L.P. Hartley once famously said that “(t)he past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” One could say the same of childhood. It is in some ways a ‘foreign country’ which, once our entry permits have expired, few adults find easy to re-enter—not because its portals are guarded by Bahirawayas (gate-keepers) who forbid entry but because of the aporetic chasm that marks the border between childhood and adulthood. We may thus gaze with longing upon the elusive and ever-receding outlines of childhood while continuing to feel keenly its many agonies as well as joys, its sounds, smells, tastes and sights, that may linger long after we have forgotten what it means to be a child… Yet re-entering the world of the child, navigating with any degree of confidence its territories, plumbing its surprising depths, and discovering its little-known crevices and nooks, is a gift reserved for the select few.
Prashani Rambukwella belongs to that select few and her journey of discovery begun in Mythil’s Secret continues in her latest work, Asiri’s Quest, which is the sequel to the former. If the spontaneous and unanimous endorsement of the book by my two offspring, is anything to go by, Prashani Rambukwella has got the ‘magic formula’ right, which has earned her already a loyal following among young readers of Sri Lankan English fiction.
I have always wondered: why are adult writers among the best-known writers of children’s literature, be it poetry, drama or fiction? Why don’t children produce good children’s literature and why do children embrace works for children produced by adults? Is it simply that they have only an inadequate grasp of the expressive modes of language and literature? Is it that children with their remarkable ability to be self-absorbed and to remain immersed in the present moment, lack the distance that enables the transmutation of experience into expression? Surely, children should be the best judges of what children like? This is not to suggest children cannot tell stories or, as young literates, write stories. Yet few child authors, though there have been many, have succeeded in cultivating a mass readership among their own peers! Indeed, ever since ‘children’s literature’ in English emerged as a sub-genre in its own right in the English speaking world of the 19th century, it is adult writers who have captured and held the most appeal among children. As for Sri Lankan literature in English, there have been few writers to date who have created a name for themselves as authors of children’s literature though Nihal de Silva made a start in Paduma Meets the Sunbird and the Perera-Hussein Publishing House encourages it with their imprint carrying the enticing title Popsicle Books. In that sense, Prashani Rambukwella might arguably be the first Sri Lankan author of Fiction in English for children, her popularity among her target audience of children attesting to her success in the genre.
So what is a definition of children’s literature? Is it stories for children or, as things are, stories that adults share with children, the second of which underscores the role of the adult in what children read or get to read? Whatever the definition, it is a fact that some stories for children were originally meant for adults such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe; it is also a fact that some stories for children are enjoyed by adults, the best example being the Harry Potter series. Asiri’s Quest, in my opinion, appeals to adults as well as to children for Asiri’s is a quest to recover the lost connection with his friend Sena, a quest made difficult, if not impossible, by Sena’s ‘fall’ into adulthood which entails a suppression, if not erasure, of the wondrous capacity of the child to break free of adult-determined borders between the ‘real’ and ‘non-real’ and to let his/her imagination roam free.
It is a story where the worlds of children and adults clash and where the hegemony, if not the autocracy, of adults stand unmasked and a clash from which children do not always emerge unscathed. To read Asiri’s Quest as an adult, a reading that I highly recommend, is to pause and to rethink one’s own relationships with the children or young people in your life!
But what would it be like to read Asiri’s Quest as a young person? What might be its appeal to the young? The story involves a young boy named Mythil and his friend Asiri, a yaka. The story of how they come to be friends is narrated in the first book, Mythil’s Secret. Mythil, an only child living alone with his mother because his father works abroad in Hong Kong, is something of a loner, sensitive and imaginative, and for that reason prone to being bullied by stronger peers. His closest friend is Asiri, a yaka who endears itself to the reader for its antics and its personality (yes, this yaka has one!)—mischievous, sensitive, temperamental. The story revolves around Asiri’s desire to find its ‘human’ friend of yore, Sena, of whom it had caught a glimpse accidentally in a newspaper, and Mythil’s efforts to help Asiri recover its lost friend. As Mythil the strategist devises ways to find Sena, Asiri narrates in snatches the story of how and why Sena has come to be so special to him, a narration which transports both Mythil and the reader to Ceylon in the 1940s.
Though they do finally locate Sena, the story does not end on the note of wish-fulfillment familiar to the readers from the fairytales. Though Asiri and Sena meet, and though Asiri is successful in momentarily reigniting Sena’s memory by playing a prank that is reminiscent of a game from their days together, Sena acknowledges the bond only briefly. He is aware of his loss but seems resigned to the trade-off that that loss entails. However, though the recovery of the lost connection proves to be difficult, if not impossible, the quest strengthens the bond between Mythil and Asiri, the young boy who had shown himself willing to help his friend in his hour of need.
What makes Asiri’s Quest children’s literature is that it accepts without question the child’s world at face value. The world of Mythil is not an “imagined world” in the strictest sense of the world: that is, it is not one that strictly differentiates between a ‘real’ world and a ‘never-never land’ that only an imaginative child may enter and experience as with “Jack and the Beanstalk”—a world only available to the rest on hearsay. In Asiri’s Quest, the world of yakas co-exist with that of the human; even a handful of adults such as the Veda Mahattaya and Gurunnanse, that is, the yakaeduras or kattadiyas, can call the yakas at will to do their bidding. So when Mythil is bullied by Horrid Harith, Asiri intervenes to set things right; when Sena is about to depart without any signs of recollection, Asiri will trigger recollection by showering hot chillies on Sena to jog his memory; a yaka has taken residence in an empty plot down the lane to keep watch over Mythil. The imagined world of Asiri’s Quest then is not confined to the imagination of one boy; it reminds us how infinitely expandable imagination itself is, like the universe, if only we would relax well enough to loosen the hold of cold logic which blunts our senses. Thus it chips away at the strict differentiation of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, nature and super-nature, which is, to a large degree, a post-Enlightenment disposition. As Hamlet told Horatio in Hamlet, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It is a sobering lesson for us adults.
Asiri’s Quest, along with Mythil’s Quest, is a landmark work of Sri Lankan English fiction for another reason: it is the first work of Sri Lankan literature in English for children that is recognizably ‘Sri Lankan.” Here I realize I am on dangerous ground for I risk being labelled an ‘authenticity junkie’ for saying this. Yet that is not what I mean. I am not claiming Asiri’s Quest to be ‘authentically’ SriLankan for in our multi-lingual and multi-cultural society that is perhaps harder than finding kalunika (an extremely rare tree type).What I mean is that the book evokes the sounds, sights, tastes and smells of Sri Lanka—from the very first scene where Mythil accidentally spills the dhal, maellung and rice of his lunch box to the single parent household where he lives (a life-style becoming ever more ordinary due to the increasing migrations of parents abroad for employment), to his encounter with Asiri the yaka, a being that Rambukwella is careful to note is an “ancient nature spirit” (not coincidentally named Asiri which means “Blessing”) so as to distinguish it from the more familiar ‘(d)evil’, the arch-enemy of Go(o)d, from Judeo-Christian mythology.
This is important because the young readers of English fiction in Sri Lanka, exposed from a young age as they are to material—written, auditory, visual–from the culturally dominant “western” world, may otherwise confuse the yaka with the devil, especially since the terms are commonly used equivalents for each other in translation between the languages of Sinhala and English. In that sense, Rambukwella hints at the different cultural universes inhabited by Sinhala and English. In her story, the yakas are not blood-thirsty carnivores, they do not subsist on food and drink; they are afraid of metal, something that I remember my mother telling us when we were young. Alliances between yakas and humans thus do not carry the same connotation of the unholy as a pact with the devil does. The Bahirawayas who guard the portals into ‘other’ worlds; the ‘un-dead’ who inhabit these worlds awaiting rebirth in the future; people gifted with the special sense to see and communicate with yakas… through these details, Rambukwella introduces her young readers within the portals of a cultural universe, albeit a Sinhala [Buddhist] one, that might be increasingly inaccessible for them due to the dominance of English literature and culture culled from the “western” metropolises that would make it perfectly normal for them to take an apple to the teacher and long for cucumber sandwiches! Here, Rambukwella nudges her young readers towards recognizing the multi-cultural world they live in and to see themselves reflected in a mirror that is bi-, if not multi-cultural.
The world of Asiri’s Quest is not just multi-cultural, it is multi-lingual. It recognizes the influences of many languages, including Sinhala, on our (Lankan) English, especially today when speakers of English in Sri Lanka may have access to more than one variety of English due to radio and TV, internet, international schools and travel. The characters of the novel switch with ease therefore from American to British to Lankan English as evident from “one tough lady,” “loser” and “higgledy piggledy” to “five more minutes, Children”. Of course, I would have wanted Rambukwella to include more Sinhala phrases and dialogue segments in speech situations where Sinhala would indeed be the language used but I am aware of the translational difficulties this may entail since she is not writing for an exclusively Sinhala-English bilingual readership. It creates a world where the seemingly ancient, the world of yakas, co-exists with the new as evidenced by computers, internet, skype and “magnetic force fields.” This is indeed the milieu our children inhabit in today’s world. Of course, keeping in mind that this is fiction intended for a young audience, the author subtly inserts desirable morals and values: the bane of bullying, corporeal punishment and child labour; the possibility of creating alternative families; and the need to look beyond outer appearances to discover the inner beauty of people. It uses the story of Asiri and Sena to impart some much-needed historical facts about the Second World War era Ceylon in an age when children appear to lose more and more of a sense of history.
As I mentioned earlier, the book does not end on the euphoric high of the traditional fairytale; nor does it carry the finality of the traditional tale. Though Sena makes a contribution to Asiri’s story, the writer never confirms that this is indeed his story which thereby completes the one begun by Asiri. But the story is not pessimistic for this reason. Asiri may have lost a friend in Sena but he has gained another in Mythil. What is more, this is not the end of the saga of Mythil and Asiri. The story hints, towards the end, that other stories are awaiting narration. Let me hazard a guess: the story of the yaka Diyes, who in a way is Mythil’s ‘guardian yaka’? “Another adventure for another day,” says Mythil on the last page. And that should make Rambukwella’s young readers happy. They will be watching out for it, I am sure!
Asiri’s Quest has been approved as a school library book by the Ministry of Education.
(The reviwer is attached to the Dept. of English, University of Peradeniya)