Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Dark Night of the Soul: A Study of the Existential Crisis of the Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees as depicted in the novel An Immigrant by the Canadian Tamil Writer V.N. Giritharan

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

Abstract
Any journey in life is blissfully ever sought by human travelers across the globe. However, there are certain migrations by specific ethnic groups who are left with not much choice except for a disagreeable movement, sometimes hazardous ones too. Life and journey go hand in hand in a pleasant manner for any human being with comfortable existence. Crisis occurs only when life becomes uncertain in the homeland and to enter an alien land. Srilankan Tamil people is one such ethnic group who have been going through the crisis of existence for having born in a land that coerces cruelty upon them. The writer V.N. Giritharan was born as a blessed being like others in a Tamil family in Sri Lanka. He grew up as a writer as well as an Architecture graduate with great sensitivity towards the land and people around him. However, his state of affairs did not remain the same, as there were the chaos and brutalities of the ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil. The only way to survive was to leave the homeland with a heavy heart and to move towards an asylum. This journey is the most pathetic one in any man’s life. His sufferings have been portrayed vividly in the novel An immigrant in which the protagonist named Ilango lives as the replica of the writer V.N. Giritharan himself.

The paper attempts to explore the existential predicament of the protagonist of the novel An Immigrant whose personal experiences demonstrate the physical, psychological multicultural, ethnic, political and socio-economic issues of such immigrants across the globe.

Key words : Canadian-Tamil Writer, V.N. Giritharan, forced migration, Diaspora, Tamil ethnic race, refugees, unwilling immigrant, identity crisis, political asylum.

“I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.” (St. John of the Cross)

Literature is the outcome of multiple outlooks of the creator, well or ill reciprocated by the society. Fictional world is crafted out of the composition of the original passions. The concepts of the imagination could exemplify the unfeigned nature of the situation of the author. Such is the situation with the writer V.N. Giritharan, the popular Tamil writer of Canada who is presently publishing an on-line Tamil magazine known as pathivugal from Canada. He belongs to the family of Tamil in Sri Lanka who had to migrate from his homeland to an alien land for political causes.

Being a child prodigy, he exposed his writing talent even at the very early age of 10 years. From his childhood days, he has been a keen observer of the people and the events around him. It is this observatory quality that has made him a creative writer who blends facts and imagination. He is the author of many articles in various magazines along with poems and short stories. He has 5 books to his credit, originally written in Tamil and later translated into English such as ‘The Voice of Soil’, ‘America’ -A collection of short stories and a novella- ‘Rise the  Superhuman’  – an anthology of revolutionary Tamil poems, ‘An Immigrant’ – the novel taken for the research paper, ‘Nallur Rajadhnani City Layout’ – a critical study of the interior architecture and the planning of the city Nallur during the 16th century and some short stories too. It is evident that he is a multifaceted person with the genius of touching upon various genres of literature with ease. Though he was born and brought up in Sri Lanka, where he obtained the degree of architecture from the University of Moratuwa, he along with his fellow Tamil group, had to leave his motherland in the crisis of the 1983 ethnic conflict.

The research paper makes a modest attempt of the issues related to the refugees from Sri Lanka to the USA and Canada, which have been offering political asylum to the Sri Lankan Tamil people. The novel An Immigrant echoes the predicament of V.N. Giritharan himself through the major character Ilango. As the title suggests, the novel revolves around the various aspects of the immigrant Ilango in an alien land. His journey from his motherland to a new soil forced on him. The odious expedition of the young man of Sri Lanka involves multiple layers of meaning. The existential struggle of the protagonist as portrayed in the novel An Immigrant can be evaluated from the viewpoint of the following themes.

The physical adversities
Psychological anguish
Social injustices
Cultural incompatibility and multiculturalism
Economic deprivation
Political encumbrances
Linguistic inability

The basis of any human existence lies in the freedom of choosing one’s own life. In the case of an Immigrant like Ilango, the Protagonist of the novel, his existence is transformed into a form of survival. In the very beginning of the novel, Ilango spends a sleepless night in the detention camp contemplating his uncertain future. In his diary, he refers to the physical brutality enforced upon fellow Tamil people in Sri Lanka. To quote the words of Ilango,

When we were running to safety, huddled inside a State wagon thanks to the grace of an Indian engineer in Colombo, the thugs had poured petrol over a mini-van carrying Tamils and set it on fire, eliminating them cruelly. They had caught hold of a hapless Tamil youth riding in with his bicycle and bashed him to death. Another Tamil had been disrobed by them, humiliated and was subsequently set ablaze. In Kirulapanai, they had killed the little sister of a young Tamil woman right in front of her eyes, so turning her into a psychological wreck and then subjected her to gang-rape before finally killing her too. As is the rule, this time also, the labourers of the Tea-Estates in the mountain regions – the Tamils of Indian origin – have become the target of wide-spread arson and violence. (19).

The violence on the physique is the most ruthless and mean form of showing authority. Though Ilango has not been violently treated physically, the distress of his friends and the family intimidate him, and agitates him to the extent of leaving his homeland. The memories of the past and the nostalgia are the two important issues that cause dejection and depression in the immigrant. When it rains in the alien land, Ilango recollects his homeland – the land that celebrates the Rain God and the Mother Nature. A chapter in the novel with the subtitle “The Heart that gets into the trance in the rain” (24) is devoted completely to the reminiscences of Ilango associated with the torrential shower in the “Long island.” The craving to be with the family in the homeland remains unfulfilled in the life of an immigrant like Ilango. He happens to negotiate between the past and present incessantly.

The loss of identity is another major issue to be noticed in the novel, which has the effect of fracturing the psyche of the already distressed refugees. Ilango flees his homeland along with other victims to a land that might offer him an asylum. Unfortunately, the most essential thing he has to forgo is to lose his identity as an individual. All who have sought an asylum are viewed as criminals and illegal immigrants since most of them do not have the legal papers that are expected in the rule of immigration. There are exploitations at the working place since these people do not have appropriate legal documents. Some agents or anti-social elements tend to manipulate pathetic situations of people like Ilango. In such situations, an even righteous person like Ilango has to compromise with the expectations of the inhuman employer for the sake of his survival. However, when the dreadful nature exceeds the limit, Ilango retorts:

“Don’t you like the work here?”
lIango decided to speak the truth as far as possible, being true to his conscience, “It is not that I don’t like the work, but – ”
While he was half way through his sentence Napoleon cut him short and shot another question, “Then, is the work difficult to do?”
“That is the foremost reason. Working for too many hours, non-stop, and when I return home at last, it is just to go to bed, sleep and get up early and return to work. This is what is proving very hard. The body feels terribly fatigued and broken. Then…”
“Secondly…”
“The income is not proportionate to the hard work. It is not something easy to do, the work of two single-handedly.”
When Ilango uttered these words, they must have made Napoleon a little startled. His next question made it clear, “What? Doing the job of two? Who told you so?”
“Where is the need for anyone to tell? The mere quantity of work tells it all. Don’t you see?”
Ilango’s blunt words must have saddened Napoleon a little. “Being here is illegal. In such a condition what better job can you expect?”
The way Naopoleon stressed the illegal immigrants pitiable existence angered Ilango. In a voice that expressed his anger, which was rarely shown by Ilango, “Though my stay here is presently illegal, I have the relevant documents with me, you know. True, I have entered this country as an illegal immigrant and circumstances have thus forced me to come and stay here.” (44)

As a chain reaction to the loss of identity, the immigrants tend to compare their original culture with the new one. The habits and the manners of the alien land are very shocking to Ilango and Arulrasa. However, they become accustomed to the culinary habits and the societal mannerisms of the new land. An assimilation of two cultures is evident in the life of the refugees. Food is an important aspect of any culture. Being Tamil people, the two characters Ilango and Arulrasa pine for the special food prepared and served on the long banana leaves. After the search for a dwelling place ends with the a rented home, they immediately plan for cooking their favourite meal:“Cooked, hot rice and an excellently fried chicken side-dish, chicken soup, fried potato chips, boiled egg-pieces, and another side-dish made of grains and one more with vegetables and a beverage made of ‘Iraal’. We have all the facilities there. It will not be hard” (31). It is evident that Tamil people are fond of spicy food that is not available in the western regions of the world.

It has always been a matter of economic crisis for any refugee that encounters a new land. Leaving all wealth behind, in the process of rushing to a new country, the basic need for any person is enough currency to take care of the day-to-day expenses. Ilango and his friend Arulrasa struggle hard to find a job and a place to live in New York. They are offered a shared dwelling place with Gosh, a Bengali for a weekly rent thirty dollars in the home of Mrs. Padma Ajith. This is a temporary relief for them. The next major challenge is to find a suitable job for their living. Ilango, who had a respectable job in his homeland Sri Lanka, is now in a state of apprehension about his jobless present and the uncertain future. Ilango asks, “Gosh, is there any way I can get a job without delay? I don’t have any relevant certificate, which could fetch me a job. I am presently trying to apply for a Social Insurance Number”(32). Ilango and Arulrasa are warned of their status as illegal immigrants with no Social Insurance Number in a city like New York. Finally, they resort to the aid of a man named Peter from Greece, whose sole occupation is to supply temporary jobs to these kinds of illegal immigrants from whom he used to take a commission of eighty dollars each.

Agent Peter is a man who is an opportunist in a way to make use of the financial scantiness of the illegal immigrants. He offers a job to Ilango in a restaurant only after waiting for five days in the office of Peter. Ilango is instantly happy to have got a job, and joins his work the next day. His work is explained by his chief Mark:

You have to wash and clean the cups that the female attendants would be bringing every
now and then. You have to wash them in the ‘dish-washing machine’ and keep them in
their places. When you are doing so, you are not to throw away the butter-pieces, jam and
all that were left unused in the plates and cups. Instead, you should collect them in another cup. With that, you should also collect the peelings of lobsters that would also be left unused at times. That is your first piece of important work. If you are slow in doing this, the female attendants would become disorientated and their work will suffer. So, the moment they come and place the cups and dishes, you should wash and clean them at once. Secondly, you must cooperate with me. I would keep the pans that I use for frying fish and other meats in those wash-basins over there. While washing the cups and dishes, you should have an eye on those wash-basins too. When you see the basins filled up to a certain level, you will wash them (and any utensils you may find). The next important chore is washing and cleaning the kitchen floor, which becomes dirty and sticky every now and then. Not just the kitchen, if required, if asked, you should clean the floors of the restaurant too. (42)

Ilango becomes speechless about the descriptions of his work, as he never used to do such
manual labour in his past life. His status as a refugee and his financial crisis in an alien land
has brought such an unfortunate situation in his life.

Politically, the issue of the Sri Lankan people and the Tamil ethnic race is the cause for the suffering of countless Tamil people like Ilango and Arulrasa. The migration is forced upon these so treacherously that the respectable people like Ilango have to seek an asylum for their future and to opt for blue-collar jobs. Ilango directly accuses some political leaders of Sri Lanka for the agony and the desolation of the Tamil Ethnic race. He writes in his diary:

As soon as J.R. Jeyawardhane won the seat of the President of Sri Lanka in 1977, there was
a terrible ethnic violence on an enormous scale. And the present President described it as the
outcome of the Tamils voting in favour of a separate State, saying “WAR MEANS WAR:
PEACE MEANS PEACE’ thus worsening the current state of affairs. It is indeed very apt to
describe J.R.Jeyawardhane as the most experienced and cunning jackal in the political arena.

It was he who, by the undertaking of a ‘paadha –yaathraa’ to Kandy, forced the agreement
that was between the then Prime-Minister Bandaranayake and S.J.V Selvanayagam to be
torn to pieces. He was an expert in using his power and avenging his political opponents. It
was he who had made the premier Sirimavo Bandaranayage lose her fundamental political
rights. This time, arson and violence against the Tamils in a well-planned, systematic
manner were unleashed with the blessings of his cabinet ministers. This was used as another
excuse for the killings of the Sinhala Policemen, who were shot at the election meeting that
took place in the courtyard of Naachimaar temple in Jaffan, in the year 1981. Now, right
under the nose of ministers like Gamini dhisanayake, ethnic violence was unleashed onto
the State and the Jaffna library was burnt to ashes. The office of Eela Naadu Daily was
ransacked and set afire.(19-20)

The malice and self-centered motives of some political leaders devastate the lives of the Tamil ethnic group and the genocide. Ilango feels desperate about his helplessness as a refugee in a country where he can never use his melodious Tamil Language too. In all his losses in life, he considers the loss of his mother Tongue as the dominant one. His love for his mother tongue Tamil and Tamil Literature has to be forgotten temporarily as there is no such scope in the alien land. However, his thoughts revolve around the rebellious poems of the Tamil poets and Eelam writers such as Bharathiar and Kavindran (Aa.Na.Kandasami) in times of depression to him. These poems supply extraordinary energy to his sorrow-stricken psyche.

The Novel An Immigrant articulates the existential crisis of a Tamil refugee who seeks asylum in a land that might offer him a political shelter. From the detention camps of America, Ilango (the author V.N. Giritharan as well) finally reaches Canada where he can feel safer compared to the stringent rules of the USA. However, as discussed above, the losses of Ilango are not compensated. In the journey of Ilango, the path is thorny, unclear, foggy, hazardous, and there is the low prospect of reaching a blissful destination. In addition, the journey was not a willing one. The political and the social instability thrusts the migration upon the Tamil race.

To conclude, the story of Ilango in the novel An Immigrant is not just the tale of a single person. It incorporates the woeful tales of infinite number of the Tamil ethnic race who have been brutally assaulted in riots – some escaped, some murdered, some survived as mere vegetables, some committed suicide and so on. Ilango identifies their group as “Pulam Peyarnthor” (means migratory people). It would be appropriate to quote from the novel itself. Starting from the line from Silappadhikaaram which says,” KALAMTHARU THIRUVIN PULAM PEYAR MAAKKAL’ migration takes place due to various reasons. And, today’s immigration takes place mainly for socio-political and economic reasons. Ilango continued with such thoughts as he remembered the poignant poem of the
renowned poet of Eelam, V.I.S.Jeyabalan that has the following lines:

Myself,
just like the camel
that has lost its way and
have arrived in Alaska being in Oslo

A poem that speaks to any migrant whose purpose was to move due to the prevailing socio-political and economic reasons. Be it Musthafa or Michael or his own self – they all
appear as the camel that has lost its way and has landed here. The fact is, real camels may have not even survived in Alaska, but these human camels would surely find ways to
survive and get along with life. Or at least venture on all possible roads in order to do so. (38-39)

From the above lines, it is clearly inferred that the existence of such people who are forced to migrate to an unknown landscape with unfamiliar customs would be beyond description for an ordinary man. Among the challenges and the issues faced by mankind, forced migration due to political reasons is a prominent one. The plight of the Tamil ethnic race that had sought an asylum in various countries for so long has expressed their crisis through literature. Promoting literature that deals with such issues would at least make the reading public sensitized to the crucial issues of forced migrants like Ilango.

Works Cited
John, St. of the Cross. Dark Night of the Soul. Poet Seers. Ed. Abichal Watkins 14 May,2002
http://www.poetseers.org/spiritual-and-devotional-poets/christian/the-works-of-st-john-of-the-cross/dark-night-of-the-soul/ accessed Jan. 15.2017. web.
Giritharan, V.N. kudivaravaravaalan. Oviya Pathippagam, December 2015. Print.
An Immigrant. Trans. Latha Ramakrishnan. Geocites.com. Feb.14 2013. <http://www.geotamil.com/ctamils/vng_novel_AN_IMMIGRANT_february142013.pdf&gt; Dec. 07. 2016. Web.

Courtesy: ‘Scholarly International Multidisciplinary Print Journal’ (January -February 2017)

Categories: Canadian Literature, Reviews, World Literature | Leave a comment

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