This is what the Confusion is About: Vihanga Perera on The[ir] [Au]topsy.

Prof Arjuna Parakrama once tells me of how he gave The(ir) (Au)topsy to a student to be reviewed for a class exercise. The next day the student comes back asking whether she can have a different text for her lot. The(ir) (Au)topsy was / is a text people ran away from; and never really engaged with. Noone has ever written anything on it. 6 years after publication, I decided that I should write something on it.

I

The(ir) (Au)topsy – collection of short stories, sometimes and by somebodies read, too, as a continuous and fragmented novel –, upon revisit, comes across as naïve and adolescent. I have not always felt this way; but, then, that book, written six years ago, was written by a much younger me (in the widest sense). The first part of the work never held much appeal to me; if at all, it was in the later stories that a degree of memorability, to me, appear. By all means, I hope not to write another set of stories like what The(ir) (Au)topsy collects. But, saying that, I have to confess that the “spirit” of the writing in that collection – a spirit that came so spontaneously, with an effortlessness that I have since been unable to garner – has since been a quest for me; and it is this very “form” of writing I was trying to return to, in The Fear of Gambling. The Fear of Gambling, at that creative front, was meant to be The(ir) (Au)topsy six years later. Today, I am more satisfied with FOG, even as both books remain unread – even by those who, for my sake, have attempted a reading.

An objective critic – a mathematician who does not boast to be read in literature – Pramuditha tells me of FOG what was often told me by those who happened to flip through The(ir) (Au)topsy six years ago: that “except for those that know [me] closely” the stories do not make much sense to a general audience. This is repeated to me in more profuse terms by V. Ramachandra; and later by the Zoologist Kanishka Ukuwela. All three are close family or annexed to it and their validations, therefore, come with a base. My response to such claims has been that that very exclusiveness has been a mark of all biographical literature. Then, again, the text in its self-absorption, yet, submits to the imagination and the “committed reading” of the reader; opening out layers of meaning and resonances upon the grave of the already exhumed author. In the penultimate chapter of The Fear of Gambling, a reader tells me, the narrator engages in a passionate homo-erotic escapade. To shrug my shoulder, at such times, is a luxury; the smile that gets drawn in my face is true mirth. Of course, I never intended such an evocation, but my happiness is that the reader has engaged with my text.

The Gatting delivery by Shane Warne in 1993.

Those that say that my writing cannot be made sense of are those that want the easy way out; those that deny themselves the opportunity to engage and to dig into a weave which is fecund with meaning and possibility. They would rather read Sense And Sensibility – which, again, is baffling to one’s sense and sensibility, for that language and metaphor is distant and ill-resonant or an even remoter Charles Dickens and be confounded at yet another front, but nod like gleeful geese. I find myself, since late, giving myself lesser and lesser into challenging texts and into experimental work. I have a contradiction infused by idiosyncrasy where as much as I may challenge myself into writing literature which offers watery meaning, to read in fluids is something I rarely encourage myself to do. This could partly be because I look at the world – and read situations, people and even respond to occasions – in a “fragmented way”; whereas, I always desire comfort and ease even as I do so. In other words, and as I see it, my desire (reflected by my “desired reading”) is for something “wholesome” and “complementary” to hold on to; while always shifting tracks in my reasoning and in my reflections. One accusation those who know me at close make against me is that I am inconsistent in response. Dhanuka Bandara tells me that “[I] have no concrete opinions; that [I] would say one thing today and another tomorrow”. If only it could be believed that that I believe in whatever I say at that moment; even if I am to contradict it the other day.

II

Tania and So Much So For Tropical Fruit are the sixth and seventh stories from The(ir) (Au)topsy. The ease in their fragmentation amazes me to this day. Tania has five parts – five sections that are related, but non-linear in no unambiguous way – and the piece begins with a “concept” for an anti-cigarette campaign – a visual in abstract – and ends with a “realistic moment”, yet, again, conceived in the narrator’s mind (or it would seem to me) where the narrator makes a speech at an alumni get together of his high school. Then, in the broader sense, both these ends are very much “fantastical”; but, then, again, they are not. The plot of Tania is straight forward enough – a guy gets drunk with a woman (Tania) and is too boozed out when the latter is run over by a train. He is accused of rape and murder, and he flees the long arm of the law, which hounds him. In the second part of the story the narrator is seen being put up by a friend in Heeressagala, Kandy named Mabrook. The third part features a vision the fugitive has and his continued run in a bus which gets banged into a Police jeep. The Police constable speaks to the narrator in French.

There is a visible and unattended hiatus between sections 3 and 4; for the fourth part opens with a description of a lawyer lady – one of the narrator’s own ex-buddies – who refuses to stand for our protagonist at his trial. So, it is submitted that much has taken place between these two episodes, yet no account is made of it – such an account, to the story, would not matter either. A similar lapse is seen in the concluding section, where the narrator is now free to revisit an assembly at his high school and make a speech. He confesses to a peer that he was finally caught at Kahatagasdigiliya, but as to the verification of this statement we have no proof.

The composition of Tania is December 2004. The story opens with a citation from EM Forster’s A Room With a View. The citation has no relevance to the story whatsoever – except that it, in the context of the novel, relates to the decisive meeting of Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson in the purple flowered copse. In the novel, this is a moment of “truth”, much like what the narrator of the short story is set to undergo in the course of events. But, this, is a far fetched reading – my creative principles are not that strained, even where they may come across as abstract. The Forster reference is more a frontispiece that, to me, would reflect the actual time, the mindset and the “biographical space” of my personal history where the story was constructed. The single sentence here echoes for me many other familiar threads that contribute to the weave of my “work bench” at the time. The extract would resonate to me a semester at university as a fresh undergraduate, with Dr. Nihal Fernando – towering above, on a raised platform in class 33 – reading meaning into this text; of batchmates calling me “George” – a name that would stay back with me to this day, fed into my e.mail address; and of “Lucy”: a name given to a girl (by friends) whom I would subsequently have an affair with. The narrative of the short story Tania has already begun even as the actual “story” is not yet started.

This is how the stories are read

The concept for an ADIC advert, which appears in Part 1, was first conceived while following a Diploma in Journalism at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute. This I playfully narrated to a group of friends, who, predictably, never saw the genius of my visualization. To this day I am fond of the image of the corpse being trollied in, in the advertisement – as I see it in my mind. The first readers of the piece insisted that the Tania in the story was my perverse recreation of Tanya Ekenayaka, who at the time was my teacher at Peradeniya. Close friends pointed out that the violent death Tania is unfortunate enough to meet was the badmouthing of my sexual frustration caused by Tanya of the Grecian curl. The “plot particle” of the drunk woman being run over by a train – and of a man being transferred the blame of the accident –, like the ADIC advert – was something I had already conceived, even as I began to write the book. As a concept, this image was at least 6-7 months old. Whether Tania, in a mischievous way, was meant to tickle a “sense of” Tanya, I forget by now. But, it is unlikely, for I was yet not audacious to play games with people who marked my assignments. Tanya Ekanayaka had just given me my worst grade in my undergraduate career – a C+ for Writing Skills – and I am sure I would not hone my writing to make political statements against her, just now.

Ravi Vindiyan, mentioned in the 2nd Section, is a reference to the Kandy District Second Seed at Table Tennis during my high school playing days. Ravi Vindiyan was a charismatic player to watch, a lanky, towering near-six footer, who had a ferocious open game and a whole deal of cinema to go along with it. The title of this section reads “Out of the Rubbers of Ravi Vindiyan” – his attacking Table Tennis was a treat to watch. In pages 69-70, the protagonist is seen received by a friend named Mabrook. The characterization is inspired by Mabrook Hamza – a school fellow who did debating with me. His Heerassagala parental house was located in a picturesque little den of its own. Writing the relevant section, I visualized myself in a room with Hamza – a much older Hamza and proprietor of the family house – putting me (in my mind the protagonist) by. Hamza was a loyal fellow, an ardent friend and a good hearted chap. He would be the ideal on whom I would base the friend who would give shelter to a fellow wanted by the law for murder.

Watch the Ashok Ferrey Show on ETV for Intimations on SL Literature

Nostalgia of many years working with people like Hamza – and as I engineer the story, of imagining myself / the protagonist reflecting on that past from many years yet to be – the following becomes impulsively relevant: “[People like Hamza/Mabrook] were the guys we fondled and moulded to become figures to reckon with. Not that they ran for a 75 meter try, but for their moulding and upbringing were part of the best we had ever done” (71). A paragraph later, one of my all time favourite paragraphs: “The last light to go out that night was Mabrook’s. My guess is our reunion had stirred the man in the direction of deep reflection. Else, it was the pressure of giving roofing to a runaway drinking partner cum suspect of murder. Other guesses are welcome, too” (72).

The French speaking Police officer – for “French is the language of Diplomacy” -, at that point, appeared to me a satisfactory caricature. I am not too sure now, though. Yet, of all my writing, this passage is another sequence that would stay put in my memory. The lawyer in Section 4 – Maheshi, married with two kids, a Charade, long hair “that gave new dimensions to art” – is a projection of a school time friend, Maheshi Herat who, at the time of writing, was a fresher at the Faculty of Law, Colombo. Maheshi had had no contact with me for the past two years and our acquaintance, which was a “tuition class friendship”, by now had weaned and she was likely to be the “much sought after lawyer” who would play safe in a case concerning me / the fugitive. Hamza, today, is married – but not to the woman I hint in the story – and is in the UK: Bristol, I think; the parental home yet occupied by the parents. Maheshi Herat, after graduation, is no criminal lawyer, but at a more safer berth with Sri Lankan Airlines: hair short and art, a lesser concern.

III

In ways similar, So Much So For Tropical Fruit, too, has projections of sorts – fictionalized projections made of “real” persons on whom my memory depended. The Dev Chandranath who appears (or rather, who fails to appear) in Section 4, is a shimmy made on Samitha Chandana – my school mate and close buddy during the A/L years. In a story, yet, again, which has multiple sections which are loose in their mutuality / resonance, the Chandranath / Chandana section opens with the lines: “Given an option to detach one’s self from the immediacies, I pull down ‘lost’ files and go through long note books given up for dead. Looking hard for the Telephone numbers I cherished Once Upon a Time: a world of Innocence and no Boundaries” (89).

The Gratiaen shortlist of 2006. The(ir) (Au)topsy given a run

The “no boundaries” reference is a bit queer, I should say – for there is another story that I had written a year or so earlier (while at school, to be precise; and a story which I shared with Samitha Chandana) where the interaction between the two characters involved – meant to resonate me and him – has a marked closeness which can easily pass for a romance. I forget the title of that story, which I still have somewhere among my notes, but Chandranath – irregular with correspondence, unreliable and undecided –, to me, was a construction improvised on Samitha Chandana. Samitha had a major dilemma at school to choose between me (alienated by the rest of the class aka “De Boyz”) and the rest of the “De Boyz” (alienated by me). Samitha had the curious ploy of hanging out with me at school and with the others outside. He would get drunk with the others and come pledge a commitment to teetotallerism to me, who, at that time, was decidedly anti-ale. I shudder to picture myself in that “unfashionable” state of opinion. But, the worst I could have done to spice up the mythology was to buy for Samitha as a gift an album by Ranidu, who was fresh upon the scene back then. The title of the album – “Oba Magemai”.

So Much So For Tropical Fruit yields to fragmentation without any unsavoury resistance. The narrative mode absorbs into its prosaic structure the rendition of an “MCQ” description (82), a flow chart (83), a pyramid and its inverted version (88) and a dialogue without direction (85). The story opens with a random comment on Kandy’s production of a strong rugby tradition, easily moves into a childhood encounter with two college fellows, gets directed into a naïve / frivolous reflection on caste and ethnicity – and the “story” is already being formed.

The text, in Section 1, muses on the assuming of names such as Senanayake for political reasons (84), a frivolous (but, at that point a serious critique) point on the notion of gender equality (84-85) and the brief second section deals with a disinterested love interest (86). The intensity of the fragmented moments that thus group together in seaming movements has not been re-vitalized by me since. The Fear of Gambling, too, is a text that breaks down to the point of Panadol, but lacking the intensity such as in the current case at hand. Perhaps, the present study being in the tradition of the shorter narrative makes it more feasible for it to adopt free and frequent fragmentation.

Dev Chandranath, in the story, is in the Tobacco Industry. Samitha Chandana, however, came of age to be a tour guide; and in the French language, too. When my FB account was hacked I lost touch with the fellow. Many months later I found him and some other college fellows in the FB friends list of a guy named Vihanga Perera, who had a cartooned gay couple as his profile picture. I see that my school friends had read me multi layered – the ideal audience, then, to receive my literature; sadly, not to be.

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