A novel that attempts to unify what divides humans

Meet the Gratiaen 2010 nominees–1
By Smriti Daniel

Being nominated for the Gratiaen Prize has given Rozaine Cooray a good reason to go back and re-read her novel – that she’s content with what she found is encouraging for this first time author.

Combining poetry, prose and pictures, ‘Colours of the Son’ takes the form of a series of letters. From a mother to her daughter, they are written by Mariam, a young girl of mixed heritage. Having fled the escalating violence in Sri Lanka, Mariam now lives in Sydney, where she dreams about becoming an artist. Fighting to reconcile her family’s demands with those of her own quickly evolving self, she must navigate a new and often hostile landscape.

Rozaine Cooray

Rozaine describes ‘Colours of the Sun’ as being about “issues such as identity, migration, ethnic/religious conflict, generational conflicts, searching for meaning, God and dreams. It is a novel that attempts to unify what divides humans, such as race and religion.” Announcing her nomination, the panel of judges praised ‘Colours of the Son’ for its use of “unpretentious, accessible and appropriate” language, going on to add, “it is interesting to note the manner in which the narrative deals with how the narrator’s personal history intersects with and is affected by both the history of Sri Lanka and her experiences as a migrant.”

A business psychologist by profession (she holds a Masters degree in Organizational Psychology from a British university), Rozaine says her novel has been informed by many hours spent counselling. “It is heavily tied up with childhood learning and how this determines certain patterns of adult behaviour that eventually have to be ‘unlearned’ to recognize the basics of reality, the essence behind the daily chores and the silence behind the noise that clutter our lives,” she writes.

An excerpt from ‘Colours of the Son’:

“My mother left. On bed, clutching my knees to my chest, I sobbed and I experienced the tears of death for the first time. I felt very lonely and scared to live without the loving shadow of Achchi that defended me against the parental objections and complaints. As someone once told me, grandparents and grandkids have one common enemy…

It was not my father who came to get me; it was my mother’s sister, Aunt Lila who came into the room and immediately embraced me for a moment.

‘I know this is hard for you Mariam. But we have to suffer certain losses. Death is another stage of life but obviously in a different form that you and I cannot understand, or even see or touch.’ She stopped and looked at me closely.

‘What do you mean aunty?’ I asked, slightly mystified by her philosophy. She spoke. ‘Nothing can be destroyed; they can only be transformed…like your butterflies. The egg changes into the larva, the larva changes into the pupa and the pupa changes into the butterfly. Nothing is destroyed, only that it had changed the shape, size and colour.’

Changing shape, size and colour…That was it. I knew that from our little insect experiments in the orchid garden. ‘Maybe you should let her fly now, like you let the butterfly go…’ said Aunt Lila. The metaphor seemed very appropriate. I looked at her and nodded. Silence and more hugging. Nobody had ever hugged me the way she did that day. Oh! Anyway we were not a hugging family. ‘I have another problem,’ I said looking at the dress.

‘What is it? I am sure it is a problem that can be fixed,’ She said with a smile on her lips. ‘I hate that dress. I am 11 years old and Amma still wants me to wear embroidered dresses with pleats and bows. It is very out-dated Aunty,’ I said with disgust. I was sick of complying with Amma’s conventional fashion tips.

Aunt Lila laughed and hugged me again in delight. Oh my God! Why were we laughing at Achchi’s funeral? I thought. ‘Come now. Wear whatever you like. Let’s see what you have and if it is alright, we’ll stick to white, black or blue so that they wouldn’t have anything to talk about after the funeral,’ she said still laughing and walking towards my wardrobe.

That was the day I started liking Aunty Lila. I knew that she was widowed and had no children. I also knew that she was a lawyer before she turned to teaching in a small school in Ratnapura for poor children from the tea estates.

In her rare visits to see us before Achchi died, I felt that she was always pre-occupied and distant; it was difficult to start up a conversation with her and if we did, she would offend someone in the house with her extremist opinions. But Achchi liked her, and I would sometimes eavesdrop on their late night conversations with a glass of brandy in their hands.

They laughed like happy witches who got their spell right, and always used big words… I tell you. And oh, I almost forgot. Achchi wore her vibrant hats for their late night joints and listened to Beethoven and sometimes Amaradeva. Imagine her spirits…”

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