What could be more insightful than a view of Kandyan women – and men too – as seen through the fond eyes of one of their own? Nanda Pethiyagoda creates true-to-life characters set against the familiar and nostalgic background of her childhood and growing-up years in the terrain that marked Peradeniya Road and Halloluwa Road and thereabouts.
This well-produced, hard-cover book is enhanced by its impressive cover design of a collage of photographs strikingly arranged by the author’s son, Rajiv Wanasundara. It opens with a Prologue in which Nanda proudly quotes from Robert Knox’s enthusiastic description of Kandy and its inhabitants. It ends with two other apt quotations from foreign writers, John Fletcher Hurst in 1890, and Ella Wheeler Wilcox in 1913. A Glossary at the back explains all the Sinhala terms used in the book.The first three stories appear to feature a genuine, traditional Kandyan family of that period, (1905 to the 1910s).
The imposing but kindly Megoda Korale Hamuduruwo, his deferential wife with her strong feudal attitude towards their servants, their amenable eldest daughter Loku Menike and her younger sisters.are clearly drawn. Nanda gives us some surprising glimpses as to how family life was conducted then.
In this year of grace 2009, the sleeping arrangements of the Korale Hamuduruwo and his wife would certainly not be entertained for a moment. He slept at the front of the house “in his large bedroom with the four poster bed and all,” while his wife was consigned to “her little room in the nether regions of the house”! Nanda informs us that “there was not much conversation between the man of the walauwe and his spouse”, mischievously adding that the grandchildren, “in the know of what birds and bees did to procreate, wondered how the couple had seven children while living completely apart.”
In the first story, Loku Menike’s very properly arranged marriage to a suitable Kandyan male of the right caste and breeding, with all its concomitant customs, is juxtaposed with the younng servant-girl Pinchi’s passionate if not furtive love-affair with Dingiri Banda, a handsome young villager, and its tragic ending.
It – and the second story relating to the blossoming affection between Loku Menike and her new husband and the eventual birth of their first child, – brings out sharply, by contrast, the pathos of Pinchi’s undeserved fate. Again, it surprised me to find that the husband who has fathered their daughter’s son, is treated by Loku Menike’s parents like an unwelcome outsider and has to spend his days in another little house owned by his in- laws, with their carter serving “as his general factotum!
“The third story in this trilogy deals with the joys and sorrows of Loku Menike’s child-rearing years and proceeds to the untimely death of her caring husband and also of her father who was devoted to his first- born and to whom Loku Menika felt much closer than she ever did towards her strict and inflexible mother. Bereft of the support she always had from these two men in her life, Loku Menike discovers unsuspected resources within herself and she develops into a strong woman who shows her true mettle as she stands up to a bullying brother and determinedly makes a good life for her children, as a single parent.
It’s rather disconcerting that the stories have no titles, only numbers. Story No.4 starts off humorously, depicting a bogus “war hero” and “best friend of Field Marshal Montgomery”, Cuda Appachchi as he is called by his skeptical nieces. The man’s bluff is soon called, however, and, spurned by all the better-class Kandyan belles. He ends up marrying “Lily from Panadura, dark, thin and forty-five,” who always averted her face when he visited their home before marriage.
A touch of drama in everyday life is introduced when, in flashback, the surprising if powerful reason for Lily’s having done so is revealed. I do like the unexpected ending to her story, though. Left in very poor circumstances on her husband’s death, an unforeseen stroke of good luck (which I will not divulge here), transforms the drooping Lily “as if a sudden shower of rain revived her.”
There are eleven stories in all and the more disreputable characters in them are `outsiders – like the Wijetunges who seemed to have been “carried by a wind and deposited” into a house at the parting of ways between Peradeniya Road and Halloluwa Road.
Mrs. Wijetunge and her two daughters lead a very private life, the girls being held up as models of propriety by the mothers of the neighbourhood, to their own more outgoing daughters. Mr. Wijetunge who works in Colombo comes up at weekends in his chauffeur-driven car at a time when nobody else on that road owned a vehicle. It is a real cataclysm when the whole charade is exposed in a big hullabaloo that rouses all the neighbours one memorable night. Mr. Wijetunge is shown in his true colours as a most undesirable type of husband and father, by the 3 women of his household.
One story that somewhat strains credibility is about two sisters who take off in diametrically opposite directions. The younger girl, who strays from the straight and narrow path, wastes her whole life in trying to take revenge on the entire male sex for the cruel treatment she suffers at the hands of a married man who takes advantage of her naivety and then casts her off “like a crumb flicked off a thigh.” She willfully sinks deeper and deeper into degradation until, forsaken by all and in despair, she kills herself in a horrible way.
Much more plausible is Story No.10, set in the time of the second JVP uprising in the late 1980s. Wathsala, introduced as “a mighty quiet girl” who has a chip on her shoulder because of her family’s poverty in comparison with her better-off playmates, falls in love with her brother’s university friend, a staunch JVP-er named Ananda. He immediately invites her to attend the magical “Five lectures” which seem straightaway to entice young people into the Movement.
When Ananda is arrested and imprisoned “after a debacle in the university,” and Wathsala visits him in the Bogambara prison, he has no difficulty in persuading her to leave home and family and all that is familiar to her and go to “join the insurgents in the jungle area off Mawanella.” There’s nothing melodramatic in this well-told story which has an authentic flavour.
The final tale is a delightful one about a reunion between three women who have been friends from their schooldays, from Baby Class to the HSC. Rosy is a Burgher Anglican, Wijes a Tamil Hindu and Nimmi a Sinhala Buddhist and “their friendship had lasted through six decades and would surely move intact to the new millennium.”
The concluding sentence quite won my heart: “They judged with pride that they were true Kandy products, with Kandy qualities of sincerity, right values; Kandy feminine niceness, in short.”
I wish Nanda had stuck to the simple language used throughout the telling of this story, right through the book Here and there, she sounds affected, as when, in the first Loku Menike story, she writes of a man “who slithered up a coconut tree to fetch its inflorescence for the clay pots at the entrance to the pirit mandapeya.”
The italics are mine and I can’t help thinking it would have been clearer and more effective to say, simply, that he picked the `pol mal’ for the clay pots at the entrance. The interpolation of an occasional Latin or French phrase - `non est’ and `de rigeuer’ – also seem to me inappropriate.
Most surprisingly, (because I am a keen reader of Nanda’s excellent regular weekly column in the `Sunday Island’, under the pseudonym of “NAN”), there is some careless writing here and there. These minor flaws apart, the author’s creativity is such as to make this collection of short stories a valuable addition to our bookshelves.