How war remembers women and their sacrifice

Winner of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, this racy novel revisits the legacy of the LTTE, weaving together myth, mystery and romance

Malayalam novelist T.D. Ramakrishnan’s Sugandhi Enna Andal Devanayaki became a phenomenon when it was published in Kerala in 2014. Not only did it become a best-seller, critics and Ramakrishnan’s fellow writers said that it did something genuinely new with the Malayalam novel, expanding its language and its imagination. It won a Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award as well as the 2017 Vayalar Ramavarma literary prize.

It’s now rare to hear the word “postmodern" used as a compliment, but Sugandhi’s English translation, rendered by Priya K. Nair, arrives bearing even this weighty descriptor in tow. The mistrustful, decentralized literary method it implies reflects in its title. “Enna", in Malayalam, can mean “that is". In its place, Nair uses the word “alias"—a word that usually implies that a thing is not, or not what we thought it was.

It is difficult to deliver any sort of single-point summary of what Sugandhi is about. A potboiler of real intellectual ambition, it is both lurid and evocative. It’s about the sort of beauteous cypher that male writers love to reproduce over and over again in serious literature—but we can also say with certainty that there is a real, historical woman at its heart.

In September 1989, the Sri Lankan Tamil university teacher and human rights activist Rajini Thiranagama was murdered, allegedly on the orders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Thiranagama, who was once linked to the LTTE herself, had become an outspoken critic of its aims and methods, and dedicated herself to documenting the violence committed on all sides of the conflict. She was shot dead by a gunman outside her home in Jaffna.

She is the presiding deity of Sugandhi. The novel’s plot begins in the present day, when a team of international film-makers, aided by an intrepid but somewhat hangdog Malayali named Peter Jeevanandam, arrive in Sri Lanka to make a movie about Thiranagama. Peter is using the movie as a pretext to look for a young woman named Sugandhi whom he fell in love with on his last visit to Sri Lanka, at the end of the civil war.

This Sugandhi co-exists with Rajini in the way the Hollywood biopic of a still-living figure allows two similar characters to co-exist in one universe. Thiranagama is named and remembered through the pages by the film-makers and the activists they meet; Sugandhi is revealed to us through Peter’s melancholy memories. The mystery surrounding her deepens as Peter reads a long narrative on the internet about the legend of a beautiful queen from southern India who seeks vengeance on the Sinhala king who destroys her life in war. The blogger who retells the story of the queen Devanayaki (an invention of Ramakrishnan’s) may or may not be Sugandhi.

Through Peter’s eyes, fiction stalks real life, and myth begins to mirror history. Through him, we understand that Devanayaki is a symbol of resistance; she represents the spirit of a warrior who rises to defend women destroyed by war. The Sri Lankans he meets resurrect Rajini in their memories, while Sugandhi and the truth about her life floats about him in rumour, story and songs. Both are almost always out of reach, both for him and for us.

The whole struggle achieves unusual depth through Ramakrishnan’s racy and thoroughly original recreation of a Silappadikaram-style legend. The story of Devanayaki ranges over Kerala and Tamil Nadu, deep into Ceylon, and even as far as Cambodia and Indonesia: it draws on the vast and gorgeous expanse of Sangam-era imagination. The whole thing both bolsters, and sidetracks the question that is supposed to propel the narrative forward, which is: Will we ever discover who Sugandhi is?

To give that away would be a spoiler; suffice to say that Ramakrishnan allows his story to accelerate in such a manner that we know the end, regardless of its outcome, will sound like a crash. Reader, it does. Ramakrishnan’s moral seriousness is a force all its own: all the novel’s moving parts—and there are a great many, for such a slim novel—are unified by a genuine anguish. Why, the question is raised again and again, are revolutions so ungrateful to the women who sacrifice themselves to the cause?

Some armed conflicts generate signature styles of murder—and Sri Lanka, where “necklacing" and suicide bombing both achieved early and shocking visibility in the television age, knows this better than any society—but each one practices, with dreary inevitability, the same forms of rape and sexual humiliation. Can a utopia be founded on the dreams of women who want neither to be cannon fodder nor gestating chambers for future soldiers? Why is non-violence as hollow a guarantee of life as violence?

Ramakrishnan does not ask these questions lightly; through Jeevanandam, he allows us to understand that certain stories, such as Thiranagama’s, can be co-opted under smooth, smiling new forms of fascism, like the hollow democracy that legitimizes the regime of the Rajapaksa brothers. Yet, for all its gravitas, Sugandhi also flounders, and ultimately fails, its own intellectual ambition.

The fault lies, ironically, in Jeevanandam and Ramakrishnan’s own retelling of war stories, fixated on women’s bodies and their objectification. Men are always clawing, raping, tormenting and breaking girls; they sexually assault children; they call women “whores"; they sleep with them to breed them; they pass them on to their flunkies when they’re done.

Florid oversexualization is hardly a crime, even a literary one: we live for novels to tell us unspeakable things after all. Perhaps in Ramakrishnan’s view, all of this can be recounted as truth-telling, and is, by human rights committees, journalists and survivors. But whatever the standards are for such stories to become brave and liberatory testimony, as opposed to a verbal recommitment of the crime, Sugandhi fails it. Its focus on the body is pulpy from the minute a teenage girl in a Sangam-style legend tells us that her “nipples have darkened" in anticipation of her deflowering, to the moment in a torture cell when we’re told of what happens to a rape victim’s vagina in near-ludicrous detail. Everyone but rapist colonels will need a trigger warning.

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