Kuna Kaviyalahan’s The Poisoned Dream is about incarceration and torture. Soviet dissident literature produced some of the finest works on the theme of the individual under a regime of incarceration. Andrei Platonov, Victor Serge and Arthur Koestler have produced philosophically and politically insightful novels on the loss of self, the loss of freedom and the loss of integrity under a totalitarian state. Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and Serge’s Men in Prison is a lamentation of a noble idea gone bad, constructing its power over several broken bodies and souls. In Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, the idea requires the sacrifice of prisoners in order to safeguard its nobility. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn rejects the concept of the noble idea totally. His much celebrated novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has no discussions on the nature of socialism and its relation to man; man’s survival in the prisons of the socialist state does not allow him to speculate on ideas. Securing the next warm morsel or an extra piece of cloth to cover one’s body better is the highest aim of life.
More recently, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat is a novel that remarkably, and realistically, brings out the horror of torture. The novel deals with the rule of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and the aftermath of his assassination. Llosa, a true master of his craft, vividly and viscerally paints scenarios of how those suspected of having a hand in the murder of Trujillo were tortured and executed. Words transfer the stench of frying flesh across locations and time, and the reader stands witness to human savagery at its purest.
Kaviyalahan’s novel tackles similar themes and conveys similar images, sounds and smells. There was nothing noble about the Sri Lankan idea though. The torture of incarcerated Tamils was not a betrayal of the Sinhala-Buddhist ideal, but that ideal being taken to its logical conclusion. The original sin of the Sri Lankan state was its origin itself. A structure that depended on a permanent suspicion of the Tamil Other, fear of the Other, denial of civil and political rights of the Other – all leading to a policy of assimilating or annihilating the Other. Colonization of the Tamil lands and torture of Tamil bodies is not a ‘post-war’ phenomenon; it has been happening as state policy for well over four decades.
If you read The Poisoned Dream expecting a fantastic exposé of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, a graphic account of Sinhalese atrocities on Tamil bodies, a poignant tale of sublime heroism of the oppressed, or, as is fashionable in Tamil literary circles, a solemn bemoaning of the brutalities of both sides, you would have been disappointed. What is most jarring about this novel is that there is nothing jarring about this novel. And yet, despite Gouthaman, the protagonist who has little in common with traditional hero material or his persecutors who are not radically evil but just mediocre men following routine work, this tale grips you till its end.
The chilling aspect of Hannah Arendt’s report on the banality of evil, which this novel seems to be inadvertently drawing upon, is not so much about horror perpetrated by an oppressive system, but rather that the oppressive system makes horror so common, gives it such a level of legitimacy, that it ceases to be a horror for those who participate in it and/or benefit from it. In Zizek-speak, “We’re talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.” This system, parasitic and pathological, does not survive without its inherent pathology being inherited by those who sanction its rule. Kuna Kaviyalahan’s The Poisoned Dream, is about violence, direct and systemic, physical and psychological.
Kaviyalahan writes more on implicit horrors than explicit ones. A comparison should be made here with another critically acclaimed Tamil writer, Shobasakthi. The latter, who claims to have been recruited as a child soldier in a Tamil organization, too has dealt with violence and torture in his novels. But to Shobasakthi, there is equivalence between the violence of the Tigers and that of the Sri Lankan state. His approach to the Tamil movement is not just critical, but caustically dismissive. His novels deal with the pains, sufferings and traumas of the individual – and which he brings out quite masterfully – but this enables Shobasakthi to abstract the rights of the individual from that of the political structures. Kaviyalahan is more concerned with how the group adapts, endures and survives under incarceration by a state that has scant regards for rights.
The Poisoned Dream is definitely engaged literature, that is, it takes political sides, but it is not an explicitly partisan combat literature. It is neither party dogma, nor is it a statement on the platonic character of the oppressed. Kaviyalahan does not pen eulogies for the Tigers, nor does he dismiss them outright as some of his doggedly cynical contemporaries in Tamil literature do. He shows life as life was, not how it should have been or could have been. He writes with literary honesty about the past, but with a committed concern for the future. His is a dark novel, but the light is not something external to the darkness, but within it. The antidote to the poisoned dream is within the dream itself. Gouthaman and his comrades do not come with answers or grand judgments; they have pertinent questions though, questions that need to be addressed by those intent on continuing the struggle for Tamil Eelam.
(Originally published in Tamil as Vidameriya Kanavu, this novel has been translated into English by N. Malathy and Karthick Ram Manoharan and was released by Pragnai Publishers in January 2018. Manoharan is an assistant professor of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.)
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