In her Song of the Sun God, Shankari Chandran uses many references to canonical classical texts, among which, the Mahabharatha is the most frequently used interjection; which is used almost as a motif that detains our attention for its frequency and purpose of use. This series of references are very carefully thought out, and done as a part of a conscious project which maps symbolic resonances between the two warring factions of cousins, and the Tamil and Sinhala nations of post-independence. One might even say that the kind of allusion Shankari makes to the Mahabharatha is predictable and not too unobvious a reference; except that, in a text that strives to narrate the deep sense of dislocation of the Tamil community within the modern Sri Lankan nation, the borrowing of a classical Indian epic as a set-piece doesn’t render a strong anchor for that community under threat. One may ask, why, at all, an Indian epic? Why, the Mahabharatha? What added impetus can one derive from such a scaffolding of an iconic text around the weave that deals with the rupture and schisms of the modern nation? Personally, I felt that Shankari’s stubborn leeching on to the Mahabharatha as a motif was, after a point, a tad contrived, and that it took away from the strength of her delivery.
Shankari’s appropriation of the Mahabharatha is not as ambitious as Manuka Wijesinghe’s creative re-weaving of the Ramayana myth, in her Monsoons and Potholes, which is a second novel from more recent literature that uses a scaffolding of myth to give the text overall direction. In Shankari, the Mahbharatha motif, as overused and exhausted as it is, is referenced at least in seven instances out of at least twelve interweaves with iconic oriental classical texts (that in no other way impact the development of the storyline). Out of these, the Ramayana and Mahawansa are referenced at least twice, while the Thirukkural – a text that is more centrally locatable in the Tamil community of Lanka – is marginally referenced in one of the early chapters.
The more obvious usage of the Mahabharatha is as an association for the disintegration of order, where two warring factions that share (in some way) a common ancestry, wage a destructive, epic battle bathing both houses with blood and agony. The filming of Karnan, a film where Karna (of the Mahabharatha) is the hero, is screened against the larger national bedrock where the infamous Sinhala Only debates are taking place. Karnan is played by Sivaji Ganeshan, and on the eve of the fatal final battle, Karnan is deprived of his magical breastplate – the one call that will make him immune to all adversary. “The armour was fused to Karna’s body and he bled as he cut it from his flesh, knowing that his death in the war was now inevitable”. Parallel to this, protests against the Language Bill was being neutralized with violence and the one “power” that will place the Tamil community on par with the other linguistic majority was being pulled away. Shankari’s supplement reads: “The Tamils no longer had a language with which to communicate with the State – and the State would no longer listen to them… In the North, Tamil people refused to comply. They did business in Tamil, they stuck Tamil number plates on their cars over the Sinhalese ones, and they issued their own Tamil postal stamps… As Arjuna shot the final arrow into a dying Sivaji, Rajan’s heart broke and Nala cried openly, clutching her husband’s hand” (102-103).
While the Mahabharatha is shown to be the “story” through which young Priya (the second generation of the novel) comes to awareness of life and the world, in a different continent – in Australia’s Sydney – the Mahabharatha continues to be the parable being fed to the third generation of children, such as Smrithi (193). Here, through the story of Draupadi and her five Pandava husbands, Dhara teaches the virtues of sharing and obedience to young Smrithi. Interestingly, Dhara’s own copy of the Mahabharatha is a 1977 version of the original English translation: the year Smrithi was born. As such, in addition to the Mahabharatha being used as a mirror of the larger politicial and historical dislocation of the Tamil community, it is also located in a pedantic and instructive light; though, quite frustratingly, this seems to be the only text that is used at that capacity, which rings hollow for a family belonging to the Lankan Tamil culture which is rich and well grounded in its written and oral literatures.
The Mahabharatha motif is evoked once again where Shankari refers to the State’s violent crushing of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, in the Years of Terror, between 1987 and 1990. This intra-state conflict between two factions which was largely of the same ethnic group makes Dhara see the epic in a different light: “No-one knew exactly how many Sinhalese died because so many bodies were never found, but an estimated seventy-thousand of its own people were killed so that the JVP understood the message… The Pandavas and the Kauravas: cousins who should have loved each other like brothers. Instead, both sides of the family were destroyed and all that was left were mothers and widows. There was nothing, no glorious kingdom to rule over for the Pandavas. They won the war, but every single one of their sons was killed. A whole generation of their young lost to them… The Mahabharatha had helped [Dhara] understand. Any human endeavor, whether it be a civil war or a fight for freedom would be flawed” (269-270).
In the above passage, the effort with which Shankari must parallel the more nuanced political and social friction between the government of Sri Lanka and the J.V.P-led “patriotic forces” with the Kaurava and Pandava war is palpably seen. The wishful thought of apolitical musing, as to how the J.V.P and the government ranks should have (my emphasis) “loved each other like brothers” – and as being mused on by the political-minded Dhara, too – takes away from the weave the sense of history and political friction among historical power groups, which is necessary to see the depth of friction. I suggest that Shankari’s need to use the Mahabharatha motif flexibly wherever there is conflict even in places where it renders an abnormal reading, has caused this “misfit”, as it happens where you try to fit a foot into a shoe of the wrong size.
Two other places of interest to which I would like to draw our attention includes Shankari’s use of the Ramayanaya. The brute force of Ravana is powerfully incorporated as a metaphor of state and ethnic violence. The Ramayanaya is memorably referenced where growing tensions in the North with the coming of trained militant groups is alluded to (140); but, more powerfully, the state blessing of the Pogrom of July 1983 is described with an unmistakable reference to Hanuman, who sets the nation ablaze (148). In the internalized version of the myth, Ravana is evoked as a “demon” (140), and that demonic force haunts the childhood dreams of Dhara. Intriguingly, Dhara’s mother Vani is brutally gang-raped during the 1958 riots, and the collective of her violators are referred to as a multi-limbed demon (145). Dhara, herself, is raped at an army camp as a young 28 year old, and the brutal association the writer makes between the two incidents is obvious.
Returning to my departure point, are such mythological / classical supports necessary for a novel such as Shankari’s debut? Is there a strength such agents can bring into the weave, which makes an impact the text otherwise cannot create? In my view, the classical motif is abused and overused, leaving behind a sense of “forced labour” from which the text, in the end analysis, suffers as a whole. In the end, the Mahabharatha motif deteriorates to the level of a redundant accessory in the absence of which, perhaps, the text would have earned spontaneity and enhanced originality.