Ameena Hussein’s first collection of short stories Fifteen released in 1999 is reissued with a brand new cover but the stories are as relevant and fresh as ever eighteen years later!
I went in with my eyes wide open, knowing the subject would be dark, unaware of the treatment of it by this woman with a dazzling smile who asked me to review it within an hour of meeting her. Growing up in India, some latitudes north of the Sri Lankan civil war, meant it had remotely touched me as a child and teenager through political rhetoric, waves of radiated human anguish and the assassination of a Prime Minister, but beyond that, I was a clean slate. What I was unprepared for, was how much Nayomi Munaweera’s labour of love would demand from me as a human bystander, make me invest in the lives of its characters and their teardrop-shaped country, draw me in and make me stay, in spite of the savagery around me. There are novels you breeze through, nod “Good read”, and move on. Pick up Island of a Thousand Mirrors only if you’re willing to carry it within you for life. Crafted in present tense and delightfully crisp sentences, one is busy falling in love with the emerald isle and the language used to sketch it, pretending nothing untoward will ever happen on this idyll where Munaweera’s father grew up. But that is the curse of history and hindsight: we’re forced to look back over our shoulder and bear witness to its horrors. In the creation of drama, several authors rely on words of deafening thunder and grandiose landscapes of pain. Nayomi Munaweera makes you do the work, as her sentences play supporting roles in a beguilingly simple manner: her descriptions exquisitely gut-wrenching, her voice matter-of-fact, she draws out your blood, your angst, your despair at being human, like a literary shaman. This searing debut, so beautiful it hurts, is pyrotechnics and poetry. Award-worthy, absolutely, but ultimately, so deeply enriching that you’ll be infinitely poorer for giving it a miss.
Available at all leading bookstores at Rs. 1000. Reviewed by DilNavaz Bamboat
Among the heart wrenching tales of war torn Sri Lanka, heroic memoirs of migration into foreign lands and recollections of a distant colonial past, emerges a new genre of Sri Lankan writing; the now, the present, the residue of what generations have left behind. This includes depictions of the modern Sri Lankan lifestyle complete with warped values and confused identities, the ever-present conflict of social class and the gradual evolvement of a lost generation. This is what Karen Roberts so intriguingly captures in her latest novel The Lament of the Dhobi Woman, published in 2010.
Set in modern day Colombo, the story becomes familiar to the reader in the way it captures the reality of the lifestyle and social morals which have evolved over the past decade. In Roberts narrative Catrina, a creative, passionate young girl recollects memories and incidents in her childhood and early adulthood and speaks of her strong bond with her maid and caretaker Seelawathie, a woman she begins to regard as her own mother. Among many other ideas, I find identity a strong theme that emerges throughout the novel. Identity can be approached here in many angles; Cat’s strong identity towards Seelawathie as opposed to her own mother opens our eyes into the reality of how children are alienated from the traditional family unit and in Cat’s case, her upbringing was handed over to somebody else merely days after her birth. Being subject to an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, Cat’s mother Sarla does not feel the need to bond with her third daughter, placing more importance on improving her social life, hosting and attending parties and mingling among the crème of Colombo’s society.
Nonetheless, I feel that Sarla’s own misshapen identity is not merely a reflection of her luxurious lifestyle and social status which has been handed down to her through birth, but is also a result of her mixed ancestry, linked to Sri Lanka’s colonial past. Upon hearing that her two older daughters have met two Swiss brothers, she is thrilled, stating to her husband, “We can finally lighten the brown a bit, darling.” Her disregard for her Sri Lankan part of her lineage is addressed by her daughter’s own narrative;
“Unlike some people who were half white and wore their colour like a badge of shame because someone, somewhere, had succumbed to a white man, my mother wore her light green eyes and pale skin proudly. In fact, she would have been perfectly happy to forget the Ceylonese part of her heritage altogether…”
Here we see a woman’s refusal to accept her Sri Lankan identity but we are not told why. It is perhaps due to the unfamiliarity and alienation she feels towards Sri Lanka, as seen among a lot of the youth growing up in Colombo, with their worlds being cut off from wider spectrum of Sri Lankan traditions, ideas and morals. Such detachment undoubtedly could have been passed down to her daughter Cat, had it not been for Seelawathie’s strong influence in her life.
In Cat’s early memories of her childhood, we see that she naturally fits better and identifies with Seelawathie’s simple yet affectionate world than her mother’s glamorous world. She gives a beautiful recollection of her early memories of Seelawathie- which brings out the gentleness of Seelawathie’s care as well as the love and warmth they felt around each other:
“When I woke up, my nostrils sought the smell of coconut oil and my baby powder which she used when no one was looking. My face rested comfortably against the safety pins used to keep her blouse closed. Her cheeks, when she rubbed them against mine, never hurt my brand new, transparent skin.”
I find such recollections insightful not only in terms of understanding how young children return their love to the nannies and caretakers who themselves are young adults but also how a society has emerged in which raising their own children is not a priority to parents but rather promises to be a burden and hindrance to their careers and social lives.
Roberts addresses issues of class and social status very subtly in her novel. In Cat’s description of her mother’s friends living in Colombo 7, with elegant houses down streets that, “reeked of a colonial hangover”, I find a more than a hint of satire in the tone which is used to describe Colombo’s elite society. Although not willingly being a part of her mother’s extravagant lifestyle, Cat is nonetheless associated with the notion of high society and wealth, as we see when she accompanies Seelawathie to her village. Seelawathie who is usually uncared for by her relatives is treated with respect now that she had “brought the rich Colombo baby home”. Roberts’ careful description of people in different situations subtly hints at wider concerns such as Sri Lanka’s ever-present class consciousness.
When considering Roberts’ other novels, I find a recurring theme which adds both intrigue as well as scandal to her stories: the forbidden affair. In her first novel The Flower Boy set in pre-independence Ceylon, we see a shocking affair between a British planter and his maid. In July, a heart-rending revelation of the events that occurred during the July 1983 riots in Colombo, Roberts portrays a passionate yet forbidden affair between a Sinhalese girl and her Tamil neighbour.
In The Lament of the Dhobi Woman, Seelawathie is seduced by Cat’s uncle Rick, but the affair is short lived and ends in a pregnancy and Uncle Rick’s disappearance back into his own perfect world while Seelawathie is shunned from the household forever. This particular affair plays its own distinct role in the novel, bringing out the strong image of a distorted, hypocritical society. It is Cat’s bitter reaction to her family’s handle on the issue that truly brings out the insincerity and double standards present in the society she was brought up in;
“We didn’t blame ourselves for anything. We are blameless. Rich, therefore blameless….We didn’t usually impregnate the hired help but if we did, we blamed them for daring to get pregnant by rich people like us.”
In this light, I find Roberts’ novel to be a strong satire on Colombo’s rich elite society; what is different here is the fact that the cynicism and judgement comes from Cat herself who lives among such people, but has managed to resist their influence. Roberts’ story telling is natural and gripping in its own simple way. All her storylines and locations are carefully picked to compliment the subtle messages she wished to convey to her readers. Similar to Ru Freeman’s The Disobedient Girl, The Lament of the Dhobi Woman picks up on issues which are most often swept under the rug: the hushed-about, hidden tales of the domestic help- their treatment, difficulties and their inevitable fate. It is a novel of satire, reality and most importantly, reflection. Throughout all her novels, Karen Roberts succeeds in holding a mirror towards society, giving us beautiful tales of things we missed out, things we have forgotten and things we will never see.
Chalani Ranwala is studying International Communications with Literature and Language at University of Nottingham in Malaysia.
There must be lots of others like myself, who have no literary pretensions, yet who enjoy and respond to poetry. Not always, in my case, for I have to confess I feel out of my depth with some kinds of modern verse.
I have the temerity to try to express my appreciation of Yvonne’s poems only because they have a quality that speaks to my heart and mind. Most of them are evocative and moving, while others bring a smile of recognition of their purport. All invite the reader to go along with the flow of memories in which the poet recaptures, with restraint, the felt experience of a particular event or time.
When our friendship first blossomed over 60 years ago, I knew Yvonne as an accomplished pianist. The gift was clearly in her fingers and her sensitive interpretation of classical music. It was only much later that the poetic impulse which must surely have been gestating within her for years, emerged to reveal this other unsuspected, latent talent so evident in her first published book, “A Divisive Inheritance,.” that was received with immediate acclaim by reviewers and readers alike..
Now, as I turn the pages of her second book of poems published quite some time after the first, I feel that the promise shown there is more than fulfilled in this volume.
Since, to some extent, we have a shared past, I feel an instant response within me to some of the memories and images she conjures us. If there is a single theme that dominates Yvonne’s work, it is the recurring emotion that thoughts of home (Sri Lanka), bring to the fore despite her having lived half her life in distant climes.
The pull of her Motherland is clearly seen, yet without cloying sentimentality or paeans of praise to its scenic beauty.
“Gone Away” is one of these. There is a touch of humour as when she recalls the tiresomeness of her brothers “monopolising the aural sensibilities with cricket scores from outer space” drove her to the fruit trees in the garden.
“……I could choose from
a prodigal bounty, glinting gold-flecked
guavas, until the gripe smote me down.”
And at the end, quite unexpectedly, the stark question:
“Who was it then who turned
our Paradise into a minefield?”
A “Portrait of Three Children” evokes a smile. I recognise the three who comprise the trio as Yvonne and the two brothers, Ronnie and Brad, who were next to her, posing for a formal photograph of childhood. Knowing the two siblings who grew up to be highly-respected adults, it is amusing to read that they were
“dressed to look like little Lord Fauntleroy.
their heads brushed `cuckoo’ with curls”.
The last stanza says it all:
“I felt like Cinderella placed between the two
but these were familiar scenarios:
for the power struggles had been clearly defined
to create our future cricket heroes.”
The several poems that hark back to childhood – “To the Waterfall”, “The Elkaduwa Road”, “Running Down Judge’s Hill”, “The Flame Trees of Uvaketawela” – strike a responsive chord in me. In “The Rains Camed to Wattegama” there is evidence of Yvonne’s gift for vivid imagery when she writes how the
“eddies and currents of the friendliest of waterfalls ran like deranged satyrs do….”.
And the same poem brings out her sensitivity to beauty even in the midst of desolation when she writes:
“………. In the
muddiest pools of the Elkaduwa Road
(indifferent to the mourning and the shadows),
there rose with a singular nonchalance, clusters
of incomparable blue, dreamlike flowers:
the water hyacinths had bloomed.”
The poem, “Harbour Lights”, written in 2010 after an evening on the terrace of the Mount Lavinia Hotel, gain captures her heart’s preoccupation with the country of her birth.
Her sensitive soul is not indifferent to the insurrections in the South and the war in the North that have devastated her land. There is the moving “Farewell to a Young Soldier” In “Non Pareil”, written after a visit to Horton Plains in 1988, a reference to the, “tiny, yellow-speckled butterflies,
compulsively dancing to their doom
in a seasonal pilgrimage to Samanalakande,” is followed by the lines:
“Today it seems that wild-eyed young men
sprouting beards and revolution
often lurk in these wooded places,
driven by the Fates & Furies to flutter
blindly forward and dash their brains,
(like the tiny yellow-speckled butterflies)
on the state’s monolithic visage”.
A poignant sonnet records in a few carefully chosen words and phrases, “A Private Funeral” (that of her husband, Charlie, in 2007):
“There was music, poetry and recorded pirith,
red roses, perfumed the space with
which we honoured the living
image of you: sufficient to remember all
life’s patterns, the days shifting illusions, the
value of impermanence.”
Another piece that spoke to my heart was “Anil’s Garden”, a spontaneous response to a friend’s garden in Cambridge where, again, the felicity of her words instantly conjures up the essence of its appeal.
“……………..An evening when
summer’s late roses burst their
velvet-coiffured heads in secret conclave”
And, “Years on, I shall return and, petal
by petal,.root by root, cell by cell,
wring out of my narrowing tunnel vision.
the edges crusting with memory’s scurf,
your Cambridge garden.”
The temptation is to linger and to quote more. I hope I have said enough to entice the reader to want to savour these poems for herself/himself. A rich reward awaits her/him.Let me end with just one more, from “Waiting for Spring” (in Geneva, 1990)
“The same hand that comes from nowhere will caress the earth’s brittle ice-edged crust, until it gives way to the fledgling debutantes:
a myriad cluster of buds from the almond’s dawn-blush to the sun’s first dazzle,
skimming the water’s frozen depths; to faint whispers from the willows
heard gathering their new-found strengths.”
Book facts: Yvonne Gunawardena’s “Harbour Lights –More Collected Poems”. (Bay Owl, Rs.700). Reviewed by Anne Abayasekara
Estuary, by Australian author Sam Bunny, is a tale of people living in the shadow of war. It is an ambitious story that spans two generations and moves between Melbourne, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
It is the story of Mac, whose father is killed in Vietnam War just days after his birth, and who is abandoned by his mother. He is raised by his uncle – who the novel simply calls Uncle – himself a Vietnam vet who bares the physical and emotional scars of his experiences there. Mac grows up and falls in love with Uluru a Sri Lankan girl with her own experiences of a different war – the civil war in Sri Lanka. Together Mac and Uluru travel to Sri Lanka during the ceasefire of the early two thousands, and begin to build a new life for themselves.
Sri Lankan readers will be particularly interested by this outsider’s view of the country. To Mac Sri Lanka is beautiful and exotic but also poisoned by war and by poverty. There are mentions of corruption at various levels of society and of the complicated politics of the country. However there are also descriptions of the generosity of poor people and of deep, lasting friendships Mac and Uluru make with some of the Sri Lankans they meet here. But then events threaten to destroy the new life they have planned….
The novel also tells the story of Uncle and Mariela, Mac’s adopted parents who meet and fall in love during the Vietnam War.
This has the feel of a first novel of a promising writer. Bunny’s writing is evocative whether describing the battlefields of Vietnam or the beaches of Sri Lanka. His characters are well drawn out and likeable. All in all it makes an entertaining read.
reviewed by Ruveka Attygalle
Estuary is published by Bay Owl Press 2011, paperback, 267 pages, Rs 1100,
He built us a house
on a mean strip of
querulous land. In its
deep foundation’s flesh
we buried a jar of jewels:
said to ward off the evil eye!
from Dream House
Why has it been difficult to write of this novel, In the same boat, slight in frame and simple and direct in approach? While I finished the novel in one go, whenever I sat down to write about it, it proved a difficult task. Of course from the beginning I knew it was not going to be easy writing about the book. Despite the simple and direct approach of Channa’s writing, my feelings about the novel were far from being simple and direct. The writing churned up, like the waters of the story, so many personal and pressing memories of our political landscape of the past and the present, of the globe and of the nation. While the novel is simple and direct, my response itself is necessarily circuitous and non linear. In 1986, around the time I received a TA position at the University of British Columbia, Canada and my application for a student visa was gently refused by the Canadian Authorities, with a recommendation to apply later, a boatful of people, mainly Sri Lankan Tamils, crossed the several seas separating Sri Lanka from the American continent and reached the shores of Canada. It was both a legal and illegal tour (de force). On hearing of this, a friend, half jokingly (only half) remarked that I should have got on that same boat, instead of applying to the Canadian embassy. This was my earliest personal encounter with the prospect of crossing borders under desperate situations. For me, ‘higher studies’ was a desperate life saving pursuit. Later, at the height of the war, friends, family and persons we encountered in our daily lives, those who laboured in and around our homes, places of work, jumped into these ships, fleeing terror of many sorts, particularly the slow destitution that was taking hold of the north (east and other parts of the country). The trend continues and it concerns not just Sri Lankans, but many others. It is a part of the way the world is made up. Why go to Australia and Canada in leaky boats? If we take the story of pure and simple imperialism of the west European kind, crossing borders is an integral part of the colonial mapping of the world; the adventures of Captain Cook, a Columbus or Vasco da Gama are the terrible illegality of the boundary breaking stories of those who got on unseaworthy boats. But that was the story of victors and quickly gained legitimacy. Speaking of illegal waters and unseaworthy boats, between 1990-95 fleeing family crossed the kilali lagoon in the north of Sri Lanka, separating the Jaffna peninsula from the rest of the country, in a string of make shift boats tied together to save on fuel, to enter government controlled areas, illegally. What does one call the routes taken by roughly 80-100, 000 northern Muslims evicted by the LTTE in 1990? Today, resettlement programmes by the government reassert and resituate another sense of legality and illegality. And thousands displaced have become illegal citizens within the contours of one’s own national identification.
Border crossing, illegally arrived at, is another way by which we possess boundaries, draw colonial and postcolonial maps. Channa’s evocative novel raises precisely this question. Very broadly the story narrates the fate of a handful of desperate people leaving their home country. They are led by the human trafficker, enigmatically called Red Cap (because he dons a red cap on his head) and encounter on their way various different personalities that form the political and war infused mosaic of our society; the local commander of the patrolling navy of the country, the rebel leader and his troop of gun toting men, fighting against the state, different characters who give life to the collectivity of the people in the boat, including a girl child with a kitten and a stowaway, and a passing ship that could rescue the people in the leaking boat as it drifts on in the high seas. The story set in mid sea for the most part, literally, metaphorically and allegorically breaks through the boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, citizenship to create a world that is seemingly beyond nation, states and identities. In a world, bound and contained by borders, the seas without borders hold out a terrible and tragic promise of legality for the illegal migrants. They belong nowhere and everywhere. The boat people are citizens of no country and yet it is precisely the quest for citizenship in a country, a state, that drives the dreams and dreaming of the people trapped inside the fishing trawler, falling apart. But the drama of this paradox is not uplifting like Robinson Crusoe’s ingenuity or enchanting like the flight into the exotic of Lord of the Rings by Tolkien or Narnia by C. S. Lewis. The stories of the fleeing refugees and their incessant waiting for rescue is a counter allegory of the colonial mapping of the world. To quote from the introductory section of the novel:
They knew they were not leaving the beauty above but the tragedy below. War hunger and death. Calamities that had gnawed away at their will to endure. Miseries that haunted their lives and tortured their souls. Everybody had a breaking point and they had reached theirs. They were leaving that misery, like many others before them and many others after them. In a boat, across the ocean, heading for lands they had only heard of. (9)
These words written in the most formal and elegant prose of its kind could be part of a colonial narrative, about impoverished Europeans setting out to the new world in search of warmer, greener pastures, of freedom and free land. At first, I was a bit frustrated by the formal tone of the novel. But as I proceeded, I quickly discovered to my surprise that the narrative demanded a contained and formal prose. I also discovered the way the text bound itself within a narrative linearity of voyage, seeking, dreaming and hoping. The significations of the work are entangled in this paradoxical narrative and counter narrative of the colonial story of migration and the postcolonial tragedy of displacement, asylum hunting, illegal travel, of being called wogs, wetback, kallathoni and boat people. It is in that sense a counter narrative of the conventional colonial theme of voyage, discovery and adventure in general. The novel could be read as a parable. The name red cap itself has the air of a parable about it. The parable like quality is heightened by the fact that the most moral or ethical person in the story is thrown overboard to lighten the load on the leaking ship. The Jonah like figure cannot but be read allegorically and Biblically. But the moral of the story is neither dichotomous nor simple. The child with the pussy cat , both symbols of innocence, are lost in the sea with the others. It is their vulnerability that underpins their story, not a prelapsarian motif of innocence. The voyage consistently turns away from pathos, romanticism and sentimentality to draw a picture, literally a visual image of the harshness of human survival. It is not a duel between good versus bad, but a story of a people, already rendered bad, illegal and a voyage deemed illegitimate from the very beginning by those controlling land and water. On the other hand, those fleeing the controls of authority too are implicated by those very same boundaries of nationality and citizenship, of what is legal and legitimate and the illegitimate. They too are implicated in the politics of the border control and voyaging. Nobody is innocent here. What is their struggle then? Is it a struggle for legitimacy? Is it for redemption and if so what exactly is the content of that redemption? What makes the novel poignant resides not so much in its awesome tragic conclusion as in its politics of bearing that endows it with a certain kind of legitimacy— the act of reading about the people who are In the Same Boat.
When I began on the novel, I wondered about why the writer gave the story an aura, the texture of the universal. Why does he not just go ahead and name the rebel group, why isn’t the stowaway, a Tamil, but just a nameless other shunned by the rest of the people in the boat? In other words, why does he not call the people Sri Lankans? I had read Channa’s first two novels, Walls and Distant Warriors and I automatically expected a realist novel with a clearly spelt out, distinctive, social location. Realizing that I was approaching the entire thing wrong, I resolved to read it as an allegory, a parable and a story about people, boat people anywhere, everywhere. An allegory at one level is universal. It is seemingly free of the shackles of politics, nation, gender and ethnicity. It is (seemingly) free of the shackles of belonging to a country. But continuing to read, I was bedeviled by the narrative’s own urge for roots, again and again. We cannot locate ourselves outside of our own national or transnational roots and routes. In other words, one cannot read the novel as a disinterested reader of an adventure story. The impossibility of realizing the novel as universal and not about Sri Lanka, resides not just within me, but within the contours of the novel too. It suddenly struck me with remarkable and revealing force, how I, as reader and Channa as writer, are tragically bound together to a poetics of the postcolonial. Its borders and boundaries neither of us can escape, nor can the novel. For all that we may dare, we just cannot, fortunately, assume the neutral tone of the allegorical: duels between good and bad (or Christian and Saracen) ; what we have then is a paradox- a tale woven and textured by the social and the universal, the political and the human and the national and the global.
Postcolonial fancy and the flight of humanity
The novel can be read as a counter narrative of the colonial voyage. But if colonial allegories are a celebration of power, there is nothing to celebrate about. In the Same Boat. It is not even a postcolonial response to colonial power. This is its ultimate strength. It is unromantic and unsentimental, even in some of its more tender moments, like that of the child seeking the whereabouts of the kitten she had brought on board or in the more horrifying ones , like the spraying of an ‘insubordinate’ passenger by the rebel leader, with bullets. A remarkable feature of its textuality is its refusal to produce a ‘human’ alternative to the political dilemma of nations and nationalities, borders and boundaries. There are predictable features. The patrolling navy leader can be easily bribed. But unlike the leader of the navy, who is only too real, the leader of the rebels is surreal. No less greedy than the commander of the navy patrol, he is a ruthless killer to boot. I was happy to note that Channa did not indulge in any romanticisation of the violence of the rebels. What makes the leader of the rebels drawn in remarkably statuesque terms so spectacular a figure has to do with ambivalently allegorical reference point for the portrayal. The astonishing figure of the deformed leader sitting cross legged without legs, Buddha like, cries out for comparison with Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the fraught problematic epic novel about colonial ventures in Africa. Such intertextuality once again bedevils the categories of allegory, politics, personal and the literary. It is not that I make any pronouncement on the writer’s self conscious spin off on Marlow in Heart of Darkness. The significance of the comparison I draw lies in the question: how does one dissolve the colonial adventure story or the character building stories of colonial travel writing into that of a tragic story about the inward looking violence of the postcolonial? How do you portray the border figure of the guerilla leader, who is merciless, does possess authority over territory and yet makes claims of fighting against power and territorial possession? How does one capture the terrible paradox of that admixture of resistance and domination in the allegorical present? For me, the deformed figure of the leader presents to us a moment of flight, and that flight is just momentary, fleeting and intangible. To quote the passage introducing the leader:
At their feet, on the deck, was the man who appeared to be their leader. A man with a large, riotous beard and long, wild hair he first appeared to be sitting cross legged on the deck, the way people sat down to meditate. Then they saw that both his legs were missing below the thighs that ended in fleshy stumps. On closer look they could also see that he even had all the fingers in his left hand missing, making it possible for him to hold his gun only with his right hand. Seeing the astonishment in the face of the people on the boat, the rebel leader laughed, Don’t look so stunned, he said. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen a cripple! You are not running away for nothing are you? (30)
Let me press the comparison with Heart of Darkness a bit more. Heart of Darkness plunges us into a world of inhumanity that is at the heart of the colonial endeavour; and of course its colonial paradigm locates the heart of inhumanity within the core of what is seen as Africa. Marlow’s passage to Africa and down the Congo is about the illegality of colonialism, in a counter move. But unlike Conrad’s work, In the Same Boat cannot easily posit a named protagonist. This allegory is able to work only with nameless people. In the place of the moral Buddha like figure of Marlow, we have Red Cap. Red Cap is a despicable character, but is less objectionable than Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Definitely the voyage is less illegal than Belgium’s inglorious expeditions in the Congo. It is not a decisive protagonist like Marlow that we have in this narrative, but a whole lot of nameless people sailing toward a country whose name they do not know. Red cap is not the narrator. But his narrative, his story, is so entwined with that of the others that he suffers the same tragic fate. Their voyage is not down the river, but is on the high seas. They sail up the sea toward light, welcoming shores and civilization that would give them refuge and not down the river toward darkness and the horror of uncivilisation. They do not lose their humanity on the voyage as happens with Kurtz. They had already lost their human status before the journey. They have no country. In the literally astonishing figure of the rebel leader one gets a sense of the prescientic and the prophetic. ‘Madam, I have seen as many heroes as orphans. And they are all dead’ says the leader in response to a passenger’s query about heroes. And it is death that would haunt them till the end of their short and perilous journey.
The allegorical present
If I may be allowed to go back to my preliminary musings on today’s crisis and contradictions of border crossing, I would like to conclude with just one point of departure. Even as I was reading In the same boat, the Australian government was featuring an advertisement demonstrating the evil and deceptive ways of the ‘agent’, the trafficker in human commodity, on Sri Lankan media, including the television. Telecast, as I understand, only on ‘Nethra’, the Tamil channel of the state broadcasting station, the message is simple: We are powerful enough to air this advertisement of disgusting appeal, complete with bad acting and melodramatic setting. The advertisement would make a good example for the study of popular visual media. As Barthes might say, it is a case of sheer semiotic bliss. But I will keep to the point here. Not only was the advertisement disgustingly predatory, like those charity ads about poverty in Ethiopia, but was also demonstrative of the power of the state, both of Australia and Sri Lanka, acting in tandem to protect their borders and their sovereignty. In the same boat captures this dilemma of state control and paternal authority faced by transgressive postcolonial subjects. We are all caught, refugee and authority alike, in the rhetoric of sovereignty and nationality, man, woman, self and the other. We are all ‘in the same boat’. ‘We may have all come on different boats; but we are in the same boat now’; these words attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. are not really about existing material reality, but are in actuality, an offer of hope. In a generous gesture of solidarity, he offers the hand of friendship to the oppressor. It is that visionary sense that is glaringly lacking in the narratives celebrating sovereignty, territorial control and conquest. When I quoted King’s words to Channa, he quipped, ‘Not yet. We are not in the same boat yet.’ Marlow in Heart of Darkness could stay in the shadows of the Thames at the end of it all. But for those contesting the borders of authority, as minority narrative subjects, there is no protective shade or deceptive silence that could give them hope. Avenging nature sweeps over the terrible calamity of what we know as manhood and humanity.
Sivamohan Sumathy is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of English, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. This article was previously published in TransCurrents
Channa Wickramasekera teaches in Australia and has been involved in raising awarenesss toward a non-violent and just solution to the National Question in Sri Lanka. He has published several works of fiction and on history and is currently working on a monogaph on the first phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka ( 1976 – 1987)
MILK RICE: STORIES FOR CHILDREN (VARIOUS AUTHORS)
As a child back then I grew up on a diet of Enid Blytons. They were fun to read, always had the best adventures (and the best food!) but in retrospect always a little removed from my reality. It’s good to know that today there are books like Milk Rice, with stories a lot more close to home, written by Sri Lankan authors.
Milk Rice is a collection of nine short stories written by a variety of authors- new and established- appealing to kids from the age of 9 to 12. What I appreciate most about these stories is that they respect a child’s intelligence and awareness. They were well-written, and most of them dealt with pertinent themes like war, ethnic conflict, and social inequality – realities children on this island in their own way, know only too well.
Almost all the stories had a moral at the end. At times the moral was clear cut as in the case of Lal Medawattegedera’s story A Cat, a Rat and a Snake about non-violence and mutual respect. At times the lessons at the end are more subtle. The opening story Meetings by Faith Rathnayake is one such example that talks about the way we value things in life. Even Metamorphosis by Lolita Subasinghe was a simple story, about the respect for life. I especially liked its understated and poignant ending. One of my favorites in the collection was a story titled Josehp’s Letter by Simon Harris. It almost flowed like a film and was tragic and inspiring at the same time and explored not just a bitter reality like child soldiers, but also ideals like cross-border friendships and doing what you can to make a difference in the lives of people.
Milk Rice is a wonderful gift to give a child- a gift in more ways than one.
Available at all bookshops and on the website: http://www.ph-books.com
Being, and feeling, double the age of the author, I wonder if I’m qualified to review this book. Novels weren’t like this in my day. Where’s the plot? Where’s the character development? Where are the descriptive passages? At least it has chapters – eight of them, but all sub-divided into short sections, some little more than half a page, some in italics, some in a different font, some with bold headings like “The Deep and Sad Consequences of the Short Term Word Syndrome.” What’s going on?
But something about Learning To Fly kept me intrigued. It touches on a remarkable range of themes: child abuse, virginity, death, suicide, the generation gap between parents and teenagers – all of which are handled with surprising maturity for such a young writer. It is well written, in a fresh and original style, and funny, but at the same time intense and highly emotional.
This is an experimental novel, and like all experiments, sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s just a bit too obscure, a bit too self-consciously unorthodox. But the overall effect is strikingly memorable, the characters stay with you long after you finish the final page.
The narrative is fragmented, shifting between different time frames and perspectives with few conventional signs to anchor the reader. It includes diary entries (including some written “on one of the notes pages”), letters written to abstract recipients (“Dear Dreary Dark …”), secret conversations with Mind Elves and other imaginary figures known as Conversationalist L, X, etc.
Frequent snippets of dialogue read like movie clips, unencumbered by conventional markers such as “Kala said”, but brought alive by arresting alternatives: “Kala mentally bit nails,” or “Eyebrows on their toes expressively”.
The style of writing is idiosyncratic. Mostly short, uncomplicated sentences. Frequently without a verb. Short punchy verbless sentences, often repeated for extra punch: “Bubbles of hurt. Bubbles of hurt and depression. Bubbles of hurt and depression. And love. Bubbles of hurt, depression and love …”
Shehani loves to play on words. A word like estrangement takes on a life of its own. Significant words and expressions are capitalised: Castle of Perfection, Short Term Word Syndrome, Feelings, … Phrases become crushed into single words: Asifitdidntmatter, Ifthemovieweretobe, Bubbleshurt, … All of which carry a host of associations in the context of the novel. Scarcely a page goes by without a strikingly original image enriching the text:
… Congratulations! And sarcasm mounted right onto the peak and stuck a flag.
… “Why?” she asked gently. Very gently, as if talking to a hungry little bread thief.
… “I know.” Quiet, rusty, aged tone that carried heavy barrels of iron.
Feelings (with a capital F) pervade the novel like characters in their own right:
… And little Armies of Shame marched by respectfully with bowed heads.
… And Jealousy woke up with a start with thin beads of perspiration on its nose.
… All of Kala’s Senses bit nails and perspired nervously. And blamed Kala for locking them out.
Different characters slip in and out of the pages, frequently unnamed, so that at first the reader has to concentrate to keep track of who’s who. But the fact that the four central characters emerge so strongly from the pages is a tribute to the sharpness with which they are drawn. And one of the things that makes them so memorable is the way the author gets into their minds and evokes their innermost thoughts.
The central character Kala appears at different stages of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. At first her preoccupations are mundane: clothes, periods, sex. At 14 she develops a crush on “the elocution class boy”; days when they exchange more than 13 words are known as “Better Elocution Class Days”. Central to her character are her relationships with her blind sister Nirmaleen (“You’re luckier without eyes. It’s easy to feel sorry for you”), her best friend Sumi, and Dylan. Kala’s troubled relationship with Dylan is revealed in a series of dialogues, brought alive by quirky touches: “Anything wron-gh?” — “Nothing’s wron-ghhh.” Their conversations are trivial and nicely observed; they avoid the big issues more often than they confront them:
“Can I ask a question?”
“What’s new about that?”
“No. This one’s awkward.”
“Uh. All your questions are pretty much that.”
“No. This one’s awkward.”
“What could be really awkward for you Kala? Anyway you ask so many awkward questions.”
“No. This one’s awkward.”
“All right. But it’s a bit awkward.” …
Dylan’s father died when he was six, of a “hartertak”. The story is told in poignant detail from the child’s eye view, from being picked up early from school by his aunty, to the Marie and Nice biscuits served at the “fune-rle”, and seeing his father’s body in the “kuffin”. He starts to spend his time shredding paper: “Paper shredding broke the world into bits and gave him control.”
His mother remarries but he can never come to terms with “Father-II”. And he becomes obsessed with a movie in which an idealised father and son build a tree house together. He decides to build such a tree house and to make such a movie himself. And the failure of the enterprise, summed up in the phrase “Ifthemovieweretobe”, becomes a metaphor for his sense of loss.
Kala’s childhood friend Sumi is recalled mainly in snippets of dialogue titled “Rituals with Sumi” – touching, witty, poignant. Her sudden death, which Kala witnesses, becomes known by the euphemism SNAP. After the funeral, Kala fends off callers who don’t know whether to be matter-of-fact (“How’s school stuff?”) or sympathetic (“It must have been awful!”), with various excuses. (“There’s a rat in my room I think.”) Caller 31 is Dylan:
“I hope you don’t think I’m sympathising.”
“What are you doing then?”
“Being your friend.”
“Thank you. We’ll do this being my friend thing some other time.”
Nadia is Kala’s rival for Dylan’s affections – attractive, flirtatious, unstable. She lives in an imaginary world where she builds castles of perfection and defends them from the inexorable onslaught of the feelings she tries to deny. Her death is preceded by a scene in the pre-school where she works:
“Bye! Kiss for me?”
Last kiss from Nadia going to a child, all lovers forgotten. Later he would talk about the tragedy of his pre-school teacher and tell everyone how he kissed her moments before she killed herself.
Four deaths and four funerals in one slim volume is perhaps overdoing it slightly. But the tragedy is handled sensitively and with a light touch which never allows it to become melodramatic or overly sentimental.
Commenting at the launch that all her friends read the novel looking for themselves in the characters, Shehani commented “it’s all of you”. Considering she was only 19 when she wrote this book, it is a remarkable effort. Her English teacher at St. Bridget’s, who spoke at the launch of the book and the Gratiaen judges who shortlisted it, should be congratulated for spotting a talented young writer with real potential.
Published in The Sunday Leader, 7 June 2009.