Abnormal Breast-Stroke: Ben Chinnaiah In Roma Tearne’s “The Swimmer”

Writers of Roma Tearne’s caliber, who have migrated from Sri Lanka decades ago, have no longer an immediate  empathy or connection with the currents of Lankan socio-political shifts; but, they still attempt at plotting on “Lankan crises” for the “traumatized Asia” sells and sells well. This marketing of “Asian / Sri Lankan crises” – even where the representation lacks resonance to a resident reader – has been the mainstay of Tearne’s previous publications – Mosquito, Bone China and Brixton Beach. Tearne’s last novel, The Swimmer, however, is by far the crowning glory of the inability under question.

There are certain realities – consequences arising out of topical matter such as war, displacement, victim psychosis, tensions at migration etc – which an “alien” to the context cannot easily absorb and digest. Tearne, in attempting the “crises of Sri Lanka” is such an alien – one who has lost touch with the pulse, the outlook and the psyche of the people in Island Paradise four decades ago. She has not experienced the three decade civil war but through second hand material from afar, even as her characters are the victims of it. Being a voyeur of war and having no empathy or critical understanding of the complexities involved with it Tearne’s characters often ring hollow where they discourse on the subject.

the-swimmerBen Chinnaiah (Ben is the preferred name for Tearne’s prototype ordinary Jaffna youth of the day), the co-protagonist of the first part of The Swimmer has just smuggled himself to Ipswich and is seen swimming a muddy undrained lake, by the lonely house of a lonely 43 year old poet. In fact, the first two chapters or so are dressed with suspense, for there is much mystery fed into the text – the mysterious swimmer, the corpus of dogs that appear with throats slit, the increasing burglaries in the town etc. It is against such a backdrop that the lonely poet Ria watches from her room or from behind a tree as the sturdy, dark skinned Ben walks out of the lake, bare bodied too. He unwaveringly enters the house (repeatedly, but just for a minute or so) and leaves as silently as he appears. Rather than being freaked out or being alarmed at such visits from an unknown intruder, Ria in fact is fascinated by “the swimmer”. He is found to have pinched a loaf of bread, an apple or some such edible and to have vanished without a trail.

By now, one needs no prophet to forecast that, sooner or later, the two of them – Ben, the enigmatic “swimmer” and Ria – are going to have sex. This, in fact, is the grand promise of the first part of the novel (even though, when it happens, Roma Tearne gets coy and decides to keep details to a bare minimum). Ben, on on of his stealthy visits, plays the piano. Listening from another part of the house, Ria is truly mesmerized. Later, after formally confronting the “intruder”, Ria builds up a friendship with him and in a matter of visits the acquaintance is upgraded into an unadulterated love affair. Later on, Ben is shot by the Police who – in a second thread – are on the alert and look out for illicit immigrants and “terrorists”.

As a newly landed illicit immigrant, Ben’s confidence at entering Ria’s house and making use of the pantry and piano are highly unlikely. He shows minimal caution or hesitancy in entering this house which show enough signs of being inhabited. Later on, Ben makes several references to Sri Lanka and as to what made him “run away” from home. His flee was motiovated by the fear of being killed by “either party” – the LTTE or the government forces – and he had taken a plane to Moscow. From there on, he had bought an “illicit passage” in a lorry all the way to England. How the lorry crossed over to England is not mentioned, but Ben’s fear of deportation and of being killed upon such a return to Sri Lanka is emphasized (43).

The immediate cause of Ben’s flee is the death of his cousin who had been shot at point blank range by a military officer: “The cousin tried to get his hands out of his pocket but wasn’t quick enough and the soldier shot him in the face” (58). If not for these unfortunate circumstances, Ben, at twenty five, had already been qualified as a doctor and had practiced at Batticlore (my emphasis). He also has a gift and skill in classical piano, as he improvises on Ria’s piano with finesse and elegance.

Roma Tearne

Roma Tearne

Tearne’s construction of Ben is highly dependent on cliches and “common stereotypes”. The soldier that kills by shooting at point blank range, the optimistic run away as well as the “killing of a cousin” are all overused, flogged motifs – and the kind of sweeping generalization that is often connected with war in the non-European world. Ben, a qualified medic, is from Jaffna and has practiced in Batticaloa. If this is the case, it is highly unlikely that he would flee the country, since he is already qualified as a doctor. In other words, he has made his way to a “relative sanctuary” and earned a “lucrative berth” to operate from. If he is to migrate, avenues other than a dubious lorry are open to a man of such a social standing. But, for Tearne the class and status implications of the Lankan context does not denote their nuances. Her lack of depth (of Lankan culture) is seen by the fact of Ben being a doctor at 25, itself. This in Sri Lanka, is an improbability.

A resident of Jaffna tells me that, through the 1990s, the “classical piano” has disappeared from the Jaffna middle class. It is not very likely, I am told, for a young male from that part, growing up in the 2000s to have a solid grounding in Schubert et al, as Ben does. This is not to rule out such a possibility, but to the reader in question – a fellow from Jaffna – Ben does not resonate what to him is a tangible social reality. Of course, for Tearne, the “refugee-medic who [played piano]” is an exotica – and her concern is solely on enhancing the romance between the refugee and the writer. The inaccuracies and anomalies of Jaffna’s characterization would not matter when the book is written for and consumed by the West.

Tearne has now a readily extending bibliography, with a growing stature as an “informant” of Sri Lankan affairs to the eager Western Readership. The objectification of the “war escapee” from the Northern shores of Sri Lanka, in spite of its improbabilities and abnormalities, cuts a deal for the writer; and a career is eagerly furthered upon the dead bodies of faceless and soulless Ben-types, for all Tearne cares.

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