Saturday, 19 July 2008

Gorilla by Shobasakthi, translated by Anushiya Sivanarayanan

There are various ways in which an author can tell his story. It can be in the first person, solely from the narrator’s point of view. It can be through an omnipresent third person who sees and knows everything. Anthony Thasan, a.k.a Shoba Sakthi, a.k.a Rocky Raj, uses a third method while narrating his own story. Most of the novel, a fictionalised autobiography described by the translator Anushiya Sivanarayanan as autofiction, is described in the third person, though the narrator is also the author and the main character. Events unfold just a few feet from the reader and you get the feeling of being trapped inside Shoba Sakthi’s head, with eyes glued to the empty sockets.

The main story is set in a dalit colony in an island near Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. Civil war is raging between various Tamil nationalist movements and the Sri Lankan army. The LTTE is fighting and decimating other Tamil movements. On top of all this, Rocky Raj’s father is a violent goon who has earned the sobriquet Gorilla. The narrator’s unsentimental and matter-of-fact language gives the reader no respite from the all pervading violence. As I read this novel in a single four hour sitting, my head was repeatedly dunked into a cauldron of war, poverty, prejudice and cruelty. Everybody is cruel to each other. Rocky Raj’s father is cruel to him and other family members. The LTTE is cruel to its recruits. The Sri Lankan army and its Tamil supporters are cruel to Tamils who are perceived to be LTTE sympathisers. The French police are cruel to illegal immigrants. There is no quarter asked for and in any event, none is given.

Rocky Raj runs off from home and joins the LTTE. He is stripped of his individuality and brutalised. In a telling scene, as the new recruits wind up their training, they are taught how to evade the Sri Lankan army and withstand their interrogation if they are captured. I wondered what sort of tips they would get that would teach them how to withstand torture. There are no tips. Rocky Raj and other recruits are brutally beaten up as a graduation present.

Rocky Raj gives the LTTE the total dedication it demands of all its followers. But the LTTE is not only brutal, it is also internally corrupt. Rocky Raj’s honesty results in him being tortured and forced out of the LTTE.

Later the scene shifts to France, where the narrator is shown applying for asylum even though he has being rejected many times. Ex-fighters cannot get asylum and so the applicant has to come up with a plausible story that will hold water. In the midst of asylum applications and story fabrications, one starts to hear voices of moderation, tolerance and peace. The virtues of Gandhi and Mandela are extolled. We hear Anthony Thasan being told by Lokka, ‘we need to combat opinions with opinions, not with fists.’
‘What kind of opinions, Lokka? If I looked you and said that I wished to ……... ’ here Anthony Thasan says something really vulgar, something no one would put up with. But Lokka looks Anthony in the eye and says, ‘yes, that’s an opinion too.’

Does Lokka live up to the noble ideals that he extols? Or will he succumb to a fate that is not much different from the fate of many Sri Lankan Tamils? Do read this remarkable novel which has many references to facts and actual incidents that took place in northern Sri Lanka in the 80s and 90s, and find out.

The author Shobasakthi (nee Anthony Jesuthasan) is based in France. Once a LTTE child soldier, he has lived in France for over ten years. Shobasakthi works as a dishwasher at fastfood places from time to time. He has written a second novel Mmm... (describing the way Sri Lankan Tamils nod their heads at everything the Tigers say), a third one called One Way, three collections of short stories, and most recently, a collection of non-fiction pieces. I understand from various interviews given by Shobasakthi that when he initially wrote Gorilla over seven years ago, he lived in fear of LTTE and its supporters in France who tolerate no dissent. Shobasakthi is now part of a network of Tamil Diaspora writers who propose alternatives to the fascist LTTE. All the more reason to read and promote this book.


charm said...

I am a PhD student trying to locate Shoba's books. Cannot find them anywhere in Canada. Any advise in finding these books. They are critical for my research. If you have any advise pls write to me,

Winnowed said...

Sure, let me ask around and find out where you can buy these books. I will reply to you soon.