Through my window

Sri Lankan stories

Print edition : July 11, 2014

June 1992: Sri Lankan Tamils walking in a procession in protest against an attack on the Tellipalai Durgai Amman Temple in Jaffna. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A bullock cart serving as an ambulance, in Jaffna. A file photograph. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

IS it proper to read fiction as a form of sociological documentation? Or as ethnography, as a lot of Third World fiction seems to have been read in the West? Does it “narrate the nation”, as Homi Bhabha would assume, or reveal the “political unconscious” as Fredric Jameson would suggest? Maybe it is one way of reading fiction among many. Since I am going to deal with a book of short stories here, let me list out a few of the stories that hold great fascination for me as a reader: The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka), The Baron in the Trees (Italo Calvino), The Guest (Albert Camus), The Wall (Jean-Paul Sartre), The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), The Chess Player (Patrick Suskind), The Elephant Vanishes (Haruki Murakami), Toba Tek Singh (Saadat Hasan Manto). Indeed, there are many other stories by modern Indian writers like Suresh Joshi, Nirmal Verma, Uday Prakash, Mowni, Pudumaipithan, Sundara Ramaswamy, Kamala Das, Paul Zacharia, Anand, N.S. Madhavan and others I like: one thing common to all these stories is that it is hard to reduce them to social documents even when many of them have a strong social content, like The Wall, The Guest or Toba Tek Singh, which are products of specific social situations. Perhaps it is their metaphoric quality that fascinates readers like me; even when they deal with specific issues or situations, they transcend them to reflect the human condition in a more universal way. This is no easy feat: they are not mere word games nor just fantasies as many modern stories appear to be even when they have elements of both.

But stories which are not “great” can be interesting for other reasons, too. One of the many assignments I had during my recent Sri Lanka visit was the release of such a book of Sri Lankan Tamil short stories in a highly readable English translation by S. Pathmanathan, popularly known as “Sopa”. The 12 stories in the collection ( Tamil Short Stories from Sri Lanka, S. Godage & Brothers, Colombo, 2013), though translated at different times for different journals and anthologies, together provide the reader a glimpse into the diversity of the patterns of Tamil life on the island country, while Chelva Kanaganayakam’s informed introduction locates the collection in the modern narrative traditions of Sri Lanka. The attraction of these stories, which are not necessarily “great” in the aesthetic sense, is the way they narrate Tamil life in Sri Lanka.

Admittedly poetry, which has deeper roots in the literary tradition, has been more popular as a genre in recent Sri Lankan Tamil literature than short fiction and has perhaps better reflected the social turmoil and political violence in the country since the 1970s. This column had earlier contextualised and dealt with the traumatic poetry in Tamil occasioned by the Eelam movement and its aftermath. But parallely, short story, too, has been reinventing itself and finding its own niche. As a genre, it has a history of nine decades in Sri Lanka, but it has gained real significance in literary terms only since the 1960s. Until recently, the short story remained conventional in form as well as substance, realist but without actually confronting the specificities of ethnic and political conflict.

Tamil short story in Sri Lanka is not yet entirely free from the hangovers of that conventional past, and its chief mode continues to be premodern naturalism, unlike in most Indian languages, including Tamil where diverse kinds of experimentation —intertextuality, radical rereadings of myths and legends, use of unconventional structures and narrative modes and voices, symbolic, allegorical, surrealist/magical representations of reality, metanarrative mode—have kept the form fresh and vibrant. To quote the introduction, “We see in them the residual influence of a previous generation of writers whose impulse was more spatial than temporal. They were not unaware of social or cultural issues, and in fact often drew attention to them, but their strength lay in framing the ordinary within a vision of consolidation. Writers were often sensitive to systemic forms of oppression, but in many instances, the experience of otherness was subsumed in a world view that was cohesive and benign.” While some of the stories in the present collection, as also in Bridging Connections (edited by Rajiva Wijesinha, National Book Trust, Delhi, 2006), do reflect the trend, many of the stories have gone ahead to capture the estrangement and the dilemma of the Tamil ethnic-religious-linguistic minority in a country dominated by Sinhala-speaking Buddhists.

Tamil Muslim identity

But Tamil life is no monolith, and the problems the community faces are not the same everywhere. Tamil Muslims, for example, have their own lifestyle, identity and kinship forms. Look at Ottamavadi Arafath’s story Mooththamma. The very atmosphere is set in a deeply local idiom: “In the sky the moon lay in the shape of a curd pan. It was motionless like set buffalo curd. The white clouds seemed to wrap it in an embrace. The roaring sea could be heard at a distance. The withering mango flowers were falling softly on the roof. The dogs howled without any cause and chased one another.” A screeching swing and the crying pakkul—rock-horned owl—on the manchona- morinda tree complete the scene. Mooththamma, sitting cross-legged with a betel box on a mat under the tree, comes alive in the story narrated from the point of view of her little grandson. The cry of the pakkul is supposed to forebode a death in the family.

The story has many ominous signs that foretell death, like Aunt Rahuma’s rooster crowing at an unusual hour. And the forebodings come true when Mooththamma, “the uncrowned queen of the village”, dies of fever in the end, leaving a long trail of sweet memories for the grandchild.

The story, while dealing with a child’s first encounter with death, also provides us a glimpse of Muslim life in rural Sri Lanka. The narrative style with its underlying structure of kinships, professions and belief systems is strongly reminiscent of Indian writers like Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, Sarah Aboobacker and Abdul Bismillah.

Sritharan’s The Saga of Ramasamy leads us to another pattern of existence: that of the coolies of the hill region. It resonates strongly in the context of the multiple displacements faced by the Tamil labourers in Sri Lanka. Tamil indentured labourers had been brought to Sri Lanka in two phases, first by the Dutch and later by the British, to work in the plantations. In the story, Ramasamy, a man from the hill country, from Gampola, is in search of his fortune in the north. It is with great hopes that he, along with his wife, Meenachi, and children, Sevanu and Mookiah, goes to meet Karuppaiah, a distant relative. He has no money and walks several miles with his baggage, partly along the never-ending gravel road through the jungle and partly along a tarred one (“Mankulam-Mullaitivu road is not just a tarred road. At times… it can transform itself into an epic, an autobiography”), almost on empty stomach. Finally they find a tractor going to Muthaiyan Katu, their destination. It is driven by Karuppaiah’s cousin. Karuppaiah himself is too poor to treat his guests properly. His attempt to borrow provisions from the landlady find no success; so he decides to catch hold of a hen. The hen belongs to his neighbour Rasa, who discovers the theft the next morning and Karuppaiah is thrashed. Ramasamy finds a job, but he is given only Rs.3, half of what was promised, when the day’s hoeing is done.

The meandering story does not have a strong narrative content, yet it represents the paradoxes and dilemmas of the lives of Tamil labourers: Karuppaiah, on whom Ramasamy pins all his hopes, is himself so poor that he cannot feed his guests without stealing food. It is an allusive tale, ironic in its attempt to understand the marginalisation of one group of Tamils by another. One may well remember that the “native” Tamils had lent support to the disenfranchisement of the immigrant Tamil labourers (a dubious distinction, except for the difference in the length of time that the two groups have been in the country) in Sri Lanka, complicating the assumption of a monolithic Tamil community in the island nation.

Al Azoomath’s Despondency presents the political impasse in the country by looking at its impact on the life of a single man, an estate-dweller from Dickiriya, who wonders why all his friends are so much in love with their native towns that they crazily keep dashing to and fro and beam with joy when they come back. He was unable to visit the land that his family had got on lease at Matale for several years because of the conflict; now the Sirima-Shastri pact has enabled him to undertake the much-postponed trip. As a worker who had left home in search of a job as soon as he completed his school education, he could never dream of having his own land; that is why he had gone for a lease in his birthplace that he had visited only on special occasions like when his father and brother died or his siblings got married or in 1977 and 1983 when they were chased out. His amma lived in Matale with the children of his brothers, one of whom had passed away and the other was working in Jeddah. His neighbours found fault with him for abandoning his mother for a life in the faraway town.

He recalled Matale: “Matale was like my mind. Some surviving traditional buildings smiled shyly. Many free verses looked haughtily. Familiar, though not closely acquainted, figures plodded by—backs bent, gray-haired, sans teeth. The Gombiliwela stream had been rejuvenated by the Mahaweli Project—like an old woman returning from Saudi Arabia.” Once he reaches the place everything is restored to him: places, people, relatives, friends. His amma was the happiest of all. And when he was to depart with his son the following morning, she condensed a whole decade into her question: “When will you come again?” The story revolves round the binary of belonging and alienation; by the time it concludes, their border becomes vague and uncertain; the distance shrinks. Matale, which was a space within, becomes a real place peopled by friends and acquaintances and the protagonist begins to understand the meaning of nostalgia that he used to ridicule before this visit. Dislocation here leads to a permanent state of suspension.

Nanthi’s Questions K eep Coming’ explores the question of the discontent and rebellion of the Tamil youth in the context of an unjustified death. While the story is not overtly political, the systemic fear of political upheaval remains a constant motif. The story is not political per se, but about a climate in which the intrusive presence of politics is not far away. Shivaprakasam, the disciplinarian schoolmaster, is very critical of the youth of the day, and on his way to Idaikkadu to attend the funeral of his postmaster friend Saravanabavan’s wife he actually suspects the boy sitting near him to be a terrorist since he is tightly holding a white canvas bag with red stripes which, he thinks, could well be carrying a bomb. He believes that all young men except his three sons who are all abroad are the cause of the chaos in his country. And his suspicion grows as the boy does not notice the temples and bow to the deities on the way. He also does not like girls befriending boys. He turns his head when a pregnant woman boards the bus, to avoid giving her a seat. He is full of complaints about everything in the world.

Reaching the friend’s house, again he feels like a stranger as his friend is away where rituals are being performed for his wife and he is surrounded by peers who are seated here and there “like old storks in a dried-up pond”. There is fear writ large on their faces as the lady had been killed by a shell that landed in the Sellasannithy temple when she was praying.

Strangely, the old men only say she should not have gone to the temple knowing there is an army camp near the temple. No one asks how there could be an army camp near the temple and whether human dwellings can be targeted by shells. The master now finds the “terrorist” boy he had met in the bus weeping and holding a torch in his hand: he is the postmaster’s son and had been on his way to his mother’s funeral!

The master is overcome with regret and he begins rethinking his attitudes: it is as if a lightning has struck his brain. He begins to ask questions he had never before asked: why, what for, by whom, when…? He hears the rolling of funeral drums being drowned in the sound of shells from the army camp. An array of people unjustly killed in the conflict passes before his eyes, from Kala Parameswaran to Rev. Wenceslaus and a thousand unknown civilians. He recalls one by one the events, from 1956 to 1983 (the notorious genocide was yet to happen when the story was written), and remembered all the victims: widows, orphans, violated women, maimed men, people who had lost everything they had. Only the children around are not scared, they are playing with poovarasu sticks for guns aimed at the passing army helicopter. And the bereaved son wears a determined look. The story is able to develop a subtle critique of the oppressive state through the protagonist’s change of heart and make the readers ask themselves the questions he raises towards the end. The multiple perspectives the narrative provides suggests an air of indeterminacy that characterises the space in which it is played out.

Refugee status

An Off-camp Refugee by Kohila Mahendran has also been written in a similar context. A middle-class lady, who had been indifferent to what was happening around her, even when bombers were appearing in her little son’s nightmares, has a rude shock when she finds bullets being fired all around her. Soon news of arson, arrests and torture begins to trickle in: the troops are camping in a nearby temple. There is confusion on the streets and the woman too finds herself among the villagers with just the clothes she was wearing when she ran out of home and a small steel trunk that carried her possessions: she is a refugee now, along with her mother and five siblings. But being a professional woman from the middle class, she has no place in the refugee camps. And she has to look for a rented house. She has had no bath for four days and only very little food.

They find temporary refuge in her aunt’s house: they call her “Colombo auntie”. But the hostess is a “germophobe” obsessed with cleanliness, constantly warning and abusing her and her siblings for little lapses. They know they cannot stay there long. So they move out to share a home with a poor couple who appear caring and compassionate. But the lady of the house, Kamalam, is extremely conservative, always criticising her guests for combing their hair at night, for not fasting on Fridays or for going to school during their periods. But they have to put up with that as they have no choice. At the end of the story, the protagonist amends the saying “To a blind man who has lost his way dark and light are just the same”, replacing “a blind man” with “the refugee”. The story mixes humour with pathos and creates a situation where suffering exists but is also endured.

The Crooked Sword by Cheliyan is a humorous story that deals with the disillusionment of a child when he watches his king-like uncle who had seemed omnipotent to him fall prostrate before his boss and behaves like his slave: another kind of metamorphosis, a downward evolution, like what Gregor Samsa had experienced on that fatal morning. The fear of authority and the loss of it are both addressed by the narrative.

Faces by Uma Varatharajan presents a cross section of the Sri Lankan lower middle class as Nagulan meets people to collect the monthly instalments for sewing machines, each client finding a different excuse for evading payment. The story is full of hilarious encounters and points to the collapse of community.

Invocation by Ranjakumar is a surreal ghost story woven around Devan, a writer who eerily disappears from home one day. Rajeswari Balasubramaniam’s Who is Afraid of Ghosts, too, is a ghost story where Mahadevan, an engineering student in England whose sister had committed suicide after a rape for political revenge, encounters a ghost in his rented room in St Albans. He soon learns that a despondent Sri Lankan Tamil nurse had taken her own life in that room after being deserted by an Englishman who had got her pregnant. The story reminds us that the past is hard to jettison and the diasporic experience is by now part of the Tamil experience in general even if the people are located outside Sri Lanka. The ghosts suggest shadows from the past that are hard to shake off.

Thirukkovil Kaviyuvan’s Chevvanthi is a tragic romantic story where Chevvanthi’s lover, Senthan, leaves for Colombo after a period of intense love and courtship. Senkai Aaliyan’s Watering Time begins like a fable and ends up demonstrating how when human beings turn bestial, animals appear humane. These stories together can be said to be an attempt to narrate a community in all its diversity of life-experience, of dislocation and dispossession, of fear and indeterminacy, of longing and belonging.

Email: satchida@gmail.com

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×