Of Salt and Sand: Tales of Old Hambantota (2017) is a series of sketches by Pierangeli Andrado, framing the life, mood and rhythm of that eponymous town of the deep South, stenciling moments, memories and anecdote from a range of sources: family tales, historical collections, cupboards of one’s memory and so on. As I understood, Pierangeli has migrated to Australia in the 1970s, and is since domiciled there, and her project, therefore, is a retrospective re-turn to “once home”; the land of her childhood and ancestry.
The narrative weaves itself as a series of portraits, interspersed by stand alone renditions of verse: this latter aspect, I would comment on separately. Portraits that relate to a range of diverse persons that are connected with the narrator’s young life – from Aunt Brenda, the maid Menika / Piyaseeli, the mischievous Lantis, Mr. Butler the butterfly collector, Maxi of the Hemingway spirit and so on – producing stills of a varied path of life in Hambantota in the immediate pre and post independence eras. As a whole, the narrative comes together as a resurrection of a lost age, both in a historical sense, and in the sense it seems to releate to an individual chronicler, stirred of memory by a return after a long absence.
Pierangeli’s type of narrative is not entirely original. Musings and retrospections that delve into detail that you try to retrieve through recollection and anecdote, as well as the near-romantic nostalgia with which you synthesize that past have been the bread and butter of academic and critical discussions that inspect narratives of the present kind; and I am not ready to enter that track in the present time. Perhaps, such an entry is also unfair, as Pierangeli’s comes across as a project of coming to terms with one’s self – a kind of harmony the writer seeks by bridging her own past with present – than in making her writing a money-making modality, feeding on one’s own romanticized notions of the past.
However, one key aspect of the narrative that gives it punch and purchase is the strategic insertions of verse and poetry, which synthesizes with the anecdotal, recollective and photographic aspects of the larger thread. There are five poems that thread through the ten chapters / portraits as such, introducing to the casual story-telling rhythm of the narrative a contrapuntal effect. Even the five poems represent five moods, and tones – playing with the overall tempo of the narrative as and when they appear. I hope that I am not reading too much into these juxtapositions.
In terms of locating Pierangeli, and in contextualizing her subject position in narrativizing Lanka, she can, at one level, be read side by side with writers such as Chitra Fernando and Yasmine Gooneratne. Same as these other two more formidable pillars of the trade, Pierangeli, too, has migrated to Australia in the 1970s, settling down with a family and a sense of permanency. Gooneratne, whose satiric prose (arguably inferior to her satiric and not-so-satiric verse) became global commodities through the 1990s, had also earlier migrated to the same country and settled down as an academic. In the case of Chitra Fernando, her short stories as well as her only novel Cousins (1998) often tend to snap back in search of familiar sights, smells and colours from a childhood spent in the neighbouhoods of Payagala in the South West of the island. Her short stories written in the early and mid-1980s urgently seek this connection – though, unlike Pierangeli, Chitra Fernando’s is presented as “fiction” (as opposed to “memoir”) that is sufficiently informed by history and culture.
An aspect that struck me as significant is Pierangeli’s (not so) unconsciously subtle evocation of cultural plurality in the region: a measure that she, at times, even extends in a way that ethnic and cultural categories are diffused, if not dulled. Being a writer of Burgher origins, one obvious representation is the Burgher identity and culture, projected through both her family and the cousins she portrays. However, more intriguingly we have almost innocuously stenciled details of persons like Piyaseeli (a.k.a Menika), said to be born to a Tamil mother, and a father of African origin (and baptized “Piyaseeli”), who falls in love with the boy Jamis. Elsewhere, a chapter is dedicated to Muhsin and represents the Muslim and Malay thread of the Hambantota community. All this, in a post-2009 context where Hambantota had actually become a headline maker, albeit the state-sponsorship and partiality it received during the Rajapaksha regime of 2005-2015, and as an outpost of “unadulterated Sinhala Buddhist heroism”.