Shobhasakthi’s Traitor ends with a surrealistic description where an old man wandering about the mountains with a corpse which he carries – a corpse which he uses to entertain, disgust and even to drive away people; which he sometimes uses for his own sustenance – encounters a carter going uphill caught in a predicament with its horse which wouldn’t budge. The carter whispers in the horse’s ear, tries a mild stroking from its whip and – all failing – thrashes the beast with all his might. The old man, who with his corpse is seated nearby, is visibly moved and intervenes. This abstraction with which the novel ends is a surrealistic summing up of the fate of the Eelamist struggle and the fate of its various stakeholders.
Like in the case of the corpse and the man, the “Eelam struggle” for its many stakeholders has its appeal and attraction, while it is simultaneously derisive, abominable, as well as shocking, depending where you cast your allegiance. It is also a form of sustenance for some, while it is no less a burden to carry, in the name of freedom and sovereignty. The story of Nesakumaran Earnest and the assortment of central and marginal characters we meet in the weave of the story entail the very essentializing of the “corpse” as a political as well as socio-cultural statement. The novel is punctuated by violence and various forms of torture, blood shed and death. Pitted against this persistent hammer of violence we see the “glorious struggle” of a complex fabric – committed, confounded, circumstantially drawn youth and other civilians and stakeholders of different faiths, walks and occupations – ramming itself against the sharp needle of a blunt state and its ultra-violent military and judicial machinery.
Under the wide umbrella of violence, we have the Government agents, the “Tamil Tigers” and other militant bodies vying for power and control over the decomposing bodies of “activists” and “believers” (and, on might say, “non-believers”), who are caught in the line of cross-fire. The most poignant history for me, as a reader, was the history of Pakkiri – the man who was arrested the “day his organization was formed” and who returns after prolonged imprisonment on the day the organization is banned by the Tigers from operations. Pakkiri survives death at Welikada, sees through the injuries caused to his arms upon his second capture (by the Police who breaks both arms), only to return to Jaffna upon release to be captured and detained by the “Tigers”. He is then killed in “Tiger” imprisonment: his mouth is smashed by a gun butt and he is beaten to death, as a response to a bomb being thrown at a “Tiger” leader by one of the members of the organization to which Pakkiri belonged (technically – never).
Pakkiri is also hinted as an ideologically rich, well studied socialist. He is seen to teach prisoners while imprisoned at Batticaloa, and to speak to the working class youth in the Colombo eating house where Pakkiri and Nesakumaran spends a night after release. In this respect, Pakkiri seems to represent the socialist drive which is seen at the roots of some of the militant groups to emerge in Northern Lanka in the late 1970s – a desired trajectory which is obliterated from these bodies as they evolve in their political projects. The “struggle” then, corrodes into an anarchic melee without ideology or a guiding principle.
The amount of violence one encounters in Traitor is both dense and heavy. The brutality and the (at times) cynical, detached yet calm and casual tone – which, one might say, is typical of Shobhasakthi’s texture – with which violent butchery is often referred intensifies the scenes and sequences of abject cruelty. If in Gorilla we see a horror story of occupied “Kunjan Fields” set in the mid 1980s, the volume is increased ten folds in Traitor. Within this violent world, the utter erosion of known human qualities such as loyalty, courtesy, gratitude, trust etc – an erosion that is necessitated by survival, but which gradually takes root as a “natural” requirement – is replaced by a twisted value system: all, the necessities of the kind of power dynamics to which the North is subject; of which the political machine of the South (as well as the North) is contributory. Shobhasakthi’s focus decisively falls on how the marginal and the politically non-central / un-voiced elements are drawn in and twisted by this power game.
A case at point is Ernest Teacher, Nesakumaran’s father. In his old fashioned casteism Earnest teacher has his own drawbacks. His nepotistic favouration of Martha and Maria at the school’s general knowledge quiz, his aversion of the “Kadayar” Srikanthamalar on caste grounds, and his treatment of Rajendran – a lad whom he brings from Hatton to work in his house – hint at a middle class mentality that has its own middle class prejudices and insecurities. But, with the politics of the North transforming from its traditional colour to a bloodier and radical militant hue, we see an Earnest Teacher who manipulates this system to his own ends. He becomes vocally Eelamist and claims Rajendran to be his “son”, when he wants to get Nesakumaran released from “Tiger” imprisonment. Earnest – in all earnestness – is a character that embodies how brutal necessity, with time, becomes a more naturalized, internalized programme within you: a circuit which you adopt for survival under the most testing of times, where ethics and conscience (of the civilized world, in general) no longer can be applied / are redundant.
The larger shell within which Nesakumaran’s story is couched has to do with the pregnancy of Nesakumaran’s daughter Nirami and the notions of “betrayal” and “loyalty”. Nesakumaran – who, throughout his life is a willing and unwilling “betrayer” (of Kalaichelvan, Srikanthimalar, Pakkiri etc) – is safeguarded by Nirami’s “silence”, pertaining to her “assailant”. Though it is not explicitly detailed, Nirami’s pregnancy is by no ways hinted to be born out of an act of violence. The pregnancy caused by her own father Nesakumaran seems to have been a consensual act, as – during the last farewell from the daughter – what Nesakumaran sees in Nirami’s eyes is “the purest love” (185). Here, then, is an act of “pure love”, which, within the accepted codes of the world is an “act of violence”. It is equally a personal commitment – an act of passion – not unlike “rebellion” and “revolution” (an act against the set illogical boundaries of a preconceived “nation” with which you cannot connect): a futile enterprise, though; one meeting with a tragic, condemnatory end. Incidentally, even in the case of Nirami’s pregnancy, it is Nesakumaran who “betrays” himself; a betrayal out of love – perhaps, the only such selfless betrayal of his career.
The “grotesque horror” of father impregnating daughter was commented upon by several persons (known to me) who have read Traitor. Whatever their ethical and moral preoccupations may be, the more relevant question is as to whether the Nirami-Nesakumaran intimacy should be an “issue” at all, given the life-redefining processes Nesakumaran – as a person (and as an icon of the Tamil Nation) – has gone through; as to whether these assignments of the hypocritically “civilized” community are potent enough to gage Nesakumaran’s person. He, as a result, is divided from the one person for whom his loyalty seems to be unwaveringly pledged for: one for whom he returns, and dies.