“Mr. Perakum, there are more reasons now than ever for you to change the system. Stop blaming your enemies for trying to kill you. Your presidency is your own enemy….Change the political system now. It is never too late to change”.
“Never!” growled Parakum. “After all my sacrifices”. Once again he took an oath as the President and appointed two insignificant ministers as Prime Ministers, defying the constitution that only allowed one Prime Minister (King and the Assassin, 218).
You read the above extract from the tail end of Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s new novel launched at touching distance with a Presidential election that has so far laid bare a run up splattered with blatant violations of the election regulations (while the commissioner sits behind his beard all mum); and a firm and dogged will on the side of the regime to bend back all existing forces for a favoured result. The latest news is that even prisoners from regional jails are being used by the government as “human resources” to build their election rally stages. Chandrasekaram’s novel opens in 2019, and we are yet 5 years away.
Chandrasekaram’s “utopia” (or, dystopia) in The King and the Assassin is not a heartbeat away from the currents and tensions as felt by Lanka in our present day and age. His can be considered as a very realistic meditation on the patterns and shifts that constitute our polity; and as a projection of what is more than probable in a wishful extension of it, in the four decades to follow from now. Set as a novel that deals with power, power accumulation and control, Chandrasekaram plays with the grim prospects of a nation hinged on selfish power play and the absence of structured democracy.
The King and the Assassin, alike Chandrasekaram’s first novel – Tigers Don’t Confess – is a fast-paced intrigue, while being a futuristic critique of Sri Lanka’s politics and the megalomaniac dynasty-consciousness of local politicos. At one level, the novel comes across as a playful, toying of the Lankan polity, its nepotism and corruption; while, at a more engaging level, it charts out the possibilities and repercussions that may engulf the nation if prolonged in the clutch of autocratic power-concentration.
Chandrasekaram is futuristic, alright; but, within the scope of his Lanka – which is mapped variously from 2019 to the 2050s – what we repeatedly encounter are symptoms and germs of the Lanka we have known four decades back from where we, as readers, stand. The Prime Minister who finds the Presidency passed down to him almost as if by a “divine miracle” – for none may have foreseen the sweeping off of the President and his son, both buried in a single landslide – is not, if carefully reflected, unprecedented in Lankan history. Perakum, the son of the Premier (the new President of circumstances), who is overnight shot into the limelight of power from the social fringes he hitherto occupied, again, is not unobvious a trajectory if one is to sweep across the political spectrum of our times.
A nation closely monitored through CCTVs, and hinged on rampant nepotism unfolds the story of Chandrasekara’s future Lanka. From Amal, who repeatedly pleads with his ailing father-in-law for a powerful stake and rampant suppression that leads to a revolution, we see currents from which the Lankan political fabric is not estranged. Rising skyscrapers dominate the metropolis of the 2030s, with scant consideration for the ecological balance or the natural reserves of the country. Chandrasekaram’s repetitive emphasis on “monitoring” – via CCTVs – is of note, for here the plotline and the futuristic vision of the writer align with patterns seen in the Orwellian tradition. A cautious Danush moving from trishaw to trishaw and avoiding public transport with CCTV is more than resonant of Julia and Winston in 1984; and of Julia’s far reaching advice to her partner: “Don’t go out into the open. There might be someone watching”
The Lanka Chandrasekaram maps out is one deep in mutual doubt and – more than doubt or suspect – one where a sense of “mechanical interplay” predominates. All progressive political action has been pushed to the subterranean drive, with oppressive whims of a centralizing state expanding its clutches in various forms. Perakum – once is control – “watched his new nation” as he looks down from “the top floor balcony of the Presidential Palace” (132). From where he stands, the shrewd and meticulous statesman has an unimpeded view of “new buildings and monuments he has created” (italics mine), which includes a host of statues, artifices, spaces of social and economic incentive etc. The crucial undertone here is the possessive “he” – where the national space has been yielded to a personal estate, of which Perakum is the overseer and beneficiary. None of these references are without resonance, when we consider the humbug of an avenue along which the nation’s political destiny, at present, is being trained.
Chandrasekaram’s, therefore, is a survey and intervention with the currency of Lanka’s political bastion – the “futurism” is merely a shield he uses; and, perhaps, a creative outlet which enables him to postulate a “probable” consequent to the drawbacks of the system which he readily critiques. The text is a close interweave of the vices which we are daily respondents of: the complex of power hunger, corruption, nepotism, suspicion and violence on which the uneven fabric of local politics is synthesized. Chandrasekaram infuses with this threadbare foundation, elements of mysticism, spirituality and insertions of the non-scientific, such as prophecy and astrological prediction. Of course, Lankan policy practice in government is historically known to rely heavily on the rudiments of soothsayers, than on economics or politics, which Chandrasekaram, to an extent, exploits with success.
But, then, at one point, I was dissatisfied with what I saw as the overuse of “indigenous culture” – specially, the way in which the aadivaasi-like colony and their culture is presented – for what I considered as an “over-colouring” of Lankan ethos, for purposes of ornamentation and decoration. Once again, since Chandrasekaram uses the clause of “futurism” – and thus signing for himself the detached plot of a pseudo-utopia as his operation pad – I cannot channel a decisive criticism against this usage. But, I was not without the feeling that Chandrasekaram’s descent into the realm of the mystique and the surreal was an outlet that unnecessarily exoticizes the Lanka he strives to promote.
Taken at hand with Tigers Don’t Confess, The King and the Assassin is a novel with an altogether “different track”. The former, in both orientation and focus, is overshadowed by a strong legal preoccupation. Be it the “criminal status” of Kumaran Mylvaganam or the process in which so-called “suspects” are located, arrested, produced and tried, the novel centralizes aspects of the “law at work”. Tissa Waduge’s Terrorist Investigation Team (TIT) is, in that sense, the fictional representation of the “spirit” of the criminal investigation bureau and its “evidence producing” manoeuvre (in both literal and metaphorical terms). In The King and the Assassin Chandrasekaram makes the legal and constitutional premise related to Presidency and succession a departure point; but, the text, unlike in Tigers Don’t Confess, does not become introvert or claim a re-assessment of sorts. Rather, while being consistent in the political criticism that is channelled, the discussion on which Chandrasekaram ensues dos not hinge on the “legal process” at work. I do by no means submit that this is a “shortcoming” of the novel, for one text need not in spirit or in sentiment be a reflection of the other. Only that Chandrasekaram’s capture of the corruption within the law enforcement machinery of the state stood out tall in Tigers Don’t Confess.
Chandrasekaram subtly captures the central roles of the “popular play makers” of contemporary Lankan politics, such as the militia, the monks and popular media icons. For instance, both Perakum and Mahanama, at one point, have been military officers. The latter has, in fact, been a model before enlistment. He, then, post-war, metamorphoses into a cult figure promoting a non –Theravada form of “popular” Buddhism. Sandya, a devotee of this cult platform, is also a national icon as a singing sensation. These “changelings” become the ultimate destiny-makers and powerhouses of a nation; while holding the national fate akin to their own projects and desires. 2019, Chandrasekaram seems to suggest, is not very different from our ominous present.