Sriyani Hulugalle’s Cherry Blossoms: A Collection of Short Stories and Poems collates 25 short stories and verses on a range of themes and preoccupations. The bulwark of her writing deals with personal issues set in a restricted, private domain, and often draw nostalgic, yet sensitively human moments while scissoring through a range of intense sentiments from longing to losing, from desiring to letting go, in a rendition that is rich with memory and sincere feeling for “almost moments” in a past the narrators are nostalgic of. While it cannot be clearly stated as to whether the memories Hulugalle looks back on are actual biographical sketches, the sense of time, space and feeling are palpable and vibrantly felt.
In terms of Hulugalle’s craft, she follows the tradition set down by the realist writer, with close attention paid to verisimilitude, logical progression and so on, with a patient hand for detail and deliberation. The realist approach, as Hulugalle uses it, leaves very little room for the narrative to break free from a spatially linear pattern which, by the by, reads as a tad monotonous and tiring. But, that is not necessarily a weakness of the work, as much as it is a personal response in my reading of Cherry Blossoms.
The collection has a balance in its location of society closer to the present time, as well as its nostalgic search for a time now lost. For instance, stories such as “Grass is Greener”, “Beyond my Reach” and “Farewell” attempt at framing in experiences closer to contemporary time, while the title story “Cherry Blossoms” and “A Request” are earnestly meditated returns to a time, space and experience from a past the writer / narrator strives to nostalgically retrieve in memory. “No Heart is Free”, though hurried and failing to capture the depth of character, is a take on the unexpected change of heart in an LTTE cadre, Raju, who, unexpectedly, befriends and feels for the child of a military officer on whom he is assigned to spy. The story in itself is loose and incredible at times, but shows an attempt in Hulugalle to offset set stereotypes which are often assigned to militancy, in a search for the human and the fallible in the often impersonal game of war.
“A Request” – made reference to earlier – is said to have been written in 1987, in Netherlands, in response to a poem by the Canadian resident poet R. Cheran. Voicing thoughts which Hulugalle ameliorates with Cheran’s own sentiments, she prays for a secession of hostility and an end to militancy:
I still walk barefoot
On the sandy temple grounds,
Holding a lotus, praying for peace.
Though my brothers of Yalpanam
Gunned down innocent people
Praying for peace
… You and I both love
Our sweet home, Mother Lanka!
Let us all throw our guns aside
And walk on the sandy, golden beaches
Under the palm trees once again”.
Underneath, Hulugalle adds in parentheses that, in 2016, she is “happy that her wishes have come true”. Clearly, Hulugalle has not taken into account the great humanitarian tragedy that the Northern Tamil community had to undergo to in a prolonged war of two decades and a half, and its genocidal endgame in 2009, in which the lives of an estimated 350000 citizens were exposed to brazen heavy-armed attack by the state military and – to a much lesser extent – by the LTTE. The lives lost in the final months alone are variously estimated to be between 50000 and 90000, and whether the “sandy golden beaches” could have seen lesser blood and human remains has fed the post-2009 political discourses with much controversy that left the Lankan government in the state of the proverbial ostrich in the face of the global floor. This, in a context where writers / activists such as Cheran have evolved in their own political opinion in the last 25 years or so, to represent the Left-oriented ideological nuance of the national struggle.
Hulugalle’s is an unambitious work, and one that seamlessly moves from snapshot to snapshot, from past to present; from the personal to the national. Her strength, however, in my opinion, lies in the recapturing of the past and in retrieving memory and the pulse of personal (or, personalized) history. Her collection is a pleasant, easy read, much like cherry blossoms in a calm, tranquil eve.