Chipping from the Inside: Amarakeerthi in his New Collection of Short Fiction, “Ara Mihiri Seenu Naadhaya”.

[Originally carried by the The Nation]

Liyanage Amarakeerthi, in his recently released collection of short fiction titled Ara Mihiri Seenu Naadhaya, lays much emphasis on the twin motifs which have been trademarks of his produce: the university text and the academician’s role. Of the six stories collected in this book, at least three intersect with the defined premises – interestingly enough – subverting and unsettling the “holier precincts” of average university dons and their cushiony towers. By no means is such subversion new to Amarakeerthi’s trade; for, he has throughout his writing career (and it is well articulated in texts such as Atavaka Putthu) varyingly chipped into the proverbial “dumb and dumber” aspects of Sri Lanka’s university.

Interestingly, Amarakeerthi is one of the few writers I have come across in Sri Lankan literary discourses who can laugh at – even mischievously ridicule – a generic category in which he, too, will be located. Being an insider of Peradeniya’s academic “ivory tower”, when Amarakeerthi beats the bastion with the tools of his wit, ironically enough, he is still within the establishment. He, therefore, runs the risk of being walled in even as the cement of what is being chipped gives way in cracks. The three short stories which form a satiric and critical commentary of the academy in the present collection are titled as Nonidhana Avadhiya, Aluth Letchimi, and Rathuvan Rathnavalli.

In Aluth Letchimi the narrator is the middle class housewife of a don attached to the university. The story is centered on a burning middle class crisis of the day – the dearth of domestic labour. Letchimi is the middle aged by-day servant (even though the “educated” university graduate protagonist and her husband make it a point not to use that word) whose working hours are often interrupted by calls from her son-in-law who rings from the Middle East to give directions and advices to the woman on issues in his own house. The story is set in the vicinity of the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, and Amarakeerthi injects to the story aspects of the crassness and euphoria of the Sinhala middle class celebrations of this military triumph. The university couple is slightly more considerate of “feelings” and “sentiments” of people such as Letchimi, who are automatically identified with the LTTE by the less conspicuous neighbor, Sumangalika and her persistent businessman husband.

In Rathuvan Rathnavalli the criticism is decidedly aimed on several dubious aspects of lecturer-life. One chief point raised is the ambiguity which surrounds academic credentials and the lukewarm quality in the work of certain academics who, based on connections and favours, and by touching the “right chords”, make careers and champion interests of their own. The protagonist Ratna Mahavithanage is a prototype for this definition and by pleasing “the system” (than with academic brilliance) he rises as a much sought after “authority” of his subject: ancient proto-Ceylonese history. The “TV-nationalism” beaten up by a host of chat shows which panel in quasi-experts with vested political agendas, belting out versions of history (with mythologized, fantastical bases) which legitimize a prejudiced history come under Amarakeerthi’s scrutiny.

A memorable character in Rathuvan Rathnavalli is a Sinhala Professor named Ariya Herath, who is said to host a jingoistic chat show on Sinhala culture and history tagged as “Eloo Paedura” (literally, the Laid Out Mat; but not without the ironically subversive connotation of Unwoven Weave)and who is also a presidential advisor. Herath’s use of Sinhala and his charged words in locating a monolithic “2500 year Sinhala-Buddhist heritage” serves beyond a parody for those readers who are familiar with the chat show culture under light.

The story that made the collection one memorable for me is Nonidhana Avadhiya – a story of a 2nd Year student who is bored by the lethargy and monotony of the university routine. Another scathing criticism of the stagnant discursive usage by the academy, this story makes true a corpus of existing clichés in relation to university lecturers: notes that are parroted year after year without any updates, jokes that are lifelessly repeated mechanically by the semester, carelessness and uncritical application caused by the bane of “routine” etc feature prominently in this sarcastically rich, comically novel story which (the disclaimer statement which appears at the outset informs us) is a “manuscript” of a short story sent to a lecturer to be read and marked by an undergraduate student. Of course, here, Amarakeerthi playfully incorporates the “disclaimer” strategy which we from the time of the proto-novel engage as a narrative ploy. However, the ridicule to which the dissident protagonist reduces his lecturers (who are deemed to be prisoners of routine and victims of lethargy) is unprecedented in my limited reading experience.

The student in question – who has an expertise as a security guard courtesy of a job he undertakes to make ends meet – sneaks into the houses of the faculty at night and “messes up” with the meditative calculation of their lives’ “arrangements”: he mixes up the spices, re-arranges the furniture, bungles up half marked papers, changes the covers of text books, changes the tags of car keys etc. The resultant chaos to lecturer lives who are easily paced along a “practice-makes-perfect” routine is disastrous as lecturers appear late for class, with plasters and broken limbs – results of tipping over oddly and unexpectedly placed furniture and such. The story ends with the lecturer who “records” the story for us himself admitting that he, too, was a victim of a “midnight visit”.

Ara Mihiri Seenu Naadhaya will be a gripping read if Sinhala short story is your chosen literary item. The ability to symmetrically inter-weave an acute socio-political relevance with aspects of irony, mischief and subtle commentary overarch the collection as a whole. Of Amarakeerthi’s short fiction, this, perhaps, is the most memorable line up; if not the most impactful.             

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