In search of home

World Refugee Day

In search of home

Fighting  disillusionment:  Shobasakthi

Allaipiddi, where the Sri Lankan Tamil writer Shobasakthi was born is a tiny island off the coast of Northern Sri Lanka. A dry, sand-filled desert island, it is now occupied by the Sri Lankan navy. The once thriving village has disappeared. The erasure of a whole landscape and its people has left the few survivors, Shobasakthi amongst them, struggling to resolve their memories with the reality of a home that is no longer there.
Here are the opening lines of Shobasakthi’s short story ‘Barabas’ where he maps an imaginary place called Sandyapulam, the setting of the story that is but a thinly veiled description of his Allaipiddi. 

If you started walking northwards from Karampon through the wild vegetation for about 15 minutes, you would notice the earth dissolving. Gradually, the rocky soil becomes muddy, then a marshland, which turns into a soft sand and you would arrive at what is a tiny bit of wasteland. This land on the shores of the Thambatti Sea is called Sandyapulam. Long ago, in the middle of this coastal land, there was a Saint Thomas church. Long ago, on the Eastern road of this coastal land, there was a co-op store. Long ago, right next to the church, there was a Roman Catholic mixed school. Long ago, on the beach of this coastal island, there was a toddy shop. Long ago, the people of Sandyapulam were deeply religious and lazy. 

In marked contrast to the oft-repeated patter of the official Sri Lankan Board of Tourism, of miles and miles of pristine beaches, blue seas, water falls and hibiscus flowers, the Sri Lanka Shobasakthi describes is a piece of land that time forgot. A daily launch from the mainland links the scattered islands off the coast to Jaffna, the cultural and mercantile center of Northern Sri Lanka. For the exile Nesakumaran, the protagonist of Shobasakthi’s second novel, Traitor, an island boy who had travelled daily by launch to school in the mainland, the strongest memory of his homeland is the smell of the launch’s diesel fumes. 

Space functions in Shobasakthi’s fiction both as representative of a people — in his case, of the islands, those splattered bits of land off the coast of mainland Jaffna that define themselves as regional Tamil areas, separate and marginal to the center of Northern Tamil culture — and as a producer of social life itself.

Shobasakthi’s writings move effortlessly between the cramped, public housing for refugees in Paris (evoked in such detail in his first novel Gorilla), and his lost home in Allaipiddi, an island off an island, mapping a terrain that is physical, architectural, and unforgivingly political in its judgment.  

Spirit turning sour

Shobasakthi lives in Paris as a political refugee. He has no citizenship except a piece of paper that says that he is a refugee from Sri Lanka. A former child soldier of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Shobasakthi joined the Tamil militancy when the State-sanctioned violence against minority Tamils became particularly egregious. His Traitor is a red record of the bloody events of the time period — the late 1970s to the end of the 1980s — when the State-run military and Tamil militant movements ruled Tamil lands and lives in the cruelest fashion possible.

The Welikade Prison massacres of Tamil political prisoners by the armed forces and fellow Sinhala prisoners that had signaled the start of the July 1983 ethnic riots, where Tamil homes and businesses in non-Tamil regions were looted and burnt under the turned eye of the local police, led to many young Tamils to sign up with the various militant outfits promising a better life in a separate Tamil nation.

This new country, gloriously named Tamil Eelam, consisting of the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka that were anyway traditional Tamil country fired up the imagination of the young. “We believed in the socialist proclamations of the Movements. We had grown up poor. We thought that we could create another Cuba,” reminisces Shobasakthi, whose sense of regret of these years revolves around the ways he participated in promulgating the iron-fisted rule of the Tigers in Jaffna.

Sri Lanka, if one remembers, has a history of Che Guevara-like movements, and the memory of the brutal suppressing of the first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna uprising in the early 1970s did not seem to deter the Tamil “boys” and “girls” as they all ran away from home to the militant camps, begging to be allowed to participate in something larger than themselves.

Shobasakthi’s first novel, Gorilla (2008, Random House), describes these heady days as one of naiveté and honest enthusiasm that quickly turned to disillusionment. The ratcheting up of the brutality by the Sri Lankan armed forces was matched by the internecine bloodletting between Tamil factions, an untenable situation that was made worse by the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping forces in the late 80s. 

Shobasakthi remembers the day the Indian Peace Keeping Force landed on his island and shot and killed the 30 or 40 young men who had been there at the time. He and a few others had escaped the carnage by the skin of their teeth. Hounded as a former child soldier with a banned militant organisation, Shobasakthi applied to the UNHCR for asylum and was able to get away to Thailand. He lived in South East Asia, without documents, working for a Thai mafia outfit until he could smuggle himself into France on a false passport.

Shobasakthi has been living in Paris since 1991, attempting through his writings — he is the most well known of Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora writers, by the way — to keep the memory of his Allaipiddi alive. The Palmyra Island in his Traitor (2010, Penguin India) evoked in such precise detail is but another iteration of his lost island.

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