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Under the boot

A nightmare novel based on the true horrors faced by so many of Sri Lanka's Tamils. Praveen Donthi writes

books Updated: Sep 10, 2010 23:25 IST
Praveen Donthi
Praveen Donthi
Hindustan Times

Translated by Anushiya Ramaswamy
Penguin Viking
Rs 399 pp 240

Growing up in the 1980s in small town coastal Andhra Pradesh, I often played cricket with children who had conspicuous Tamil names. I didn't know much about them except that they all loved cricket and lived in a humble 'Lanka colony'. Later I realised that they were Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka.

After reading Shobasakthi's Traitor, I hoped that their stories weren't remotely similar to that of the book's protagonist, Nesakumaran. The story begins and ends in an unknown European city where he's taken refuge. But the civil war that began in 1980s Sri Lanka, with the minority ethnic Tamils fighting for a separate state, gives the story it's flesh and blood. Literally.

It is written as a memoir where the personal and the political and the minute details and the big picture merge. It is about Nesakumaran's journey out of the tiny Palmyra Palm Island through various army camps, interrogation chambers and a nightmare of brutalities with its Shawshank Redemption-like moments. Anushiya Ramaswamy has done a brilliant job of translation.

Shobasakthi is a former child-soldier of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), who is now a political refugee in Paris. It is replete with details borne out of personal experiences and those of other refugees and survivors. So there are little stories within the narrative, each ending with a jolt and none that prepares you for the next one.

"When you start reading what I am going to write next, you might become disgusted… you will be reading about death. But don't for a minute think that by flinging away this book or skipping the next few pages, you can avoid a whole period of time," Nesakumaran warns before narrating the Welikade prison massacre of 1983 in which 53 Tamil political prisoners were brutally murdered by Sinhalese inmates.

"Local journalists who speak out against human rights abuses fear for their lives and the world press turns a blind eye," wrote Edward Mortimer of the United Nations a year after the defeat of the LTTE about Sri Lanka. Books like these fill that gap wonderfully and tell the world a 'denied history'.

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The Executioner's Song: Norman Mailer interviews family and friends of Garry Gilmore, whose execution triggered the debate on capital punishment in America in the late 70s. A chilling read.

First Published: Sep 10, 2010 23:18 IST