Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors opens with a promise which, in the end, is short-lived and flouted by the writer’s inability to synchronize the merit of narrativization which she shows on the main with the lack of political awareness and vision. For this reason, Munaweera’s book – which beckons at the possibility of the post-1983 Sri Lanka being presented in a ‘fresh’ light – bungles into a hole, which is deep in its lack of depth, in reading the complexity of the ‘military solution’ which the Rajapaksa regime arrives at in 2009. The book, however, is at its best and strongest in dealing with personal history and emotional crises. This is what makes the sections which concern Yasodhara and Lanka more compact and compelling. From memories of childhood, to recollections of disturbance and chaos – as retrieved by the person and individual – the narrative holds fresh and true.
A decisive point of Munaweera’s narrative is when Saraswathi’s story is brought into the weave. What is Saraswathi’s role in the text? Specially, when she is portrayed the way she is – a hardcore female LTTE combatant, would be school-teacher turned militant out of compulsion – and being introduced to us a good half way into the novel? At one level, Saraswathi counter-poses the perfect idyll of Yasodhara’s graceful memory of the past.
To juxtapose the imaginative faculty in Yasodhara, Saraswathi is both intelligent and enduring. Her ambitions are held together through much strain and pain even as her siblings are violently ripped off from their family as a result of the war. Her personal agony is at best a microcosm of the common fate of the Northern and Eastern individual who is torn by battle, both in personal and social aspects. Her brothers’ fate – and hers as a person who loses the near and the dear – is all too familiar a reality for those communities caught between camps. But, Munaweera’s skill in capturing the intensity of Yasodhara’s thoughts, I felt, was more three dimensional than her articulation of Saraswathi. In the end, Saraswathi’s life takes an inevitable shift, and she gets herself absorbed by the LTTE cause.
Munaweera’s characterization of Saraswathi is motivated by her desire to bring into her weave a female LTTE cadre – there is no doubt. As much as it did during the two and a half decade struggle by the LTTE against the government of Sri Lanka, its aftermath, too, hasn’t diminished the appeal of ‘female LTTE cadres’ to writers who churn out narratives of war. While some of these cadres alloy the plots, being harmonized with the trajectory and are enmeshed by the narrative as a compact element of the weave, other portrayals fail to complement; and thus get alienated.
Saraswathi’s fate, I fear, belongs to the latter definition. For instance, Saraswathi reminds us of other female activists of post-2009 ‘Sri Lankan war literature’ such as Shalini in Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s Tigers Don’t Confess. Shalini, too, brings the narrative to a dramatic – if not chaotic end – as she blows up herself, dressed up as a dancer who is a part of an entertainment act, in the presence of a political VIP. But, Shalini’s presence in the story does not either de-harmonize the narrative as a whole, nor does it make the rhythm of the narrative inconsistent. Her presence and her actions are justified by the necessities of the text and the project Chandrasekaram is engaged in shaping.
Munaweera’s Saraswathi equally resonates Kamala Velaithan of Nihal De Silva’s The Road from Elephant Pass. This is more so because of the ‘two-dimensionality’ in De Silva’s characterization of Kamala. Kamala is one of the weakest characterizations by Sri Lankan Sinhala writers who desire to ‘conquer’ the Tamil LTTE mindset. Kamala is from a middle class family of which the father is a teacher and a simple, well meaning soul. In the way Saraswathi is inculcated with values which make her want to be a teacher, Kamala’s dream in life is to be a doctor. Her father’s legacy to her is a desire for bird-watching and nature (of which she gets in abundance while crossing the Wilpattu on foot with a captain of the Sri Lankan army).
In both cases, that of Kamala and Saraswathi, the violence of 1983 becomes the pivot which radically transforms their social-orientations as well as their priorities in life. Kamala’s father is paralyzed after being beaten by a mob and the family retreats to Jaffna, leaving back their comfortable life which was hitherto spent in Wellawatte. Ideally and not-too-coincidentally, Munaweera’s Yasodhara and Lanka, too, are from Wellawatte. Their upper floor is rented out to the Shivalingams and the Sinhala mob attacks and killings of Tamil nationals in 1983 happen around them.
But, the point I want to raise is how easily and predictably the writers in both De Silva and Munaweera (among others) return to Wellawatte (and not, say, Dehiwala, Ratmalana or any other suburb), a displaced childhood, a displaced dream, the trauma of 1983 as departure points for the counter-thrust against the hegemony of Sinhala governmental oppression. The ‘Tamil political consciousness’ is enslaved and reduced to an ‘after-event’ of the 1983 riots. This merely betrays the shallowness of the writer and their ignoble pro-Sinhala point of reference. For the mainstream uncritical Sinhala majority, the consciousness of the Tamil political radicalism ‘comes home’ in 1983; for them, what gives birth to that expression is 1983.
Munaweera’s, therefore, is a flouted project, but like most flouted programs it has enough to merit a prize and recognition. The novel ends in a blatantly Rajapakshist note, urging us to de-select the past in favor of the optimism of a future. It tallies well with a liberalist consideration of time and progress. But, as to whether that is antidotal enough when accounting for history is something stupid to ask.
[Written for “The Nation”, in September, 2013]