Memory and Transition in the Face of Erasure: Shobasakthi’s “Gorilla”.

Shobasakthi’s Gorilla, much like the repeatedly violated bodily wounds of its protagonist Rocky Raj, holds to our scrutiny multilayered spaces which in the face of militancy have been continually torn open and which intersect the domestic, regional, national and transnational dimensionalities of the Lankan Tamil identity. In its broader sense the novel is partially set in the Northern Peninsula of Lanka in the mid-1980s with the struggle for Eelam yet in its pre-IPKF years. Shobasakthi, as he also does in his more compelling and poignant Traitor, anchors his narrative among the island localities of the North – a margin of a margin (which, perhaps, is more acutely accentuated in Traitor than in Gorilla) in terms of that district being a part of the peninsula which in turn is posited in larger marginalizing politics of the Lankan nation.

Cast member Jesuthasan Antonythasan poses during a photocall for the film "Dheepan" in competition at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in CannesThe second half of Shobasakthi’s novel is set in diasporic France as an asymmetrical synthesis of a group of Tamil nationals with obscure pasts, volatile presents and unclear, blurred futures, wandering in a larger community of fugitives, illegal migrants and men (and women) without a terrain under their feet. In many ways, this second section of the work offsets the opening and highlights the sense of ‘no gain’ – the futility and displacement – after all the sacrifices made and destruction caused in the name of a sovereign homeland. The confusion with which the novel ends, where the group of Tamil refugees are being either compromised to the law or are dead is suggestively symbolic of the chaotic and unsettled fate the Tamils, in their landless state, have inevitably come to embrace. In the concluding pages, Jeevarani is found killed by her husband after she is found in bed with Rida (in spite of them – Jeevarani and Thaninayagam – twenty years earlier, had braved an escape from Sri Lanka to avoid the sting of caste), while Thaninayagam (Lokka), Anthony and the narrator are in turn detained by the French Police (respectively) on homicide and impersonation charges.

At another more obvious level of engagement Gorilla is a story of the changing patterns of power, as it is assumed, exercised and felt in the Northern peninsula in that transitional post-1976 aftermath, where more militant and radical forms of authority gradually take over the map of ‘regional influence’ from more conventional local loudmouthed thugs such as Rocky Raj’s father, ‘Gorilla’. Kunjan Fields, Shobasakthi’s prototype for a Northern coastal village, gradually gives way to the newly emergent hegemonic agenda of the ‘boys’, thereby, accommodating one kind of memory, while letting go of another. The facility earned by militarist rhetoric of youth, vehicles moving at speed with young boys carrying weaponry and the de facto rule of the LTTE’s order and keep runs parallel to the withdrawal of Gorilla-types from the streets to the backyards of their own homes. The contest is dramatically portrayed in the instance where Ravi, Majeed and Rocky Raj encounter Gorilla in his own front yard. Gorilla – who, in his hay day challenged the most wily of Police officials with his escapades from custody, is humiliated, brought to the sentry post, stripped and tied up for three days as a public spectacle.

The passage from one age of violence to another is marked with much death, debilitation, and destruction; and these incurred losses in terms of lives and the community become even more poignant given the note with which the novel ends in France, where nothing positive is achieved in an avalanche of displacement and disjointedness that spills from level to level. The crescendo of poignancy Shobasakthi charms out of his text is scaffolded by several crucial narrative tricks, among which the use of provocative footnotes which give a brief sketch of each of the persons we meet in the novel is pivotal to a reading of memory and memorialization.

99817_bigIn each of these little snippets is given the date of birth and a brief resume of the various characters we meet in their diversity and vivacity; and each insertion is complete with that person’s year of death, and the way in which that death – which often is a result of conflict in one form or the other – was sustained. These persons, are transcribed into a memorial form, even as they are presented alive and functioning when they greet us in the text: a meeting where we are given the uncanny knowledge of the inadequacy and futility in these persons in whatever they are doing, as we meet them in the text; which may include their fight for freedom, or their desire to lead a normal, obscure life stealing the fishing of the neighbouring village. In this way, Shobasakthi’s portrayal becomes a fore-sworn affidavit of doom, for a people that were not spared by their conviction or their complicity from being victims of terror and war.

Consider the following citations, collated at random, in the way they are presented to the reader as biographies that relate to some of the persons we get introduced to in the text:
William Manuel Jesurasan (Gorilla): while travelling with a boatload of refugees on the Mannar sea to Mandappam, south India, he was shot to death by the Sri Lankan navy.

Gnanaprakasam Goncelas Jesurasan (1933-1984): was killed by two armed youth in his home in Annaikottai.

Genoa Rajeswari (1949-1990): During the early days of the second Eelam War, she was killed by the army as it was moving along the greater North Road to rescue the soldiers who had been surrounded by the Tigers in the Dutch fort in Jaffna.

Sundaram Sabarathnam alias Periya Sri. On 06.05.1986 was killed by the Tigers in the village of Kondaville Jaffna.

Jesurasan Princie Nirmala (1974-1990): Died in the last suicide attack of the Tigers against the Indian Peace Keeping Forces, a bomb tied to her breasts.

Ravi Sinaandy Thiruketheeswaran (1970-1990): Stabbed to death in a London theater hall by three young Tamil men over internal disagreements amongst the British diasporic Tamils.

Almost all characters we meet perish at the expense of a rival Tamil or governmental Sinhala bullet, if not by a diasporic knife. The heroes and playmakers of a moment are shown to invariably become the inglorious victims and bastards of time. Oshiela, Rocky Raj’s area commandant – who, at a point, mocks the latter when he questions the purpose of war – is found to have ‘disappeared; one morning, and is since unaccounted for. The mysterious poster which appears on the walls of the town demanding Oshiela’s whereabouts hints that he has been internally ‘removed’ – either by the way of incarceration, or death – by the LTTE itself.

In the closing stages of the War, as reports from the frontline amongst the thousands of other nameless were being reported as being murdered, I remember making a personal reflection as to the unaccountable and immeasurable energy we – the thickly divided of a geo-entity with thinly-different political faiths –, as a collective and a system, were irrevocably and irreversibly ‘losing out on’ in every death that was most pathetically being reported with drumroll and cheer. These news reports boiled down to that Orwellian maxim to do with how the one who controls the present controls the past; and as to how on that basis the future was written; and as a nameless member of a generation that came of age in the aftermath of ’87-’90, I felt an angst and a sense of pity for Lanka: a curious state of being that I had never felt before or since. In purely human terms, mine was a concern for the physical and mental richness of labour, the thousands of cadres killed in those final stages – specially, if there were cases where death could have been categorically prevented – and an abhorrence for vanity that was unwilling to compromise. In that moment I could read the senses of loss and futile hopelessness as Shobasakthi implies in his novel in the best way they could be read.

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