Washing the long faded cliche — The Lament Continues

by Vihanga

Karen Roberts’ The Lament of the Dhobi Woman is a re-flogging of Sri Lankan English fiction’s much flogged horse: the “transported villager”. A brief revision of the history of the Sri Lankan novel in English shows us that the motif of the “imported villager” (most often as a servant to a wealthy upper class family) is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Writing from an elite upper-class political stance (a consciousness which Roberts / Catrina, though failing, assumes to distance herself from) and being an agent of the same, for the writer / narrator the village is an “outside domain”; the villager, is an “alien”. Seelawathi becomes to Roberts’ ilk-minded reader an “alien” brought “home” to be “domesticated”. And there the déjà vu begins – from the time of James Goonewardena, Punyakanti Wijenaike, Romesh Gunasekera, to the more recent (post-2000) work of Elmo Jayawardena (Sam’s Story), Manuka Wijesinghe (Monsoons and Potholes), Ashok Ferry (Serendipity) the same pattern can, at different levels, be traced.

Often, in the process of the “transportation” evoked, which is done through the class-bias eyes of the Upper/Middle-Upper class Lankan writer, the villager essentially becomes an “object” to be gazed at: like a circus item doing the monkey bars. She’s the “reddha-hatta” wearing “other”, to the Sarla – the narrator’s mother – of the silken wrap. She is the woman with “natural femininity” who is both a threat and an opposite to the “femininity” built on cosmetics – the kind of “upper class beauty” Sarla, Nina and Tabby stand for. Straight away, Seelawathi becomes an object to negotiate with. In every move she makes in that Lucian Fonseka house she is bartering power with the mistress, with Rick and with Catrina, her charge. It is a struggle to redeem herself from that “object status”: to retain herself from being “gazed at”. She is fetishized and desired at different levels. To Catrina, for instance, Selawathi is a foil for a “lost mother” and a “trusty friend”. The “more than mother-more than friend” relationship she locates with Seelawathi only turns the latter more into an object. It only alienates the subaltern within the objectifying “elite” universe of Catrina’s house. Sarla, too, places Seelawathi as an opposition to “her world” (as against “their world”). For Rick, Seelawathi is the casual fuck that is any colonizer’s right and prerogative.

Karen Roberts' new novel

One interesting resonance is the “voice of distance” Roberts / Catrina adopts in the narrative. It is almost as if the novel is a testimony against elite class hypocrisy. She assumes a tone that is dismissive and caustic of her parents’ lives; and the values they stand for. The narrator assumes a glance that is both compassionate of and sympathetic towards Seelawathi and the “outsider”. But, this, I feel, is more a circumstantial and surface response: a means of coming to terms with her own “marginality” within the family and the social connotations the family stands for. It is unmistakable that the novel is an expression of dissent against the narrator’s own loveless, care-lacking childhood and formative years. It is merely that but not a genuine agency which is empathetic of Seelawathi as an “individual”. Catrina’s very definition of Seelawathi is relative to her own fancies and illusions. She wants, for instance, Seelawathi to be the receiver of a romantic knight’s proposal (the knight in her fancy being Uncle Rick). She wants Rick and Seelawathi to marry, so that she can be their adopted daughter. At thirteen, Catrina does not see the class-implications of Rick having to marry Seelawathir; nor does she see Rick’s real “play the boy” nature.

But, remaining further with Roberts’ / Catrina’s dismissal of her “class” and “family”, she dismantles the closed walls of “Upper Class security” – emotional and ethical security. Yet, this disowning of “class” and “home” is but an angry confession aimed at her own private purgation; as it doesn’t essentially un-dress her of her “class-mindedness”. Even as she dismisses her mother for being a fake and a hollow doll, it is still done within an “upper class universe” (the universe which she, on admission, strives to displace), which is evident by her vague, watery responses to the “villager”. Catrina’s response to the village is more the fascination of a child being temporarily shifted to a “different world”: it is a response to novelty. Beyond that there is no political response; as she, in turn, too, defines the village in the reductive terms common to her “class”: the village as consisting of “types” – often, backward, lowly, simpleminded, shrewd and hypocritical. A woman returning home pregnant is said to be usually “stoned to death”. Old women are told to “hike up their reddhas and ma[ke] vulgar slapping noises” at the arrival of a such. Boys are told to rush up “and grab at her breasts”. This form of narrow-minded, uninformed generalization states the truth of where Catrina / Roberts really belongs.

Washing clothes at a river

Karen Roberts makes several injections to make the story spicy and toothsome to the “exotica-seeking” reader. One such instance is the little episode relating to the exorcism performed by Father Peter. I felt that this scene was redundant to the plotline and served the sole purpose of exoticizing things, by a cheap dose of “black magic”. Sarla, who had been losing weight and colour for many months, and whose sickness remains a mystery to the best physicians of Europe, receives an instant cure when Father Peter digs out a pot from under the “rainbow tree”. At the sight of the pot Sarla swoons, but recovers to a healthy diet of sandwiches – the sickness disappears for good. The “Edirisinghe history”, too, serves no purpose, unless it gives the reader the moral of the “new rich” and their fate in Colombo society. But, then, again, this is an unnecessary digression, since Seelawathi’s fate takes an altogether different trek.

To me, the Seelawathi and Catrina bond was memorable; but, at the same time, I felt that this was ill-characterized. Specially, Cat where she assumes the voice of a “child” fails to impress. Right throughout what I hear in Cat is adult-speak. Her observations and interjections – supposedly made as a child of 4 or 5 – are often too “grown up”. There are, of course, the child-like exclamations: for instance, being lost at the Galle Face and when asked where she thought she was going, Cat promptly responds, “To look for Seelawathi”. Then, again, seeing the sisters of her convent Montessori, she calls out, “look – penguins”. But, the same four year old knows how, when and to which extent Sarla’s opinion can be hurt.

But, what does The Lament of the Dhobi Girl offer us as new? As a challenge? It has in it the urban stereotype of villagers, village life and their assumed humility and stupidity. Catrina, like all good narrators from the town, is fascinated by the village flora and fauna and immediately gets a “déjà vu” feeling – a feeling of belonging and empathy – the moment she hits the mud with Seelawathi’s sister, Chuti. The clumsy mistress of the walauva gets jealous of the servant girl’s efficacy with the child and of the affection she has earned from her charge. The womanizing Rick comes around touching seductively the proper chords in Seelawathi’s youthful fancies. The girl is displaced – both emotionally and morally violated: the point is, all these motifs are old, worked on and flogged. The “servant” – that fond cliché of Lankan fiction in English – is yet again made to mime an elitist script for the elite voyeuristic pleasure of the Chosen.

The burial ground of the horse

One last observation I would like to make is regarding the cover of the book – The Lament of the Dhobi Woman comes with a cover in which we have a light-skinned short haired woman in a blue striped swimsuit. Whether the cover is meant to symbolize the “dobhi (dhobi) woman” or the “lament” can only be answered by the marketing spirit of the enterprise. Of course, in the consumer market of the “exotic Asia” as a “literary export”, such questions are irrelevant. But, all the same, they make us wonder.

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5 thoughts on “Washing the long faded cliche — The Lament Continues

  1. Good review. Echoed my own dissatisfactions with the novel. Something like class division between maid and mistress has been explored so much better by the likes of Thrity Umrigar in The Space Between Us, and in a short story in Anita Nair’s Ladies’ Coupe. Those explorations were complex and sensitive – Robert’s was heavy handedly over sympathetic and exotica-ridden.

    But why did she call it lament of the ‘Dhobi’ woman? Seelawathi is a nanny. Not a washer woman. Am confused!

    • I figure the “dhobi woman” sounds a choice export item — a savoury from the Asian context. Seelawathi — if i remember right — is from the dhobi caste: or, at least, there are some hints dropped in that direction at the outset of the work.

  2. Given your (&/or Roberts’) class fixation, (& the subsequent class/caste related analysis of skin-tone: light/dark) I’m surprised you conclude the cover could be Seelawathi (diyaredda/swimsuit) and not the upper-class Cat.
    PS. Striped? Surely (flowers), Vihanga?

    • How can one be sure? It is less mischievous on my part if I take up that possibility isn’t it [that it is ‘Cat’]?. But, I do agree on one thing — the lament is more of Cat, than it being of Seelawathie.

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