So, it was with great fear that, seven years ago, Sri Lankan Tamil writer Shobasakthi wrote about his time as a child soldier with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, blowing the lid on a cruel practice of one of the deadliest and most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world.
With that book, Gorilla, translated into English earlier this year and reaching a wider audience, Shobasakthi talks about life as a refugee, his future plans, the future of Tamil Eelam and much more in this interview with Krishnakumar P.
Anushiya Sivanarayanan, who translated Gorilla, writes in her introduction that after she read the Tamil version she immediately wanted to talk to the author. Anushiya writes that she wrote in with her request for which Shobasakthi wrote back: "No English. Only Tamil," along with his phone number.
Seven years on, in reply to the request for this interview, he wrote back: "Thank you for the interest. You can call me at..."
"I have learnt a bit," he says, from his sister's home in Paris. "I can speak French too," he says. In his e-mail reply, the sender's field read: Anthony X.
Is it with similar intent to that of Malcolm X's?
"Nothing lofty like that," he smiles. "Ten years ago, I had no idea what e-mail was. A friend who was then creating an e-mail account for himself, created one for me too. My name is Anthony Thasan. When the friend asked what the second name should be, I said nothing and he gave X."
Like this, everything Shobasakthi says -- about himself and things that he writes about -- has the ring of coming from a man who doesn't attach too much importance to what he says or what he is. "The Dalai Lama doesn't shoot people who disagree with him, Prabakharan does," he replied, for instance, to a question comparing the Tibetan leader and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader. There was no reaction time between the end of the question and the beginning of answer.
That does not mean he is a loose cannon either. He lucidly backs up all his quick-fire observations with cold logic and hard facts.
Unusual clarity coming from someone who picked up the gun at 15, had to leave his country before he was 20 and then spend the rest of his adult life as a refugee.
In Gorilla, he talks about his life as a child soldier with the LTTE.
In the book, which he calls autofiction, Rocky Raj, who comes from a poor family, joins the LTTE as a child solider. It takes just three years for him to realise that the movement is not what it claims to be and has to face humiliation and torture in the hands of a shadowy middle-rung leader. From there the book descends into a sketchy narrative that does not explain how Raj escapes Sri Lanka and lands in France as a refugee, where as an adult -- it is like watching one of those movies where they do the '20 years later...' thing -- he sees that the scars inflicted by the strife at home will take forever to heal. Unlike most grim works of literature, Gorilla does not even offer a glimmer of hope and ends in the same ominous tone it began.
"Almost everything in the book is a fact. Some of the political events I have written are exact even to the extent of the dates mentioned. The murders are a fact. The torture is a fact. The only fictionalised parts are regarding the character of the Rocky Raj, which I wanted to embellish a bit for narrative reasons," says Shobhasakthi.
Like Rocky, Shobasakthi was also born in a poor family. "Our family lived in abject poverty in a very backward region. I do not know from where or when, but I got interested in the Tamil nationalist movement that was taking root at that time. Following a bloody period of ethnic violence in 1983, a lot of Tamil separatist movements were born. I was with the LTTE for three years. I did things like strengthening the political outfit, bringing youngsters to the organisation and the like," he says. But in those three years, he learnt that the LTTE is not all that it claims to be. By 1986, the LTTE had eliminated all other organisations and become the sole face of the Tamil nationalist movement. It was also this year that the party began to show up as the fascist outfit that it is, Shobasakthi says. "At that time, I did not have the kind of political clarity that I have now. I could not take the change. And most important, I never could be comfortable with the military grind. So I walked out," he says.
After he got out, the LTTE began to hound Shobasakthi, just like it did every other renegade. Unable to take it, he escaped Sri Lanka to Bangkok.
This is a period he had left out in the book. "I wrote the novel when I was 32. It's been seven years now. I was very scared to write about some of the things then. Those days (the 1980s) the LTTE was very powerful in European countries. They had their men everywhere. There was no refugee they could not reach. Around the time I came, they had just killed a Sri Lankan Tamil for going against them. In that fear, I left out some things in the book. Their men in Paris would beat up anyone if they as much as release a pamphlet against the Tigers. The situation was very dangerous."
"Some of the things I omitted in the first, I wrote in the second novel Mmm... aimed at the Tamils for nodding their head and accepting everything the Tigers dished out. Now, I have written a novel called One Way. When I came to France, I was under the impression that the strife will end in a year or two and I would be able to go back to Sri Lanka. It is not so at all," he said.
One Way talks about his years after fleeing Lanka and before reaching France. "Yes, it was not France where I landed first. I went to Thailand first and spent three years there. There was an organisation called the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. They used to give us some money on a monthly basis. But what they could not offer us was any visa status. We were basically illegal immigrants, though an international organisation had us in its records. In the three years that I spent there, I was detained at least 40 times and I had to bribe my way out every single time. We were not able to earn a living even if we wanted to. Then I managed to get a fake passport and I left for France. It has been 13 years now, and some of the people who were with me in Bangkok then are still there living the same life on 3,000 baht, which is nothing in today's world," he says.
In the book, both the protagonist Rocky Raj and his ruffian father Gorilla, come across as uncouth people with a surprising propensity for violence and scant regard for others. "My village is like that! If you assault me, and I leave you unharmed, my mother won't give me a meal when I get back home. It is that reality which has seeped into book," he says.
The language of the book looks very amateurish but the thoughts are deep. For someone who hadn't even completed his Class 10 or didn't have much interest in reading, how does he manage that?
"I was involved in street theatre from my childhood. But I never got an opportunity to read literature. Actually, I started reading only after I came to France. When I came here, I joined a Trotskyite organisation called the Revolutionary Communist Party. That is where I picked up reading literature and political ideologies."
When he came out of that organisation, there was a huge ideological black hole facing him. "I think that fueled my writing ambitions. I started with short stories that were published in small magazines. Then I was commissioned to do a serialised work. That was also the time I got some contacts in the literary circles of Tamil Nadu. It was through them that the chance for writing a book came along," he says.
But if it is true that good literature stems from good reading, Shobasakthi would be an exception. "I can read only Tamil. I know a bit of French but I can't read heavy stuff in that language. So all my reading is confined to works in Tamil," he says.
Is he in touch with his family? And what happened to his village?
"My mother and father are in India as refugees. My village has been razed. It is just another naval base now. There is nothing else left there. My brother and sister are in Europe. It is at my sister's place that I stay," he says, adding that a typical day for him begins at 5:30 am. "I have to be at work by 7 am. I do the job of minding the shelves of a retail store. I keep changing jobs, sometimes up to five a year. I do such menial jobs as they give me time to do other activities. For instance, the current job allows me to leave by 1 pm. I get a lot of time to read and write after that. I also meet my friends and get together with like-minded people. Sometimes, I am really scared if my whole life will drift on, just like that..."
In the second part of the interview, Shobasakthi talks about the refugees, the LTTE, and whether peace has a chance in Sri Lanka.