Short stories that navigate myriad social contexts

Meet the Gratiaen 2010 nominees – 4
By Smriti Daniel

‘Breaking News’ Shirani Rajapakse’s debut novel was launched on the same day her name was included in the list of nominees for the 2010 Gratiaen Prize. Reflecting on her nomination, Shirani says she’s pleased to have her work so recognized. ‘Breaking News’ is a collection of short stories set in Sri Lanka and draws on the island’s recent past. Noting that most of the stories were told in the “context of conflict situations” the panel of judges discussed individual stories such as ‘Missing Pieces’ and ‘The Boarder’ in their commendation.

Shirani Rajapakse

The former is the story of a soldier who is grievously wounded in battle and upon returning home finds that his relationships have been inalterably changed, while ‘The Boarder’ is about suicide killing by a young woman, said the judges.

They went on to add that other stories touched on the forced recruitment of child soldiers, the plight of a family living in a border village and the youth insurgency in the South. Shirani, herself, says that some stories were also intended to be lighter, easier reads – “about some of the crazy things people do in this country” - and that these unfold in a very different social milieu. Praising her for her ability to navigate myriad social contexts, the judges also said that “reader interest is held through the dramatic and evocative opening lines.”

Shirani has a background in journalism and has also worked in international organizations such as the World Bank and the Commonwealth Secretariat. She holds an honours degree in English Literature from the University of Kelaniya and a Master’s in International Relations from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. She says she’s always been a writer on the side and that her career has seen her “progress through all kinds of writing” – from research to journalism and now creative writing. In fact, some of the stories in the collection date back to the 1990s.

One of her earliest stories “started as an attempt at a novel that didn’t really take off,” says the author, adding that “while reviewing the short stories in this collection, I realised that it fitted in with the rest.” All told, ‘Breaking News’ contains nine stories (the slim volume was published by Vijitha Yapa). Shirani also dabbles in poetry.

Excerpt from the short story ‘Missing Pieces’ which appears in ‘Breaking News’:

There was something very wrong. He knew it the moment his foot touched the ground. His right foot. But he lifted it up anyway. The noise deafened him. It threw him away. Far away. And then he remembered no more. He woke up to a searing pain in his leg. There was nothing where his leg had been, except the pain, incessant, searing, gripping. How could there be pain for something that didn’t exist?

The sun mercilessly sprayed its rays down on him as he lay writhing in a cauldron of pain that seemed to turn and twist him in every direction. He tried to stand but could not. Tried to sit, that too he could not. The others hovered around him, unsure how to react. They were new recruits just like him and although they had gone through the drill the sudden shock of it all, to see one of their fellow travellers going through what they could only imagine made them balk. They stood over him, a human wall surrounding him, watching him helplessly, not sure what to say or do.

Then he heard someone say something that was lost in the howl of his pain. Someone gestured, but that too was lost in the glare of the searing heat. The gesture flapped helplessly in the air and was seemingly lost in the breeze. They stood around watching him, listening to him, their fear mounting. They were talking among themselves, asking him questions, telling him things, but it was all a whole lot of sounds that flew about the breeze. He heard but didn’t understand. They watched him on the ground. They had no idea what do to. They must have stood there for an eternity. Then someone broke out of the trance and shouted out an order. The others awoke from their daze.

Then they bent down to pick him up, whatever was left of him. He waited unmoving except in whatever direction the pain pushed him until someone pulled him up. Someone else picked him up. They dragged him away half crazed, dripping with blood like a carcass of a cow hung up on a hook inside the butchers shop. Except that this was no dead cow but a man screaming to live.

The piece of leg that caught the full impact of the shock had long since disappeared: scattered all around the Vanni like specks of dust. Some had stuck to the leaves and branches of trees while the rest had just melted away, or so it seemed.

There was nothing left to take except the remains of the man to which the leg belonged. They half dragged, half carried the now screaming, now fainting man almost half a mile to where the rest were waiting. Into the jeep they threw him, then they all tumbled in after him. He lay groaning, fainting and bleeding, covering the floor of the jeep brown red with his blood.

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