A recent encounter with V. Jeevakumaran’s novel Sanganai Chandian (translated to Sinhala by Upali Leelarathna as Sangane Chandiya) illustrated a motif I had been drawn towards on several occasions while reading work that related to the rise of militancy in Sri Lanka’s north: that of the ‘chandiya’, or the town/village rogue-thug.
The narrative Jeevakumaran develops works through the rise, career, and fall of a rogue-thug who, prior to his being overcome by a rising counterpart, is heralded as the thug of thugs, while challenging and wringing alike the law and political establishments. In turn, the chandian becomes the de facto law of the ground play and builds a hegemony in which his whim and will override others. Cleverly written, there are many complementary meeting points between the protagonist, the chandian of Sanganai, and the emergent northern military movement of the late-1970s. Though not isolated to, these include
- The patronage received by the militant groups from conventional politicians and political parties
- Their ‘redeeming’ acts against ‘unruly’ elements and forces of society
- Their subsequent superseding of conventional politics
- Collaboration between militant groups in carrying out operations
- Their subsequent destruction of rival groups.
When built into the complex picture of the deteriorating home politics of the north, Jeevakumaran’s characterization of the Sanganai Chandian – and other chandians who operate with, around, and against him – evoke highly suggestive parallels with the rising waves of militancy in the peninsula. But, Jeevakumaran strives not to let his allegory consolidate a wholesome meaning of its own, as he balances it regularly with a vagueness and counter-force that enforces a friction on the reader.
The allegory takes a sharp political turn when, after a District Agent is shot to death, fifteen chandians meet at a conference to form an alliance. At this conference, three main chandians are appointed as leaders of the confederacy. Duly, the thugs from Arukalmadam, Keerimalai and Sanganai were appointed to the front roles. This passage of play resonate in that order, the killing of mayor Alfred Duraiappa in 1974, the Vaddukodai Resolution of 1976, and the emergence of the key militant liberation organizations who hold sway from the late-70s to the mid-1980s. With time, the chandian from Sanganai begins to decimate his rivals and emerge as a central pillar. Initially, he has two confidantes named Seeniyan and Motteyan. Later, he kills one of them for a breach of trust.
In characterizing the power struggle at ground level, the image of the rogue-thug prominently features in novels such as Shobasakthi’s Gorilla (translated into English by Anushiya Sivanarayanan). Here, the thug-figure is found as a part of the older generation – the order that gets pushed on the side by the emerging youth-driven militant movement. In a memorable section that articulates the power transition, youth militant protagonist Rocky Raj’s father, the village thug Gorilla, is tied up by the movement to a post not far from their newly set up sentry post. The novel builds up through a sequence to-and-fro struggles for power between the two generations of extra-legal power wielders. As for young Rocky Raj, the novel from early on asserts the inevitability with which the father’s reputation followed the son’s destiny. Though he strives hard at every turn, his village hoodlum father’s shadow was cast over Rocky who, in spite of his antipathy, was also called ‘Gorilla’ by everyone.
Post-2015, several pro-nationalist southern Sinhala media strove to highlight what they insinuated was a ‘return of militancy’ to the Sri Lankan north. Both in conventional print and electronic formats, these media institutes made headlines out of a group which came to be known as the ‘Aava Kalliya’; who were promptly and severally branded as being ‘resurgent Tigers’, and ‘new age militants’. In fact, in an interview that was then publicized as the ‘first media appearance’ by the ‘leader of the Aava Group’, a TV channel featured a Mr. Arulananthan Arun as the voice of Aava. Responding to the ‘new militancy’ charges leveled by the southern media, prominent politicians of the peninsula were seen to dismiss these claims. They often branded the miscreants as ‘misled youth’ who had been influenced by ‘South Indian films’: a cinematic inspiration drawn from thug-scenes featuring fast motorcycles, long swords, and daring escapades. The levity (or the gravity) of the accusations and responses aside, the characterization of an emerging armed tendency as ‘misled youth’ or as those ‘inspired by films’ is not new to Sri Lankan discourses. In fact, such references were often used in characterizing the JVP by parties of the Old Left and state authorities alike during the 1969-1971 period. The sudden emergence of April 1971 was viewed as an idealistic outburst by such frustrated youth who had been easily misled and harnessed by a political anti-Christ.
A recent video re-make of the popular Sinhalese song ‘Me rata mage rata’ captured the popular imagination for its creative and, at times, subversive use of ideas, imagery, and play. Produced by a group called FTT, what was originally a patriotic song fostering national pride had been set against a series of visuals that re-cast the island’s history as a continuing chain of invasions, violent depositions, coups, killings, and conspiracies. In one crucial point of the video, a mustachioed man in jungle fatigues walk into the frame, unleashing fire from two guns he maneuvers single-handed. Later, the same man is seen lying dead on the side of the set. The semiotics used here to represent former Liberation Tigers supremo Prabhakaran – if not the movement he harnessed – and the twist of the South Indian villain he is given cannot be mistaken.
This is in no way intended to reduce the respective writers’ characterizations of the chandians in their work to a convenient metaphor for militancy. But, within the complex weaves of multi-faceted representations and the discussions of a deeper vortex of themes, the chandian motif – at strategic points – beckon suggestively to appreciate a strong political thesis the writings appear to bring forth. These chandians are rounded characters with depth and personality. Jeevakumaran’s protagonist fights injustice and treachery – but, as those words takes shape within the dangerous and competitive universe he presides over. He is a man of honour and dignity. He waylays and lynches the Police superintendent who stoops low to insult his wife Thavam by calling her a ‘whore’. When his trusty neighbour Chinnakkili Akka’s daughter Shanthini is raped and murdered and then deposed in a well, the chandian takes precautions to preserve the girl’s honour and dignity by getting the Police to declare the death as a suicide. Then, he goes after the perpetrator – his own right hand man, Motteyan – and takes it on himself to end his life. In spite of Motteyan’s loyalty of years, the avenging was necessary – it was his duty to the dead Shanthini. But, later, after the girl’s funeral was over, the chandian goes on his own and performs poojas and rites on behalf of Motteyan’s spirit.