Rajith Savanadasa’s Ruins, unlike in the case of many writers writing of Lanka from destinations away from it, was refreshing and less of a turn off, as he is mostly successful in his attempt at recovering the spirit, sentiment and the pulse of a nation, a historic climate and a social context through his debut. Weaved as a narrative that is located in the months that run up to the Sri Lankan government’s military crushing of the LTTE in May 2009, and the months that follow that euphoric climax of violent uncompromising nationalism, Rajith looks at an English speaking, western-exposed, just-off-Colombo middle class space, its ruptures, hiatuses, tensions and anxieties in trying to give shape to a complex family juxtaposed with a complex national space at logger-heads with itself. Overall, Rajith’s narrative of the Herath family — middle class working couple and their (what appears as) Ladies’ College and St. Thomas’ educated children — and its satellites and how they, as players of a domestic web come together and go apart, provides a very well thought out, well articulated storyline delivered through careful craftsmanship.
The novel unfolds as a sequence of personal accounts by each of the members of the Herath household, beginning and ending with accounts by Latha, the servant maid, who is perhaps Rajith’s least convincing character. In between we have two accounts by Mano, Lakshmi, daughter Anoushka and son, Niranjan. Up to Lakshmi’s second account the hold Rajith has on the reader is without dispute. However, a sense of tedium and the notion of things being a tad dragged seeps in in the last two sections of the story; but that, at its best, is a subjective reading of things.
As a craftsman, Rajith shows much promise, and his toolkit in weaving a story that holds together while respecting continuity, with sufficient stuffing to keep the reader at her heels demands our applause. His sense of the idiom and the pulse of the street, though inconsistent and at times a tad over-trying, does justice to his efforts in drawing a Lankan ethos, as classed and regionalized that sense of Lanka may be. This is to say, one feels that Rajith is more at home with the middle and upper middle class spaces that he draws into his weave, making the narratives of Anoushka (largely set in her school space and friends’ zone) and Niranjan stand out as memorable. Mano Herath’s complexity as a character was well delivered, while Lakshmi, at one point, became too predictable and tedious with her aeminena kokka mode of operation. The reader was made to take relief in the fact that the book was merely 340 pages, while for Mano, it was 27 years of Lakshmi. The most problematic in representation, in terms of locating the pulse and the spirit, was the character of Latha: the servant, possibly, now in her 40s.
For one, I felt that Latha was inconsistently portrayed – a flux moving between infantalization and profound moments of deep, philosophical thinking. Arriving in the village for her nephew’s funeral, Latha sees half-built houses which makes her feel that “people building them must have run out of money before they could finish, their dreams going nowhere like the concrete staircases that didn’t have a second floor to reach”, while she remarks the mountains that “looked like elephants lying down, at temples, lime-washed and clean, standing like milk teeth against the earth and blue-green paddies” (185). This, from the same woman who, in other sections, is shown to be a simpleton with a very basic reference to the world around her. In one of the first sections, when her “aiya” asks her what Latha would do if she won a lottery, her answer is to divide the money among her master, mistress and their children and to purchase a small TV for herself (4), while she is also alienated from the class she works for by Rajith making her mispronounce words such as “lottery” and “computer”. Either this is an inconsistency in characterization, or Rajith’s own inadequate positioning of the psyche of the working class.
Anoushka, the fifteen year old daughter, too, betrays inconsistencies and unevenness at times, as she projects a split of maturity and steadiness, which is then offset by passages that make her look the antitheses of these same. Our initial meetings with her indicate a strong, alternative vibe in her, with her preoccupation with punk and alternative music being a reasonable measurement. She is located within the hinterland of the class extreme of her school community, and unlike her “Too Much Make Up (TMM)” colleagues Anoushka is seen to be perceptible and socially conscious, though she is passive and non-committed for change. However, and particularly in her second narrative, this steadiness of character is challenged by an undermining of personality channeled through a sequence of episodes that include the drama Anoushka causes over a dead fish. Even more, the perceptiveness she shows in identifying the position of the “godayas” in her Ladies’ College classroom is lost when she makes reference to her own servant Latha whom Anoushka often dehumanizes. The way she connives a connection between Latha and the Vaddas, and how she thus makes a link between Kuveni and Latha (210) does no justice to the Anoushka with an instinctive bent towards rock.
Rajith’s normalization of the Lankan idiom and his effort to retrieve a Lankan echo through linguistic set pieces is commendatory. This, in fact, is a high point of his over all project, which adds to the richness and the meaning of his text. Yet, at places, this attempt goes askew, resulting in abnormal and unlikely renditions. One such passage is where, finding that Latha has neglected tending the fish tank and that the goldfish had died, Anoushka accuses the former as “fish murderer!” (175). Assuming this exchange happened in Sinhala, what Anoushka’s accusatory charge is meant to resonate is not clear, as ‘fish murderer’ itself is an unlikely formation in Sinhala. Then again, these are exceptions to the more nuanced honing of the Lankan (Sinhala) resonance, which also includes creative plays on saivara shop names like where Heshan, the cousin, pronounces Hotel de Pilawoos as “Hotel de Pillows”. This is, perhaps, best enjoyed by someone with an exposure to the saivara culture and its nuances.
Rajith also playfully brings in passing references to a top politician’s son who drives a a Lamborghini down Bauddaloka Mawatha (51), a politician who uses the state airline to import a kitten (60) and to Lasantha Wickramatunga (81), whom Mano calls Lanka’s last investigative journalist. A Hector Pushpakumara, a minister known to smash his way into media houses and tie up public servants and flog them, does a Mervyn Silva while threatening Mano over a trifle (260-265). However, I felt that Rajith goes over the board in paining the cloud of uncertainty in the last sections, with the haunting fear of the Heraths’ phone lines being tapped, and the sense of being under intense surveillance. Even Minister Pushpakumara’s rampage on Mano’s office is, perhaps, a little over-eager insert on the part of Rajith, in trying to echo the warped stat of affairs in the immediate post-war period, but without sufficient cause drawn out of the text to support the same.
The Herath household is, simultaneously sympathy-evoking, vicious, warm, cold, soppy, clumsy, alienated and alienating. It is the family that pushes us into the least expected anti-climaxes, and startle us with the most unexpected surprises. Latha, the servant, is ordered to wipe the telephone receiver with dettol every time she speaks, in order to discourage germs and contamination. The same Latha is sought to accompany Lakshmi into soothsayers’ dens, to confront suspicious white vans parked near the house and so on. The characters occupy complex networks, confounded and confused, seeking solutions for their problems — trivial and complex — mostly blundering, rarely finding a way. Parallel to these developments, the nation moves on, sometimes reflected through the inner mechanics of the Herath family, but surely as confused and confounded.
Rajith’s molding of Mano Herath very closely resonated the character of WG Karunasena in Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. In fact, reading the character of Mano made me understand fully for the first time as to why Shehan’s WG Karunasena is so effective and memorable as a construction: so close was the characterization, and so revealing in the traits, trajectories and other ingredients the two characters had in common, one shed light in my reading of the other. But, all that I will reserve for a later essay.
Along with Nayomi Munaweera’s What Lies Between Us, Rajith’s Ruins is one of the better and recommendable reads dealing with Lankan soil, being written from a non-Lankan space. In fact, it is a refreshing addition to that spectrum of pade-s (as Niranjan would say) from the Ondaatjes to the Tearnes, who draw all kinds of romantic bali and packets them across the world under the unholy blessing of big publishing firms: representations that are dishonest, disfiguring and a disgrace to the respect one must have for culture and historical space.