The Collapse of Hope, Meaning, and Expectation: Vihanga Perera’s “Postcards to Bentham” (2013).

by Carla N. Merinnage
As a reader and critic, I am new to the work of the poet, short story and fiction writer Vihanga Perera, and my reflections on the corpus of literature written by him does not incorporate the development and changes of his style of writing throughout the course of the years. However, out of academic interest, I wish to reflect on his short story collection Postcards to Bentham (2013)  which incorporates a corpus of seven “odd” short stories woven together, bringing to light the writer’s fantasies, ramblings, political views, his avid love for cricket as well as confusing, ambiguous and vague plot bunnies.

example-postcards-coverIn this collection, the short story “Julia’s Friend”, albeit rather ambiguous and confusing, explores the narrator’s involvement with a number of women. The different parts of this story are somehow all connected together in some loose logical way, but still, they are horribly out of place when you try to connect the dots at first glance. The author is very elaborate and descriptive, and the evocative scenes described in the story are well-written as you can vividly imagine a mental picture of the events in sequence. However, the story continues to progress till it stops at a seemingly abrupt juncture where you are rudely left pondering as to what exactly just happened.

Of the line up, the story I least enjoyed was “Sacred Avenues”, and I found it a very long and monotonous read. I would not recommend it to anyone who has no passion for cricket (like me). However, I also believe that those who can truly connect with the soul of sports, the concept of team loyalty and of course those who have an avid love for cricket and so forth will find it a good read. But, this story – perhaps, also different in style and temperament to the rest of the collection – was an odd ball for my reader sensibility.

My personal favourite in Postcards to Bentham is without a doubt the opening story of the collection, “Teacher of Baffo.” This story, perhaps, can give you a small inkling to the reason as to why a Gratiaen prize judge in 2011 dissed Perera’s writing. Quoting from the somewhat amusing description from the author’s own Facebook page, “a Gratiaen Prize Judge, in 2011, has dissed Vihanga Perara’s writing as being stories of himself. Vihanga Perera’s writing has been blacklisted from his own sensitive cousins’ children’s bookshelves.”

jeremy_bentham_from_gallery_of_portraits_postcard-re34669a8658243f2a400995b10e7c00c_vgbaq_8byvr_324

Jeremy Bentham

Yes, Perera’s stories might possibly be “stories of himself”, however arguing as to what extent the writer’s stories incorporate his own personal stories and depraved fantasies would be a waste of time. I personally found “Teacher of Baffo” was like the free psychological reign of the ferocious and foul beast of carnal desires which, for instance, characters like the protagonist Nayonangshu from Buddhadeva Bose’s it rained all night tightly controls and represses his whole life. “Teacher of Baffo” is also a good and interesting start to Perera’s collection, highlighting a central theme which is explored in a number of his short stories: the collapse of hope, meaning, expectation and excitement. It is the kind of story which would invite you to the dark side of literature with the promise of delicious cookies, only to let you down with a batch of burnt and bitter ones.

“Cleona’s Dreams” was another ambiguous short story for me and I profoundly felt the sense of something amiss after finishing the story. Maybe the story offers possibilities of a different read which I am unable to perceive. However it is not a story which I will go back and attempt to re-interpret and re-analyze.

Altogether I would recommend Perera’s Postcards of Bentham to a reader who is interested in exploring a different side to the mainstream of Sri Lankan literature. Maybe some stories will let you down, will be ambiguous and monotonous, but still I believe it will offer you fresh bouts of amusement, excitement and kudos for your imagination.

කෞෂල්‍ය කුමාරසිංහ වසා සිටින රහස් ඡායාව, හා “මේ රහස් කවුළුවෙන් එබෙන්න” හි තවත් රහස් දෙකක්.

කෞෂල්‍ය කුමාරසිංහගේ “මේ රහස් කවුළුවෙන් එබෙන්න” කෘතිය මා කියවන්නේ යම් ආඛ්‍යාන රටාවක් අනුකරණය සහ එවැනි රටාවකින් අයෙකුගේ නිර්මාණ පෞරුෂය පෝෂණය වීම යන කාරණා දෙක අතර වෙනස වටහා ගැනීමටයි. කෞෂල්‍ය සිටින්නේ මෙම අවස්ථා දෙකෙන් මුල් අඩවියේයි. “මේ රහස් කවුළුවෙන් එබෙන්න” කෘතිය ලාංකික සාහිත්‍යයේ මෑත යුගයේ යම් ජනප්‍රියතාවයක් හිමි කරගෙන තිබූ අතර, අඛ්‍යාන මට්ටමින් ගත්තත්, සම්ප්‍රදායානුබර සම්භාව්‍ය අඛ්‍යානයට පිවිසුමෙන් එපිට සිට කෙරෙන මැදිහත් වීමක් ලෙස මුල් අවස්ථාවේදී පෙනී යයි. කතාව ඇරඹෙන්නේ පැනොරාමා දෘෂ්ඨියකින් කෙරෙන රාමු දාමයක් හරහා යි. මෙම දෘෂ්ඨිය විටෙක ජංගම වූත්, පරාසයන් අතර සීරු මාරු වන්නාවූත් කැමරාවක් වැනි ය. මෙම තාක්ෂණික පිවිසුම විසි වන සියවසේ නව්‍යවාදී සාහිත්‍යයේ අයිකනයන් වන ජේම්ස් ජොයිස්, අර්නස්ට් හෙමින්ග්වේ වැන්නන් අතරින් දහ නව වන සියවසේ රුසියන් සාහිත්‍යයේ දොස්තෙයෙව්ස්කි වැන්නන් දක්වා ද ඇතැම් අවස්ථා වලදී යා කල හැක්කකි. “මේ රහස් කවුළුවෙන් එබෙන්න” කෘතිය තරම්ම අළුත් නැතත්, මෙම වියුක්ත, ඈතින් සිට සීරු මාරු කෙරෙන දර්ශන පථයක සිට අප අමතන ආගන්තුක, අදෘෂ්‍යමාන කථකයා ලංකාවේ නිර්මාණ අවකාශට යම් තරමක් ආගන්තුක යැයි තර්ක කරන්නට හැක.

එනමුත්, කෞෂල්‍යගේ කෘතියට හේතු වන මෙම කථක හඬ (මෙන්ම ඇතැම් අනෙක් රටාවන් හා රිද්මයන් ද) යම් වෙනත් ලේඛකයෙකුගේ ආඛ්‍යාන රටාවකින් අනුකරණයක් ලෙස කුලියට ගත්තාක් යැයි මට බොහෝ විට සිතුනි. ඒ අනෙක් ලේඛකයා කෞෂල්‍යගේ නිර්මාණශීලී විභවයට දැඩි ලෙස බලපාන බවද මට දිගින් දිගටම සිතුනි. ආඛ්‍යානය ගැලපීමේ දී පමණක් නොව, කෞෂල්‍ය තම කෘතිය තුලට ගෙන එන ඇතැම් නිරීක්ෂණයන්, භවගැන්වීම් ආදිය හරහා ද මෙම ලේඛකයාගේ යැයි මට සාධාරණ සැකයකට ඔබ්බෙන් සිතිය හැකි මට්ටමේ ඡායාව දකින්නට ඇත්තේය. මෙම ලේඛකයා හරුකි මුරකාමී ය.

me-rahas-kawuluwen-ebennaමුරකාමීගේ බොහෝ කෘතිවල වර්තමානයේ දී අපගේ අවධානයට ලක් ව ඇති යථෝක්ත ආඛ්‍යාන රටාව මෙන්ම එම වියුක්ත කථක හඬ ද අපි අත්විඳිමු. මීට හොදම උදාහරණ සපයන්නන් අතර මුරකාමිගේ “ආෆ්ටර් ඩාර්ක්” (2004) හා “ස්පට්නික් ස්වීට්හාර්ට්” (1999) වැනි ග්‍රන්ථ වේ. කෞෂල්‍ය කෙරෙහි මුරකාමිගේ බලපෑම ඉතා තීව්‍ර බව යෝජනා කෙරෙන වෙනත් සාධක ද ඇත. ඉන් එකක් වන්නේ කාලය – නැතහොත් වෙලාව ගතවීම – ගැන මුකාමී මෙන්ම කෞෂල්‍ය ද දක්වන අවධානයයි. මෙය ඔරලෝසු මුහුණතක සටහන් වේලාවක් හෝ සෙල්ෆෝනයක දැක්වෙන වේලාවක් හෝ විය හැක. මෙය අප සම්භාව්‍යයේ දකින හෝරා භාගෙන් භාගෙට හෝ මිනිත්තු දහයෙන් දහයට හෝ ගැ‍ණෙන වේලාවන් ද නොවේ. මුරකාමි මෙන්ම කෞෂල්‍ය ද ආඛ්‍යානගත කරන්නේ බොහෝ විට අධි-නාටකීය හෝරා කියවීම් ය. යහනේ වැතිර ඉන්න කේෂානි ගේ සෙල්ෆෝනයේ සටහන් වේලාව රාත්‍රී 12.37 යි. පන්නිපිටිය දෙස වාහනය ධාවනය කරන තිවංක නුගේගොඩ පසුකරද්දි ප.ව 1.07 යි. නැවත විජේරාම හන්දිය අසලදී එය 1.27 යි (1.27 දී විජේරාම හන්දියේ වාහන තදබදය අසල සිර වී සිටිය ද තිවංක, අඩුම තරමින් ප.ව 1.58ට මිනිත්තු 8ක් හෝ 10ක් වත් තියෙන්නට පන්නිපිටියේ හයිලෙවල් පාරටම වන්නට පිහිටවා ඇති පාසලක් අද්දරට රිය පැදවීමට සමත් වෙයි).

නමුත් කෞෂල්‍ය මුරකාමීගෙන් පෝෂණය ලැබුවාට වඩා ඔහු ව යම් ආකාරයකින් කරඬුවක් ලෙස තම කෘතිය හරහා ප්‍රදර්ශනය කරමින් යන බව මට කීපවරක් සිතුනි. එම හැඟීමට සමාන අවස්ථාවක් මා ලැබුවේ මොහාන් රාජ් මඩවල ගේ (මෙම අවස්ථාවේ මට නම මතක නැති) කෙටි කතාවක් කියවීමේදීය. මඩවල ගේ මුල්ම අවධියේ කෘතියක් වන මෙය රූපාන්තරණයකට ලක්වන පුද්ගලයෙකු පිලිබඳවයි. නමුත් මා මුලින් ද සටහන් කල පරිදි කෞෂල්‍ය මුරකාමි ව කුලී පදනම මත පමණක් යොදාගනී. කතාව මැදදී, එක් අවස්ථාවක් පසුකිරීමේදී මුරකාමිමය ආඛ්‍යානය මග හැරී / හැලී සම්ප්‍රදායානුකූල සම්භාව්‍ය හඬකට කථකයා මාරු වෙයි. තම බිරිඳ වන කේෂානි ගේ විවාහයට පිට පෙම්වතා වන අසිත ගේ බිරිඳ වන උවනි ද සිල්වා ව බස් හෝල්ට් එකකදී හමු වී, තමා චිත්‍රපට අධ්‍යක්ෂක කෙනෙක් බවත් උවනි ව චිත්‍රපටයේ චරිතයකට ගන්නා බවත් පවසා, උවනි සහ ඇගේ මිත්‍ර නේත්‍රාව පන්නිපිටියේ සිට පිටකොටුවට ද, පිටකොටුවේදී කකුල උලුක්කු වන උවනිව එහි සිට ඇතුල් කෝට්ටේ පිහිටි නිවසට ද ඇරලා, ඊට පසුදිනම උවනිව තම දෙහිවල පිහිටි ෆ්ලැට් එකට ගෙන්වා තම බිරිඳ අසිත් සමඟ ලිංගිකව එක්වුනු ඇදෙහිම උවනි සමඟ ද ලිංගිකව එක්වීමේ ඉතාම අධි-නාටකීය, අභව්‍ය හා කෞෂල්‍ය එතෙක් ගොඩනගාගෙන ආ ආඛ්‍යානය කැති ගෑවී යන සිද්ධි පෙලකින් පසුව ඒ මුරකාමීමය දෝංකාරය නැවත කතා රාමුව තුලට විටෙන් විට පිවිසෙයි.

kawshalyaකෞෂල්‍ය කුමාරසිංහ “අහම්භය” යන සාධකය මත තම නිර්මාණ ව්‍යාපෘතිය ඉතා විශ්වාසයෙන් තුලනය කරන්නෙකි. මෙම සංරචකය ද අප මුල කී හරුකි මුරකාමිගේ ආයුධ පෙට්ටියේ නිතරම හමුවන කාරකයකි. අහම්භය හා එකිනෙක හරහා යන සමාන්තර අවස්ථා පාඨක අවධානය හා සමපාත කරවීම ඇතැම් අවස්ථාවන් හි දි වේදනාකාරී වන තරමට ආයාසකාරී වේ. තිවංක හා කේෂානි ගේ කුටුම්භය කේන්ද්‍රකොට ගොඩනැගෙන පථය හා සමාන්තරව යන පද්මි නම් විශ්ව විද්‍යාල ශිෂ්‍යාව ද ඇතුළු නිදහස් අධ්‍යාපනය හා සම්බන්ද තලය මෙම නිරීක්ෂණය හා බැඳේ. පද්මිගේ පෙම්වතා ලෙස ඇය පිලිගන්නා කමල් ව එදින රාත්‍රියේදී ම සුදුවෑන් එකකින් බොරැල්ලේදී පැහැරගනු ලැබේ. ඊට මොහොතකට පෙර තිවංක ඔහු සමඟ ගංජා සුරුට්ටුවක් උරමින් සිටි අතර, කතාවේ පසු අවස්ථා වලදී කෞෂල්‍ය උපායශීලීව කමල් පිලිබඳ කාරණය නැවත නැවත තිවංකගේ එදිනෙදා ජීවිතය හා අමුණන්නට උත්සාහ කරයි. ඔහු උවනිව සොයාගෙන වාහනය පදවන්නේ අතුරුදහන් කල කමල් සොයා ශිෂ්‍යයින් පවත්වන පෙලපාලියක් අතරිනි. කමල්ගේ සෞදි අරාබියේ දී මිය ගිය ගෘහ සේවිකා සොයුරියගේ මිනිය ගුවන් තොටුපොලට එන්නේ තිවංකගේ විවාහයෙන් පිට පෙම්වතෙකු සිටින බිරිඳ කේෂානි භාරයටය. කමල්ගේ පෙම්වතිය පද්මිගේ අක්කා කැරෝකි ශාලාවක සේවය කරන අතර තිවංක ඇය හා රාත්‍රියක් ගතකරයි. කමල් ගැන සදහන් හෑන්ඩ් බිල් එකක් තිවංකගේ සාක්කුවේ තිබී එය රෙදි සෝදන යන්ත්‍රයේදී පෙඟී, අනිත් ඇදුම් වලද කුඩු ලෙස දැවටෙයි. පන්නිපිටිය ධර්මාශෝක යැයි කෞෂල්‍ය පවසන විදුහල අසල තාප්පයේ කමල් ගැන පෝස්ටර් ගසා ඇත. තිවංක එතන සිටගෙන උවනි එන තෙක් බලා සිටියි. මෙම හරහා යෑම් වල සීඝ්‍රතාවය එක් අවස්ථාවකින් පසුව වෙහෙසකර වන අතර එය නිර්මාණයේ ප්‍රබලබව අභියෝගයට ලක්කරයි.

Murakami

මුරකාමි

කෞෂල්‍යගේ කෘතිය උවනිගේ හා තිවංකගේ ලිංගිකව එක්වීමේ දර්ශන හරහා යම් නාගරික ඉහල මධ්‍යම පාන්තික විඥානයේ ලිංගික පලිගැනීම හා බද්ධ වූ ෆැන්ටසියක් නිරූපණය කරයි. මෙවැනි ලිංගික ෆැන්ටසියක දෙවන අවස්ථාවක් කෘතිය අවසානයට එයි. ඒ කේෂානි, තිවංක, අසිත් හා උවනි එකම අවකාශයක හමුවන දර්ශන අවස්ථා සමගිනි. මගේ යෝජනාවට අනුව කෞෂල්‍ය නවකතාවේ මුල සිට ගොඩනගා එන රිද්මය හා බැදුනු ප්‍රකාශනයේ ශක්තිය තිවංක උවනිව හමුවන තැන සිට හීන වී යයි. ෆැන්ටසියේ නාමයෙන් කෞෂල්‍ය තම ආඛ්‍යානයේ විශ්වාසනීයත්වය නැතිකර ගනියි. මෙම තත්වය චින්තන ධර්මදාස වැන්නෙකුගේ “තිත්ත තොල්” වැනි කෘතියක තත්වය හා බැලීමේදීද වෙනස් වේ. ධර්මදාස ගේ කෘතිය නාගරික ලිංගික ෆැන්ටසියන් පොකුරක් නගරය හා ම ප්‍රක්ෂේපනය කිරීමක් වැනි ය. එය අරාජිකවාදී වන අතර පන්තිය, කුලය, වර්ගය, වාදය වැනි එදිනෙදා පැවැත්මේ සමාජමය ෆැන්ටසියන් හරහා යෑමේ විභවයක් ලිංගිකත්වයේ ෆැන්ටසියට ආරෝපණය කර ඇත. කාලය, අවකාශය වැනි කාරණා ගත්තත් ඒ අතර සමපාතයද බොඳ වූ එකකි. ධර්මදාස ඒ ආකාරයෙන් තම සීමා මායිම් තමා විසින්ම පනවාගෙන තමා හා තම වර්ගයා අතර සම්මුතියෙන් ගොඩනැගුනු තාර්කික අවකාශයක් තුල ඒ ෆැන්ටසි ප්‍රක්ෂේපණයේ යෙදෙන බව මට සිතුනි. ඒ නිසාවෙන්ම “තිත්ත තොල්” සුදු පිරුවටයක් වන්නේ නැති අතර මා මෙතෙන දී එම කෘතිය ගැන සදහනක් කරන්නේ කෞෂල්‍ය ගැන මා ගෙනයන අදහස් විමසුමට ආධාරකයක් ලෙස පමණි. “මේ රහස් කවුළුවෙන් එබෙන්න” කෘතිය එවැනි පටු ලිංගික උත්තේජනයකට එහා යන පොරොන්දුවක් මත දිගහැරෙන්නකි. උවනි හා තිවංක ගේ හමුවීම යම් ආකාරයක ගුරුත්ව කේන්ද්‍රයක් වීම හා එතනින් එහාට කතාව ෆැන්ටසිමය ලිංගිකත්ව කතිකාවක් (වැන්නක්) හරහා අධ්‍යක්ෂනය වීම අනපේක්ෂිත වූ තත්වයකි.

“Of Salt and Sand”: Pierangeli Andrado’s Return to Hambantota.

Of Salt and Sand: Tales of Old Hambantota (2017) is a series of sketches by Pierangeli Andrado, framing the life, mood and rhythm of that eponymous town of the deep South, stenciling moments, memories and anecdote from a range of sources: family tales, historical collections, cupboards of one’s memory and so on. As I understood, Pierangeli has migrated to Australia in the 1970s, and is since domiciled there, and her project, therefore, is a retrospective re-turn to “once home”; the land of her childhood and ancestry.

Of Salt and Sand Final CoverThe narrative weaves itself as a series of portraits, interspersed by stand alone renditions of verse: this latter aspect, I would comment on separately. Portraits that relate to a range of diverse persons that are connected with the narrator’s young life – from Aunt Brenda, the maid Menika / Piyaseeli, the mischievous Lantis, Mr. Butler the butterfly collector, Maxi of the Hemingway spirit and so on – producing stills of a varied path of life in Hambantota in the immediate pre and post independence eras. As a whole, the narrative comes together as a resurrection of a lost age, both in a historical sense, and in the sense it seems to releate to an individual chronicler, stirred of memory by a return after a long absence.

Pierangeli’s type of narrative is not entirely original. Musings and retrospections that delve into detail that you try to retrieve through recollection and anecdote, as well as the near-romantic nostalgia with which you synthesize that past have been the bread and butter of academic and critical discussions that inspect narratives of the present kind; and I am not ready to enter that track in the present time. Perhaps, such an entry is also unfair, as Pierangeli’s comes across as a project of coming to terms with one’s self – a kind of harmony the writer seeks by bridging her own past with present – than in making her writing a money-making modality, feeding on one’s own romanticized notions of the past.

However, one key aspect of the narrative that gives it punch and purchase is the strategic insertions of verse and poetry, which synthesizes with the anecdotal, recollective and photographic aspects of the larger thread. There are five poems that thread through the ten chapters / portraits as such, introducing to the casual story-telling rhythm of the narrative a contrapuntal effect. Even the five poems represent five moods, and tones – playing with the overall tempo of the narrative as and when they appear. I hope that I am not reading too much into these juxtapositions.

chitra

Chitra Fernando

In terms of locating Pierangeli, and in contextualizing her subject position in narrativizing Lanka, she can, at one level, be read side by side with writers such as Chitra Fernando and Yasmine Gooneratne. Same as these other two more formidable pillars of the trade, Pierangeli, too, has migrated to Australia in the 1970s, settling down with a family and a sense of permanency. Gooneratne, whose satiric prose (arguably inferior to her satiric and not-so-satiric verse) became global commodities through the 1990s, had also earlier migrated to the same country and settled down as an academic. In the case of Chitra Fernando, her short stories as well as her only novel Cousins (1998) often tend to snap back in search of familiar sights, smells and colours from a childhood spent in the neighbouhoods of Payagala in the South West of the island. Her short stories written in the early and mid-1980s urgently seek this connection – though, unlike Pierangeli, Chitra Fernando’s is presented as “fiction” (as opposed to “memoir”) that is sufficiently informed by history and culture.

30985467An aspect that struck me as significant is Pierangeli’s (not so) unconsciously subtle evocation of cultural plurality in the region: a measure that she, at times, even extends in a way that ethnic and cultural categories are diffused, if not dulled. Being a writer of Burgher origins, one obvious representation is the Burgher identity and culture, projected through both her family and the cousins she portrays. However, more intriguingly we have almost innocuously stenciled details of persons like Piyaseeli (a.k.a Menika), said to be born to a Tamil mother, and a father of African origin (and baptized “Piyaseeli”), who falls in love with the boy Jamis. Elsewhere, a chapter is dedicated to Muhsin and represents the Muslim and Malay thread of the Hambantota community. All this, in a post-2009 context where Hambantota had actually become a headline maker, albeit the state-sponsorship and partiality it received during the Rajapaksha regime of 2005-2015, and as an outpost of “unadulterated Sinhala Buddhist heroism”.

“Holding Out”: Pulsara Liyanage’s Memoir of a Privileged Political Prisoner.

Pulsara Liyanage’s Holding Out (2017) is subtitled as the “Memoirs of a Political Prisoner in Sri Lanka 1986-1988”. The introduction to the book is by Dayan Jayatilleka, while Asoka Handagama has provided it a “Prologue” of sorts. We are already in a curious mix of a diverse company: Jayetilleka, a proven man of many forms where the wind blows – one-time EPRLF hardcore, Premadasa-loyalist of the late 80s, Rajapakshist and a vanguard in the defense of that regime in the post-war years and so on -, and Handagama, who has always been identified with the Left Wing of politics, ideology and art, as well as as a sympathizer of the JVP of the late 1980s, appearing in the same page no doubt arouses much reader interest.

HOLDING-OUT-Pulsara’s subtitle – loaded as it is with much marketability – however, falls short of its promise by a long way. For, as a “memoir” of a “political prisoner in Sri Lanka” during the run up to the abominable Reign of Terror (1987-90), her narrative is a story of a privileged upper middle class, well connected girl whose incarceration, if taken as an indicator, severally undermines the extent and brutality of the violence practiced by the state and its legal and illegal milita during the years with which the narrative is concerned. Hers is a “memoir” of a “Privileged Political Prisoner”, kept in detention under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act at the Slave Island Police. Yet, unlike a countless thousands of common cases, hers is relatively not a humiliating or a disgraceful detention. She is housed in a relative degree of comfort, her family being knowledgeable of her whereabouts, her family being able to visit and speak to her during her detention period, and with her being able to be in contact with political figures of eminence, such as Vivienne Goonewardena and Chandrika Kumaratunga, of whom the former is said to have visited her at her cell quite regularly.

The memoirs do little to question or to cast in a critical light the overwhelming grip of state terrorism, and its resultant structured violence of which ordinary men and women who do not have the “means” or the “ways” are more cruelly the victims. Routine harassment and violence within the Police premises are glossed over, without critical or reasonable assessment. Pulsara’s book is less about the victimization of political activists, but more about her triumph of being a privileged detainee, and how she manages to keep herself in tact through a two year period. She manages to be rational in a world that seems to crumble around her, and be of benevolent help to women like Sivamalar and Sarath: men and women in other custodian cells beside her, but who are seen helpless and hopeless than she is. She even writes a letter to Chandrika Kumaranatuna at the time of her husband Vijaya’s assassination, upholding her ideal in consoling another victimized woman at time of crisis, even while being behind bars herself.

meena_colombo1Interestingly, for a writer who seems to be quite aware of and sensitive to the subjection of the person in custody – specially, in questionable circumstances under which many men and women have been detained under the PTA – and, then again, the treatment of the female prisoner in Police or military custody, Pulsara Liyanage’s narrative doesn’t reach beyond her singular experience. Perhaps, she was lucky, or else, her background and class served as immunity, but narratives exist that document and suggest deplorable conditions in which women suspects were held; and of the harrowing experiences they have had to go through as a result of such captivity. For me, the most compelling narrative comes from Rohitha Munasinghe, who relates to sexual slavery to which women in military captivity were subjected to, as witnessed by him as an inmate of the infamous Eliyakandha torture camp, in Brown’s Hill (Eliyakandha), in Matara. In his Eliyakandha Wadha Kandhawura Munasinghe outlines how women are herded into a part of the encampment and are exclusively kept for the sexual urges of the soldiers. After a time, fresh batches are brought in; the used ones either being bumped off, bearing “traitor” labels, or, in rare cases, being set free. Munasinghe bases the same experience in the composition of a short story titled “Kanyaaviya” (The Virgin) in his collection Raaga Sutra (Discourses on Passion). In this latter, a university girl is randomly abducted and taken to a torture camp and forced into sexual play, while being kept among a group of other women, detained for similar purposes. However, owing to shock and terror the girl gives no response, except to defecate under duress. After repeated attempts, she is finally taken to a bridge and shot to death, and then discarded.

In Victor Gunathilake’s 71, 89 Mathakayan (Memories of 71, 89) reference is made to a killing of two young school girls – hinted to be taken into custody by the Mahagama Police – on top of the Kalawellawa bridge. The bridge had been known to be a spot where the military would bring young men and women (some, suspects of being JVP-ers, others not) to be shot. An eerie reference is made to a pack of pariah dogs who were said to idle by the bridge, who were heftier and bigger than the rest, who feed on the remains of the shot. They are said to come running at the bridge at the sound of gun fire – Ivan Pavlov all over again. What follows is my rough translation of Gunathilake, as he relates to the witnessing of the killings of the two young girls mentioned earlier:

“We could hear the ordinary sobbing of a few female voices. Just then, continuous rounds of gun fire came out, like crackers being lit. Then, all we heard was the sound of something being tipped over into the river… With the break of dawn everything became gradually clear. Two bodies were stuck among some cut bamboo which had earlier been stuck in a part of the river… The bodies were of two girls, possibly aged seventeen to nineteen. They were both clad in uniforms of some school. They weren’t in brassier or panties, and in one girl, the frock had been wrapped around her body, while she was stripped topless. The eyes were not blindfolded. As they were shot on the chest, there was a large wound in their backs… The second girl had been shot on the head and a prominent part of her face was disfigured. She wore no brassier or panties either. It was clear that they had been arrested from some other area, had been kept in the camp for a while, and had now been finally shot and dumped in the river” (Gunathilake, 147-148).

The time period covered by Victor Gunathilake’s narrative is the same as the years Pulsara is concerned with; and Victor’s is a chosen excerpt from among many documented such instances, in order to develop the current discussion.

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North and South: title of a Gaskell novel

Pulsara’s focus is also heavily set on a number of female detainees, and as such, several key chapters deal with a range of women who are in the Police premises at varying capacities. The suspected LTTE activist Sivamalar, the girl whom Pulsara meets at the Sri Jayewardenapura Hospital who is recovering from an attempted suicide – Kanchana –, the unnamed “girl from Negombo”, the prostitutes of Slave Island etc are among the various females Pulsara factors in to the narrative. The three matrons of the Police Prison – Carolinahamy, Sallynona and Annamma – too receive a chapter of their own. But, Pulsara fails to go beyond the anecdote and establish the complexity of these different players, locating them in the overall corrupt and violent system. Partly, her superiority implied through her classed, educated and connected background makes her role play the “liberal-minded benefactor” to even these other women who have been cast to play the thoroughfare rabble to milady. The narrative of the girl from Negombo and the prostitutes – pathetically euphemized as “the twilight ladies” – are anecdotal and anecdotal alone. They, at one level, provide Pulsara the exhibition a caged animal or an alien species would, though Pulsara herself is caged: a lesser cage, if at all. The questionable way these other women are perceived and localized by the Police in the process of “meting justice”, or the legal and structural restrictions that undermine their condition as humans do not come within Pulsara the anecdote-teller’s range.

The Epilogue of the book makes several bold statements – some of them not original, but confrontational none the less. There are several references to the smashing up of suspects and of them being humiliated and reduced by the Police while being taken into custody under abusive emergency regulations. There are also accusations leveled at the JVP/DJV for attacks on moderate and alternative commentators and activists. In a selective tabulation of human rights violations, Pulsara quotes from the report later submitted by the commission appointed by President Kumaratunga to inquire into state violence during 1987-90, where Pulsara highlights the involvement of Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe in overseeing a Housing Scheme in Batalanda that was used as a torture encampment. Written in 2017, this timely re-reminder of Wickramasinghe’s alleged involvement in incarceration and murder is less obvious, but what is intriguing is her de-selection of other similar Princes of the State – among them, kingmakers and regime-changers of later times – whose hands are soaked with the blood of extra-judicial murder. The names of individuals such as Rajitha Senaratne, Gamini Lokuge, the late Ossie Abeygunasekara – some of them loyal to UNP stalwarts like Premadasa with whom Pulsara’s own friends such as Dayan Jayatilleke have broken bread with – are often heard in alternative lobbies as being directly or indirectly connected with the supervision of state-sponsored murder (one such detailed entry, for example, is found in Rajan Hoole’s The Arrogance of Power). However, for Pulsara, Ranil Wickramasinghe’s name is the one name that is politically significant to earn a mention in his memoir.

Dilantha, Jayathissa and Vivimarie: a Few Observations and Marginal Notes Related to Their Recent Work.

This is written as a silence-breaker, as I have in a while not contributed to this space I have been maintaining. These are a few observations on three collections of poetry I have had the opportunity of reading in the past few months: Dilantha Gunawardana’s Kite Dreams (2016), Vivimarie Vanderpoorten’s Borrowed Dust (2017) and Jayatissa K. Liyanage’s Shadows (2017).

z_p35-kitingDilantha Gunawardana’s collection of about 50 poems, Kite Dreams, represents less than the tip of the iceberg Dilantha is as a person and as a tireless writer. Of his wider corpus, what he publishes in his poetry blog testifies to a rigorous poetic mind at work, with a turn out rate which, to be put mildly, is feverish. In fact, Dilantha’s better work are found in the blog; and that may purely be a case of selection, as the act of anthologizing does not necessarily let you shortlist the best. He writes with flair and energy, and he seems to be in love with the very idea of lyrical richness and the aesthetic of the articulated word. Kite Dreams has its chief weakness in its selection; and this is best gauged when you compare the line up with some of the poems that come in Dilantha’s blogs. This, too, is a shortage that can be fixed when he publishes again. In any case, the best strength of Sarasavi, Dilantha’s publisher, is not its imagination.

Dilantha seems to write partly as an exercise in the light of sublimation: a necessary transformation of force and energy. In this way, his writing seems to connect intimately with his day-to-day volition, and this is easily perceived through his corpus which, in its diversity, range and scope, is akin to a mini log of Dilantha, the person. His updated work can be found here, and I share this link as I encourage the reader to juxtapose this with his published work before forming any judgment: Dilantha’s Poetry Blog

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Dilantha G.

Interestingly, Dilantha comes with a training as a Botanist; and for him, poetry is an adventure on which he embarked much later is life. As hinted earlier, partly, for him the poetic exercise is a therapy, while it is also a means of creatively transforming energy through meaningful communication. His is not an ambitious or contrived effort to make political statements or politically correct measurements that will eventually win you a seat in a panel discussing gender or violence in prudish, pretentious tones; but, an expression for the sake of articulation.

In that way, Jayathissa Liyanage’s Shadows – a collection Jayathissa has put together, collecting from his work over the past twelve years or so – forms a close link with Dilantha’s work. Jayathissa himself ventured into composition in English later in his life, and by admission, “not even dreamed of composing in English” until he had stumbled on it by chance. Jayathissa – again – comes from a Science / agriculture studies background; and writes in his retirement as a means of seeking contentment. He is also a prolific composer in Sinhala, and recently launched a series of work which he claims will be of benefit “for [his] grand children” if they so wonder about the feats of their grand father, as a child and youth. Jayathissa’s writing has the unmistakable stamp of biography, and is often marked by a psychological investigation of one’s self and one’s past from the vantage point of a mature present.

Taking up poetry late, perhaps, has left what may be called “certain restrictions” in Jayathissa’s style and craft. For example, his over-dependence on conventional, classical structure, and the frequenting of heavy phraseology at times makes his poetry stiff in sections. Yet, his ambitionlessness, and the lack of pretense as a writer – teamed with the joy and happiness he (claims to) seek(s) through composition – are refreshing and rewarding in an age where writers often write with awards and cash prizes in mind.

sdrVivimarie Vanderpoorten’s Borrowed Dust is the third of the collections I wish to draw briefly on; and, too, with the mind that that collection should be spoken of at length in a separate essay. If her three collections since 2007 – nothing prepares you, Stitch your Eyelids Shut and Borrowed Dust – are an indicator, Vivimarie is one of those writers who begins with a climax and slides down, earth-bound. nothing prepares you, to date, remains her best achievement; and in many ways, Borrowed Dust constitutes a distant echo of the same. The style and temperament Vivimarie showcased with her debut are palpable in sudden revelations in some of the poems cast in this, her “return” to the literary mainstream. However, the back blurb, with various lines of praise of Vivimarie based on her past work, is in bad taste for a writer of her stature. Once again, her publisher – Sarasavi – the same as Dilantha’s ought to rethink these citations, as they, at some level, reflect on the writer’s temperament.

After certain criticisms that were meted out at her Stitch Your Eyelids Shut (2012), Vivimarie is said to have taken time off to “rework” her style, and the intermittent five years, at a glance, have brought her closer to her nothing prepares you days. Disconnection and dislocation in experience heavily feature in the corpus, with memorable passages from family violence to scars from school life. The poem she wrote in the height of the FUTA strike in 2012, dedicated to the memory of two student leaders whose deaths are wrapped with the suspicion of having been carried out by the state militia, too, is featured in this collection. In thematic terms, this singular poem stands apart from the rest, and somewhat naked too. However, from the perspective of Sri Lankan poetry, a third volume by a student of the craft is a welcome moment. More of these, in another substantive entry.

Niromi de Soyza’s “Tamil Tigress”: a Few Marginal Additions to the “Fake v. Fact” Debate.

The more skeptical camp of Niromi de Soyza’s supposed-autobiography in general agree that it is possible that Subothini Anandaraja had a peripheral involvement with the Tamil Tigers, but that the book is an embellishment of that involvement, and that, as such, the “autobiography” is in large a weave based on fiction, other available sources and hearsay. One such external source that is cited by de Soyza’s dissenters is that of M.R Narayana Swami’s writings on the LTTE. In other spaces, mainly the Australian media and literary platforms, the book has gone unquestioned and thereby, considered a work of integrity and authenticity. Youtube footage of Niromi de Soyza at the Adelaide Film Festival of that year, among other platforms where she had been emotionally distressed while speaking of the book, were all experiences that post-date my initial essay on Tamil Tigress which was written soon after my first reading of the supposed-autobiography in 2012. Parallel to my first reading, I had already had a rudimentary glance at the already growing criticism aimed at the work’s authenticity and – more so – of its sincerity.

In a more exhaustive reading of Niromi de Soyza, I would more strongly reaffirm my earlier feelings that the book is most likely a carefully crafted semi-fiction: the kind of book that we anchor on facts to give a supportive historical vibe, but one that still leaves a hollowness and lack of credibility, owing to the many disagreements between fact and representation, the incongruity of detail, and the mistakes and misdirections that, at one level, are inevitable when you are writing out of second-hand knowledge. With a view not to repeat or overlap what many readers / critics (including myself) have earlier pointed out, in this essay, I wish to highlight a few further instances that render Tamil Tigress as suspect.

For a writer who often keeps close track of time and duration while making frequent notes of dates, months and the time lapse between incidents, minor, almost negligible details that are unconvincingly presented often push the narrative towards incredibility and towards credulity. For Niromi, in 1979, the Yal Devi offers A/C carriages, and the burning of the Jaffna Library – generally accepted to have been carried out on the night of June 1st 1981 – happens in a morning. In the Third Chapter, set in 1983, Niromi claims to be a child of 12, though earlier, it is tabled that she was born in 1969 (she is 8 years old when, in 1977, she is relocated to Jaffna), which would make her 13+ in that year of the 83 Pogrom. The train journey from Norton Bridge to Jaffna, which Niromi undertakes with her father, takes 18 hours.

Speaking of the Sinhala Only Act (1956) and the Standardization of University entrance (1972), the writer refers to both these implements in the space of the same paragraph, as if they are in consequence of each other. In reality, the two enactments are a decade and a half apart from each other, while many other developments which the writer leaves out of the narrative (such as, for example, the failed pacts between Chelvanayakam and two successive regimes) had widened the ethnic gulf in the interim. She makes a passing reference to anti-Tamil agitations of 1956 and 1977, though there is no reference made to 1958, 1979 or 1981. These de-selections are intriguing; specially, in the case of the violence of 1981, when the writer is said to have lived in close quarters to the town.

The writer refers to a Tamil call for a Sovereign state in 1978. Assuming that this is a reference to the Vaddukottai Resolution, the year of that confederation is generally agreed on as being in 1976. Yet, for a sheltered, convent-educated girl of conventional surroundings, Niromi is, nonetheless, very political. At 14, she is already anxious of a possible state-engineered Tamil genocide. At 16, and having had lived the last 8 years of her formative years in Jaffna, she is perceptive enough to ponder on how politicians create polarization among the people in the South and the North for their own petty gains. There is a schizophrenic disparity in personality between this “perceptive Niromi”, and the “uncritical, single-minded Niromi” who gets drawn to militarism in spite of faint misgivings of the LTTE. She is either blind or insensitive to instances of LTTE ruthlessness, in spite of several incidents that stir doubt within her. The killing of an EPRLF carder, “Benjamin”, by the LTTE, the killing of Principal C.E Anandarajah, the brutal killing of Vellai – a fellow carder – and the story of an LTTEr being ordered to kill his own father suspected of espionage are instances that waver Niromi; but, she, in spite of her otherwise critical-minded energy, always reasons in favour of the Movement. This leaves a palpable inconsistency of character.

From the beginning, Niromi’s home is defined as a conventional, strict household that monitors the children’s movements and pastimes. Even though one may overlook shampoo, a rare and luxurious item in 1985, being routinely used by her upper-middle class family, the casual, offhand references to pickets and demonstrations in which Niromi is said to have taken part in her pre-LTTE days come across as being incongruous with the iron hand of her parentage. These pickets are casually referred to as an aside, while describing something else: more like “fillers”, or “additional” information. How did Niromi participate in these pickets? When did she do so? Where were those pickets held? Why weren’t they referred to in the order of sequence as they happened? How did she go unnoticed in these demonstrations?

In April 1986, due to the rise of militancy in the North, the G.C.E O/L exam is said to be already postponed indefinitely. Why would anyone call off an exam set for December as early as April? The EPRLF ideologue Benjamin is said to have had a Tamil accent of Indian origin, and not one of the Hill Country. What this means, only the writer can elaborate.

On July 1st 1987, Niromi and her fellow female combatants begin military training. However, there is very little detail regarding the specificities of the training. Descriptions given are often banal, and too general in character. In short, there is not enough evidence to convince the reader that Niromi had necessarily undergone weapon training. Details of camp-life is often expressed without character. Even more interesting is how Niromi and Ajanthi – both frequently marked apart from the “general female carder” for their more “affluent” backgrounds – and the combatants from remote and impoverished socio-economic circumstances get along with no tension or friction. Class or its implications or complications do not hinder camp life, except in the case of the senior, male leadership, who treat Niromi differently from the rest, being considerate of her softer upbringing. The female carder are also seen playing a game called “Guessing the Laugh”. This choice of name came across as classed, and improbable.

Book_Tamil_TigressThe generally elusive LTTE leader Prabhakaran is omnipresent in Niromi de Soyza’s Tamil Tigress. He is seen coming and going to the “Freedom Birds Headquarters” at all hours, freely mingling with the carder. He even explains step by step of his political programme (such as the laying down of arms in 1987 etc) to the female carder. Though this is not improbable, there is still an air of fiction and embellishment about these passages. Prabhakaran is seen engaged in weapon training in a part of the Jaffna University, even though the campus is said to be within the range of IPKF missiles. A large quantity of intercepted letters, photo albums and documents of importance are seen to idly lie in the Freedom Birds Headquarters, which includes correspondences from moderate Tamil politicians in exile, writing home. In one of his meetings with Niromi, Prabhakaran hands over Rs. 20000 for purposes of clothing the female wing. In 1986, that amount for that specific purpose is somewhat overwhelming. Other leading figures whom Niromi gets a chance to interact at close quarters include Mahatthaya, Kittu, Yogi Master and Karikalan.

The writer claims that LTTE frontliner Kittu’s leg was critically injured and amputated about “18 months prior to” July 1987: the month of Niromi’s commencing her weapon training. By this admission, Kittu’s injury would have been received in January 1986. Historically, the injury is understood to have occurred in March 1987. Going by Niromi’s timeline, the ceremonial handing over of arms by the LTTE to the IPKF happens in mid-August 1987, a few weeks past its possible historical date. Niromi’s weapon training ends in the end of August: a course of 2 months. Later, she is sent to set up claymore mines, though there was never references to her being educated in mine-setting during her basic 2 month training.

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Subothini Anandaraja alias Niromi de Soyza with Frances Harrison  

According to Niromi, a Government Agent is shot to death a few months after Thileepan’s death in September 1987. The said official’s daughter, by the writer’s admission, was her classmate. Who this government official is a bit unclear. Jaffna’s Government Agent from 1984 to 1989, Panchalingam, was shot to death by the LTTE in 1989. Still, in 1987, a group of Jaffna university students, on their way to the computer lab, is stopped by Niromi and her fellow cadres who are on sentry duty at the campus gates, making the studentship disgruntled. Indeed, it is worth to verify the existence of such a facility – and, in spite of my ignorance, there may have been such a center – even though according to the University of Jaffna website, the Faculty of Science, along with a Computer Science Department, was only set up in 1991.

In the first instance of being unexpectedly called upon to halt the progress of an encroaching enemy battalion, Niromi rushes in, while eating biscuits. She has a brief Wordworthian moment when, 100 meters ahead of her, she spots a “thousand” IPKF soldiers waiting in ambush. Niromi’s sentry duty falls almost always at either 1.00 AM or 2.00 AM. There is something uncannily repetitive about that roster. She is both witty and quick in responses with even the senior-most carders: this, in spite of the LTTE being introduced as a strict, hierarchical institute. At one point, Niromi has senior male carders such as Roshan tightly wrapped around her finger, while carders like Razzak, Thileepan and Muralie are different to her. Even Prabhakaran speaks to her with visible difference.

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Niromi de Soyza (Image c/o her website)

Most unconvincing are the two battle scenes which Niromi minutely outlines for us. The first battle scene – the unexpected confrontation with the IPKF and the retreat – is quite unconvincing. The mode of the LTTE’s operation, if indeed it happened the way it did, betrays an amateurish rag-tag quality. The Second Battle is a disaster, especially if the writer uses it to evoke pathos and tragedy. The second battle triggers as the contingent led by Muralie and Sudarshan try to cross a road, and is set upon by the enemy from all sides. This scene, I feel, is heavy in melodrama and echoes a badly choreographed Bollywood script. Bullets are seen whizzing by, while bombs thrown are seen to cinematically cut across the air towards you, giving you just enough time to duck, and to call out a warming to the carder next to you (Gandhi Aiya); and for it to hit the fellow carder, his brains to spill all over you, and for his headless torso to fall on the ground. Bullets are seen to graze you by, hitting all in the vicinity, but you. Even as carder after carder fall attempting to scamper across the road, the rest still follow through. Banana fronds, water tanks and roofs are readily available for carders to retreat to. The 2000-strong enemy misses his target within touching distance.

Michael Roberts and DBS Jayraj were two writers whose commentary of the book in those initial stages came across as engaging, and since then, there have been others who have contributed to the discourse sparked by Tamil Tigress. Roberts, writing from Adelaide, has made several submissions and collated others’ views in his blog space, assessing the text as questionable, and dishonest, to say the least. Jeyaraj, on the other hand, has made sustained efforts to defend the text, even while going to the extent of supplementing the reader with personal anecdotes and chunks of background information that would make the reader rethink the work as fact. In fact, one of Jeyaraj’s entries, written in his engaging hand, is more fulfilling than Niromi de Soyza’s rendition. Jeyaraj comes across as having all the right information that will fit all the questions people have to ask of the book. No wonder Niromi de Soyza is yet to answer her critics.

And After She Shuts the Door? : Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan”.

Is it an accident that Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), at one level, offers a playful and mischievous response to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879)? Of the little history I know of either playwright I am yet to come across a close association between the two, but yet the above line of inquiry intrigues me, given the frequent cross-sections at which the two plays meet. This, in a context where the first English version of A Doll’s House premiered in London in 1889, and where Wilde, a dynamo of the literary and social circuits of his day, first publicizes Lady Windermere in 1892.

oscar-wilde-avatar-15211For a playwright who was also a favourite of the London society circles, Wilde was a first-hand witness to the social and moral frictions and tensions of the milieu of the upper middle class: a class whose theater-goers would now be introduced to and familiarized with what has since been proverbial as “Nora’s Question” in Ibsen’s play: the moral dilemma of a straitjacketed, middle class woman who had been accustomed to find “contentment” in her male-dominant, humdrum marriage to the banker, Trovald Helmer. The play develops in a way where Nora, after a sequence of events, finally unshackles herself from the marriage; and foregoes her domestic commitments by leaving the house, in order to “realize herself” as an individual. The play ends with her walking out to a world that is unknown and challenging; but, by implication, one that is freer and energized with hope.

Henrik_IbsenIn many levels, Wilde’s somewhat simplistic comic plot arrangement in Lady Windermer’s Fan seems to parody and unpack the stiff humanistic and moralistic frame Ibsen’s play operates in. Lady Windermere is, at its simplest, a conflict caused by mistaken identity, which is easily reminiscent of the frame of classical comedy. The eponymous Lady Windermere, now two years into her marriage, mistakenly construes that her spouse is secretly engaged in an affair with an older widow of “dubious reputation”, a Mrs. Margaret Eerlynn. The Lady, in turn, is wooed by a Lord Darlington whom she first rejects on moral grounds; but, subsequently thinks better of accepting. A series of convenient coincidences, allowances and prohibitions later, her submission to Darlington is avoided in the last minute through Mrs. Eerlynn’s intervention. The latter urges the Lady to stay with Lord Windermere and not to walk out of her marriage and her child. In the concluding Act, the Lady learns of Mrs. Eerlynn to be her mother, whom she from a young age was made to believe had been dead.

Wilde seems to playfully mock the ease with which Nora Helmer walks out of her settled, middle class marriage life, out into a world where she has no foothold or banister; all, in the name of agency and individual will. Lady Windermere, alike Nora, is indoctrinated courtesy of her socialization through the upper middle class with “principled morals” and a “sense of right and wrong” which are closely hinged to her being a “happy wife”. Under the impression that her husband had had an affair, she chooses to forsake this cherished code — but, not until then. By making things so, Wilde rejects from the root the idea of “morality” as a condition, but evaluates it as a necessary construction that defines one’s desired social and domestic roles. As a play, Lady Windermerer’s Fan dwells heavily on the theme of “morality” — this, for that matter, is a recurrent line in the “society scenes” in both Acts 2 and 3 — but, the play ends with the Lady falling back on the safety net of family and upper middle class stability. The reasons for her “not breaking through”, at this point, are inconsequential; but, in her we find a woman who “almost errs” into recklessness, upon an error of judgment.

il_fullxfull.337053865In his novel Bluebeard (1987), Kurt Vonnegut, in passing, takes the reader back to the “Problem of Nora”. In the novel, celebrity artist Dan Gregory’s much abused mistress Marilee Kemp tells the young narrator / protagonist Rabo Karabekian as to how the story of Nora walking out of her marriage and domestic is a myth. On what does Nora propose to survive in the world? Who is going to provide her employment? Marilee’s dilemma , being unable to escape the abusive Dan Gregory who otherwise provides for her in materialistic fronts is similar to what, Marilee suggests, Nora must face. The following lines are memorable as they are perceptive in the way they pull down Ibsen’s lofty ideals to the  ground:

“Nora didn’t have any skills or education. She disn’t even have money for food and a place to stay… That ending is a fake!… Ibsen just tacked it on so the audience could go home happy. He didn’t have the nerve to tell what really happened, what the whole rest of the play says has to happen… She has to commit suicide — and I mean right away: in front of a streetcar or something before the curtain comes down” (Bluebeard, p. 142-143)

Is Wilde’s then an attempt to balance out with commonsensical and practical caution the zealous idealism the London audience is peddled with by his famed Norwegian contemporary? Witty and charming in the outset, irreverent of upper middle class morality and convention, can the dramatist yet stress on the need for restraint; for, in Lady Windermere’s being held back alone climaxes his parodic rebuttal? I assign no value to the direction in which Wilde takes the contention of “conformity” against “breakaway” in the play, as I don’t see his interest being one moral. Rather, his interest is that of a counterpart who strives to rebut the controversial — yet fanatical — “Solution of Nora” which Ibsen proposes.

ShawLady Windermere appeals to our interest as being a contentious text at other points too. The mundane quality of the relationship Nora shares with Helmer — a perfect picture where furniture, benefits and appliances go; but one that, nonetheless, leaves an emotional vacuum in Nora  — complements with what Lady Windermere is moved to believe is the rut her marriage has fallen into, with Lord Windermere allegedly being in an affair with Mrs. Eerlynn. Another resonance is found in Dr. Rank of A Doll’s House who adds to Nora’s growing confusion with a declaration of love; that, too, at the brink of his own death. In a melodramatic passage of play that almost seems to mock at sensationalized love declarations, Lord Darlington, in Act 2, communicates to Lady Windermere his love for her, in a corner of a drawing room already teemed with party guests. An element of scandal hovers over both plots: in Ibsen’s play, tension builds up concerning a borrowing of money in which Nora finds herself at the mercy of Krogstadt. Similarly, the assumed “scandal” of Lord Windermere courting Mrs. Eerlynn impacts the movement of the plot in Lady Windermere throughout the four Acts. The influence of Mrs. Linde’s presence in Nora’s life, to a certain level, can be seen in parallel to Mrs. Eerlynn’s influence in Lady Windermere finding a last minute reprieve in her name and reputation being saved from disgrace. The Lady had earlier decided to leave her husband under the misconception of his having an affair with Mrs. Eerlynn, and the latter steps in to prevent the Windermere family from disruption.

In the immediate years that predate Lady Windermere’s Fan Wilde had had average success with his two attempts at Tragedy, with The Duchess of Padua and Salome. The latter, in particular, is a powerful dramatic achievement, but one that left Wilde desperately at edge, as it was banned upon being staged. For Wilde, the years 1890-1892 would have been spent in a certain degree of agitation and tension, in spite of the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Dorian Gray, in a way, is akin to a gospel on public morality and society — or, at the least, how Wilde assessed them — and the defense he had to put up in saving his novel from the choler of London’s upper middle class moral police was both strenuous and tiring. These developments which would have taxed Wilde’s own creative energy, temperament and patience are concurrent to Ibsen’s premiering in London with A Doll’s House. The surprise should be if Oscar Wilde did not want to make a fitting repartee.  

 

Regulations to Bat Blades: More for the Game, More for Cricket.

To have a maximum upper-limit regarding the depth of a Cricket bat’s blade is commonsensical, though it has eluded the far-thinking Establishment of the game until the last year or two. The height and width of a Cricket bat, and the substance from which it can be made, are clearly set down in the rule book; so, why not the depth? The debate that has largely been happening on the sidelines and corridors of Cricket has now, once again, been refreshed by the recent MCC proposal that a comprehensive parameter should be set for the thickness of the blade of a bat.

The debate on bat “thickness” has finally been recognized as an issue, though, coincidentally it happens in an age where a non-Caucasian team such as India has grown a reputation for using “abnormal” bats, and in applying them to churn scorecards that look like pay cheques. Still, better late than never, I would say, since this — same as some of the other areas where Cricket needs revision — is a focus of paramount importance; except that the move comes a decade too late. The record books, milestones and careers made and unmade in that period of a decade would have been otherwise if this lapse was considered a shortcoming and treated accordingly.

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The bat used by Barry Richards to score 376, and the club used by David Warner

The use of thick blades has become a ridiculous tactical edge in global Cricket, and this is not to undermine the sterling quality in players like David Warner, Chris Gayle, M.S Dhoni, Virat Kohli and so on who depend on bats with extremely thick blades, but to say that, perhaps, some of their performances over the years would have been more “mortal” to fathom, and less abnormal to the eye, had there been a proper standard set for the upper limit to the depth. Growing up in the mid 1990s, an oft repeated fact, and with some admiration / amusement, too, was to do with the bat Sachin Tendulkar – then, an upcoming star in the Indian outfit – used: of its weight on the heavier side, and how it contrasted with the wafer-thin willow his Captain, the stylist Mohammed Azharuddin, used to carry.

Then, a decade later, the discussion on weight shifts into the blade’s thickness, and a whole generation of power-hitters with doctored bats – which look more like clubs from a war-epic than bats – enter the fray. Specially, with the rise of T-20 and the commercial and economic implications of that mode, a format where the bat-dominates-the-ball was conceived, and that conception worked well with all noble parties who were willing to make a monetary and material investment out of the game. The impact T-20 had had on almost every aspect of the game in the past decade is arguably more revolutionary and decisive than what the game had undergone in terms of change in all of post-world war years. Unfortunately, the game was allowed to be dented as a money-spinner with very little focus on quality or balance. The involvement of extremely successful and murderously ambitious businessmen in the game and its enclaves — a scenario where any aspect of the game could be bought, sold, promoted, condemned, cut off, or silenced — as well as its power epicenter moving from the traditional climate of England to an alliance maneuvered by Indian stakeholders were among the key changes global Cricket has been pushed through in this very decisive, yet unenlightened decade of ours.

Among other news sources, The Herald Sun, in a recent article carried on the subject, supposes the new proposals to reduce the thickness of a blade to 67 mm. This, in a context where the club carried by a player like David Warner of Australia – custom made for his liking – can have a blade thickness of 80 mm. Such gigantic arsenals have increasingly taken over from the natural stamina, strength and ability of players, and often carried a miss-hit over the wide-third man boundary, if not over the heads of the in-ring fielders to an open space in the outfield.

My own personal concern on the thickness of the bat-blades came with the abnormality with which the Indian Cricketers suddenly began to score at ease, four or five years back, amassing runs almost at will, with their edges carrying them over the ropes, and any deft touch resulting in a boundary. Some of these players were not athletically built or with muscle, but, they seemed to apply their clubs with a brutal finality — characteristic of players who flourished for India in the last half a decade or so, such as M.S Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina and so on. In the current set up, we have players like K.L Rahul who often edge his way to the boundary. These players are not stylists in the way a Sunil Gavaskar, Mohammad Azharuddin, a Saurav Ganguly or a Rahul Dravid were. None of them have the Vertical-elegance of the stroke, as what they apply is the weight of the bat on the ball, which, at the most, produce a crude half-way between a thrust and a Cricket shot. However, the piles of runs they score have made this obvious bluntness in style invisible, and no Cricket commentator or writer would dare call them club-wielders, lacking the style and elegance of a classical Cricketer.

In my opinion, other things that have to go out of the game includes the DRS system, the avalanche of T-20 fixtures, and at least one of the mandatory power plays in limited overs games. DRS should be a definite exclusion, as it compromises the level of “human engagement” in the sport. The LBW is not to be treated as a case of accuracy in decision, against inaccuracy; but, as a “human judgment” (that of the umpire standing 20 yards off) of the possibility of a ball hitting a wicket or not, if not obstructed by the batsman’s pad. To translate that into an impossible scientific-mathematical problem is to take away from the natural human instinct. The accuracy of an LBW decision given by the Umpire, as well as its inaccuracy, are both part of the game.

The Use and Abuse of Classical Motifs: The “Mahabharatha” in Shankari Chandran’s “Song of the Sun God”.

In her Song of the Sun God, Shankari Chandran uses many references to canonical classical texts, among which, the Mahabharatha is the most frequently used interjection; which is used almost as a motif that detains our attention for its frequency and purpose of use. This series of references are very carefully thought out, and done as a part of a conscious project which maps symbolic resonances between the two warring factions of cousins, and the Tamil and Sinhala nations of post-independence. One might even say that the kind of allusion Shankari makes to the Mahabharatha is predictable and not too unobvious a reference; except that, in a text that strives to narrate the deep sense of dislocation of the Tamil community within the modern Sri Lankan nation, the borrowing of a classical Indian epic as a set-piece doesn’t render a strong anchor for that community under threat. One may ask, why, at all, an Indian epic? Why, the Mahabharatha? What added impetus can one derive from such a scaffolding of an iconic text around the weave that deals with the rupture and schisms of the modern nation? Personally, I felt that Shankari’s stubborn leeching on to the Mahabharatha as a motif was, after a point, a tad contrived, and that it took away from the strength of her delivery.

SONG-OF-THE-SUN-GOD-FINAL-COVERShankari’s appropriation of the Mahabharatha is not as ambitious as Manuka Wijesinghe’s creative re-weaving of the Ramayana myth, in her Monsoons and Potholes, which is a second novel from more recent literature that uses a scaffolding of myth to give the text overall direction. In Shankari, the Mahbharatha motif, as overused and exhausted as it is, is referenced at least in seven instances out of at least twelve interweaves with iconic oriental classical texts (that in no other way impact the development of the storyline). Out of these, the Ramayana and Mahawansa are referenced at least twice, while the Thirukkural – a text that is more centrally locatable in the Tamil community of Lanka – is marginally referenced in one of the early chapters.

The more obvious usage of the Mahabharatha is as an association for the disintegration of order, where two warring factions that share (in some way) a common ancestry, wage a destructive, epic battle bathing both houses with blood and agony. The filming of Karnan, a film where Karna (of the Mahabharatha) is the hero, is screened against the larger national bedrock where the infamous Sinhala Only debates are taking place. Karnan is played by Sivaji Ganeshan, and on the eve of the fatal final battle, Karnan is deprived of his magical breastplate – the one call that will make him immune to all adversary. “The armour was fused to Karna’s body and he bled as he cut it from his flesh, knowing that his death in the war was now inevitable”. Parallel to this, protests against the Language Bill was being neutralized with violence and the one “power” that will place the Tamil community on par with the other linguistic majority was being pulled away. Shankari’s supplement reads: “The Tamils no longer had a language with which to communicate with the State – and the State would no longer listen to them… In the North, Tamil people refused to comply. They did business in Tamil, they stuck Tamil number plates on their cars over the Sinhalese ones, and they issued their own Tamil postal stamps… As Arjuna shot the final arrow into a dying Sivaji, Rajan’s heart broke and Nala cried openly, clutching her husband’s hand” (102-103).

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The Mahabharatha – Bhishma and Krishna. 

While the Mahabharatha is shown to be the “story” through which young Priya (the second generation of the novel) comes to awareness of life and the world, in a different continent – in Australia’s Sydney – the Mahabharatha continues to be the parable being fed to the third generation of children, such as Smrithi (193). Here, through the story of Draupadi and her five Pandava husbands, Dhara teaches the virtues of sharing and obedience to young Smrithi. Interestingly, Dhara’s own copy of the Mahabharatha is a 1977 version of the original English translation: the year Smrithi was born. As such, in addition to the Mahabharatha being used as a mirror of the larger politicial and historical dislocation of the Tamil community, it is also located in a pedantic and instructive light; though, quite frustratingly, this seems to be the only text that is used at that capacity, which rings hollow for a family belonging to the Lankan Tamil culture which is rich and well grounded in its written and oral literatures.

The Mahabharatha motif is evoked once again where Shankari refers to the State’s violent crushing of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, in the Years of Terror, between 1987 and 1990. This intra-state conflict between two factions which was largely of the same ethnic group makes Dhara see the epic in a different light: “No-one knew exactly how many Sinhalese died because so many bodies were never found, but an estimated seventy-thousand of its own people were killed so that the JVP understood the message… The Pandavas and the Kauravas: cousins who should have loved each other like brothers. Instead, both sides of the family were destroyed and all that was left were mothers and widows. There was nothing, no glorious kingdom to rule over for the Pandavas. They won the war, but every single one of their sons was killed. A whole generation of their young lost to them… The Mahabharatha had helped [Dhara] understand. Any human endeavor, whether it be a civil war or a fight for freedom would be flawed” (269-270).

In the above passage, the effort with which Shankari must parallel the more nuanced political and social friction between the government of Sri Lanka and the J.V.P-led “patriotic forces” with the Kaurava and Pandava war is palpably seen. The wishful thought of apolitical musing, as to how the J.V.P and the government ranks should have (my emphasis) “loved each other like brothers” – and as being mused on by the political-minded Dhara, too – takes away from the weave the sense of history and political friction among historical power groups, which is necessary to see the depth of friction. I suggest that Shankari’s need to use the Mahabharatha motif flexibly wherever there is conflict even in places where it renders an abnormal reading, has caused this “misfit”, as it happens where you try to fit a foot into a shoe of the wrong size.

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Shankari Chandran

Two other places of interest to which I would like to draw our attention includes Shankari’s use of the Ramayanaya. The brute force of Ravana is powerfully incorporated as a metaphor of state and ethnic violence. The Ramayanaya is memorably referenced where growing tensions in the North with the coming of trained militant groups is alluded to (140); but, more powerfully, the state blessing of the Pogrom of July 1983 is described with an unmistakable reference to Hanuman, who sets the nation ablaze (148). In the internalized version of the myth, Ravana is evoked as a “demon” (140), and that demonic force haunts the childhood dreams of Dhara. Intriguingly, Dhara’s mother Vani is brutally gang-raped during the 1958 riots, and the collective of her violators are referred to as a multi-limbed demon (145). Dhara, herself, is raped at an army camp as a young 28 year old, and the brutal association the writer makes between the two incidents is obvious.

Returning to my departure point, are such mythological / classical supports necessary for a novel such as Shankari’s debut? Is there a strength such agents can bring into the weave, which makes an impact the text otherwise cannot create? In my view, the classical motif is abused and overused, leaving behind a sense of “forced labour” from which the text, in the end analysis, suffers as a whole. In the end, the Mahabharatha motif deteriorates to the level of a redundant accessory in the absence of which, perhaps, the text would have earned spontaneity and enhanced originality.

 

Destruction is Never Random: Shankari Chandran’s “Song of the Sun God”.

Shankari Chandran’s Song of the Sun God threads together memory, legacy and struggle, as it locates the Rajan family – an upper middle class, metropolitan, Colombo-based family of a well established surgeon – and its offshoots, in their dogged, yet frail and human negotiation against the violent political tides of post-independence Ceylon. In no way is Shankari’s theme a fresh one, but it is a documentation which she enters with much understanding and empathy. She runs the risk of reproducing a cliché, which she intelligently avoids by making her novel a close reflection of complex emotions and sentiments of a ruptured people, as well as the hard choices they are bound to by war; as well as their dogged spirit, often driven by necessity and compulsion, that fights to survive, to recuperate and re-grow.

SONG-OF-THE-SUN-GOD-FINAL-COVERThe novel can be segmented and discussed at multiple levels, and as a whole, the novel takes note of the gradual sidelining of Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic majority from the social and political map by the pro-Sinhala regimes of post-independence; but, this is not new in literature. To me, the strongest asset in Shankari’s commentary is her confrontation of the Lankan state in relation to its much disputed conduct in the so-called Final Stages of the war. This comes as a culminating thread to a discourse anchored in history which includes constitutional and extra-constitutional violations of the Tamil community, its dignity, its rights and its culture.

Working for Doctors-without-Borders, Dhara is caught in (what is probably the first of) the “No Fire Zones” in 2009. Dhara is later seen to “vapourize”, in the hands of the state paramilitary, who keeps watch over her movements in Colombo.

“No. Fire. Zone. Three inaccurate words… They used the church as a hospital. It was large… On the battered and scabbed roof of the church, they painted a blood red cross. It drew the sick and the dying, and they prayed it would deter the army. The drones could see it and it was all they could do to protect themselves. The steady beat of shelling was getting louder… They had advised the Red Cross of their new location two days ago and again yesterday when they realized the shelling was coming closer. The Red Cross assured them each time that they had informed the army… She looked up and saw raindrops of fire fall from the sky. Droplets burrowed through the clothes and skin of people it touched” (325-326)

Shankari relates to the people trapped in the ever-narrowing zone of mock safety, now “trapped on a narrow strip of beach in the far north-east of the island. For four months, as fighting intensified, a mass of battered people moved as one, eastward, seekingsafety. They picked up their remaining children and ran towards the coast, towards the rising sun. This was President Rajapaksa’s ‘Zero Civilian Casualty Policy’… The Tigers fell back… The army killed and stepped over the morass of bodies without a second thought” (333).

Shankari’s charges complement with observations made by agents such as Gorden Weiss who, as early as 2011, submitted a charge-sheet of systematic shelling against the Lankan state through his The Cage. Both Weiss and Frances Harrison – author of Still Counting the Dead (2012) – as well as Cullum McRae’s Channel 4 team have been brusquely sidelined by hardline Sinhala chauvinist forces and pro-Rajapaksa elements as “foreign conspirators”, hot after the good name of the “Lankan patriots”. These have, in short, been scoffed at as literature of a pro-LTTE / pro-Tamil Diaspora (a problematic term) sort. Such denial and non-acceptance has been the foundation of the Lankan state’s response to the carnage caused between late 2008 and May 2009 throughout the 8 years that post-dates the military crushing of the Tigers, and the current regime – considered more moderate and accommodating in many ways –, too, is ambiguous (if not amphibian) in its response to the same. Some of the bitter-to-digest charges referred to above, have since been reaffirmed by sources like Rajan Hoole (whom one can by no means suggest is pro-LTTE) in Palmyrah Fallen (2015), and independent journalists such as Rohini Mohan (The Seasons of Trouble, 2014) and Samanth Subramaniam (This Divided Island, 2014).

srilankaAs mentioned above, in the post-war situation, Dhara – who had her father killed by the riots of 1956 at Gal Oya, who had her mother gang-raped during the same, who herself was raped by the military in 1976 as a 28 year old doctor, who chose to stay behind when everyone fled the island, and who used her energy to peripherally support the Tigers – is “vapourized” (or, “white-vanned”, as that singular act of state-sponsored black magic has entered the vocabulary), in a Colombo filled with “a jubilation not seen since independence. There were fireworks and parades, parties in houses and hotels. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa were hailed as heroes… Sri Lanka had won its war on terror. Gotabhaya… was preparing to teach governments and armies of other nations, how to defeat terrorism” (337).

In spite of these sections that deal with the military crushing of the LTTE, its aftermath and the writer’s contest of the state, Song of the Sun God is much more. It is at the same time, a powerful novel reflecting on the dogged spirit of the Lankan Tamil community, enduring in its hardships, while battling (enforced) change, constitutionally and extra-constitutionally maneuvered by successive governments since 1956, and its struggle to sustain itself. It is also the saga of a family, emerging from hard-invested toil, rising to the top of fashionable Colombo society, and having to relocate and resettle after being forced into exile; and its efforts to carry on to its best ability. Though I do not plan to elaborate in this space, I found the novel intriguing for Shankari’s nuanced capture of the many complexities and paradoxes within the migrant Tamil community she portrays, as well as for her skill in giving shape to the emotional and personal depth in her showcase of conflict.

However, Song of the Sun God is not the story of the “common” or “ordinary” Tamil family. The Rajans, as a family, is classed and is “luckier” than many faceless citizens who were set upon and murdered without a second thought owing to her/his ethnic Tamilness. The closest Rajan, Nala and Smrithi comes to their lives being threatened is when a mob rounds them up in Negombo, in 1983. But, even here, their lives are saved when someone points Rajan out as the “President’s doctor”. A glimpse of the ordinary, relatively voiceless subaltern Tamil’s plight is marginally seen in the case of Thiru, who sells meat in the Colpetty market, and is displaced after the ’83 riots. A son, a daughter-in-law and grand-children are flayed by the riotous mob at Dematagoda, and he is forced to return to the remote East to cultivate land and to pick up life afresh in his old age. One may draw a parallel between Thiru and Dr. Rajan who is forced into exile to Australia; except that the latter, a skilled laborour and a man of standing, finds himself “on his feet” and with a palpable security and social safety net under him. However, even as I make this observation I understand that Shankari does not intend an across-the-board discussion of plight across classes.

Shankari’s is an ambitious project, for, to maintain a momentum in a story that stretches across eight decades and three generations is a challenging task. On the whole, Shankari reasonably succeeds at this, though, I felt that the first section (titled Attrition) and the opening chapters of the second thread (Dispersion) were better harmonized, and written at an even pace. There is an even rhythm to and a smooth unhurried flow in these sections, to which is infused a disciplined eye for detail. This, however, is offset in some of the later sections – specially, passages dealing with the Australian experience – which come across as pushed through, or as hurriedly fit in.

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Shankari Chandran

The motif of ethnic violence and the resultant dislocation of the middle-upper middle class Colombo Tamil space is not new to Sri Lankan Literature in English. In that capacity, Shankari treads the road “oft taken” through the foot prints of writers like Jean Arasanayagam, Shyam Selvadurai, Karen Roberts, Roma Tearne, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Nihal de Silva, Nayomi Munaweera and – more recently – Ayathurai Santhan. At one point, Shankari’s efforts to enmesh the political threads of post-independence nationalism into the weave runs the reasonable risk of looking a tad too contrived, as almost all “milestones” of that uneasy pre-war path from 1956 to 1983 are strategically pushed into the storyline, making things seem a tad too predictable at times. For instance, the birth of Priya (born in 1948), Nandan (1956) and Smrithi (1977) coincide, in that order, with the year of Independence – granted with a rejection of demands for equal representation –, the year of the National Languages Act, and the year of the J.R Jayewardene election victory and subsequent riots. The Gal Oya massacre (1956), the riots of 1958, and the riots of 1983 are equally factored in, while Radha and Anand are seen in the forefront of TULF rallies.

170509SRILANKAWAR432Several “abnormalities” and “incongruities” (that can be considered marginal to any critique of the work) punctuate the text in terms of historical consistency, as well. While these “irregularities” are often negligible in the holier realm of creative writing, for me, the “representation of history” has to be fact-fully and tact-fully handled. Unlike the cockroach stuck in Prime Minister Kotalawala’s ear, some of these representations take away from the discipline of the narrative, which Shankari often upholds as a merit. A few such instances that comes to mind includes Rita’s cautioning of Nala regarding Anand’s involvement in Chelvanayagam’s politics. Here, in a section dated as 1971, an imminent clash is forecasted between Chelvanayagam and “that thug in the jungle, Prabhakaran” (130). In 1971, Prabhakaran would be 16 years old, and four years yet from making his debut in militancy. In a section dated 1974, Anand is remanded for protesting at a Cricket Match at Lord’s (135-136). The corresponding protest happens in 1975, at the Kensington Oval during the World Cup series. In a further section, dated as 1980, Prabhakaran is seen making a speech condemning rival military groups in the North, justifying their annihilation (183). This, in a context where the LTTE’s hunting down of rival PLOTE, TELO and EROS members was yet to shock the Northern world. 1980, however, tallies with the breakaway of Uma Maheshwaran from the LTTE: a split that moves Prabhakaran to the top position of the party hierarchy.

Shankari Chandran operates at multiple levels, and The Song of the Sun God offers much threading that must be carefully considered, and should not be rushed or packed into one straitjacketing essay. Perhaps, I may continue on the same subject in a future entry. For now, I sum up with what is for me the most memorable passage of the novel, where an aged Dr. Rajan says: “People died in our homeland for the protection of our mother tongue. It seems nothing less than ungrateful that since escaping the war, Tamils here (in Australia) think it’s fashionable to be sanctified and cremated in Sanskrit, a language that is also dead. At my funeral the priest must speak in a living, breathing language. And he must wear a shirt – none of this ‘sarong only’ business” (382).

The phrase “living, breathing language”, after all that carnage, suffering and destruction, is like a beacon that stands up for the struggle to continue – for the struggle that must go on.