Under my byline

Buried in a shallow grave

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 30 March 2008

Q&A: Shobasakthi

Gorilla
Shobasakthi
Trans. Anushiya Sivanarayanan
Random House India
pp 160

“The war destroyed my village. The Sri Lankan navy has now turned the whole village into a massive navy base. My parents live in India as refugees. My siblings live in Europe as refugees.” So says Shobasakthi, born Anthony Jesuthasan, once a teenage soldier for the LTTE and now in his late 30s an exile and writer resident in France.

His novel describes a life similar to his own, that of a teenage soldier — the eponymous Gorilla, son of Gorilla — who falls foul of the Tigers and is forced into exile. The brutality is all-pervasive, but the characters memorable and the whole story cleverly jump-cut like a film.

Shobasakthi has a Tamil blog titled Satiyakadatasi or “Speaking the truth in the face of power”. Both the book and this interview were translated into English by Anushiya Sivanarayanan.

Do you feel comfortable as part of the Tamil exile community in France?

Whether I like it or not, I am forced to conduct my political activities and writing work within this community. This is a community that is defined fundamentally by its caste and cultural identities, and has deep feelings of racist hatred towards its fellow ethnic communities of the Sinhalese and Muslims; and yet is unmoved by the overt racism of the white people. I have no choice but to live and struggle within this community, and at times even suffer a beating from it.

What is life like now, in terms of work, companionship and activism? Are you still involved with the Tamil eelam movement?

My needs are very simple. Therefore, I have never been worried about any kind of formal employment opportunities. Periodically I work at whatever is available in restaurants or supermarkets.

I have no connection now with the LTTE or any other Tamil militant organisation. As far as they are concerned, I am a major political enemy of theirs or a traitor.

Right now, along with other Leftist friends, I am involved in propaganda work against the war in Sri Lanka and the human rights atrocities of both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers. Most importantly, we are involved in anti-caste and anti-Hindutva activities within the Sri Lankan and Indian diaspora communities.

Indians living abroad often appear to hold more overtly nationalistic opinions than Indians in India. In your experience, is this true of Tamil Sri Lankans abroad as well?

Yes. They portray themselves as hardened nationalists. When people struggle with sustaining their cultural identity markers, they discover nationalism. But remember, Tamil culture itself is a caste-driven culture. It is also a male-ordered culture. Their nationalism is born out of their love for this reactionary culture.

At the same time, Sri Lankans Tamils in exile are the primary source of funding for the Tigers. Therefore, the Tiger-based organisations use all forms of media outlets to promote intense feelings of Tamil nationalism within the diaspora communities.

The title of your blog, Satiyakadatasi, means “Speaking the truth in the face of power”. Is this a reference to satyagraha? Is Gandhi an inspiration for you?

No. At no point in my life could Gandhi have ever been an inspiration to me. At the time of Gandhi’s death, Dr Ambedkar commented, “Mr Gandhi had no capability to guide a country. As the Bible says, sometimes out of something negative, a good might come about: I hope that something good might come out of his death. His death might serve to liberate the people from being bewitched by a fantasy man; it might help them think critically about their situation.” In encountering Gandhism, Dr Ambedkar is my inspiration.

Who are your personal, political, intellectual heroes?

Leon Trotsky, E V Ramaswamy (Periyar).

Your book suggests that ordinary LTTE footsoldiers have little idea of the big picture, and that the leadership is absolute. How then has the movement held the imagination of Tamils for so long?

The violent oppressive measures of the racist Sri Lankan government upon Tamils force the Tamil public to tolerate the Tigers. The Tamil people in general believe that the Sri Lankan government’s anti-Tamil violence justifies the existence of the Tigers. But if an individual or an organisation attempts to provide an alternative political movement outside of what might be called the two sides of the same coin, the Tigers immediately bury them in a shallow grave, or chase them out of the country.

Are the movement leaders in Sri Lanka like the film superstars of Tamil Nadu?

No, they are more like the Indian political superstars, Narendra Modi or Bal Thackeray.

What kinds of responses do you get to your writings — from fellow Tamils and exiles, Sinhalese, other readers?

While some claim that I am the foremost political fiction writer in Tamil now, there are others who point to my intense critique of the Tigers and call me the number ONE traitor of the Tamil race. As my writings have not been translated into Sinhala yet, my Sinhalese brothers have no knowledge of my work.

Do you think you will ever return home?

Every single day, I ask myself this question. But a political refugee has no right to decide his own future. I am living a life that has been thrust by others upon me.

Is all your family still in Sri Lanka? Are you in touch with them?

The war destroyed my village. The Sri Lankan navy has now turned the whole village into a massive navy base. My parents live in India as refugees. My siblings live in Europe as refugees.

What did you think of the riots in France in 2005?

When the police chased a young black man, Bouna and an Arabic youth named Zied, they got caught in an electric wire and were electrocuted to death. Following their death, Black and Arabic youth poured onto the streets, shouting “Mort Pour Rien!” (“Death For Nothing”). Their spontaneous anti-government protest was put down by the authorities in three to four days. The rioting neighbourhoods were put under emergency rule and curfew. The young protestors were arrested in droves.

Most importantly, the racism of the UMP, the current ruling party, is unbearable. During the riots, the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy was the Interior minister. He was repeatedly expressing views that were against the outsiders living in France. His careless comments are a reason for fuelling the riots. For generations, the Black and Arabic people have been denied education and job opportunities. The constant police surveillance of the Black and Arabic youth is also unconscionable. The 2005 riots are but a spark of an age-old fire that has been burning, fuelled by neglect and suspicion. This anger is a righteous anger. I was on their side during the protests, and I will continue to support them.

What prompted you to start writing? When and where do you find the time and space to write?

I was born in a poor village. I went to school only up to the 10th grade and then joined the Movement. In my early years, I had no opportunity to read literature or study political writings. All that I remember was being surrounded by flat statements of political propaganda and militant calls for nationalism. In my 25th year, after I had reached France, I was attracted by a Trotskyite group called Revolutionary Communist Organization. I spent four years with this group. It was then that my friends in the party introduced me to literature; I was able to discuss literature and politics with them. It must have been that environment that motivated me to write.

Where do I get the time to write? Well, I go to work only after setting aside time for my reading and writing. If my schedule doesn’t work out, then I don’t go to work.

What are you writing next?

There is an in-between time period between living in one’s own country and living as a refugee in a new land called the migratory period. During that time, our stories are scattered over the streets of Thailand, the mafia-run camps of Russia, the seas of Italy, the rivers of Poland, the snow drifts of Western Europe, and the airports and immigration holding cells of Europe. I am writing a novel on this.

(Visit Shobasakthi’s blog, Satiyakadatasi, or read a short review of his book.)

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