Romesh Gunesekera’s new book Noon Tide Toll is a symptomatic reading of what Gunesekera — who for years has been at the top of the game in “exporting” to the West a marinaded Sri Lanka — has ultimately become: a pavement hawker. In all main towns in Sri Lanka we have a “pavement sales” culture, where people trying to make a buck out of seasonal merchandise set up shop and make a racket at an attempt of making a bargain, while making the buyers feel that the bargain is actually the purchaser’s. At this point of his career that has crawled along one essential trajectory of producing an ever-growing pig of “exotica”, Gunesekera takes to the pavement with a rent-a-van runner (told to be prematurely retired governmental desk worker too) in “post-war” Sri Lanka.
Noon Tide Toll has two sections: (1) North and (2) South. These are meant to cover the Northern and Southern experiences of Vasantha, who drives a carefully selected band around the defined geo-masses. In this submission, I wish to underline a few episodes regarding Vasantha’s Northern exploits: a peninsula which Gunesekera presents as being well and truly open for direct and uninterrupted passage; a peninsula where a tourist-driving Vasantha can come and go as smooth as anything.
So, drives Vasantha to Jaffna and — he has driven there so much — the guards at the checkpoint don’t even check his ID anymore. They crack a joke about Vasantha’s mini bus van (which is implied to be old and not road-friendly: what an unsuspecting cliche there!) and allow him to pass. Hibiscus Hotel in Jaffna has a friendly Kanna who welcomes Vasantha and his touring charge: two Dutch and a Mrs. Cooray, who, earlier, gets into the van and asks: “You have petrol, no?”. Of course, how Sri Lankan is that giddy cliche: the “tag question”, which these deviant to the norm Sri Lankans are said to use whenever they have a question to ask? Kannan and Vasantha share a beer and a roti in the staff quarters of Hibiscus Hotel. The protagonist wonders whether Kannan ever hears of Al Jazeera and Channel 4, where “there has been a lot of talk about the war courts in The Hague” (5).
When Gunesekera’s protagonist wants to say “mokadda” (මොකද්ද?), he ends up saying “mokadtha” (මොකද්ත), which is some outlandish gibberish which is not even remotely Sinhala. Either Gunesekera has been too long away from the Sinhala language — or, had never been conversant in that language to begin with — that, if we are to compare, the cliche of the tag question is the more pardonable offense. Guides in Sri Lanka (so splashes Gunesekera’s protagonist a massive and sweeping generalization — one that is only subservient to Gunesekera’s own ego-centric assurance that he knows Sri Lanka only too well), we are told, “don’t say anything until you are about to make a wrong turn. Then they shout ‘left’ or ‘right’, amazed that you had not divined the correct route (10-11).
Recurrent marginal references to Chinese diplomats and Chinese culture permeate the text. For instance, in the vignette titled “Mess”, Father Perera, protagonist Vasantha and Patrick are seen facilitated at a military camp. In a room, there’s a TV where Chinese diplomats are seen shaking hands (32). In “Scrap”, comes the observation: “if you are going to live in this country…it would be a good idea to learn Chinese” (79). Gunesekera seems to feel the heat of China more than any of us, even though the protagonist who contemplates China never does so with any form of political depth or insight: even as he seems to be familiar with the politics and so-called infrastructural undertakings of the government in the North — and the Chinese politico-economic interest in them.
In “Mess”, we have a priest who returns to the North and with him surfaces the familiar “outsider” and the probing inquisitiveness of the “outside world” to the Lankan North. Can we see IDP camps? Are the confusing things we hear about the North all true? And from whom do these naive and innocent ask such reasonable questions? From the major in charge of the camp, of course. The major in charge of the camp rattles his jingo: “We had 350000 to contend…in the humanitarian operation after the final fight” (38). These facts, figures, questions and images are all a rehash of an already too familiar montage of the May 2009 aftermath. Vasantha states: “it was a big job. I know, ending the war, spearheading the people. We saw the magnitude of the problem on TV… The victory march. The housing problem. At first it was difficult to believe” (39; italics mine).
True — these are the words spoken by an average Sinhala pensioner cum van driver. But, the fellow who pumps these words out of Vasantha — the one who authors Vasantha — is Gunesekera. “Ending the war”, the magnitude of “the problem” and “housing problem” for the survivors of the governmental onslaught are neatly picked euphemisms which do not even remotely problematize the utter carnage through which this so-called “victory march” was had. As March 2014 approaches, these “spearheadings” are wobbling before the national leaders of the country, whose actions during the final phase leading upto May 2009 are being called for international scrutiny. The “housing problem” by no means underlines the incarceration of survivors and their being herded and sheltered together under the most denigrating circumstances for over 3 years. The reference doesn’t account for those who simply got erased off the face of the earth, or those whose torsos returned to haunt the national leadership via Channel 4 documents.
Dr. Ponnampalam’s return to the house of his childhood after a sixty year absence — and of his finding it now being renovated into a mini Hotel — is at the heart of “Deadhouse”. Ponnambalam is someone quite alike Gunasekera, for he had left Ceylon in 1952, seeking the greener pastures of England and had never returned. Therefore, upon his return now — decades later — Ponnambalam has to be led by vague memories of landmarks and milestones. His house had now been turned into a Hotel, run by a Madam Sujitha.
Inside the hotel we find a Hi magazine (now, isn’t that making the all-island rounds?) and all time clichetic references to a structure which we are meant to understand as just being renovated. On their way back the Doctor directs Vasantha to drive up to Kayts and they pass by the spot where Denzil Kobbekaduwa and top tiers of the three forces were blown up in 1992.
For Gunesekera, the project at hand is to write stories so that the “topical” front of the Lankan North can be exploited as a canvas to draw a few predictable, cliched and not-too-difficult projections. You don’t need effort or knowledge to write these stories: these stories lack a political depth or an insistence in grappling with the post-2009 Lankan North for what that peninsula has been subjected to. The North is a site of struggle as yet, where the conflict still rages on, as “normalcy” is yet to return to a war-torn social, economic, political and cultural nexus. The Provincial Council elections of 2013, which saw the Tamil National Alliance trump a landmark win comes under much International pressure and with a heavy “active” military presence.
For, Gunesekera, there is no militarism or strangulation of the civil order: for him, the soldiery is as unassuming as the trees in the view. Their presence and their camps are almost taken for granted and are not questioned. But, why should he? He is pitched tent on the pavement and he is here to sell the post-war North for a few nickles and dimes, where his already amassed fortunes go.