Nihal De Silva’s Ginirella Conspiracy is one of those texts that has got lost in translation. I assume De Silva’s expectation was that the novel would be a solemn and weighty read, for it undertakes a series of compelling issues of the day. For instance, the university rag and other class issues connected to it, youth angst, social victimizations of sorts become central to De Silva’s effort. Nor does De Silva lack in seriousness where his attempt is concerned – he makes a genuine effort to promulgate what – according to him – is the harshness and the poignancy of ragging.
However, as hinted, De Silva’s attempt is largely “lost in translation”. The displacement occurs when his delivery is transcribed from De Silva’s “sense” of the university and the rag; to a general university student’s informed notion of it. There are many anomalies which stem out of De Silva’s story of Sujatha Mallika and Mitha. From being a highly unlikely improbability the story develops into a shallow and bottomless romance – a reflection of De Silva’s naïve reading of class and society.
The protagonist cum narrator of the “lost diaries” that are delivered to the writer / author is a rural young girl from remote Tanamalwila. She, Sujatha Mallika, has qualified entrance to the “Jaypura University” (an obvious mask for the University of Sri Jayewardenapura) under the Arts stream. The novel builds up through the near-demonic hardships the freshers are exposed to, courtesy of the ragging which takes place in the canteens, the walks and the hostels – both at day and night.
The raggers are seen as the detritus of the “backward” social nooks of rural villages. Incidentally, the leader of the Socialist Students’ Union (which, we are told, is an arm of De Silva’s mask for the JVP) – Kumudu – is a Royalist: but not a “pure Royalist”. He has been a scholarship entrant to that school, coming from a rural village, but who had never found his feet in the new premise. Being a students’ union leader at campus, Kumudu was now a vocal champion of garnering the common cause of bringing about an egalitarian community. De Silva’s polarized understanding of the rag, to say the least, is a stereotype. He attributes the “rag culture” to be the prerogative of underprivileged vernacular educated students from villages and low income groups.
The speech made by Kalinga – the representative of De Silva’s dummy for the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) – works as a manifesto of the raggers. It is a speech which, in its essence, is made against the English speaking world and the privileged. Kalinga’s rhetoric calls for a denigration of that language – for no other reason but because they (the village entrant to the campus) cannot thrive in it. This attitude, perhaps, has a dated relevance; but, as to whether the IUSF or the student bodies officially manifest such a stance today is arguable.
While the raggers from the low income backgrounds wield their inferiority complexes by harassing the freshers into hegemony, they are more brutal to the town born studentship and those from English speaking, privileged schools. Mithra – a Royalist – becomes a favourite victim; and more so – it is stated – because of his polio affected leg. Tagged “Nondiya”, Mithra is made to kneel, crawl, bear physical pressure – all in the name of him being a “class other”; as well as of him being weaker than the rest.
But, the Royalist endures all with an optimistic smiling face. Even as the onlookers dread that he will fail and that his courage will drain, Mithra snubs off such doubt with all smiles. On a day the English speaking urban studentship are given a mallun with ground cockroaches mixed in it. The next day Mithra turns up smiling, wondering whether the day’s menu would be worms: worms, he concedes, is good for the health.
Mithra, with time, develops a romantic tie with the protagonist. It is the utopian union where the Colombo bred Royal educated lad woos with success the hand of a girl from an outreach Tanamalwila. But, the consummation of the love happens only after Mithra’s polio gets cured. In spite of Mithra’s keen interest in communicating with Sujatha Mallika during the rag season, the latter shows lukewarm interest. This is more so, for any form of communication would result in the seniors’ torturing them both. Yet, all the same, Mithra braves all such threats on a couple of occasions – on the pain of being cashiered – to communicate with Sujatha.
De Silva’s portrayal of the rag seems to be an improvisation based on hearsay and other second hand sources. There are moments – innocuous moments which one would easily overlook – where the details lack resonance or credibility. For instance, Mithra – a student in Management – and Sujatha of the Arts are ragged together. It is not very customary for an inter-faculty rag as such. Very often – and this is the general culture – the rag is marked by faculty boundaries. More so, different faculties and different universities have their own tailor-made implements, as well.
De Silva’s rag has the following items – “learning to be equal”, “learning to perform a perahara”, stomaching the filth of the seniors, eating together out of a “melting pot” and being bathed with foul water. The rag victims, too, are asked to carry their files on their heads and to wear slippers the wrong way around. These are commonly spoken of rag entities – but, when essentialized, they become a reduction of a deeper (and more violent) political programme. At one point, two rival student factions clash at the canteen. The violence gets intense and then – as if on cue – two police trucks appear. In my experience I am yet to come across an instance where, upon cue, the Police would barge in to interfere with an intra-students’ friction.
Nihal De Silva’s lack of social engagement (if not his naivety to the forces and instincts that govern human action) can also be seen in novels such as The Road From Elephant Pass. The English literate Sujatha Mallika – an issue of a remote village where, she herself admits, noone speaks English – is both a novelistic necessity as well as a “moral” in person. As a moral, Sujatha is the foil for all the other vernacular educated, swabhasha championing youth: for, one’s individual salvation and progress as a community lies in learning English and absorbing the culture that language implies. All the heroes in De Silva’s novel are affluent champions of English. The villagers who “cannot compete” with the English speaking are seen to be pernicious, ruthlessly bestial and burning with an urge to purge society through genocide.
It is a structural malady that all the characters which we meet in the course of the novel — including the ones such as Nishantha (the late teen youth who squeezes Sujatha’s boob in a bus — a chance meeting) — feature in the big climax De Silva has in store for us: the “concentration camp” scene. All economic deprives from Nishantha, Ranjit (Sujatha’s village school mate who was unsuccessful at his A/L as well as in wooing Sujatha), Loku, Capt. Marasinghe etc are found to be in assistance of Kalinga’s megalomaniac plot to seize power from the Upper Classes. The English educated are seen to emancipate themselves to “civilized norms”; while the non-English speaking villager takes up perversion as a means of hitting back at society. In the penultimate chapter, Ranjit — deprived of his sexual desires by Sujatha who, a few years earlier, had turned him down — comes up to the imprisoned quartet of Sujatha, Nali, Mithra and Harith and expresses his desire to sadistically violate Sujatha.
The English speaker and the ally of the metropolitan socialite, on the contrary, are saved. This is the case with Sujatha: whose rise from the doldrums of poverty and social backwardness to being a much sought after journalist is dependent on her seamless surrender to the aspect under study. Her Royalist boy friend Mithra, in that sense, is the sexual gratification which her “English expectations” promise her. In Dickensian terms, Mithra becomes to Sujatha Mallika a form of “Estella” — only that Mithra has within him the “Royalist ethic” of uprightness and virtue. Sujatha — for the sake of the novel — becomes both a fluent user of English as well as a good enough scribe in that language. Had she failed to master the language (in spite of her Zero English origins) the novel – recorded as a journal – would not be.
The arrogant writer in De Silva who is deeply engrossed in his socialite, elitist environs alone that he does not even entertain the possibility of allowing the story to “take place” in Sinhala. The Sujatha Mallika journals, therefore, have to be in English. In justifying the necessity, we’re told (by Sujatha) that she kept the records in this “second language” so as to help her improve her English. But, the English we encounter throughout the text is not that of one who would rather keep a journal in order to rehearse the language. That English, to say the least, is good and clean (Nor does Sujatha Mallika eat, make love, speak of day to day issues etc in any other language but her acquired English….. More instances of seking improvement, perhaps?). De Silva would have done better by allowing the reader to absorb the journal as being in Sinhala.
Sujatha, as an adolescent, has been nagged by a benevolent Catholic priest to learn English. This priest, Father Basil, becomes a father figure to Sujatha – helping her, in Englishless Tanamalwila, to learn the language in six years. Father Basil can be located as an extension of Mr. Karl in The Road from Elephant Pass. The tangled hair, the untidy beard, the preoccupation with birds, the weight both lay on education are unmistakable resonances. Both represent Catholic / Christian agencies; and are seen as charitable forces that uplift the life chances of rural potential. These charitable agencies are foils to De Silva’s mapping of the JVP who are seen to destroy and callously gun down all such benevolent forces.
De Silva’s (1) ahistorical and context-deprived misrepresentation of the JVP, (2) the university students from without the socialite metropolitan circuits and his (3) parading of the neo-Marxist wave of contemporary Sri Lanka as a demonic, megalomaniac project only substantiates his class snobbishness and his lack of depth and / or empathy to the issues that permeate outside his class. These fanatical fantasies, however, require a separate space for a worthwhile probe.