Books

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sri Lanka

By ANJUM HASAN | 1 July 2012
COURTESY ROSHI FERNANDO
Roshi Fernando’s Homesick is a collection of interlinked stories about Sri Lankans in Britain

TEN YEARS AGO, living in Sri Lanka and looking for fiction to read from that country, all I could find in a little stationery shop in the hilltown of Haputale was a travelogue by Christopher Ondaatje. The Man-eater of Punanai: A Journey of Discovery to the Jungles of Old Ceylon (1992) was an account of how Ondaatje, a superrich Canadian financier, decided to turn his back on money-making and return to the old country—a journey into his own past and a search for a lost Sri Lanka. Having read Michael Ondaatje’s lyrical, elliptical memoir, Running in the Family (1982), just before leaving home, Christopher’s book especially amused—as well as moved—me for the pains he takes to highlight the liberties his more famous younger brother took with the Ondaatje family’s history.

I’d also read Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost (2000) before leaving home. This is set in the late 1980s-early 1990s when, along with fighting the separatist war in the north, the Sri Lankan government put down with brutal force an insurrection in the south by the Marxist group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front). The novel dealt with the enormity of the killings by particularising. Forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera’s quest in the book is to unearth the truth about a single skeleton.

It seemed to me then that all there was to contemporary Sri Lankan fiction was Carl Muller, known for his Burgher family trilogy,  Romesh Gunesekera—all of whose novels are set in or hark back to the home country—and Michael Ondaatje or, at least, his book Anil’s Ghost. Reading fiction from or about that country today, it occurs to me that I was also searching then for where Sri Lankan literature stood in relation to Sri Lankan reality. Writing in these pages two years ago about the idea of a ‘national literature’, Pankaj Mishra highlighted the many different ways in which writers have, historically, expressed themselves vis-à-vis their nations. While reminding us that many Asian writers were involved in the political revolutions in their countries, Mishra added:

That said, the nation-state or nationalism is hardly a guarantor of literary quality. Joyce and Beckett founded their aesthetic in opposition to the norms of a culturally defensive Irish nationalism; the cosmopolitan novels of Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis self-consciously defied the philistinism of their cultural commissars.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the migration in large numbers of the Sri Lankan elite to the West and the publication of their books abroad has meant that the home country is both distant and alien, as well as a matter of continuous interest. On page 3 of Homesick (Bloomsbury, 2012), for instance, Roshi Fernando’s interlinked stories about Sri Lankans in Britain, a mother tells her teenaged daughter, “How can you understand Sri Lanka? It is not ours to understand anymore.”

Towards the end of this first story in Homesick, a group sits amid the dregs of a New Year’s party in early 1980s London, mulling over the familiar diasporic questions. Should their children marry “white fellows”? Is language important? What is their mother tongue? Where do they belong? Paterfamilias Victor, the host, ends the discussion by saying, “We belong nowhere…But if we belong anywhere, it is here… We are here.” The question of what it means to be from a country but not of it is present and yet—despite the book’s title and that party conversation—not persistent. Victor’s emphatic “here”, sounded early in the book, sets the tone for the rest of it.

Fernando’s vision is intensely focused on the realities at hand, and it’s not insignificant that most of these pieces are written in the present tense. Her stories encompass whole lives and proceed chronologically—childhood fears, adolescent loves, middle-age joys and disappointments, old-age loneliness. But Homesick is not a family saga. The author concentrates on that “here”, picking out specific and often peripheral moments in these lives rather than trying to cover the span of them. She depicts the wake rather than the death; the awkwardness between divorcees rather than the story of the divorce. Her aesthetic matches this preference. ‘Montage’ best describes her treatment of these overlapping lives. The liveliest stories are those set in the kind of social situations—the party, the funeral, the dance, the reunion, the chance encounter—eminently suited to layering images.

The rifts caused by diasporic life can be rendered in multiple ways; Fernando’s characters express them through a mental commentary, a sense of estrangement running alongside the busyness of what’s happening in public. In ‘Nil’s Wedding’, Nil, who is going to marry Ian, is suddenly terrified by the reality of the impending event. She thinks of how easy it would be to run in her wedding sari. She looks at people on the street, going about their normal day, and feels “as if the wedding were a story and the real world…were an admonition to her family and its fantasies of equality, acceptance, normality”. In ‘Mumtaz Chaplin’, an orphan of that name stops speaking altogether and the rift between inner life and outer becomes a chasm. On the few occasions when characters reach out, however—like the aged widow Gertie does on a bus one dark day in London, or when communication is established, like it is between the young Preethi and her shunned classmate Danny who has a deformed arm—then the results are pleasing.

The decade by decade changes of background are established with the gentlest of touches—Elvis Presley’s death, the UK miners’ strike, the rise of Sri Lankan cricket, the Iraq war and the London bombings of 2005. Her subtlety makes one suspect that Fernando would find author Ashok Ferrey’s way of highlighting context much too bold. “We were in the middle there of the blue-rinsed Thatcher eighties,” Ferrey says in one of the stories in his collection Love in the Tsunami (Penguin India, 2012), “and I was selling these flats as fast as I could knock them out.” Ferrey’s stories have the quality of excellent yarns gathered over a variegated and colourful life, told in the first person and often in the voice of an ‘Ashok’. Like Fernando’s, these too are stories about Sri Lankans out in the world—in 1980s Britain and an even earlier Africa, as well as flitting through Colombo highlife. But whereas she seeks to plot larger narratives—however fragmented—he delights in the episodic.

The picaresque quality of Ferrey’s stories sees him—or characters like him—caught in situations that usually seek not resolutions but entertaining punch lines. Asoka, an accountant with a wife, kids and two cats, discovers he has a glamorous lookalike named Jiggy; much fun and confusion ensues in the farcical style of a mistaken identity comedy. A group of Indians arrive in Sri Lanka to shoot an advertising film; they rope in a reluctant extra, the high point of whose career has been shaking his fist at the camera and shouting “Gandhi-ji’s in the bath … (The actual words were Gandhi-ji zindabad! but I found my version more effective).” A couple with a newborn son hire a much-needed nanny, in nanny-mad Colombo, who over time turns out to be both indispensable as well as insane. The Thatcher-era builder mentioned above eavesdrops on his tenants making love and is witness to their involvement in a cruel act of deception. An Indian youth in Nigeria, coddled by his parents, falls in love with a black girl. “And so he oscillated happily, between Asian childishness at home and African adulthood, till the day Jack arrived, bringing with him the third phase of his current life, European adolescence.” Romesh eventually fails to square up his love for Sindy Adobanele with his affection for his posh, white English friends.

This particular story does not end with the usual guffaw and one starts to detect something of a pattern. All the three African stories in the collection hinge on a painful coming of age moment and have none of the boisterous humour of the pieces set in Sri Lanka. The England stories appear to stand somewhere in between—the humour is darker here and the difficulty of negotiating Asianness in the West a common theme. In one sombre story called ‘Vitamin V’, this theme takes an allegorical form—an Asian who goes under the false name ‘Jonathan’ works underground in Hell and suffers like many of his companions from a debilitating deficiency: these children of the Third World lack “the one vitamin so essential to a fulfilled and nourishing life above ground. Vitamin V, I call it. V for visa.” In another story, Ashoka, a young Asian bartender who also calls himself Jonathan, reflects on why he’s chosen an English name. “For them it did not matter who you were, only that you were present and therefore required some explanation. Even then it was not truth they were after but plausibility… And if, one day, they were able to accept all of you as you actually were, then, only then, could they be your friends.”

Common to characters in both Homesick and Love in the Tsunami is this need for theatre, this selective offering of oneself to a Western audience. In one of Roshi Fernando’s stories, the teenaged Preethi, at a party with her school friends, excited and on the cusp of love and adulthood, suddenly finds herself distanced. Reluctantly:

Preethi allowed herself to be dragged back into this illusory evening, where these people were her friends… [S]he could play parts: she could be everyone. And here, in this champagne flute of an evening, she could be immersed in sparkling intoxication, and roll on to her side and look at all of these blonde, auburn, brunette heads in their jeans and shirt sleeves, their Laura Ashley dresses, with the daisy chains still in their hair, and she could imagine she was as beautiful as they were.

To capture the experiences of Sri Lankans in Britain, Fernando and Ferrey hone in, time and again, on similar emotions. Encounters with nature—with gardens and parks and the countryside—evoke in their characters an intense pleasure in England’s beauty and yet there is a desolation that is private, played out in conversations with the self rather than other people.

And then there figure in these stories the often well-meaning but always remote ‘they’. The bartender Asoka’s boss in Ferrey’s story says kindly to him, “I like people from your part of the world… In fact, as far back as I can remember, I’ve liked wogs.” In Fernando’s ‘The Bottle of Whiskey’, Basit, a Muslim from Colombo, learns that the particularities of his background, the fact that he’s from a “good family”, count for nothing in Britain. “‘Come here, you wog,’ the man says. There is no side to him. It’s just what they say.”

AS INTERESTING AS this convergence are the clear differences in the two writers’ approaches to Sri Lanka. In Ferrey’s stories, Sri Lankan life, when played out within the confines of bourgeois domesticity, is often a setting for buffoonery. (He talks about “that little sediment of madness that lies at the bottom of every good Sri Lankan brain”.) Shopping, dance lessons, house building, servant troubles, parties and high society gossip form the backdrop for many of these tales. The narrator is always at an angle to the lives he is describing, wanting the luxuries—the houses and servants and lovely women—that the others want but, simultaneously, laughing at them. “Jiggy lived an entirely different life to me. Bright red cars, fast clubs and Colombo 7 women, or do I mean fast cars, Colombo 7 clubs and bright red women?” Ferrey is at ease in this social world and he parses its pretensions and its longings with caustic wit.

In Homesick, by contrast, Sri Lanka is an abstraction. Strangely, for such a precise, almost punctilious writer, whenever Fernando moves to the subject of the home country, things start to blur. Or perhaps not so strangely, for these diffused memories of a country elevated to a generalised idea about it, is what Sri Lanka is to her British Sinhalese characters. A grown woman recalling a childhood visit thinks, “In Sri Lanka there were beauty queens and ugly beggars with leprosy on the street and grandmothers and schoolchildren and Buddhist priests and market tradesmen and great-aunts who were troublesome, and uncles who could do tricks with slim silver coins…” In another story, a man thinks of a similar trip. “And in Sri Lanka, there was an unfathomable place of his own identity, a place of such extremities of heat and flavour and dirt and poverty and music and laughter…”

Their approaches differ and yet the subject itself—Sri Lanka and how to determine one’s relationship to it—is important to both Ferrey and Fernando. Talking about the rash of ‘India’ books that have appeared lately, Amit Chaudhuri made the invaluable point that the authors of many of these books “see India not as a place, but as a concept you could experience, an idea making its way in the world”. He contrasted this perspective with that of perhaps the best-known India writer—VS Naipual—whose books, Chaudhuri pointed out, have been “primarily about a place…an agglomeration of remembered rooms, buildings, apartments and neighbourhoods in which people are encountered…” (Outlook, April 4, 2011). It is this interest in Sri Lanka as a location—in colour and architecture and weather—that make some of Ferrey’s stories memorable. And it is a parallel inability to evoke Sri Lanka as a specific place that weaken some of Fernando’s.

One notices this impulse to pin down Sri Lanka conceptually in Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories from Sri Lanka (Tranquebar, 2011). Editor Ameena Hussein says in her introduction, “Having returned to Sri Lanka in 2003 to live here permanently, I was reintroduced after many years abroad to typical Sri Lankan humour—full of scatological references, and sexual innuendoes…” Most stories here, in their avid portrayals of the sexual act, lack of narrative and—contrary to promise—absence of humour, are more puerile than erotic. Hussein’s project of presenting a uniquely Sri Lankan way of writing and talking about sex remains unfulfilled, perhaps with the exception of Shehan Karunatilaka’s story ‘Veysee’, about a young man’s sordid fantasies. “Statistics reveal that Sri Lankans consume more hard liquor and talk more about sex than any nationality in the uncivilised world. Unfortunately neither of these activities translate into any real action. In that department Sri Lankans trail somewhere around the bottom,” writes Karunatilaka, thereby articulating the thought behind his own story, revealing the superficiality of the other pieces, as well as bringing the subject back to ways of writing about Sri Lanka.

Another recent work of fiction that is in some ways ‘about’ Sri Lanka, approaching the subject from an interesting tangent, is Romesh Gunesekera’s The Prisoner of Paradise (Bloomsbury, 2012).  Set in Mauritius in 1825, this is a story about the entanglements of several cultures and people in one small place—French sugarcane planters, whose countrymen had once laid claim to the island; British colonialists, who captured it from the French 15 years before the time of the novel; a Sri Lankan prince with his small entourage, exiled by the British; slaves from India and Africa, the last of their kind, for slavery will gradually be replaced by indentured labour; and Indian convicts—shipped to Mauritius for the term of their sentences. Gunesekera’s heroine is Lucy Gladwell, a 19-year-old British jejune, fresh off the boat from England and full of hunger for an unconstrained life fuelled by her reading of the Romantic poets and exotic imaginings of the Orient by such writers as Thomas Moore.

The Prisoner of Paradise is an irresistible love story. Don Lambodar, linguist and interpreter to the Sri Lankan prince, and Lucy are drawn to each other. Yet their every attempt to come closer is, in this highly stratified and bitterly prejudiced society, foiled by social constraints, misunderstandings and missed opportunities. This is a story in the best tradition of English realists like Jane Austen, for what are Austen’s novels but accounts of individual passions both thwarted and shaped into acceptable forms by the workings of society? But Gunesekera is a much more sensuous writer than Austen; he also draws from the dreams of Austen’s contemporaries, the Romantics. Central to Lucy’s imagination is John Keats’ Endymion, a Greek legend that the poet reworked in keeping with the Romantic theme of the search for ideal, if not otherworldly, love.

Don and Lucy’s smouldering passions are caught in the messy web of politics. The Prisoner of Paradise could be read as a prequel to Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008) which is set about a decade later, when the first batch of indentured labour was sent from India to Mauritius, the contract workers travelling on a ship once used to transport slaves. In Gunesekera’s novel we see something of the island that awaits Ghosh’s heroine Deeti and her companions—a southern idyll of aquamarine seas and white beaches, lush with lovingly-described flora, prosperous with the offerings of people from seemingly everywhere. “Market day in Port Louis is a cacophony of colour: a pulsating jamboree of indigo, turmeric, lemon and jade. A hotchpotch where the produce of Batavia and Bombay, carpenters and potters, fishmongers and bean punters are jumbled up.” And yet, hidden away on this isle of plenty are the mean lives of the Indian slaves and convicts bound to the still French-owned plantations. The workers collaborate on a plan of spiritual if not material betterment, attempting to lay claim to a patch of land and construct a small shrine for the community. This simple desire, intolerable to the powers that be, is put down with swift action and horrific cruelty.

The most obvious complaint one could bring against The Prisoner of Paradise is that it makes much more of the daydreams of a privileged and sentimental Englishwoman and a pensive Ceylonese scrivener than it does of the sufferings of the working class. Despite the common historical setting then, this is a very different novel from Sea of Poppies, in which we witness the operation of colonial greed and power through the eyes of characters such as the dispossessed village girl Deeti, with whom and for whom we never stop hoping. In The Prisoner of Paradise, even before the workers can launch themselves, we are alerted to their emasculation. “Don realised these were men whose lives were shaped entirely by what happened around them…they were not in control of anything: not their desires, not their destinies, not even their discontent.”

ALL THE SAME, Gunesekera’s novel succeeds in subtly highlighting another kind of, and perhaps equally poignant, marginality. Almost obscured by the interplay between English administrator, French landowner and Indian worker, is a figure of near comical irrelevance—the exiled Sri Lankan prince. His tragic past is mentioned only towards the end of the book, at a dinner party conversation. He speaks hardly at all to us or anyone else in the novel, content to feed birds and tend to his garden. Both he and Don Lambodar, who too reveals his background only with the greatest reluctance, are witnesses to injustices in Mauritius that seem to have very little to do with them and which they can do nothing to alter. Their modest position as Ceylonese seems to render them wise; they see things through a small-islander’s filter of both historical inevitability and universal culpability. When Don frets over the brutal treatment of the workers, Mr Amos, a freed ex-slave tells him, “Slavery is not a purely European invention. The Nyamezi do it, the Yao, Africans in the South, Arabs. It is not endemic to one place only.” And Don promptly remembers that his own father collaborated with the British in the African slave trade.

The tragedy of individual helplessness in the face of overweening human cruelty is balanced by Gunesekera’s emphasis on the redemptive powers of the imagination. Lucy’s constant urge to escape to some place untainted by the corruptions of human society is perhaps a misreading of the poets she so loves, for as Mr Amos points out “To imagine is to embrace, not to escape.” The persistent will to live and experience despite setbacks and confusions is what ultimately makes this novel a sympathetic one and brings it close to the vision in Roshi Fernando’s stories and the charge of that “here”. To return to her character Preethi, this time in the story ‘At the Barn Dance’. Preethi is now a middle-aged woman and sometimes unsure of her husband’s fidelity; as she is leaving the party, she thinks, “I don’t want it all to end tonight. I want to try, and keep trying. I want to understand, I want to know the things I just imagine, the things I expect.” Sentiments that Gunesekera would perhaps approve of.

Sri Lanka is a concept in Fernando’s fiction, while Ferrey is interested in the social attitudes of his countrymen. In The Prisoner of Paradise, the country is remote yet concrete—both a place to both escape to and an object of desire. Another Sri Lankan writer who has consistently tried to give historical weight to his country’s story is Carl Muller. His most recent novel is Grandeur of the Lion (Penguin India, 2012), which narrates events leading to the construction of a grand stupa (or Maha Thupa) in the ancient Lankan city of Anuradhapura.

Grandeur of the Lion is a slim but apparently heavily researched book, referencing Pali sources such as the Mahavamsa, works of Sri Lankan history and sociology, and documents relating to the history of Buddhism. Muller gives us the Latin names of flowers, the English meanings of Sinhalese words and expressions, accounts of Sinhalese customs, and summaries of scholarly debates about the provenance of this or that ancient monument. The novel covers a short chapter in Sri Lankan history, however—the discovery of a cave of silver that will lead the 2nd-century BCE king, Dattha Gamani, to construct the Maha Thupa, and the preparations leading to it. We are also introduced to Prince Saliya who, rather than following his father’s warrior instincts, is a lover of art and craft, and attracted to both men and women. Then there is Vihara Maha Devi, the wise Queen Mother whom both Duttha Gamani and his younger brother, Tissa, highly revere.

While parts of Grandeur of the Lion are interesting—such as accounts of the engineering prowess of the ancient Sinhalese or the relationship between the Buddhist sanghas and royalty—it is on the whole a clumsy book. Historical conjecture, ritual and religious belief, social practice, god-authored miracle and fictional narrative are not successfully meshed together. Each element sticks out as an anomaly with the result that we are never quite sure what it is we’re reading.

Then there is Muller’s awkwardly archaic style. The royals constantly use the royal ‘we’ and combine it with garbled syntax. “Duttha Gamani bowed his head. ‘Then can we but do all we must.’” The excessive references are a problem too. A monk says to the king upon witnessing a miracle, “Now must we repair to the Ambalatthikka where the saintly elder will lead the bhanakas of the Suttas of praise.” “Ambalatthikka” and “bhanakas” are end-noted so we must turn to the back of the book to find out what they mean.  Endnotes jar in a work of fiction and sentences like these, which seem to delight in obscurity, do not help.

Despite his concern with authenticity and the extensive endnoting, Muller takes liberties with the facts in the interest of the story. For instance, a talking tree spirit tells the king about the ‘fact’ that Buddha travelled through the island. In the notes, this belief is attributed to the discovery of glazed alms bowls from Buddha’s time. Modern historical speculation in the mouth of a tree spirit? Here’s another example of fact-bending in a narrative seemingly loyal to the facts. Prince Saliya falls in love with Devi, a ‘low’ caste girl, but their coming together is inconceivable. The author gives us a long interpolation on the rigid caste taboos in Sinhalese society of that era. Alongside, he talks about how in the present day “modern science is compelled to accept reincarnation as a reality”. He then, alarmingly, marries the two ideas—caste taboo and rebirth theory—to justify the Prince’s love. Devi was an upper-caste woman in her previous life, and one the Prince, in his previous life, was married to. “Is it any wonder that prince Saliya…should be stirred to love…He had found again the beauteous wife of his previous existence.”

Muller is obviously deeply immersed in the ancient history of his country and as Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost reveals, the past civilisations of Sri Lanka are rich material for a contemporary novel. And yet that vivid work of historical fiction about Sri Lanka remains to be written.

A VIVID NOVEL ABOUT SRI LANKA'S RECENT PAST, however, is at hand. Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (Random House India, 2011) is written with a Naipaulean sense of place, an acute awareness of the past’s fragility, and a fiercely unsentimental patriotism.

Genius bowler and mystery man Pradeep Mathew played sundry games of club cricket, four test matches and 27 one-dayers over the span of the 1980s. Then he disappeared—from Sri Lanka, from cricket and, virtually, from the records. It is now the fag end of the 1990s. Old time cricket journalist WG Karunasena and his friend Ari Byrd are convinced that Mathew is the greatest cricketer to have ever walked the earth; they decide to do their best to track him down, understand why he dropped out of the scene, and broadcast his story. Woven into this recognisable narrative framework—resurrecting a forgotten hero—are the warp and weft of a labyrinthine story, one that is not so much about clearing up a mystery as uncovering a culture. In thrillers, mysteries have simple, even if initially elusive, explanations. Chinaman is set up like a thriller but the truth about Pradeep Mathew turns out to be a patchwork of discoveries and observations rather than a clear line of logic. The story becomes more, not less, complex as the novel progresses.

Part of the reason for this fascinating complexity is the way Karunatilaka keeps subverting our expectations. This could have been a story about how, despite well-known exceptions like Muttiah Murali, Tamils (and in fact everyone other than Sinhalese boys from posh Colombo schools) are kept out of Sri Lankan cricket. The young Mathew writes to the International Cricketing Council about the prejudices among selectors. Mathew has a Tamil father and a Sinhalese mother—his full name is Pradeep Mathew Sivanathan. During the riots of 1983, he is saved from death by accidents of fate. His entry into cricket is facilitated by his dropping that last name. And yet, in WG’s view, the spirit of the game triumphs over the racial divide:

Despite the existence of a Sinhalese Sports Club, a Tamil Union, a Moors SC, a Burgher Recreation Club, and a perversely christened Nondescripts Cricket Club, cricket as a sport refuses to be segregated. Clubs grab talent regardless…

Match fixing is another obstruction that lends drama to the plot. Mathew refuses to cheat for money but eventually realises that the rot is too deep to stem and that his best bet is to cut his losses and run.  But despite the potential of corruption as a theme, this is not a novel only about, as the powerful fixer Kuga puts it, “clients with too much money…players with too little”. If it were, then cynicism would be the driving force. It isn’t, WG’s alcohol-soaked worldview notwithstanding. The pleasure that WG and Ari take in the game is far more affecting than Kuga’s revelations about its ugly underside.

The intricacy of Chinaman is sustained by Karunatilaka’s clean-cut prose. He is a subject-object-verb man. He allows sub-clauses into his prose only with the greatest reluctance and uses conjunctions sparingly. It seems crude to attribute allegorical intent to a writer of such determined directness, yet it’s obvious that this story about ignored talent, wasted potential and self-destructive tendencies parallels Sri Lanka’s. “I think of Pradeep Mathew, the great unsung bowler. I think of Sri Lanka, the great underachieving nation. I think of W.G. Karunasena, the great unfulfilled writer.”

And cricket might save the country. When Sri Lanka wins the 1996 World Cup, “Sri Lankans across the world stand taller, believing that now anything is possible. The war would end, the nation would prosper, and pigs would take to the air.” That last phrase is useful. It reminds us that for all the significance of that allegory, this is a story about sport, not about nation building or real life.

In real life, justice is rarely poetic and too often invisible. Good sits in a corner, collects a cheque, and pays a mortgage. Evil builds empires… In thirty years, the world will not care about how I lived. But in hundred years, Bulgarians will still talk of Letchkov and how he expelled the mighty Germans from the 1994 World Cup with a simple header… Unlike life, sport matters.

So what does the patchwork of the novel reveal when we stand back to look at it? A great deal about the pleasures of cricket and, equally, an image of Sri Lankan life of a not-so-long ago era. Roshi Fernando’s “here” finds its realisation most fully in Chinaman. Karunatilaka is the one writer who looks his country squarely in the eye and is unafraid to report on what he sees. (In a moving passage, WG says to himself, “By the 1950s, we began to develop our own dangerous idea…The idea that the nation belongs to the Sinhala. Or that the Tamil deserve a separate state…Perhaps one day they will be replaced by an idea of Sri Lankan-ness that welcomes all shades of brown. Though I suspect my generation will have to die to give birth to it.”) And yet no other writer derives so much joy from describing day-to-day Sri Lankan life. He lingers over energetic games of street cricket; the seedy bars where hardened drunks embrace over the country’s World Cup victory; the tug of war in a marriage wracked by addiction; how people behave at a funeral; how Sri Lankans dealt with their helplessness in the face of an endless war; and how a man might sustain himself on little more than being “a gentle lover of cricket”.

Talking about how Asians and Westerners approach the game differently, WG says, “…our cricket retains the passion of the street. The West respects law…” There is something of that gung-ho quality to Chinaman as well. Karunatilaka seems to be thumbing his nose at literary models, and WG, though a writer himself, often laughs at the very idea of the literary as a source of inspiration. But like that Sri Lankan team in 1996, Chinaman grabs the prize from under the noses of those Sri Lankan writers who might have played longer at the game but are less streetwise, less present in the present.   

Anjum Hasan is the Books Editor at The Caravan.

TEN YEARS AGO, living in Sri Lanka and looking for fiction to read from that country, all I could find in a little stationery shop in the hilltown of Haputale was a travelogue by Christopher Ondaatje. The Man-eater of Punanai: A Journey of Discovery to the Jungles of Old Ceylon (1992) was an account of how Ondaatje, a superrich Canadian financier, decided to turn his back on money-making and return to the old country—a journey into his own past and a search for a lost Sri Lanka. Having read Michael Ondaatje’s lyrical, elliptical memoir, Running in the Family (1982), just before leaving home, Christopher’s book especially amused—as well as moved—me for the pains he takes to highlight the liberties his more famous younger brother took with the Ondaatje family’s history.

I’d also read Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost (2000) before leaving home. This is set in the late 1980s-early 1990s when, along with fighting the separatist war in the north, the Sri Lankan government put down with brutal force an insurrection in the south by the Marxist group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front). The novel dealt with the enormity of the killings by particularising. Forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera’s quest in the book is to unearth the truth about a single skeleton.

It seemed to me then that all there was to contemporary Sri Lankan fiction was Carl Muller, known for his Burgher family trilogy,  Romesh Gunesekera—all of whose novels are set in or hark back to the home country—and Michael Ondaatje or, at least, his book Anil’s Ghost. Reading fiction from or about that country today, it occurs to me that I was also searching then for where Sri Lankan literature stood in relation to Sri Lankan reality. Writing in these pages two years ago about the idea of a ‘national literature’, Pankaj Mishra highlighted the many different ways in which writers have, historically, expressed themselves vis-à-vis their nations. While reminding us that many Asian writers were involved in the political revolutions in their countries, Mishra added:

That said, the nation-state or nationalism is hardly a guarantor of literary quality. Joyce and Beckett founded their aesthetic in opposition to the norms of a culturally defensive Irish nationalism; the cosmopolitan novels of Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis self-consciously defied the philistinism of their cultural commissars.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the migration in large numbers of the Sri Lankan elite to the West and the publication of their books abroad has meant that the home country is both distant and alien, as well as a matter of continuous interest. On page 3 of Homesick (Bloomsbury, 2012), for instance, Roshi Fernando’s interlinked stories about Sri Lankans in Britain, a mother tells her teenaged daughter, “How can you understand Sri Lanka? It is not ours to understand anymore.”

Towards the end of this first story in Homesick, a group sits amid the dregs of a New Year’s party in early 1980s London, mulling over the familiar diasporic questions. Should their children marry “white fellows”? Is language important? What is their mother tongue? Where do they belong? Paterfamilias Victor, the host, ends the discussion by saying, “We belong nowhere…But if we belong anywhere, it is here… We are here.” The question of what it means to be from a country but not of it is present and yet—despite the book’s title and that party conversation—not persistent. Victor’s emphatic “here”, sounded early in the book, sets the tone for the rest of it.

Fernando’s vision is intensely focused on the realities at hand, and it’s not insignificant that most of these pieces are written in the present tense. Her stories encompass whole lives and proceed chronologically—childhood fears, adolescent loves, middle-age joys and disappointments, old-age loneliness. But Homesick is not a family saga. The author concentrates on that “here”, picking out specific and often peripheral moments in these lives rather than trying to cover the span of them. She depicts the wake rather than the death; the awkwardness between divorcees rather than the story of the divorce. Her aesthetic matches this preference. ‘Montage’ best describes her treatment of these overlapping lives. The liveliest stories are those set in the kind of social situations—the party, the funeral, the dance, the reunion, the chance encounter—eminently suited to layering images.

The rifts caused by diasporic life can be rendered in multiple ways; Fernando’s characters express them through a mental commentary, a sense of estrangement running alongside the busyness of what’s happening in public. In ‘Nil’s Wedding’, Nil, who is going to marry Ian, is suddenly terrified by the reality of the impending event. She thinks of how easy it would be to run in her wedding sari. She looks at people on the street, going about their normal day, and feels “as if the wedding were a story and the real world…were an admonition to her family and its fantasies of equality, acceptance, normality”. In ‘Mumtaz Chaplin’, an orphan of that name stops speaking altogether and the rift between inner life and outer becomes a chasm. On the few occasions when characters reach out, however—like the aged widow Gertie does on a bus one dark day in London, or when communication is established, like it is between the young Preethi and her shunned classmate Danny who has a deformed arm—then the results are pleasing.

The decade by decade changes of background are established with the gentlest of touches—Elvis Presley’s death, the UK miners’ strike, the rise of Sri Lankan cricket, the Iraq war and the London bombings of 2005. Her subtlety makes one suspect that Fernando would find author Ashok Ferrey’s way of highlighting context much too bold. “We were in the middle there of the blue-rinsed Thatcher eighties,” Ferrey says in one of the stories in his collection Love in the Tsunami (Penguin India, 2012), “and I was selling these flats as fast as I could knock them out.” Ferrey’s stories have the quality of excellent yarns gathered over a variegated and colourful life, told in the first person and often in the voice of an ‘Ashok’. Like Fernando’s, these too are stories about Sri Lankans out in the world—in 1980s Britain and an even earlier Africa, as well as flitting through Colombo highlife. But whereas she seeks to plot larger narratives—however fragmented—he delights in the episodic.

The picaresque quality of Ferrey’s stories sees him—or characters like him—caught in situations that usually seek not resolutions but entertaining punch lines. Asoka, an accountant with a wife, kids and two cats, discovers he has a glamorous lookalike named Jiggy; much fun and confusion ensues in the farcical style of a mistaken identity comedy. A group of Indians arrive in Sri Lanka to shoot an advertising film; they rope in a reluctant extra, the high point of whose career has been shaking his fist at the camera and shouting “Gandhi-ji’s in the bath … (The actual words were Gandhi-ji zindabad! but I found my version more effective).” A couple with a newborn son hire a much-needed nanny, in nanny-mad Colombo, who over time turns out to be both indispensable as well as insane. The Thatcher-era builder mentioned above eavesdrops on his tenants making love and is witness to their involvement in a cruel act of deception. An Indian youth in Nigeria, coddled by his parents, falls in love with a black girl. “And so he oscillated happily, between Asian childishness at home and African adulthood, till the day Jack arrived, bringing with him the third phase of his current life, European adolescence.” Romesh eventually fails to square up his love for Sindy Adobanele with his affection for his posh, white English friends.

This particular story does not end with the usual guffaw and one starts to detect something of a pattern. All the three African stories in the collection hinge on a painful coming of age moment and have none of the boisterous humour of the pieces set in Sri Lanka. The England stories appear to stand somewhere in between—the humour is darker here and the difficulty of negotiating Asianness in the West a common theme. In one sombre story called ‘Vitamin V’, this theme takes an allegorical form—an Asian who goes under the false name ‘Jonathan’ works underground in Hell and suffers like many of his companions from a debilitating deficiency: these children of the Third World lack “the one vitamin so essential to a fulfilled and nourishing life above ground. Vitamin V, I call it. V for visa.” In another story, Ashoka, a young Asian bartender who also calls himself Jonathan, reflects on why he’s chosen an English name. “For them it did not matter who you were, only that you were present and therefore required some explanation. Even then it was not truth they were after but plausibility… And if, one day, they were able to accept all of you as you actually were, then, only then, could they be your friends.”

READER'S COMMENTS [1]

Interesting that almost all of the Sri Lankan writers mentioned are Sinhalese. It reinforces our (Eelam Tamils) contention that Sri Lankan = Sinhalese and that we have nothing to do with that identity.

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