Autofiction, when servicing the mundane occurrences of life, can be unbearable to read; drowning in narcissism and vainly attempting to produce words that carry depth. Shobasakthi’s autofiction is unbearable for a different reason: the colloquial and careless manner in which it documents a vicious circle of violence. It took me many days to read his novel Gorilla, and even then, I cannot claim to have read it in its entirety.
The narrator, escaping a father prone to petty acts of cruelty, and an unstable home, runs away and joins the LTTE, where he is renamed Sanjay, but called Gorilla. Fuelled by ideals and rhetoric, he undergoes all manner of harsh training. He is disillusioned soon enough, when he learns that the movement is often just a group of men finding delight in intimidation. He escapes to France, where he submits a letter, along with a story that he believes might help him become a refugee with valid identification. He certainly doesn’t need to stretch his imagination too much, there are a number of innovative ways to describe torture, many of which he is acquainted with personally. His life in France is never peaceful, scarred by everything that has preceded; he is once more alienated in a new landscape.
I read a few pages at a time, and I observed what I was doing. Every time I was disturbed by the words that appeared, my reading took on a dazed quality. I removed myself from the text, engaging with it in absurd ways.
The protagonist is named ரொக்கிராஜ், so I wondered if his name would be spelt Rokkiraj or Rocky Raj in English. Somehow this assumed a great urgency in my mind.
Devoid of literary references, or rudimentary knowledge about the structure of Tamil novels, I realised I had no idea how dialogue and description would be presented in contemporary texts, if this was indeed the way English words were spelt. Familiar words and names took me a long time to decode.
“ஒரு பார்வையிலேயே அவ் ஓவியம் பிறைடா காலோவால் வரையப்பட்ட அவரின் சுயப் பிரதமை என சொல்லிவிடலாம்.”
Two pages after I read this line, I went back. It finally struck me that they were talking about Frida Kahlo.
I learnt many phrases, arriving at contextual meanings and committing them to memory, as though I would be quizzed some day in the future.
அரசியல் தஞ்சம் – Political asylum
வதை முகாம் – Concentration camp
Oh, here are some words that I thought to be Malayalam, I remarked to myself. I translated a few passages. I carried on in this distracted manner, I worked hard to remain indifferent.
In his training camp, young Rocky Raj is taught about weapons and Tamil pride. When their training comes to an end, his class is rewarded with a lesson on how to escape the Sri Lankan army. They are each taken to a room and beaten. This is practice. When Rocky Raj, with remnant ideological zeal, tries to stop illegal sand mining in his village, the movement captures him and brutalizes him. There are no rules.
Elsewhere, we read of the Sri Lankan military and the Indian Peace Keeping Force, who terrorize populations in their own ways, whisking people away at the slightest suspicion of involvement with the enemy. They have many means, all depraved, of getting their suspects to admit to false charges.
In France, Rocky Raj, now called Anthony, is told by one of his friends that the undocumented are preferred for hard labour. They live in cramped boxes, they argue and fight. There is no escape.
I tuned out whenever I could, when the language became difficult to follow, when the developments became too agonizing. In the comfort of my couch, I read of another world, in a language whose skeleton is common to reader and writer.
Strangely, a couple of days ago, a woman came up to me and asked if I was from Sri Lanka. I said no, but I had this bizarre sensation of feeling pleased. As if her question allowed me, for a moment, to lay claim to lovely beaches and fantastic food. Sometimes my shallowness is repulsive.