Looking Like Shahrukh Khan: The Holes in Madhubhashini Rathnayake’s “There is Something I want to Tell You”.

There are many things I want to tell you about Madhubhashini Disanayake Ratnayake’s There is Something I want to Tell you, which first made headlines in 2012, when it won the Gratiaen Prize for 2011 and went into multiple prints. However, the need of direction and focus demands me to channel my commentary along a few, selected aspects of this ambitious text which, at its base, examines the coming of age of several characters, juxtaposed with the post-independence state. Madhubhashini’s is an inconsistent and erratic text, with abnormalities, irregularities and non-credible postulations that detrimentally hurt the overall delivery. Yet, it should be mentioned at the outset that it is also a text which has momentary peaks and memorable passages of play and can appeal to a reader who is less inclined with abnormality. The purpose of my essay is to highlight a few such instances which take away from the overall strength and energy of There is Something I want to Tell You.

The location and the passage of time and space in the novel often leave the reader baffled and tentative. Madhubhashini’s delivery is often punctuated by instances where the represnetation of chronology (the idea of time in the context of plot development), temporal linearity and rudimentary historical facts which the text, as a whole, often uses as scaffoldings are flawed, inconsistent, or are abused. Following are some relevant illustrations:

Book-cover-madhubhashiniWe learn through George Samarawickrema, Janu’s father, who tells Janu the story of his playmate Upali’s father (Rohana Pathirana), that the historical time in which the novel’s opening is set is “a few years after” 1971. This historical moment, I suggest, could be any time between 1972 and 74 (the latest), but not too further away, allowing Samarawickrama to refer to the 71 Insurrection as having happened a “few years ago”. However, according to Samarawickrama, Upali’s father, in the mid-1930s and at the age of 18, had once played a leading role in the Sooriyamal Vyaparaya of the LSSP. However, almost immediately Upali’s father is also concluded as having been a member of the JVP in 1971. Thus, Madhubhashini, in her location of Rohana Pathirana, innocuously warps two separate time and ideological zones that are almost three and a half decades apart. If Pathirana was 18 at the time of the Sooriyamal Vyaparaya, he should be 64 or thereabouts in 1971. All this, while his son, Upali, is aged 10, close to Janu’s age.

In the same immediate post-71 context Janu is approximately 10 years old, preoccupied with Cricket and being much the sheltered adolescent. But, in an immediate later chapter, while cycling through a slum area, Janu witnesses people setting out (as hinted) to attack a nearby Tamil quarter. This implied riot could only be 1981 or 1983 (specially, since in the chapter that follows, July 1983 is seen through Anila’s eyes), even though Janu is still 12 years old (81). Janu’s age is thus frozen, though, chronologically, almost a decade has lapsed. In 1983, when the riots break out, Anila – Janu’s neighbour – is 15 years old. Yet, the early chapters of the novel prompt us to think that Janu is either close to Anila’s age, if not slightly elder. This lack of correspondence between the sense of time and the growth of character is a handicap, to say the least.

At one level, the novel strives to represent the post-independence profile of a nation drilled by violences of sorts. Yet, there are many instances where the “historical sense” of that representation is left wanting credibility. The novel, for instance, records the burning of the Jaffna Library in the midst of the 1983 debacle (92), though, historically, the library was set on fire in 1981. During the riots of 1983, “two weeks after” the 24th of July, the commencement of rioting, on the 2nd week of August, early-teen Anila is seen sauntering down Pieterz Lane, unaccompanied, too, to attend her violin class (93), even though, given the historical circumstances of the 1983 riots, where violence was rampant for almost a month and a half (and given Anila’s upper middle class background), the ease with which the surrounding turmoil is disregarded is somewhat abnormal.

Janu at 8-10 years seems to have a fair knowledge of the political work of his father and the LSSP (22), though he doesn’t show the same expertise in knowing that little monks are not allowed to play with other children (8). At 11, a year after his mother’s death, a very serious-sounding Little Monk tells Janu “chief monk says attachment is the key to all sorrow” (66), which looks a bit out of place for one as well-groomed within a religious environment as Janu is. The temple influence with which Janu is brought up is a recurrent focus of the initial chapters.

Chapter 10 transports us to 1989. If indeed Janu had been 12 or thereabouts in 1983, now, in 1989, he should be in the age range of 18-21 years. But, according to Madhubhashini, he has already “sailed through the finals of his Law Examination” (107) and has qualified as a lawyer, simply on the merit of his LLB (108). Later, elsewhere, he is said to be 24 years at this time (208), though that still does not correspond with his early adolescence depicted in immediate post-71, or, alternately, of him being 12 years during the 1983 riots. In 1990, Janu’s status as a law graduate is reiterated. Janu’s friends say that “when [Janu] smiles his face beats Shah Rukh Khan’s” (108). In 1990, one is not sure whether to take that as a compliment or as an insult.

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Anti-JVP propaganda in the wake of JVP-State clashes.

Madhubhashini’s reading of the nuances of class in the various relationships people forge leaves much to debate on. There are several intriguing sex scenes which are somewhat robotic and surreal. Specially, for a Sri Lankan university context, the crossing of class boundaries is done almost with unreal simplemindedness and with no questions asked or clarifications made before, (during) or after sex. Take for instance the stormy romance Chaya (from a rich, influential, Colombo family, who dresses herself in ordinary clothes to university) strikes up with Kamal (from a first language Sinhala speaking, peasant family from Bulankulama).

Chaya and Kamal first meet by accident, as they hide in an enclosed space on campus, in order to escape an (unrealistically placed) Police attack. With Police running riot all around beating and rounding up university students, inside the closed zone of their refuge, Chaya is sexually aroused by Kamal who happens to (involuntarily) brush against her (150). Chaya initiates Kamal into sex in that cramped place. Kamal and Chaya develop a relationship afterwards, even though Kamal – the villager – knows nothing about Chaya, her family, or her background till much later in the relationship (170). There are two absurdities here: primarily, in spite of how one dresses or “undresses” the nuances of class and economic status cannot be erased or evaporated, so as to guile one intimately connected with you. Secondly, and more crucially, in a Lankan context, sex is a personal act, even for the most impersonal of people. The robotic, oblivious mind with which Chaya and Kamal develop a relationship, for a Lankan context, is not all that convincing.

My feeling is that the cardinal fallacy is in Madhubhashini’s underestimation of class as a social stratifier. Class lines are shown to be harmless and toyable in sections like where Janu – the “appo” of the walauva – goes cycling with roughnecks in the nearby slums. They accept him without question (67) and with time Janu is even said to be a part of their brawls and such. This ideal world with non-existent boundaries is offset only in the Bulankulama village where Kamal, Sarala etc are careful adherents of the overbearing class/caste consciousness. Janu seeks a quixotic escape among the slum culture (80), and, to my mind, is thus set in a most unlikely situation.

An adolescent, 11 year old Anila, is sexually aroused when Janu falls on top of her while at play, and, later, is seen “hugging him” by a neighbour’s gate (47-48). How realistic is it for Lankan mainstream Sinhala-Buddhist upper middle class households to have their adolescent boys and girls mingle together like Janu and Anila do? How consistent is it for the generally reserved Anila to hug Janu by a neighbour’s gate? Anila, is, in any case, an advanced child: “how do mothers sense a change in their daughters, Anila wondered, such little shifts even” (49) – a profound thought at the age of 11. At 12, Janu gets “turned on” as Anila plays the violin next door. He masturbates to Anila’s playing the violin (78) and is (quite crudely) said to be “capable of feeling fire in his loins” and that “dreams of her made him get up wet in the mornings” (79). Anila reads Mrs. Dalloway at 16 (98), which is highly commendable. Commendable still, is how Sarala, who starts reading English late in life – with her father’s insistence, but haltingly – suddenly gains proficiency to read Tolstoy and Chekhov in English at the age of 12 (124).

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Mourning for lives lost during the 1987-89 ‘reign of terror’. Photo c/o a Dharman Wickramatileka web post.

In the second year of his mother’s death, when Janu returns to Bulankulama in search of Upali, the latter refuses to see Janu. When Kamal and Sarala come looking for Upali, he says: “tell [Janu] I never want to see him again. Tell him that please Kamal” (59; italics mine). Such first name references come across as odd in a relationship that is shaped more along the lines of being siblings, as Upali’s is with Kamal. After all, as Madhubhashini quips elshewhere, in the village everyone was a nandha or a maama. This first name reference is more cosmopolitan and upper middle class, even though it is recurrently seen in the Upali-Kamal relationship, even much later (for example, see page 144).

Cricket is shown to be widely spread and commonly played by the rural peasantry (56, 57), which is yet another abnormality and irregualirity. One familiar with peasant life in the 1970s and 1980s will testify that Cricket would be scarce, if at all, and was seen more as an urban past-time, alien to the post-harvest fields of the village.

The first section of the novel ends with Kamal arriving at Janu’s Pieterz Place residence (110) on a morning. At this point, there is a shift in the narrative, and that trajectory of the text only resumes much later in the novel, in Part III. At that point, Kamal had been welcomed in and is inside with Janu and his father, George (193). The time, however, is night and dinner is about to be served: a walk across the garden from gate to house on what, by implication, was the shortest day on earth.

In the course of the novel, Madhubhashini cross-refers to history and politically crucial phases in it. While these dialogues with history add to the larger political trench along which our reading can be nuanced, oddities and irregularities that occur in her representation of history interfere with textual consistency. One such instance is her reference to the 1915 Riots said to have been stirred by “coastal Moors” and a mosque they had built (100). These Moors are said to have blocked a Vesak procession. These historical references are questionable and lack correspondence.

In (what can be located as the vicinity of) 1972, Kamal’s father says “the Tamils will protest…. they will fight for their language” (120), refering to the widening gulf in politics between the government and the Tamil aspirations. However, protests for language rights have been mainstream from as early as 1956 (if not before, depending how far one prefers to trace back the struggle), and, unlike what is hinted by the writer, does not surface with the Vaddukodai Resolution of 1976: a resolution that seeks a consensus among the Tamil militant movements regarding the direction of their struggle.

According to Madhubhashini, “in 1987, young Sinhalese insurgents who had gone underground in the seventies were active again” (126). The reference here is to the JVP, who were proscribed by the Jayawardena Regime in 1983 and was forced to go underground. Contrary to the novel’s suggestion, between 1977 and 83, they, as political party, were within the mainstream of politics.

RajivGandhiassaulted1987Referring to the outbreak of the Second Insurrection in 1987, the following statement is made: “the demand for a separate state by the Tamils in Sri Lanka gave the Sinhala boys a clear reason to be angry” (126). This is a gross misrepresentation of the outbreak of anti-governmental protest and breakdown triggered in 1987, which followed the Indo-Lanka Accord signed that year. Madhubhashini, who shows scorn against the JVP, further urges that “the ranting against privileged classes had not made much sense to the elders before, when they could see that the speakers themselves had got fat mostly on the rice grown in the paddy fields belonging to the feudal households” (126-127), which is an apolitical and historically naïve assessment of the JVP programme in 1971, while the condescending, class-elitist view with which it is suggested is disturbing. Madhubhashini states that “the insurgents called their movement the JVP – Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna” (127), which, again, is inaccurate. While it is true that the party was benedicted as such, the movement in 1987-89 per se is/was generally referred to as the DJV: the Deshapremee Janatha Vyaparaya.

The novel’s political discussion is centrally connected with Kamal and Upali: both, who come from a remote peasantry and are inducted as cadres of the JVP, while being students at the University of Colombo. Kamal leaves the village around the time Lucky Mudalali dies, in 1987 (later, Kamal confesses to Upali of being the Mudalali’s murderer). Arriving at university, Kamal works enough to be a frontliner of his movement within that same year – which is, again, unconvincing and shows the lack of understanding on the part of the writer as to how the hierarchy within a closed party such as the Student Wing of the JVP operates. When Rajiv Gandhi is assaulted at a guard of honour in 1987 (164) Kamal is already a frontline cadre of the militant students’ movement of which he is a member. Even Kamal’s blending and settling down into Colombo life – after coming there for the first time from a remote village – is without complication or conflict: as if moving from room to room. By 1988, he is one who is among the “wanted” of the JVP students’ wing (136-137).

For a responsible and otherwise disciplined cadre, Kamal blurts out all movement secrets and routines to Chaya: a girl with whom he had just developed a relationship, but of one who seems to know nothing much. Even the organization’s hit lists, assignments, cadre mobilization etc – from private to general – are voluntarily blurted and shared in detail (172). Inspite of his claim that “secrecy is everything” (155), Kamal is portrayed in a somewhat simplistic and non-complex way which reflects badly on the writer’s own reading of the student movement of the time. By the time the IPKF lands in 1987 (182), the University students are already being beaten back. The shuffling of events of 1987 with 1989 should be better explained, if there is some creative end to be fulfilled by it. There is also an intriguing perfume bottle sold at Liberty Plaza for 10,000 rupees in 1987 (167).

Kamal’s confidante Upali arrives fresh in Colombo, already initiated as a marskman, and “race[s] down (Colombo) roads in a motorbike” and manages to singlehandedly locate houses in residential areas with accuracy and efficiency (183). How does Upali offhandedly know the location of Chaya’s house? When did he learn to improvise on a motor bike? How does he know Colombo roads that well? What are highlighted here are selected from a longer list of “odd” moments and passages of play.

Madhubhashini is often the culprit of injecting her non-middle class, peasant characters qualities, temperaments and states of mind that would be more convincing were they located among characters from the cosmopolitan, upper middle class.

It is unconvincing when Upali – the son of a pesanat woman – acts “spoilt”, refusing to go home to his mother because she “lied about his father”, who was admitted to Angoda (36). This, as well as the relationship between Upali and his foster siblings Sarala and Kamal – who ask no questions of Upali’s past, thus respecting his “privacy” (115) – is inherently cosmopolitan and upper middle class in echo. When we learn that Kamal has been the narrator of the first section of the novel all along, a revisit to an earlier part such as the following sounds bizarre, coming from a man who had spent his child and young adulthood as an organic part of the village: “The purple nidikumba whose leaves curled up and slept when the impatient wood touched it” (6). What is resonant in the reference above is the voice of an alien and outsider to nidikumba growth.

The text, in places, is also unabashedly superior and elitist, irrespective of who the narrator is (at a given point), which is insensitively offensive in the location of class and cultural difference. Speaking of Upali, Kamal – the once-socially deprived narrator of the first section, in retrospection, says: “Upali was the only son of the servant woman who looked after Janu’s mother’s mother, but still could bowl and catch a ball better than any of Janu’s classmates at Royal College” (5). This, primarily, is an abnormal statement coming from one who once shared the same “servant roots” as hinted at. Notwithstanding, it bares a superior classist position which is also seen in locations such as the following: “(class elite Chaya’s) first boyfriend from campus, Hemantha, had been the first yako she had had after a string of rich sons of rich fathers” (147; italics mine).

Epithets such as “Soma from the kitchen” (51) come easily to the writer, while the culture and temperement of the perceived “class inferior” is painted in demonic and subhuman elementry, as seen in the animal-like hostility in Upali as he gazes on “culturally refined”, “Westernized” upper class society at the entrance to the Lionel Wendt (165-166).

While the superior, condescending perspective above can be irritating to a certain readership who would measure social variability in relative terms, this is not a premise on which I determine to pass judgment on the writer or the book, as individual perspective is just that – an aspect that is inherently bound with one’s personality and worldview.

 

 

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