed friend at regular intervals, thereafter, counter-poses the propagandist strain with a memorable humanist injection.

War_Journey_MalaravanHowever, Malaravan loses the “artiste” in him as his pains at describing the brutality and the savage impulse of the “enemy” is predictable and stark, though the writing often blurs the boundaries of poignant fact and dense “propaganda”. There is, for instance, a harrowing description of a torture bed used in an army camp in Oddusuddan on which a boy is tortured to death:

“There was this bed made of barbed wire, fixed six inches from the ground on poles. This boy was made to lie on it, face down and was tied to it. He lay very still. A little later, seven or eight people came. One of them in the middle…put his boots on the back of the boy. The boy screamed… The big man stood on the boy’s body and grabbed his hair and pulled it. The big man acted like he was riding a horse. I can’t describe the way the boy screamed. The man then let go of the boy’s hair and got hold of his forehead and pulled the boy backwards” (Malaravan, 23). This incident, as being attributed to 1986, closely resonates a similar incident in a book titled Embilipitiya Sisu Ghaathanaya, which refers to a series of atrocities committed in a military facility in Embilipitiya during the Dark Years of 1987-89.

The felling of water tanks has a confounded history: one that shouldn't be simplified as a gesture of evil and barbarity.

The felling of water tanks has a confounded history: one that shouldn’t be simplified as a gesture of evil and barbarity.

While the perversity of the opposite militant encampment is graphically underlined (in Malaravan, more than in Perera), the dogged spirit of the respective militant groups to which each writer’s protagonists are affiliated to are shown as being unwavering and tireless in their exploits. Malaravan opens with the tireless ordeal the LTTE cadres have to go through every few months or so: the laying of “tracks” made out of wooden logs and mud for the transporting of troops and goods. This “mending of the roads” is a suggestive metaphor for the fashioning of the nation, in which the LTTE leader is seen to personally join as well (Malaravan, 2). The cadres are shown as a happy and merry bunch, whose “team spirit” and clinical precision in emergency situations resonate an application and discipline that is contrasted with the “unruly”, “irresponsible” and “savage-like” conduct of the “enemy”. Vasanthan is motivated to join the LTTE after his father, a tobacco-cultivator, is killed by the military (Malaravan, 4) while Malaravan recalls how a paddy warehouse used to be the facility for unaccountable torture of young men and the rape of young women; who, following their violations, were killed, transported to the jungles and were burnt (56).

Boniface Perera’s narrative, in sheer contrast, crystallizes the military as a benign saviour, which is seen in the concern and consideration with which the troops treat the Tamil civilians in the villages they attack. During the offensive to relieve the Jaffna Fort in 1990, the military enters a village in Kaytes, saving two paralyzed senior civilians from a hut that had been set ablaze by gunfire (Perera, 35). The rank is often motivated by the senior officers, who brave the battlefield even after being shot refusing to retire for medical care. They are, once every few pages, verbally blessed by the soldiers (53). Another family of five – being caught in cross fire under similar circumstances – is saved and assured under the benevolence of Corporal Bandara (82).

Shobha Sakthi

Shobha Sakthi

Shobasakthi’s Gorilla is partially focused on a “child militant activist” – Rocky Raj – and his conscription with the LTTE in the mid 1980s. It occupies a different position to Malaravan’s persona and Perera’s protagonist, Bandara. In contrast to the unwavering “patriot” who is in the forefront of “national duty”, Shobhasakthi’s Rocky Raj – being written of in retrospection – is represented as a loyal, but critical-minded cadre who falls out of favour with the Movement. The narrative is often injected with “historical information”: a process through which Shobhasakthi infuses the “history” of Rocky Raj with the “history” of the nation. Shobhasakthi, at different points, is critical of the Sri Lanka Army in its occupation of the Island Districts of Alleipiddi, Velani etc, while presenting a disillusioned assessment of the LTTE; specially, in relation to the internal politics of the movement.

Perera’s “benign” soldier who discriminates the “enemy” from the civilian and whose humane qualities make him a “friend” to the civilian victims of the Tamil villages is undermined in Shobhasakthi’s Gorilla. In the operation to relieve the Jaffna Fort, the army units are seen to reach Mandaitivu where Anthony Thasan’s family is “betrayed” by a turncoat as being LTTE sympathizers: “when they heard this, with a loud whoop, the soldiers fell upon my brothers and me, attacking us with knives and bayonets” (Shobhasakthi, 7). Thus the very moral base on which Perera justifies the conduct of the military is destabilized. In other sections, too, the same “history” which Perera claims legitimacy to is challenged for accuracy. In Perera’s narrative an LTTE unit consisting of “minors” (and referred to as the Baby Brigade) are used in an unsuccessful attack and are killed as they falter to go ahead with their operation (46). Shobhasakthi introduces the “Baby Group” as “thirty young liberation fighters [who], unable to escape, drank cyanide and died on the Allaipiddi seabed” (Shobhasakthi, 51).

Malaravan consistently elicits the faith and loyalty of the ordinary civilian in their relation with the LTTE, while their wrath is directed at the enemy’s occupation of their “Homeland” (Malaravan 16, 19). While Perera objectifies the Northern citizenry as a collective that has to be delivered from the clutches of an “enemy”, in Malaravan the same citizenry is seen as an organic extension of the LTTE’s cause. Women walk up to Malaravan’s contingent, who are resting by a wood, and bring them food and water: “‘Sons, all of you look tired… Wash your hands with the water from the pot and eat. It is not good for your health to go without food’” (16). Malaravan wonders: “Is this the food of love? By 6.30 p.m half of Kumulamunai village was there to wave us goodbye” (17). The valour and chivalry which the Northern villager is seen to identify in the LTTE cadre in Malaravan’s text is similarly resonant in the Southern villager’s location of the Army soldier, in Perera’s retrospection.

The multiple narratives – crucially, the disagreement on history as a monolith – which the three texts resonate fragments and creates ruptures in the notion of reading history as an overarching grand narrative. In the immediate post-war period, the remains of a blown up water tank in Iranamadu was turned into an exhibit of the LTTE’s destructive ruthlessness, which subsequently became a “tourist attraction” of sorts. The post-war “story” was that the LTTE, while abandoning Kilinochchi, had blown up the tank to halt the water supply as well as to cause general destruction and discord. A Ministry of Defence website entry refers to the inhuman bearing of the LTTE, for water, so the website quotes, is a rare resource in the area. In Malaravan’s narrative, while passing a point between the Oddusuddan Police station and Muthaiyankadu Junction, the LTTE cadres spot the trunk of another blown up water tank (Malaravan, 23). Malaravan in his recollection of being there on a by gone day, as a younger man, cedes that it is the Sri Lankan Army that blew up that tank they were passing by.

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