After being invited by a colleague to attend Vihanga Perera’s reading of his new work of fiction, “Unplugged Quarter”, at Sri Jayawardenepura University I had the opportunity of subsequently reading the novel. A story with three main strands, “Unplugged Quarter” relates to several incidents that relate to a set of persons over a period of 3-4 months; and whose experiences overlap. Dr. Vahanya Bertolt – an academician and an authority in Drama – and her uncle Bheem form one of these main strands. The duo undertake a renovation of their ancestral house amidst growing financial difficulties. A second thread deals with a guitarist – Nayana Mendis – , related to Vahanya and Bheem, who makes a career-move by ditching the guitar in favour of a government teacher post. There is another focus where the writer alludes to a group of university students, their ambitions, desires, woes and antipathies.
“Unplugged Quarter”, in my opinion, can be considered as an impressionist work which promises nothing; and gives us nothing. On the other hand, impressionism seems to be the writer’s main motif. When Vihanga Perera came out with “The(ir) (Au)topsy” several years ago, the criticism leveled against him was that his “story” does not “flow”. That his plotlines are diffused and are not integrated with time and space. However, here, in “Unplugged Quarter” there is definite teleological progression – but, still, nothing significant happens. This inert quality is unmistakable in all chapters, except, maybe, for the chapter where Poornaka – one of the readers’ darlings, a discontented undergrad – abruptly dies of an accident. For me, this death comes too abrupt for my liking – almost like a sudden shake of the earth on which the novel is grounded.
Indeed, the novel is drenched with “action”: people meet, people talk, debate and take part in soirees of sorts. Some of them – Bheem and Nayana – play chess, they watch rugger matches and they anxiously wait text messages or calls from their beloved. As far as these habitual exercises are concerned – “action” does take place. But, underneath these nothing concrete or compact is made. They talk, but they do not agree. They undertake a renovation of the house, but not with alacrity. They go for a game of rugby, but the match gets halted by a punch up. Nayana is invited to play chess at Bheem’s house, but is not invited to lodge with them. Likewise, a definite sense of “incompleteness” and “hollowness” accompany the “movements” the characters make. Perhaps, the one exception is where Nayana forgoes his friend Poornaka’s funeral, in order to go and meet his estranged girl friend. This, to me, was a shocking proposition – since Nayana and Poornaka are shown to us having a evening “hanging out” the night before the latter’s death. Therefore, Nayana’s preference comes as both shocking and disillusioning. Yet, the girl does not honour the meeting.
“Unplugged Quarter” ends with an abrupt decision which Nayana takes to quit his job and to return home. The final chapter and a half brings home the pre-occupation Vihanga Perera has with the lethargy and ambiguity of the university structure in Sri Lanka. In fact, right from the beginning we are exposed to three undergraduates: Poornaka – who is said to be undergoing “undergraduate angst”: a discontented, disillusioned individual. Poornaka’s friend Nayana is a more balanced, yet critical chap. He has his own opinions, but tends to view things on the balance. Manishka is shown to be an empathetic friend, but who is not too upbeat in her academia. A prejudiced portrayal comes by the way of Nishadhi Denagama who – according to the sarcastic Poornaka – “gives” and “receives” favours from the Establishment. In the last chapter, this Nishadhi is made a lecturer of her faculty, even though Sri feels that she is just a “steno-typist in a closet”.
Apart from these, the university is also subtly hinted to be an intellectual wasteland – a place where the same lecture note gets circulated on and on. Again, Sri is critical of his Assistant Professor for not producing a proper lecture note – but, for photocopying what another senior academic had given in a previous year. However, Vihanga Perera also brings out a very unique idea in a middle chapter – where we are seen a poetic debate between two senior academics. This scene – reminiscent of a “kavi maduwa” – is one of the surprises that came my way. However, whether this kind of quasi-intellectual activity really takes place in Sri Lankan universities is beyond my knowledge.
My last reading of a Vihanga Perera book was three years ago – when he released “The(ir) (Au)topsy”. I am yet to read his other novel “Stable Horses”. However, Vihanga seems to have departed from his absolute and irrelative voice with which he worked in “The(ir) (Au)topsy”. In that respect, the first work was a reader’s nightmare; while, simultaneously, it was, to the same reader, a refreshing friend. The diffusion of meaning and the postmodernist-like conception was both inclusive and exclusive of the reader. However, in “Unplugged Quarter” he uses a more straightforward, less abstract creative framework.
I am told that Vihanga Perera is a writer who “takes the sidewalks”: that he keeps a relatively low profile. But, by virtue of the diverse material, diverse thematic concerns and the “idiom” and “metaphor” he uses, I believe he is a writer who should keep on experimenting within and without his work. My assessment of “Unplugged Quarter” is incomplete; as I could not speak to the writer, as I usually do. The novel is in general unambitious, inert and un-promising (the verb). But it promises much more as an experimental piece striving definition outside the mainstream “novel” of the day.