‘An Immigrant’: A poignant autobiographical sketch of V.N. Giritharan.

Dr. R. Dharani M.A.,M.Phil., M.Ed., PGDCA., Ph.D. Assistant Professor in English, LRG Government Arts College for Women

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested” -Sir Francis Bacon English author (1561 – 1626)

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An Immigrant is a giant leap in fiction for the Canadian writer of Sri Lankan Tamil origin V.N. Giritharan. This is a book to be read with utmost “diligence and attention”, as it deals with the existential crisis of a desperate soul in an alien land. The story is inspiring and lights up the spirit of every heart. Although the emphasis of this work is more on the survival struggle of a man known as Ilango, the protagonist, it bears a strong testimony to the brutal genocide of Sri Lanka, which is still infuriating to people across the world. The author V.N. Giritharan has presented in his book, his first hand experience of how the Tamil people are being victimized by the brutalities of the Sinhalese hoodlums who harrass the Tamil. It is also a unique tribute to those Tamil people who lost their lives, families, belongings, nationality and even the identity of being a human in the 1983 July riot that took place in Sri Lanka. In the first few chapters of the book, the author vividly illustrates the plight of the young man, Ilango, who is caught in the riot. In his own land, Ilango feels trapped by the racists and tries his best to escape the monsters. It is a heartrending narration of the author of the riot through the eyes of Ilango.

To the casual reader, this book will be exciting because of its straightforwardness both in the theme as well as in the style. However, it is so astonishing that the book carries multiple layers of meanings, dynamic profundity in the description of the details and critical complexity of notions. It is not just the story of Ilango who escapes the riot in 1983 to reach Canada. But, the author discusses various challenging issues like the illegal immigrant status forced on an innocent man, denial of the Human Rights in a developed country like the USA, the horrible life in the detention camp, job-seeking crisis of a man without a Social Insurance Card, the tricks of the road side vendors, like Haribabu and Henry, the exploitation of agents like Peter and Pablo, the cowardice of Anisman, the advocate, and most of all, the denunciation of the so-called illegal immigrants who live in the City of New York. The other side of the fascinating City jolts not only the protagonist, but also the readers.

Ilango is seen as a simple innocent youth of Sri Lanka in the initial chapters of the book, who, then, develops into an extraordinary man with impressive qualities even amidst of his adversities. He is a poet, pragmatist, writer, idealist, humanist and an optimist too. In a somber state of affairs in his life, he recalls his readings of the poems of Bharathiar, the renowned poet of Eelam, V.I.S.Jeyabalan and another Eelam poet ‘Kavindran’ (A.N.Kandasami). These renderings provide him with immense strength. When Ilango is not certain about the resolution of the unbalanced predicaments of his life, he gets himself transformed to a philosopher. He considers his life like a tree log that swims along the current of water. Ilango’s positive approach to life is another trait that needs to be appreciated, which is very rare in most human beings.

His philosophies are outstanding, as they tend to transcend the individual philosophy to a universal one. He writes in his diary: ‘Why should people, who are living in a small blue-hued planet called Earth get entangled in all kinds of divisions and partitions and so lead a life of enmity and misery? What hinders them from turning wise and mature? What hinders them from a life of peace and harmony based on the ideology – Yaadhum Oorae; Yaavarum Kelir , Everything is our place and everyone is our kin. Why is this world so full of discriminations and disparities? This is a planet that travels at a great speed through the universe. Its speed proves beyond comprehension. In this vast universe, its petty, narrow-minded dealings remain hidden and incomprehensible. Yet, people who are at various levels of intelligences, fight with each other. With wars and disparities, this beautiful planet is turning from bad to worse with each moment. What a terrible bloodshed we have so far witnessed… still witnessing… oh, what a wonderful place this small planet is! What all wonders it has in store for us… and, where is the need to sabotage and destroy it, without realizing its wonderful state? Why are we not able to live along the poignant line ‘ meaning ‘your job here is to love, you know!” (204)

The narrative shifts from the present to the past via flashbacks and memoirs. The book can be compared to “The Diary of Anne Frank” written during the Holocaust period. Ilango dwells more in his memory than in his present state, as his native land and his family are only in his memory. His survival struggle in an unknown soil does not allow him to enjoy the glamour, the gala, and the glory of the objects around him. He feels himself “like a dry leaf swirling, thrown away into the wind, unable to choose its own direction or destination.” In a desolate state, he poses a question to the Statue of Liberty, “Why should those who have come seeking shelter here, be subjected to such a pitiable state of affairs?” (163). As the answer is not a readily accessible, Ilango can only salute the Statue of Liberty, forever standing alone for a common cause.

The book is a rare blend of prose with dazzling poetic elements. The author’s use of metaphors and similes renders a magnificent grace to the narrative. Examples like “The beautiful damsel called Earth was bathing in the soft cool twilight of the evening sun”(120) and ““Oh, you beautiful ladies called stars! Are you grinning at me? Making fun of me, perhaps? Go ahead… have a good laugh” (206) would validate the poetic expressions of the author. Further, the author is, very often, inclined to personify the objects in the world. The protagonist addresses his diary as “ My Diary,” and “his diary rejuvenates his sagging spirits.” Some of the words like “‘Kaadaiyargal,’ ‘paadha –yaathraa,’ ‘Nadutheru Narayanan,’ ‘Peeththal Parangi’” and ‘Mulaikeerai’ are in transliteration so as to preserve the intense emotions that are associated with them.

The use of condensed snippets such as “On one side, stood the abode of education. And, on the other side stood the great centre of sex” (75), “This is a world where dogs eat dogs,” (134), “Wherever the cursed went, there were pits and wasteland all over” (122), “The youth’s miserable posture with eyes full of fear and his body bent and folded appeared as the very symbol of the sorrow of the Eelam Tamils”(106), add tremendous vitality to the theme of the story. The author has incorporated at least a representative from each part of the universe such as Henry -the Eskimo, Pablo – the Spanish, Gosh- the Bengali, Haribabu- the Maharashtrian, Ranjit Singh and Mansingh – the Punjab wallahs, Padma and Ajith – the Indian couple, Michael hailing from Ghana and Musthafa from Afganistan. All these characters, though some of them have only a minor role to play in the novel, substantiate the author’s reference from Silappadhikaaram “KALAMTHARU THIRUVIN PULAM PEYAR MAAKKAL”(80)

What is more appealing in the book is the daunting courage of the author to pin point the historical accuracies of the time of the riot and the people who instigated it. The author does not seem to hesitate in corroborating the facts with legitimacy. Like a single sword cutting across the bosom of an opponent, the author is straightforward and plain in exposing the causes of his misery. It is pathetic that he has not done any crime to encounter such miseries, excepting that he was born as a Tamil in Sri Lanka. The sufferings endured by Ilango are, undoubtedly, the sufferings of the author himself, as the book can be claimed as a poignant autobiographical sketch of V.N. Giritharan.

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