Back in May 1979, I sent Dr. Sarachchandra, then at the East-West Centre, Hawaii, a copy of The High Chair which won Sita Kulatunga the first prize in a short story competition held to mark the 25th anniversary of the British Council in Sri Lanka. He responded,“Sita Kulatunga’s story is excellent. I felt sorry that a person of her talent doesn’t write in Sinhalese”. When I identified her by her maiden name, he wrote, “Yes, I remember Sita Wickramarachchi and her work in Sinhalese. All success to her”.
That wish was realized when two of her books were short-listed for the Gratiaen Award, first her novel Dari, the Third Wife and later ‘The High Chair and Cancer Days’. Her skill and sensitivity as well as an acute consciousness of forces affecting societies and individuals invested these works with a value beyond the attraction of her ironic yet compassionate and comprehensive views of individual and group psychology.
Her writing is often lit up by flashes of wry humour when the intelligence of the characters drives them to evaluate themselves and their situations. The appealing undergraduate ‘heroine’ of The High Chair and vivid Dari in her English works as well as the administrator who learns that the plough and trousers are not incompatible in a Sinhala tale are among those.
Avanti, as familiar with village mores as with Cambridge whose “Small Wedding” to an Indian frames both action and reflection, leads us through the intricacies of practices and mental paths which are an amalgam of the rooted and imported.
Her mind moves from the recollection of her relatives superstitiously recoiling when they hear her bridegroom is named Siddharta – surely a name so high that it would bring misfortune to a man presumptuous enough to carry it, and memories of protective rituals, to the elaborate wedding cake, a habit carried over from Britain and now as much a part of marriage customs as the poruwa, that flowery pavilion that no longer declares its relationship to the field-mud and fertility.
Much is narrated during the duration of the wedding including tales of traditional prejudices, death and loss. Figures of youths and girls, older aunts, their friends and siblings cross and re-cross, weaving a fabric, close knit yet extensive.
The seventh chapter is devoted to “the gloom, the fear and the secretive violence of the nineteen eighties”. This is paralleled by an epistolary account of the Riots of 1915. The delineation of 18-year-old Magilin’s perception of her own impulses and of events around her, including the influence of Dharmapala Unnanse and the elaborate preparations to host two ‘whites’ is juxtaposed with “A suicide bomber who has detonated herself near Army H.Q.”.
We are given a glimpse of Suba, a cousin who vanishes to New Jersey to a lonely circle of hell among small-time drug traffickers cum addicts. As the story progresses there is hope for him but for Anoma, the moving spirit of the family, the enveloping despair of depression overtakes her a condition Agbo attributes to her over active imagination and gift of creativity.Skilful as the writer has proved herself in her earlier novel and short stories she has here abandoned her tried and tested technique in favour of a criss-crossing of times that confronts historical events and private happenings; Avanthi with her foreign experiences and self-selected partner are part of the flow of time that affects Magilin with fright and delight and an unselected yet desirable husband.
No longer “rooted in one dear perpetual place”, yet attached as Avanthi and Agbo are to Kadigamuwa, their migration from its confines and culture are a part of a general experience presented not from a single and consequently partial viewpoint but through a kaleidoscopic mingling of the voices of a rich mélange of characters leaving the reader to assess the effects of the flux of time.