Tuesday, May 06, 2008

On Shobasakthi's Gorilla, and some other recent reviews

What’s in a name? If we reflect on our experience, quite a lot. Names serve as a marker of our individuality, our uniqueness in all of creation. Even so, each one of us has not just one name but a host of names — nicknames, relationship names, work names — all of which define us in some way. Our names become shorthand for stages in our life, or for the emotions people feel for us. When your spouse addresses you by your full name, you know you are in trouble. When grandparents address us by some childhood name, we almost become children again.

The Sri Lankan émigré writer Shobasakthi’s short novel Gorilla asks to be read as the evolving story of a man and his real and imaginary names. It narrates the story of Rocky Raj, a poor and idealistic youth living in the island district of Kunjan Fields at the height of the Tamil insurgency. Rocky Raj’s father is a dreaded local goon, and his ruthless predations have earned him the sobriquet “Gorilla”. Unsurprisingly, the fallout of Gorilla’s notoriety is borne by his family, most of all by Rocky Raj. At school, his classmates and even his teachers begin to call him “Gorilla”.

Wishing to exit his father’s domain, Rocky Raj runs away from home and joins a local chapter of the Movement, or the Tamil insurgency. This action is meant to signify the way violence and bloodshed have pervaded Sri Lankan civil society. Rocky Raj runs away from the mindless violence of his father to a violence which at least seems to be in service of an ideal, that of the Tamil Eelam.

At the training camp where Rocky Raj and other youths like him are indoctrinated, each new recruit is supposed to get a Movement name. Rocky Raj is excited by this. The name he has chosen for himself is “Arafat”, which would cast upon him some of the reflected glory of the great Palestinian revolutionary. But his hopes are dashed when the trainers come walking past the lines of recruits, carelessly dashing off names for the youths to fill in their forms. Rocky Raj is given the name Sanjay, because the boy next to him has got the name Rajiv, after the sons of Indira Gandhi. This outpouring of names on an industrial scale suggests that the Movement sees its recruits as not much more than human fodder, to be sacrificed for the higher cause. "Arafat" and "Mujibur" are Rocky Raj's aspiration; "Gorilla" and "Sanjay" his reality.

Rocky Raj’s idealistic ways soon get him into trouble. He believes that once a rule has been put into place, it holds good for everybody, not realizing that the Movement pretty much works as it likes. When, as the local representative of the Movement, he objects to illegal sand quarrying in Kunjan Fields, a call to his higher-ups leads to him being apprehended, tortured and finally expelled. On the run, Rocky Raj/Sanjay finally ends up fleeing the country and seeking refugee status in France, where he gives himself an invented name — Anthony Thasan (which is also Shobasakthi’s real name) — and an invented past to persuade the authorities to approve his case. The short last section of Gorilla set in France is especially powerful.

As the translator of Gorilla, Anushiya Sivanarayanan, explains, the novel belongs to the genre of “autofiction”, in which the author is not just the narrator but also the main character. Shobasakthi was himself an LTTE child soldier and now lives in France, and his narrative uses the real names of many Movement stalwarts well-known in Tamil oral culture. The raw, sweaty, unpolished quality of his narrative is striking, but the publishers need not have accentuated it by letting numerous copy-editing errors slip through.

And some other recent reviews in Mint: on Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence (very dull, except for the sparkling opening section); Kunal Basu's The Japanese Wife (uneven, but with some remarkably fine stories that you should not miss); Satnam Sanghera's memoir of growing up in Wolverhampton If You Don't Know Me By Now; Sudeep Chakravarti's book about the Naxal movement Red Sun; and Jeffrey Eugenides's anthology of love stories My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead, about which I'd previously written in a different key here.


Anonymous said...

Your review of "Enchantress of Florence" echoes my thoughts on it.It seems so rich and promising to begin with.The prospects of Birbal and Machiavelli matching their wits seemed so tantalizing! However the initial promise soon wanes and Rushdie slips. The almost farcical wordplay between Akbar and Birbal made me squirm and for some reason, I read it as a portent of things to come and nothing that I read further proved me wrong.Once the Moger begins his tale,it gets so terrible that it is almost repulsive and the ending, what they call it,a dues ex machina?

Chandrahas said...

A Disappointed Fan - Yes, the early section of the novel was so good that I chose to devote most of the space I had to it. The rest was so cartoonish, even by Rushdean standards, that it didn't require all that research and that long bibliography.

But I would urge you not to be "A Disappointed Fan" for much longer - not even for another second. Literature is really too vast, and too rich, for us to peg our expectations to this or that author. If one book disappoints you or me, there are still a thousand great books waiting to be read. And even the fact that someone has disappointed us means that at one point their work gave us a great deal of pleasure and succour, and that itself is no small thing.