In an airplane from Frankfurt to Colombo, as the seat belt sign flickers alive, warning passengers of turbulence, two men sitting next to each other wonder where they have seen each other before. Sitting in the window seat, ‘Chandran’ inventories his memories of the Movement, an unnamed Tamil Eelam militant outfit he belonged to. Sifting through protest rallies and battles against the army, he is overcome with paranoia about the friendly stranger who hands him his cup of airline coffee. As fighter airplanes circle overhead, a young woman in Sri Lanka runs away with her lover, the man who built her a Taj Mahal of a bomb shelter. Years later, her death certificate will be sold in France for 30 euros. While hearing a refugee application, a French judge will finger the embossed lion symbol on top of her death certificate and ascertain that it was indeed a genuine certificate.
Again and again, the stories in this exciting new collection from Sri Lankan writer Shobasakthi grapple with the question of who a character really is. The writer, who now lives in France as a refugee and has worked as a dishwasher, construction worker and street sweeper over the last 20 years, used to be a child soldier in the LTTE. The MGR Murder Trial is the second of his works to be translated into English (he has published two novels, a collection of stories, three plays and many essays in Tamil). Shobasakthi’s writings not only reflect his many worlds but also explore the fissures that form when an identity undergoes so much shape-shifting. Identity cards, refugee applications, interviews, confessions and, most of all, memories, are full of holes, manufactured to fulfil some expediency. The rift between genuine and fake, fact and fiction, is a throbbing pulse in Shobasakthi’s writing. While this is not a particularly original obsession in contemporary writing, what is striking about the way he handles this obsession is the boldness with which he muddies the waters. Watch, for instance, how the title story begins: ‘Listen, Bowser! This is the story. You can believe it or not. Whether you publish this story in your paper or not is your problem.’
In the afterword to this collection, the translator Anushiya Ramaswamy writes of Shobasakthi’s first novel Gorilla, which he calls autofiction, as opposed to a memoir or fiction. It opens with an unusual application for refugee status in France, in which the narrator critiques the powerful, arbitrary government machinery that will judge his petition: ‘Even after I explained in detail the terrors that were inflicted upon me and the real danger to my life in my country of birth, you quoted the ‘July 25, 1952 Geneva Code, Division II’ and refused political asylum all three times. According to that most unfortunate Division II, your explanation is that I face no specific danger. You have argued that the perilous nature of life that all Sri Lankan Tamils face in Sri Lanka is similar to my condition and therefore I cannot be given political asylum according to the law.’
What is fiction then? The refugee application, with its numbered answers that organise the refugee’s pain and trauma into bureaucratic conventions or a story about a refugee application that spits out the refuge-seeker’s anger and frustration? And what about the fiction of the host country? Ramaswamy decodes the myth of the generous host nation: ‘The conflicts that the refugee is trying to escape are unknown here. The refugee therefore needs to explicate, in terms and a language not her own, the monsters she is fleeing from… Driven by philanthropy, liberality and civilization, the host country’s past or present experiences with regional or colonial conflicts are never brought into question. At no point is the refugee’s narration to remind the host nation of its own policies towards its indigenous populations, prisoners or the poor.’
There is a direct line between the hubris with which the refugee in Gorilla asserts his experience and the boldness with which Shobasakthi complicates genre conventions. Whether you believe the story or not, whether you are a reader or a judge, this is the story. In another story, he uses excerpts from an interview that ran in a French newspaper, conducted with an Algerian-born porn actress, Jasmine, to populate the backstory of a female character in the story— who will in turn play the role of a young Algerian woman called Mariam who is deported during the Algerian War in 1958. Shobasakthi’s story essentially follows the script of this fictional movie, in much the same way that the characters in the title story recount the plotlines of MGR movies. There are so many layers of womanhood in this story, from the real life porn actress to the imagined actor to the movie character. In fact, the translator notes that some of Shobasakthi’s readers went searching for the original film when the story came out. Shobasakthi delights in blurring the lines between real and imagined, individual and collective identities.
But this story also illustrates the way Shobasakthi uses sexual politics as a metaphor for the civil war and the way it has dispersed Tamils into diasporic communities. That sounds way more didactic than it actually is in his nuanced, intelligent writing. In my favourite story, ‘Tamil’, an inventory of prostitutes that the narrator has encountered begins with corpses of women, punished by the Movement for their immorality. The boy narrator is tasked with painting the slogans on the posters that accompany the corpses. Then we see him as a young man in a mountain village in Thailand, where prostitution is a family business, choosing the youngest girl of the Sampoin family. In Singapore, when he bargains with a Malaysian prostitute, she tells him to go to the Sinhala women in Tekka Market. Speaking in his halting Sinhala to the young woman in Tekka Market, he wants to know why she left Jaffna. She counters, “Why are you asking me that as if you didn’t know?” The story ends with a twist, in the seedy Paris hotel room of a prostitute from Ghana, where there is a sign above the toilet, asking that condoms should not be thrown in. The sign is in two languages: French and Tamil.
All writing in translation is a collaboration, but The MGR Murder Trial does not hide the evidence of that collaboration. Each story comes with a barrage of endnotes indicating the backstories that are usually flushed out of the narrative when a piece of translation crosses cultures. So, for instance, in the title story about a man who comes to be nicknamed after the Tamil film star MGR and his killer, the endnotes tell the reader who MGR was and how much he was adored in Sri Lanka. After ‘Kanchana and God’, the translator confesses in the endnotes how much she struggled with this story. It is good to be reminded of the stuttering, staccato process through which these stories have journeyed from Tamil to English. In fact, in the story titled ‘M. Mudulinga’, the narrator is a translator, translating a first-person story published in Le Monde’s Africa issue, written in the voice of a Nigerian man who works with a Sri Lankan planning officer in Lagos. The officer writes a story in Tamil about the Nigerian man and the multiplicity of narrators creates a complicated web of intentions and interests. As if in a trick mirror, the story takes on multiple shapes, each language leaving its mark, from Sri Lanka to Nigeria, till it reaches the author in Paris.
Thankfully, this is not the clichéd Paris of cheese and baguettes and miraculously thin, fashionable women. This is the Paris of suburbs, crowded with immigrants, where ‘[e] ven if that great warrior Napoleon was reborn and came over to our suburb, he wouldn’t be able to even pluck a single strand of pubic hair here’. This is the Paris where under the Eiffel Tower, Eelam Tamils are protesting the atrocities of the Sri Lankan government. In this Paris, walk outside the La Chappelle metro station and we are in the Tamil shopping bazaar, with Mangai Groceries and Saravanaa Bhavan restaurant and Maama Fish Stall, where ‘In front of a video store, there was a poster stuck of Prabhakaran, with a flower in his hand’. Just as we see the Movement from various angles—the eager adoring perspective of a young boy who wants to draw posters for them and the frightened father who does not want the Movement to take away his young son to become a child soldier— Shobasakthi shows us a complicated, unexpected Paris and a diaspora of uneasy allegiances, hurting with memories.
(Shahnaz Habib writes for The New Yorker’s ‘Briefly Noted’)