Void Within – The Migration of an Albatross into an Unsolicited Province – A Study on the Writings of the Canadian Tamil Writer V.N. Giritharan

[Recently, a conference on canadian writing  was held in the National college , Trichy. Called ‘Canada:A Multitude of Spaces’, the conference was spearheaded by the Indian Association of Canadian Studies. The following paper on V.N.Giritharan’s writings was submitted to the conference by Dr R Dharani.] 

Literature, in a way, is a manifestation of an individual’s or a community’s elusive experiences. A grand procession of happy episodes alone in a life is highly impracticable and astonishing, as life itself is, and in most cases, akin to the tragi-comedies of Shakespeare. However, in the history of literature across the globe, catastrophe gained more attention than romance, chivalry and happy endings. The misfortunes of African- American writers have ever earned them the proper justice. The sorrow-stricken lives of a community who had been intimidated simply because of their ethnic background have been the cause of many social changes in western countries. Of all the complexities of life, the crisis of a survival stands first in the life of any human being. This is not the case with any other living creature in any part of the world. In any piece of literature, it is not uncommon to unearth such a theme intertwined with many other themes. Man struggles to locate a place of his own on this planet to ascertain a sense of identity of his life. Nationality, nativity, society, family, tradition, culture, language are such things endorsing the survival impulse of a man. Depending on the needs, man sets the priority for concepts like nationality, family and other matters.

Literature, being the replica of reality, has been communicating the indispensable impulse of human survival in various forms for ages. The predominant theme of many writings is of life and how to live it. There always appears to be an empty space in the psychic sphere of human beings, specifically in the modern ages. Waging war made the ancients lose their stability in the earlier times.  There are no explicit wars today. Nevertheless, the same kind of callousness makes modern men desperate with the loss of their identity. In the name of Globalization, the entire world shrinks into the palm of a human. However, there is a giant void within the human heart. Such a void shall be discussed here.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Canadian Literature roughly began with the writings of the travelers, explorers and settlers of Canada. There were themes of adventures, landscapes, patriotic fervor of the natives and the reflection of the life style in Canada since the beginning. In the modern times, writers like Bharathi Mukherjee, Michael Ondaatje, Vassanji have moved from the eastern zone to Canada only to settle there for one reason or another. Most of these writers, though known as a group identified as “Writers of Diaspora,” with their spontaneity of expressions in English have virtually turned out to be the natives of Canada.

For many years, Canada has been a safe haven to the Tamil community who had migrated from Sri Lanka. The motive behind the migration was not to just improve the conditions of living or to earn a high salary. Unfortunately, the hunted and tormented Tamils of Sri Lanka, have sought the helping hands of Canada for some political reasons. Toronto has more Tamils than any other major Sri Lankan cities. It would be hard for common people with no such grief to understand the pain and anguish of those who were forced to move from their mother country where they had their strong space of identity.

In Canadian Literature too, it is probable to notice delicate voices of deprived souls who wish to enlighten the world about the plight of being aliens in Canada. One such writer is V.N.Giritharan,  a Sri Lankan based Tamil, who had moved from Sri Lanka to Toronto. “Padivukal” is an internet Tamil e-zine published and edited by  V.N.Giritharan since 2000. He has authored six novels, a grand collection of short stories and poems. In an e-mail interview with V.N.Giritharan, he says “My two novels on my American experience and a few of my short stories have been translated into English by Latha Ramakrishnan. My short stories, novels , poems and articles were published in ‘Thedal’, ‘Thayagam’ , ‘Pothikai’  and a few other Tamil news papers published in Canada. My Tamil short stories were republished by many Tamil weekly newspapers (even without my approval).  A collection of my Tamil poems ‘Eluga Athimanuda’ and  ‘Mannin Kural’ (another collection of poems, essays and a short novel) were published in Toronto Canada. ‘Mannin Kural’ (published by Kumaran Publishers in Chennai), is a collection of my four novels including the one published in Toronto.” He is one of the most vibrant and committed writers of Canada who intends to bring out the issues of Canada and Sri Lanka, but also the essential themes like protecting the environment and the world of Computers. The paper deals with the short stories of V N Giritharan.

It is apparent that V N Giritharan could be recognized as a writer among the Canadian writers, though his writings are translated into English from Tamil. His works deals with the complexities of existing as the “other” in Canada on different planes.  For the research paper, the psychological complexity of existence of the immigrants in Canada, as expressed by the author is discussed. Three short stories namely Husband, Homeless and Mice (translated into English by Latha Ramakrishnan) are taken for the purpose. Basically, all the three short stories deal with different themes at the surface level. However, in the deeper level of analysis, it is to be observed that the author writes his views as a Canadian immigrant through the characters.

In Husband, Sababathi is the protagonist in the story whose situation is best known to the readers by his thought-process. There is no direct conversation at all, except for the one that Sababathi had with his colleague Christina in the Greek restaurant. At the outset, the theme of the story appears to be revolving around the suspicious mind of Sababathi about the past of his gorgeous-looking wife Banumathy. However, there is an intense emotion of suffocation expressed by the protagonist- the misery of being an alien to a refugee land.  The suffocation is the result of the void within his mind – an emptiness produced as he is being dispossessed of his own land. Sababathi thinks, “human animals suffocate within the narrow walls of these concrete jungles.” The contrast, he sees in the weather of Toronto and the climatic conditions of his motherland strikes him very hard.

the yearning to recline near the Navali sand mounds and enjoy watching the fields spread
far and wide, the crownland seashore that could be seen faraway, ‘Kallundai’ space, the
palm girls swaying in  the wind would grip him painfully

In addition to the weather, the immigrant thinks about the drinks that his people used to take in his native land. The comparison of “Panag Kallu’ and ‘Kuranku’ (palmwine and    arrack)”   with Tequila and Marguerita illustrates the plight of Sababathi that he craves to be in his own bucolic space than to be in a sophisticated place of total emptiness. The luxurious drinks do not offer him any console as the memory of his native land does.  He recollects his apprenticeship in a ship where he mingled with people from various other nations. The survival anxiety makes him learn so many new lessons from his acquaintances. In this way, Sababathi acquires a good deal of knowledge about the Greeks – Archimedes, Plato and Aristotle – that he makes use of in the Greek restaurant where he works.

The author attempts to bring out the pathetic condition of the people like Sababathi who are brought to Canada though agents. Both Sababathi and his wife Banu had been uprooted from Sri Lanka, when the situation became too worse to live in. They had to depend on the agents who could almost use them as commodities. This is the real cause of the suspicion in the mind of Sababathi, as he imagines that Banu might have had an affair with the agent who retained her for a month in Singapore in the past. It can be inferred that Sababathi or Banu did not willingly choose Canada to be their refugee land. It was the agent who chose the immigrant country for these unfortunate souls.

The cultural suffocation in the story is another layer of outlook that shows the hollowness of Immigrant existence. Sababathi lives in Toronto, works in a Greek restaurant, moves along with the Canadian people like Christina, but is a typical Indian husband, believing highly in the ethical values of the chastity and loyalty of women towards their husbands. Christina is shocked by this attitude and she refers to the Epic Ramayana:

Did Seetha go to Ravana willingly? If the Epic was written in such a way that the people
suspected her chastity and fidelity but Rama accepted her back whole heartedly with no
doubt whatsoever then Ramayan would’ve been my favorite story. Look us at us. Till we
get married we are living as we please. After marriage we are not bothered about our past
lives. But you Indians, you would go with any number of women. But, your wife should
be chaste and loyal.

This is a blow to the disgusting attitude of a narrow-minded husband who suffers from the disease of suspicion. This cultural suffocation makes Sababthi’s plight much worse. The readers feel sorry for him rather than to be angry with him. The emptiness, a kind of less, or no, space at all around him makes him a pitiable immigrant. Finally, he makes up his mind to welcome his wife with a hot cup of coffee, again a typical Indian attitude.

The story Homeless, as the name suggests, communicates the weirdness of the behavior of an immigrant. The speaker in the story is a working- man who is returning from his daily labour every night. The story is narrated in the first person point of view. The speaker witnesses an African homeless man who diplomatically begs with a plastic container. “On that it was written ‘Clarke for Toronto Mayor’ in English.”  Though stunned by this, the speaker donates two dollars, and tries to shoot questions regarding this odd behaviour. The black man “introduced himself:  “Friend, my name is Clarke, I am standing for the election of Toronto Mayorship.  I am homeless”.”  

This answer reminds the speaker about an  incident in Sri Lanka where the Sri Lankan President once visited a mental asylum, and introduced himself as the Sri Lankan President to one of its patients. He said, “Sir, I too had uttered those words and as a result had been trapped here ever since.  Don’t you dare tell that again to others, that which you have told me now.  Then, you will also suffer the same fate.”  The speaker humorously compares the inmate of the Sri Lankan mental asylum with the homeless African in Canada. He is sympathetic towards the homeless man, as he himself is in the same – a strange albatross to the Canadian mariners.

It is really a startling matter that a homeless immigrant, an outsider, aspires to become the Toronto Mayor, not only for the speaker in the story, but for the readers too. With increased excitement, the author asks him for the reason why he wishes to become a Mayor. The reply is:

“If I were to be seen by the policemen they won’t leave me.  They won’t leave you too. 
But, do you think that such a situation would befall a white-man? The immigrants,
minorities are the ones affected and suffer a lot.  I should help them all. And
that’s why I am going to stand in this Election”

At the outset, the odd behavior of the homeless appears to be comical, as the author himself is reminded of an inmate of a mental asylum. The homeless suffers from a space-less life in a country, which offers more space to the majority. The emptiness of the mind makes the African behave in a mysterious way. The speaker somehow identifies his own self with the homeless, who at least has a space to imagine about his role in the Mayor Elections of Toronto. Moved profoundly by the story of the homeless, the speaker finally passes a comment “Just like this mysterious city, a mysterious man.” 
Mice brings out the philosophical view of the survival impulse of both the author as well as the mouse that torments the family by its mere existence. In a way, the author expresses his existential struggle through the mouse. He uses words like “defeat” and “victory” as if he is in a battlefield. The agony of living with cockroaches and mice is not destined to the elite group of immigrants in Canada. There is a choice in being an immigrant. For the Sri Lankan immigrants, it is an imposed one, as in the case of the mouse. Wherever the mouse could get little food, water and a small hole, it starts occupying the place, not bothered really about the original owner. In the story, the author’s better half is very obstinate in getting rid of the mouse in the apartment.
The author takes the mission in his hand to encounter the mouse in the battlefield. He keeps the trap ready on the dining table with some rice and flour to attract the enemy foe. The author watches each and every movement of the little mouse with awe-stricken eyes. He marvels at the existential ventures that the tiny animal risks for its survival. A sudden enlightenment must have come to the mind that a mouse too needs fortitude to maintain its space. He ponders:
My wife’s grumbling and complaints to find a way to do away with mice came to mind
vaguely. Oh! My foolish woman, don’t these mice also have their family, kids and such
other  relationships, just like us? And, who can say how many lives are there relying on
this one tiny life? Just because it eats a few grains or food particles, say what at all do we

Apart from the humanistic appeal that the author makes, it is obvious that the author relates his own immigrant space as an unwanted visitor of the new land through the story. It is painful to be an unsolicited visitor to a new province.  The mouse escapes the fate of being killed by the author, unlike the albatross that was shot dead by the Ancient Mariner in the poem of S T Coleridge. The inner consciousness of the author wishes to be free of any sort of subjugation.

V N Giritharan shares his views about his short stories as, “The problem of color is a very important issue that one has to face in an immigrant existence. It is something that every immigrant is bound to face.”
The negative space of such immigrants in the alien land makes them an addict to their complex memories. The bliss of motherland memories relieves them with interim space. The immigrants portrayed in the short stories are torn between the present and the past with a query about their future. The present state of their rootless existence chokes them with much pressure from the inside, though they appear to be natural on the outside. The result is that there is a void within. In the case of V N Giritharan, the Canadian Tamil writer, the emptiness he felt in his heart was shaped in the form of stories. He painfully acknowledges that he is not able to forget the travails and traumas of his motherland, and at the same time he could not free himself from the clutches of his new surroundings in a different country.

Giritharan V.N. “Re: Re: A Paper on your work.” Message to Dharani. R.  20 January, 2013 6:33 AM. E-mail.
Giritharan, V N. Trans. Latha Ramakrishnan. Husband. 28 Jan.2013. 
Giritharan, V N. Trans. Latha Ramakrishnan. Homeless. 28 Jan.2013. 
< http://www.geotamil.com/vng/vng_story_homeless.html>. 
Giritharan, V N. Trans. Latha Ramakrishnan. Mice. 28 Jan.2013.  
Giritharan, V N. Trans. Latha Ramakrishnan. My Stories. 28 Jan.2013.  
< http://www.geotamil.com/vng/vng_on_mystories.htm>