Chhimi Tenduf-La’s half-comic debut novel The Amazing Racist (2015) has now hit the Lankan shelves as a book by a “half-Tibetan, half-English” writer: as if that phrase alone carries enough exotica for it to be read. Tenduf-La’s biography indicates that, though of Anglo-Tibetan parentage, he has in fact been in Lanka for a considerable time while growing up, which, most probably, sets the platform for his novel. The novel itself follows a mild comic-satiric mode, mapping the fate and fortune of a migrant English teacher who arrives in Sri Lanka and dotes on a young woman named Menaka. The not so amazing “amazing racist” is Menaka’s father, Thilak, with whom the star crossed have to negotiate in their bid to get anywhere close to love.
Tenduf-La’s is one of an emerging body of literature, where writers of non-Lankan origins centralize (or cut across) Lanka – the geography, politics and the culture – in their novelistic expressions. Among some of the recent writers to draw as such is Trilby Kent’s 2011 novel Smoke Portrait (2011) which is a palpably neo-colonial framing of Lanka/Ceylon of the 1930s, where an English woman (Annabel) is seen grappling with the fortunes of a hilly tea estate against a Ceylon where anti-colonial political and social changes are already rampant. Kent’s is a rabid Euro-centric construct of the Ceylonese hill country, showing scant understanding or sensitivity to the local cultures and their social dynamics. Starting from locals’ names, down to the cultural transactions, Kent shows a lack of familiarity and understanding of the time, the age and the place.
Chhimi Tenduf-La’s purpose in his delivery, one can assume, is largely light-veined humour. For that purpose, he manipulates some of the (perceived) hang ups of the urban socialite class which he frames into his novel and amplifies their caricatured form for comic entertainment. In Trilby Kent’s case, her very location of Lanka of the 1930s is infected by a lack of resonance of a historical process; and of the anthropological status of the hill country’s estate culture. Her sole desire in drawing in Ceylon to her weave, as I see it, is to represent through the tea exporting country a sense of the mystic and the exotic as a selling point for her novel. The estate, as I encountered in her novel, is a slice crudely parted from the mother cake of history. The abruptness and the rootlessness of those respective episodes were too tangible so as not to notice.
Compared to Kent’s inroads into Lanka’s tea country, Gillian Slovo’s Black Orchid (2008) is a more sustained effort, as it probes the displacement felt by an Anglo-Ceylonese family that moves through the 1940s to the 1970s, transferring their lives and battling their fortunes from Ceylon to a fast changing, culturally complex urban England. The novel opens with Ceylon at the threshold of Independence, where we meet Evelyn – a young English girl who is shortly set to return to her “home” in England – who abruptly meets Emil, a young and impressive Ceylonese. Slovo threads the story through their initial bonding and the subsequent pressures forced on them – hardships caused by intolerance and racism – as they struggle with their lives in English soil. A familiar theme of displacement seen in many migrant narratives through the 1960s to the present is thus re-lived, framing how the family, as well as their “more naturalized” English offspring, have to, yet, endure the racist needle of society: for whom there is no rest or repose in an alienating ethos.
While Slovo and Kent use the Lankan experience as a “set piece” – a brief platform for the narrative’s trajectory to spring off from, or to cut through – Julia Leslie’s Perahera (1983), alike Tenduf-La’s weave, preoccupies in locating the island nation as the site of the greater story. However, unlike Tenduf-La, Leslie strives to bring in to her narrative aspects of the local culture – with detailed references to the ground level modes of social and cultural operation – even though these insertions, for the main, read as “contrived” or as “studied”. The abnormality that results from an outsider’s “perceived practice” in being hailed as the “de facto practice” of culture – a reading that misses out on the nuances and subtleties which only an “inner member” of a cultural paradigm would know – punctuates Leslie’s text.
Furthermore, with due patronage to the recently departed British superpower (for the novel, set in the mid 70s, is published in 1983) we see two “white” persons – one, here on vacation; and the other here in search of her sister who has just disappeared – in a Bond-style role play, championing the defense of Lanka against a planned coup d’état by a notorious local politician. Set in the mid 1970s – a few years since the failed insurrection of 1971 – Leslie draws on both the motifs of revolution – an idea which is fresh in the minds of the people – and the corrupt politics of the Lankan Right Wing. However, the planned coup comes across as trivializing local culture, as the would-be usurpers intend to secure the rule by hijacking the Buddha’s tooth relic, while it is being paraded at the annual perahera in Kandy. In the year of 1974, it would have taken a bit more than a relic tooth to claim ownership to the top seat of the country, thus making the whole plotline a tad ludicrous.
The location of Lanka in its modern geo-cultural form as a “story site” is by no means an alien preoccupation to aliens. We have writers with Lankan roots – for whom the island home of long ago is a speck of memory that can be amplified through a glass of nostalgia and padded up for sale – who often exploit this motif, faring no better than these non-Lankan writers for whom Lanka is sufficiently a curio that can be appended to their creative agendas. The more recent of these farcical, “once-upon a time- I was in Lanka” writers to produce at malarial speed is Roma Tearne (Mosquito, Bone China, Brixton Beach, The Swimmer etc), whose lack of access/understanding of the “ground level” culture in Lanka makes her novels look strangely alien and hollow. Thus, cultural misappropriation and misrepresentation is given a lifeline; and this suddenly making the likes of Michael Ondaatje and Romesh Gunasekera look shades better and digestible.
Of aliens writing about Lanka, as to who represents what and in whose favour is a debate suited for another entry. However, with the growing corpus of non-Lankan authorship who prefers to absorb from the island’s culture, politics and so on for their creative purposes, a better measurement can finally be arrived at as to how the “expatriate” or “non-resident” Lankan writership engages with the same: as to how better (or worse) they fare in their off beat and out of tune (mis)representations of what is no longer theirs.