Evelyn Vandhana’s recently released collection of short fiction Koti Pattiya (Tiger Cub) insists — somewhat philosophically, too — that “memories bloom, memories fade; but there are always some memories that remain within us forever”. In a short dedication which precedes the stories, the writer addresses her father in the following words: “I take your pen with pride. I miss you appa!”.
Before we even proceed to the first story in the collection of twenty short short stories, we are left with the question: who is Evelyn Vandhana? I had bought Vandhana’s book out of habit and began to read it on the Badulla express, while traveling from Colombo to Kandy. The writing, per se, indicates Koti Pattiya to be the work of a young writer, but what immediately captivated me in the sequence of stories — or impressions, as one may even call them — was the spirit and resonance of humanity on which Vandhana meditates. Hers deals with a wide array of situations and concerns that relate to ethnic identity and related crises, but with a consistent view of touching the “human depth” of suffering.
A reader who has swallowed a fair portion of world literature will turn back and say that there is nothing “much” in Vandhana’s collection; but, that is exactly why I insist as to who Evelyn Vandhana is. How old is she? Where does she come from? What is her past? Why does she miss her appa and what made her appa lay down his pen? Is her appa alive? Story after story makes us see bits and pieces of a writer who is receptive to loss, displacement, the face of violence. Even as she internalizes these anxieties and tensions into twenty different situations and contexts — training them through a variety of plotlines, setting up characters and conflicts — what I felt was that Vandhana uses her collection as an outlet for a complex of feelings and tensions that are immediate and personal to her. My reading, of course, can be wrong; but, my initial encounter with Koti Pattiya indeed intrigued me in the above way.
Glimpses and brush strokes of the “ruthless war”, the complexities of migrant identity and cultural hybridity, scenes from “welfare camps”, sudden “sounds of guns” that emerge out of the darkness, ethnic hatred being beaten up by vested agents in an ethnically fused village in Ampara stamp their authority in Vandhana’s collection. The writer’s scope in conceptualizing the series of stories, therefore, has an extensive range and it reflects a mind that is perceptive of a wider Lanka; and a host of mutually exclusive “situations” to do with ethnic identity and ethno-national politics.
As with any other collection of this form, there are some stories that do not read too well and indicate the need of revision / further development. Yet, there are some very powerful moments and passages which detain reader interest. “Laughter Amid Fire”, for example, is one such story where the writer captures in the life of Sivakumar the synopsis of the ethno-political tragedy of our time, as it is played out in provincial Ampara.
Sivakumaran — “known to Sinhalese as Kumara in short and among the Tamils as Kumar” — loses his wife Devi when she is attacked while bathing near the village tank “by a cruel creature” (it is hinted of being a homicide). The village economy is based on paddy cultivation and the population is a mixed one, following the “same rituals in sowing, reaping and threshing paddy”. They have the same offerings and religious customs. Kumar is subsequently harassed by both the Police as well as some LTTE persons. The story ends with Kumar being shot — it is not clear by whom — and he dies in front of his young son, Raman. Earlier, Kumar is repeatedly threatened and beaten up by both militant factions accusing him of complying with the other. The story also refers to ethnic cleansing and genocidal killings:
“Dingiri Banda and his family were lying in blood. They had been hacked to death… Kumar realized that they were talking about the ‘Koti’. He also felt a mounting rage in him” (77).
But, the seeds of division has already been cast among the villagers. The Tamil population is evicted (or have left voluntarily), symbolizing the decisive divide manifest in the two and a half decade old Civil War.
Kumar returns to the village after being held in Police custody, but becomes the victim of revenge when the LTTE attacks a Police bunker killing some policemen. He is badly beaten and he is shot soon after.
Among other stories that left an impact “Koti Pattiya”, “Blacklisted”, “Don’t Cry Devika”, “Last Gift” and “At Crossroads” are memorably noted. Stories such as “The Slippers” can benefit from further revision, specially as it strives to capture a compelling truth faced by the people of the battle-torn zones: the threat caused by landmines. Stories such as “Rosemary” — a story that deals with HIV — exemplify the occasional digression Vandhana takes from her larger concern with ethnic identity and conflict. “Rosemary”, however, is not among the best in the collection.
In Vandhana’s short stories we see a reflection of a badly thwarted nation and the creative agenda of a writer who has either been closely affected by that dent; or a writer who is deeply concerned and conscious of the breakdown in question.
My reading of Evelyn Vandhana’s collection is incomplete. I very much doubt that anyone may read the stories and feel “content” and “complete” without knowing the writer or her biography. The overwhelming sense that there is a deep connection between the writer and the impetus of her literature haunts you from story to story, right till the end.