Shankari Chandran’s Song of the Sun God threads together memory, legacy and struggle, as it locates the Rajan family – an upper middle class, metropolitan, Colombo-based family of a well established surgeon – and its offshoots, in their dogged, yet frail and human negotiation against the violent political tides of post-independence Ceylon. In no way is Shankari’s theme a fresh one, but it is a documentation which she enters with much understanding and empathy. She runs the risk of reproducing a cliché, which she intelligently avoids by making her novel a close reflection of complex emotions and sentiments of a ruptured people, as well as the hard choices they are bound to by war; as well as their dogged spirit, often driven by necessity and compulsion, that fights to survive, to recuperate and re-grow.
The novel can be segmented and discussed at multiple levels, and as a whole, the novel takes note of the gradual sidelining of Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic majority from the social and political map by the pro-Sinhala regimes of post-independence; but, this is not new in literature. To me, the strongest asset in Shankari’s commentary is her confrontation of the Lankan state in relation to its much disputed conduct in the so-called Final Stages of the war. This comes as a culminating thread to a discourse anchored in history which includes constitutional and extra-constitutional violations of the Tamil community, its dignity, its rights and its culture.
Working for Doctors-without-Borders, Dhara is caught in (what is probably the first of) the “No Fire Zones” in 2009. Dhara is later seen to “vapourize”, in the hands of the state paramilitary, who keeps watch over her movements in Colombo.
“No. Fire. Zone. Three inaccurate words… They used the church as a hospital. It was large… On the battered and scabbed roof of the church, they painted a blood red cross. It drew the sick and the dying, and they prayed it would deter the army. The drones could see it and it was all they could do to protect themselves. The steady beat of shelling was getting louder… They had advised the Red Cross of their new location two days ago and again yesterday when they realized the shelling was coming closer. The Red Cross assured them each time that they had informed the army… She looked up and saw raindrops of fire fall from the sky. Droplets burrowed through the clothes and skin of people it touched” (325-326)
Shankari relates to the people trapped in the ever-narrowing zone of mock safety, now “trapped on a narrow strip of beach in the far north-east of the island. For four months, as fighting intensified, a mass of battered people moved as one, eastward, seekingsafety. They picked up their remaining children and ran towards the coast, towards the rising sun. This was President Rajapaksa’s ‘Zero Civilian Casualty Policy’… The Tigers fell back… The army killed and stepped over the morass of bodies without a second thought” (333).
Shankari’s charges complement with observations made by agents such as Gorden Weiss who, as early as 2011, submitted a charge-sheet of systematic shelling against the Lankan state through his The Cage. Both Weiss and Frances Harrison – author of Still Counting the Dead (2012) – as well as Cullum McRae’s Channel 4 team have been brusquely sidelined by hardline Sinhala chauvinist forces and pro-Rajapaksa elements as “foreign conspirators”, hot after the good name of the “Lankan patriots”. These have, in short, been scoffed at as literature of a pro-LTTE / pro-Tamil Diaspora (a problematic term) sort. Such denial and non-acceptance has been the foundation of the Lankan state’s response to the carnage caused between late 2008 and May 2009 throughout the 8 years that post-dates the military crushing of the Tigers, and the current regime – considered more moderate and accommodating in many ways –, too, is ambiguous (if not amphibian) in its response to the same. Some of the bitter-to-digest charges referred to above, have since been reaffirmed by sources like Rajan Hoole (whom one can by no means suggest is pro-LTTE) in Palmyrah Fallen (2015), and independent journalists such as Rohini Mohan (The Seasons of Trouble, 2014) and Samanth Subramaniam (This Divided Island, 2014).
As mentioned above, in the post-war situation, Dhara – who had her father killed by the riots of 1956 at Gal Oya, who had her mother gang-raped during the same, who herself was raped by the military in 1976 as a 28 year old doctor, who chose to stay behind when everyone fled the island, and who used her energy to peripherally support the Tigers – is “vapourized” (or, “white-vanned”, as that singular act of state-sponsored black magic has entered the vocabulary), in a Colombo filled with “a jubilation not seen since independence. There were fireworks and parades, parties in houses and hotels. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa were hailed as heroes… Sri Lanka had won its war on terror. Gotabhaya… was preparing to teach governments and armies of other nations, how to defeat terrorism” (337).
In spite of these sections that deal with the military crushing of the LTTE, its aftermath and the writer’s contest of the state, Song of the Sun God is much more. It is at the same time, a powerful novel reflecting on the dogged spirit of the Lankan Tamil community, enduring in its hardships, while battling (enforced) change, constitutionally and extra-constitutionally maneuvered by successive governments since 1956, and its struggle to sustain itself. It is also the saga of a family, emerging from hard-invested toil, rising to the top of fashionable Colombo society, and having to relocate and resettle after being forced into exile; and its efforts to carry on to its best ability. Though I do not plan to elaborate in this space, I found the novel intriguing for Shankari’s nuanced capture of the many complexities and paradoxes within the migrant Tamil community she portrays, as well as for her skill in giving shape to the emotional and personal depth in her showcase of conflict.
However, Song of the Sun God is not the story of the “common” or “ordinary” Tamil family. The Rajans, as a family, is classed and is “luckier” than many faceless citizens who were set upon and murdered without a second thought owing to her/his ethnic Tamilness. The closest Rajan, Nala and Smrithi comes to their lives being threatened is when a mob rounds them up in Negombo, in 1983. But, even here, their lives are saved when someone points Rajan out as the “President’s doctor”. A glimpse of the ordinary, relatively voiceless subaltern Tamil’s plight is marginally seen in the case of Thiru, who sells meat in the Colpetty market, and is displaced after the ’83 riots. A son, a daughter-in-law and grand-children are flayed by the riotous mob at Dematagoda, and he is forced to return to the remote East to cultivate land and to pick up life afresh in his old age. One may draw a parallel between Thiru and Dr. Rajan who is forced into exile to Australia; except that the latter, a skilled laborour and a man of standing, finds himself “on his feet” and with a palpable security and social safety net under him. However, even as I make this observation I understand that Shankari does not intend an across-the-board discussion of plight across classes.
Shankari’s is an ambitious project, for, to maintain a momentum in a story that stretches across eight decades and three generations is a challenging task. On the whole, Shankari reasonably succeeds at this, though, I felt that the first section (titled Attrition) and the opening chapters of the second thread (Dispersion) were better harmonized, and written at an even pace. There is an even rhythm to and a smooth unhurried flow in these sections, to which is infused a disciplined eye for detail. This, however, is offset in some of the later sections – specially, passages dealing with the Australian experience – which come across as pushed through, or as hurriedly fit in.
The motif of ethnic violence and the resultant dislocation of the middle-upper middle class Colombo Tamil space is not new to Sri Lankan Literature in English. In that capacity, Shankari treads the road “oft taken” through the foot prints of writers like Jean Arasanayagam, Shyam Selvadurai, Karen Roberts, Roma Tearne, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Nihal de Silva, Nayomi Munaweera and – more recently – Ayathurai Santhan. At one point, Shankari’s efforts to enmesh the political threads of post-independence nationalism into the weave runs the reasonable risk of looking a tad too contrived, as almost all “milestones” of that uneasy pre-war path from 1956 to 1983 are strategically pushed into the storyline, making things seem a tad too predictable at times. For instance, the birth of Priya (born in 1948), Nandan (1956) and Smrithi (1977) coincide, in that order, with the year of Independence – granted with a rejection of demands for equal representation –, the year of the National Languages Act, and the year of the J.R Jayewardene election victory and subsequent riots. The Gal Oya massacre (1956), the riots of 1958, and the riots of 1983 are equally factored in, while Radha and Anand are seen in the forefront of TULF rallies.
Several “abnormalities” and “incongruities” (that can be considered marginal to any critique of the work) punctuate the text in terms of historical consistency, as well. While these “irregularities” are often negligible in the holier realm of creative writing, for me, the “representation of history” has to be fact-fully and tact-fully handled. Unlike the cockroach stuck in Prime Minister Kotalawala’s ear, some of these representations take away from the discipline of the narrative, which Shankari often upholds as a merit. A few such instances that comes to mind includes Rita’s cautioning of Nala regarding Anand’s involvement in Chelvanayagam’s politics. Here, in a section dated as 1971, an imminent clash is forecasted between Chelvanayagam and “that thug in the jungle, Prabhakaran” (130). In 1971, Prabhakaran would be 16 years old, and four years yet from making his debut in militancy. In a section dated 1974, Anand is remanded for protesting at a Cricket Match at Lord’s (135-136). The corresponding protest happens in 1975, at the Kensington Oval during the World Cup series. In a further section, dated as 1980, Prabhakaran is seen making a speech condemning rival military groups in the North, justifying their annihilation (183). This, in a context where the LTTE’s hunting down of rival PLOTE, TELO and EROS members was yet to shock the Northern world. 1980, however, tallies with the breakaway of Uma Maheshwaran from the LTTE: a split that moves Prabhakaran to the top position of the party hierarchy.
Shankari Chandran operates at multiple levels, and The Song of the Sun God offers much threading that must be carefully considered, and should not be rushed or packed into one straitjacketing essay. Perhaps, I may continue on the same subject in a future entry. For now, I sum up with what is for me the most memorable passage of the novel, where an aged Dr. Rajan says: “People died in our homeland for the protection of our mother tongue. It seems nothing less than ungrateful that since escaping the war, Tamils here (in Australia) think it’s fashionable to be sanctified and cremated in Sanskrit, a language that is also dead. At my funeral the priest must speak in a living, breathing language. And he must wear a shirt – none of this ‘sarong only’ business” (382).
The phrase “living, breathing language”, after all that carnage, suffering and destruction, is like a beacon that stands up for the struggle to continue – for the struggle that must go on.