ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 30, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 31

Channelling more of the exciting old and new

CHANNELS – Vol. 14 No.1 edited by Anne Ranasinghe. Published by the English Writers Co-operative of Sri Lanka. Price Rs. 300. Available at Barefoot, Odel, The Gallerie, and 82, Rosmead Place, Colombo 7

It’s always exciting to get a taste of new writing in English by authors both known and unknown. All the contents of ‘Channels’, whether prose or poetry, are appearing in print for the first time. I was surprised to read Anne’s statement that Channels was delayed in the compiling, not for lack of submitted material, but because a lot of it was not up to the expected standard.

For this issue, the deadline had been twice extended before they got enough of the kind of stuff they were looking for. The end result should certainly be gratifying both to Anne and to the general reader. Poetry has taken the lead in Vol. 14, with poems heavily outnumbering the short stories. The English Writers Co-operative evidently holds an annual ‘poetry and short story competition’ and the prize-winning entries, 1st, 2nd and 3rd in each category, are given pride of place in Channels.

These are judged by two separate committees, Anne told me. Part 1 opens with the winning poem, ‘Upside Down’, by N.S. Buwanayake, which goes straight to the heart of the matter (of a relationship turned upside down), with a simplicity and directness and economy of words that evoke instant recognition and empathy. Many of the poems strike a sombre note, suggestive of the bleakness of our present outlook. Priyeni de Silva McLeod’s, ‘August 4, 2006 in Muttur’, might be an elegy for the 17 aid workers whose lives were so senselessly ended on that day.

On a more personal key, there is Carl Muller’s moving response to the tragic road death of his son, ‘For Destry’. I liked Vivemarie Vander Poorten’s blend of sad irony with a touch of humour, in ‘A Thousand Ships’, with its concluding quotation from Brad Pitt’s reference to Helen of Troy:

“It sure is amazin’ how somethin’ as innocent as love can set off such violence.” Two short poems that made me smile were, ‘One Big Stupid Bird’ by Chitra Premaratne- Stuiver about a koha laughing at “One big stupid bird who does not know how to tell a koha from a crow!” And the other was Yomal Senerath-Yapa’s ‘The Vulgar Tongue’ with its quick, clear glimpse into the mind of a young man to whom Oxford was the norm – “He learnt classics, cultivated culture, never lost his Oxford manner.”

Two arresting long poems by Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe which appeared to deal with ordinary themes like the making of bread and a snake on the roof, - ‘Breadmaker’s Time’ and ‘A Place With No Room,’ - are impregnated with more subtle undertones than the lines first convey and give food for thought. Premini Amarasinghe’s ‘Another Eve’, about a woman fascinated by the sight of a purple passion fruit fallen to the ground and lying on dead leaves, was cleverly crafted, with its suggestive ending of “The crisp brown leaves rustle, A suspicion of a slither.”

I laughed with delight at the sly satire and open humour of ‘Deflating Eliot (with rolling ‘r’s)’ by Shelton Amarasuriya – maybe because I fall into the category of those who prefer “Poetry uncondescending and clearr!” (as Amarasuriya phrases it) and am often baffled by the moderns! I suspect, however, that this poet is writing tongue in cheek and really laughing at the likes of myself when he concludes with, “Eliot, for those who understand you all, hurrahrr. Myself, I’ll stick to Walter de la Marre.”

Of the short stories, the story that won first prize, ‘The Ring’ by Neshantha Harischanda, was read with special interest because of the peep-behind-the-scenes given in Anne’s editorial. It should encourage new writers to learn that creative writing is far more often a matter of “perspiration” than “inspiration”, that stories might need to be worked on many times to reach perfection, when the first draft doesn’t quite satisfy. ‘The Ring’ held my interest. The mystery of the lost ring is well maintained and the tension is built up in a quiet manner through the conversation between a mother and daughter during preparations for a traditional wedding to be held at home.

The unexpected ending seems just right. Quite a different milieu is the setting for Wester Modder’s story of a plantation family’s bleak existence against the backdrop of the luxurious life led by the planters. In ‘The Heart of a Brother’, the central character, Velu, finds solace in kasippu in an environment in which he is an object of ridicule even to his own family and his fellows in the “lines”. The writer conjures up, with a touch of humour, a convincing picture of Velu’s family set-up. The contrasting life-style of those who live on a higher sphere, has had its impact on the man and in his drunken stupor, hungry and helpless, he recalls “watching gargantuan eating and frolic” in the “wide, polished hallways” of the mansion that is so far removed from his own pitiful quarters. “He wished then for another cupful of kasippu and a quick death.” Ironically,more sympathy is shown to Velu by those so far above him in the planting hierarchy than by his own kind and he is brought to the Superintendent’s bungalow for his own protection. As a result, the ill-fated man’s last drink turned out to be, not the illicit brew known as kasippu, but imported port wine out of a bottle purloined by the “Great White Master’s” Appu and shared with Velu on whom Appu was supposed to be keeping an eye at night.

Two short stories that also deal with death had the touch of authenticity which is the mark of creativity. One was ‘The Hero’ by Lal Medewattegedera, in which a child’s- eye-view of, and his instant compassionate response to a human being in agony, is shown against the judgemental attitude of adults who believe that bad guys deserve what they get.

The story cleverly focuses on a tractor, rather than on the dying man atop it. It opens with the sentence, “I still remember the day I saw a tractor for the first time”, and ends with, “I still remember the day I saw a tractor for the first time. Because that was the day I stopped believing that a tractor could moan.” It’s much more telling than if the child had dwelt on the human tragedy he beheld, although he could not comprehend its full significance in the sparse, unexplained words spoken by his father and by the police inspector.

‘The Patriot’ by Shalini Abayasekara also has that genuine touch, conveying the unbearable grief of a young woman when her adored big brother is killed in battle. Also written in the first person, this tale too has an attention-grabbing opening sentence: “The first time I remember him is when he punched me in the stomach for eating his share of ice cream.” It goes on to relate how the teasing and quarrelling between the two siblings evolved into a strong comradeship that eventually left “nangi” with a feeling of hero-worship for her big brother.

She protested passionately when he joined the army, but to no avail. When she looked on the beloved face in death and then glanced out of the window and saw life outside going on as usual, oblivious of this momentous event, she thought: “And no-one knew; and no-one cared that my brother had died for them.” There’s much more in Channels to whet one’s appetite for contemporary writing than I can cover in a brief review. I hope my attempt to convey its quality will induce readers to savour the whole for themselves.

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