I had earlier made the negative note that Mark Wilde’s “Chucking the Dragon” uses non-Sri Lankan / remote-to-Sri Lankan person names in its characterization; and that it is a drawback of the novel’s synthesis. With a protoganist named “Mark” — a foil for a Sinhala Buddhist Upper-Middle Class youth –, his ilkminded “Shane”, “Dean” and co, the novel, in general, fails to identify a “Sri Lankan resonance” in the baptisms of its characters. This, too, for a novel which shows much sensitivity and empathy to the contemporary Lankan urban youth (as a “class”) and some of their socio-economic and personal tensions. Junkies, blowjobs for cuts, chucking the “goods” out of one’s system — these have not, even at the most remote, had any narrative space in Lankan fiction; in spite of a fairly firm grounded “druggy discourse” in our urban. “The Dragon”, therefore, is a milestone in our fiction writing — all this has been dealt with in an earlier piece in this site itself.
However, the progressive “Chucking the Dragon”, whose focus hits at some “marginal” social and cultural trerritory, goes totally lame when it comes to character baptism. Not that Sri Lanka doesn’t have Marks, Shanes and Deans. But, as a creative spirit that ambitiously pushes for “identity assertion” – the identity of an age (relating both to the individual and, so to speak, the nation) and its socio-economic climate – the choice of Christian name, one feels, could have been, in that sense, less Christian.
Juliet Coombe, the publisher of “Chucking the Dragon”, defends the “remote-to-Sri Lankan” benediction of character on these simple grounds: according to Juliet, it is true that “The Dragon” has its Marks and Shanes. Yet, she states, the “non-Lankan” baptism comes in chiefly where the action is “not very prominant”: in the less crucial, “sidekicks” scenes. One of the exmaples Juliet gives me is that the girls whom Mark (the protagonist) shags. For all one cares — this seems to be the crux of the argument — these girls, corrupted and wasted elite brats, could be “Mirinda” or “Seven Up”: hence, the whatever-it-may-be “remote-to -Lankan” baptism.
Either Juliet is mistaken; or, she does not read my point.
The use of “remote-to-Sri Lankan” names on the women with whom Mark frolicks is, in my opinion, a less forgivable instance of the abusage in question. It is, in fact, less improbable where the Upper class elite elements of Lankan society end up at birth (or later) with such names. Then, again, these sexual encounters cannot be simply called “insignificant”, either. Perhaps, it is for Juliet Coombe. Yet, what Mark Wilde un/wittingly makes here is a strong statement regarding the sexual politics of the Middle Class and its hypocrisy. So, why does Coombe call these sexual encounters as “lesser”? Lesser in what sense, I should have asked her. But, then, the questions came to me more on hindsight.
But, Coombe’s “excuse” does not justify the “baptism” of Shane and Dean? What about Mark himself?
Mark, admittedly a product of Ananda College, Maradana, can not be a “Mark”; and being the self-revealing protagonist of the novel, he is also the moving spirit of the story. From co-junkie to drug pusher, from Mark to his high society innerwheel we very rarely come across Sri Lankan names except for minor, “by the way” characters in the fringes; and, of course, except for Mark’s junkie buddy, Mahroof. But, Mahroof — a name of Muslim origin –, too, is not unique to Sri Lanka: but has a more universal application.
Neither “Chucking the Dragon” nor its publisher needs to hide. The fact is that this novel bearing trans-national publishing credentials, international market addresses on the stuff with which it is wrapped, was partially meant for a market that is outside Sri Lanka. This product could / would / will and should sell in Sri Lanka, alright. But, the “Dragon”s main consumer lives abroad — rummaging bookstores and cornershops for the latest literature, the upbeat stuff, browsing through blurbs, catchwords and reviews by features hubs whose casual sentence or two on the back cover of the book becomes a striker.
The Marks, the Shanes, the Deans are, in fact, meant for these grateful readerships in universes of a “whiter shade of pale”: for them to help digest the “stuffs” (most ironically, Mark Wilde’s book deals with drugs) from the “good old Orient” — that once pleasurable conqueror’s paradise, now with its political anarchy, confusion, guns, drugs, child prostitution, cheap sex and other ecstasies and perversities. Drugs happen here alright. But that druggy has to be “appropriated” and “reduced” to a Mark — s/he has to be “objectified” and turned into a little Polly in a cage for the Northern Euro-centric reader to be more at ease. Like placing a cushion underneath the foot. It is not the drugs we are worried about here. But, the subtle appropriation of the context, which resonates a politically loaded and painful historic process of cultural inversion — which we, in short, call “colonialism”.
Even as we harmlessly take Mark, Shane and Dean for granted, a more sinister “dragon”, too, operates within the cultural politics of Mark Wilde’s book — the contemporary manifestation of that same sinister colonial dragon of “erasure” and/or “appropriation”; one who perverted the Lankan reality through its imperialist mandates and redefined its social, economic and political universes to appease its own saliva and fangs: neo-colonialism.
Many are the Lankan writers, some courting stardom in the said trans-national markets and popular Northern readership, others with indomitable and show offish colonial hangups, who have submit to the “cultural appropriation” highlighted above; thereby, playing Ariel to the “cultural command” of “non-Sri Lankan, whiter-shades-of-pale” readership. It’s like serving them without chillie. Whatever.
In this same site I have shown how Ashok Ferry, in his “Serendipity”, tones down the Sri Lankan names to appease those who may have troubles with several vowels coming in one name. But, Ferry’s text does not submit to “deletion” or “erasure” altogether. Those identities are either appropriated or “exoticized” — such as his Suranganee with the double ‘e’ –, but not in the fashion in which Wilde does it.
I recall Romesh Gunesekera’s “Reef” and Elmo Jayawardena’s “Sam’s Story”, which complement the claim in question. Reef’s Triton — a European appalation by all means, adopted by a colonial-minded elite bachelor as his boy-kolla, exposed to euro-like manners, values, appreciations; later removed to England and given a firm economic base — has often resonated to me a prototype for the “colonized subject” that was fashioned to please and justify the colonial / imperialist mandate. The same can be, though to a lesser degree, be applied to Sam in Elmo Jayawardena’s Sam’s Story. Here, Sam comes across as a “village simpleton” who, like Triton, comes under the “benevolence” of and benefits from the care of a elite, colonial-minded “master”. The boy is, in fact, given the name “Sam” by this master. The “master” defines the “subject”, gives him a “language” and a “space” to move in. “Chucking the Dragon” is by far a more complex (socially) work. But, here, too, the experience, extracted from the Sri Lankan setting, has been made “ready-to-drink” by “colonizing” the agent: by making the characters go “pale”. The essence of Sri Lanka, hereby, is interfered with, appropriated, reduced and re-packed for the benefit of that consumer.
There is a story related to the baptism of the “Cooray”s in Sri Lanka: a historical myth widely circulated in folk discourse. It relates to the consolidation of Portuguese authority in the coastal regions of this island, which was followed by a “re-christaning” of the subjects. According to the myth, each village was asked to present themselevs, and, in turn, a new “name” was given to them. Hence, the Pereras, De Silvas, Dabereras, De Zoysas etc came into being. However, one village had turned up on the re-baptism spot later than the appointed time. And as they approached the colonial is said to have cried out “Cooray! Cooray!” — which, as the story goes, was meant to mean “go away! go away!”. But, the bewildered villagers, to satusfy the myth, seem to have taken “Cooray” to be their name.
Coombe’s answer, therefore, bypasses the market strategies that underlie many of the “international market oriented literature” — ambitious work with money to make. However, this same market is an “English” market. A market to which the goods have to be exported, but, with a flavour that would appease that tongue and amylase.
NB — The chitchat alluded to, in which Juliet Coombe — quite off hand-like — made the remarks I have made much of in here, was at some place called Greenwood, off Kandy; last Sunday evening.