A deep suspicion for the grand narratives of history informs T.D. Ramakrishnan’s Sugandhi Enna Andal Devanayaki . It is a novel that has recently struck a deep chord in popular imagination and yet complicates the fine line between popular fiction and highbrow literature. On its way to achieve a cult status in the footprints of his first novel Francis Itty Cora , Sugandhi… is a daring mixture of the mythological, the metaphysical and the historical set in contemporary fluid spaces of socio-political unrest and global capitalism. Thus Sri Lanka spills over into Toronto, London and India and vice-versa.
This postmodern novel in Malayalam has at its core a real life incident from1989 when Rajani Thiranagama, a prominent Sri Lankan human rights activist was brutally gunned down, reportedly by rebel Tigers. Initially, she had been active in helping the Tamil Tigers but had become increasingly disillusioned by the atrocities committed by the Peace Keeping Force, LTTE and the Sri Lankan army, choosing to voice her discontent at the fast disappearing democratic ideals in the country, in both state and insurgent spaces.
It is the political intensity of the novel that is most striking about it. As the tale of the Tamil- Sinhalese strife unfolds its historical dimensions, the personal and the mythical enter the framework of the story to reveal the constructed-ness of all histories.
The quest for the modern Tamil liberation activist Sugandhi in the contemporary landscape of Sri Lankan trauma and loss is itself fuelled by tales of the mythical Sugandhi, her archetypal ancestor from a folkloric past, creating a throbbing tension between fiction and reality. As fiction, fact and myth blur, what emerges in the interstices are bodies that pulsate with poignant materiality and spirits that have been bent by power and violence but remain far from broken.
The making of a Sri Lankan state sponsored Hollywood film on Rajani, the idea of a documentary within the film and documenting for the film, an earlier film that was abandoned due to its subversive script, art within life and the artifices of life are all plots that make the very act of plotting a ploy to narrate tales without closures.
Each attempt to retell the past ends in a crisis, a friction between fiction, reality and myth. Thus the central narrator, who is in fact a scriptwriter, plays with alternative modes of understanding the Tamil Eelam’s mythical past, the fraught ethnic history of Sri Lanka and its turbulent political present.
Many of the fictional characters are from real life including Velupillai Prabhakaran, while many of the seemingly historical characters and situations are actually fictional. That the centuries-old ethnic strife between the Sinhalese and the Tamils has at its core a small Kerala village is the brilliant twist in the tale that links lands, temporalities, cultures and identities.
As the fate of the erstwhile kingdom of Kanthalloor merges with the larger histories of the Pandyas, the Cholas and the Sinhalese, the feminist fable of Devanayaki becomes an underlying thread that offers vital links to histories of violence against women and the archaeology of war, rape and repressive power politics across centuries.
As the myth of Devanayaki blends with the political assassination of Rajani, and the torture and disappearance of the LTTE activist Sugandhi, Ramakrishnan seeks to create a notion of women’s histories as alternative voices to official mythical, moral and historical narratives. However the central gaze that lingers on each atrocity committed on women’s bodies across the ages is a male gaze that even as it narrates violence is itself violently masculine in its incursions into the feminine.
The magic and mythic transformations of characters in the novel add a touch of magical realism in addition to a richly evocative historical intertextuality. A finely crafted work, it has its flawed moments and yet connects contemporary socio-political histories with mythical landscapes and dystopias of the mind. It resonates with an Orwellian intensity, throbbing and poignant in its apocalyptic closure which probably parodies any sense of an ending and in the process takes the Malayalam novel to new heights and fresh possibilities.
(A new column on some of the best reads in Malayalam. The author is director, School of English and Foreign Languages, University of Kerala)
Sugandhi Enna Andal Devanayaki