First I shall grouse about the Grataien. It is really irritating not to be able to read the shortlisted works and sometimes not even to be able to read the winning works until a year has passed. So this year there were three manuscripts and two books and of course last year's winner got published just in time as well. I have yet to pick up copies of the two winners - this year and last year, but my aunt who went for the Gratiaen picked this book up for me.
I didn't go for either the shortlisting or the award night but the literary chatter was that there was this interesting book written by a writer from Jaffna about the time the IPKF was stationed there. In fact, I thought at the time, that this might have been a sure winner. Then I read the book and straight off, I will tell you if it had won, I would have been dissapointed.
In my opinion a prize winning book has to stand out. While this book actually had what could have been a gripping story, the writing style left much to be desired and I was not even sure that it should have been shortlisted.
The story is set over a very short period of time. Perhaps over a few days. When the IPKF came as so called peace monitors to the North of the Island, they saw all the people there as Sri Lankans - an identity the Northerners had erased from their psyche and they saw all Tamils as potential LTTErs. Concentrating on one village that has all the people rounded up and housed in one compound that had one toilet for around 400 people, the people are confused if they are there for their safety or being detained. The depiction of the Indian army is sketchy and not drawn out yet it does not turn out to be a weakness of the book, for the slim novel in fact concentrates on the relationships, hardships and fears that the Northern Tamil families were going through during a period that they hoped would save them and yet became another kind of horror for them.
When you read this book, you feel for our people and what they have had to go through. They are mere pawns that are toyed with all players - the LTTE, the Sri Lankan army, the Indian army. Ayathurai Santhan is careful not to tread on the ideology of the average Northern Tamil person. He shows all these people as victims, being tossed from one side to the other at the whim of whoever rules. It might have been interesting if he had taken a stance, for after all the LTTE could not have existed and been successful for so long, without popular support in the area. The book ends without resolution.
The writing is replete with Sri Lankan English of the lesser kind: akward, clumsy and sometimes grammatically incorrect. Now, I hope I don't get flak for this comment. For example: "Though everyday, Sivan had passed by this house often, this was the second time he happened to be inside." Is a sentence written in the way Sri Lankan's typically speak. And there is nothing wrong with that if it was written as direct speech.
My final comments is that this is a book that I highly recommend only because there is a dearth of writing in English about the conflict from the Tamil perspective. I admit that it is written in a sometimes crude and akward manner, that the story could have been fleshed out better, that as it is, it is not a very strong book. But it is important that all Sri Lankans be able to read about our history, and what better way to do it, than through fiction, the different voices and perspectives of our history - be it good or evil. I applaud Ayathurai Santhan for taking the courage and writing such a book. I just wish it had been edited much more and we would have a stronger perhaps even a prize winning book. I look forward to more books written from varying perspectives, perhaps one that is sympathetic to the LTTE cause for we need to know how part of our own people wished to secede from the country in the hope for a life of equality, justice and peace.