When M.T.L. Ebell wrote a book about 25 years in the life of her mother, she needed her father’s diaries to do it. ‘Thus, She Grew’ introduces us to Mignon Dissanaike Perera as a beautiful young woman, deeply in love and on the very threshold of her life as a wife and eventually a mother [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

An intimate read on what’s meant by family

M.T. L. Ebell discusses her novel ‘Thus, She Grew’ a winner at this year’s State Literary Awards

When M.T.L. Ebell wrote a book about 25 years in the life of her mother, she needed her father’s diaries to do it. ‘Thus, She Grew’ introduces us to Mignon Dissanaike Perera as a beautiful young woman, deeply in love and on the very threshold of her life as a wife and eventually a mother of six. The format, composed almost entirely of letters and diary entries, pays homage to the source material even as it produces a rare kind of intimacy for the reader; a sense of being on the very best terms with the book’s protagonists. The result is a unique novel which won ‘Best Novel’ at this year’s State Literary Awards.

Lilamani Ebell. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Its author – whose initials M.T.L. stand for Marie Therese Lilamani – is soft spoken and unassuming. When we visit her in her home in Nawala, it is to find a house arranged to accommodate children. The simple display shelf in her living room holds a set of colourful stuffed toys while the glass ware is kept high up and out of the reach of her young grandchildren. Lilamani is close to her children – they are often among the first to read anything she writes and it is her husband who helps her immensely with the painstaking task of proof-reading.When it comes to her latest book, perhaps her years of being a mother and now a grandmother have given her a deeper appreciation for her own mother. “My father was the character that everyone knew, but she was always behind the scenes, keeping the family going.”

“Family was very important to them,” she says of her parents,“I suppose they gave that to us.”Her father Joseph Algernon Ambrose Perera (or Algy to his friends), once a superintendent in the CID, was genial and outgoing. Mignon who kept their home and took care of their children was the more retiring of the two – Lilamani remembers her mother as ladylike and kind which provided an interesting contrast to her “crazy” sense of humour, and gift for speaking her mind, particularly as she grew older. Through the book, Lilamani wanted to capture some of that personality and what had made Mignon who she was.

It seems appropriate then that ‘Thus, She Grew’ is a story of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives. Only 200 pages long, it still introduces us to a number of people, many seemingly related, and begins with Mignon’s first great loss – that of her mother, Carey. Carey who died giving birth to a daughter, left her three girls in her husband Andrew’s care. In these initial chapters the reader is allowed to hear many voices – from that of Andrew (appa) himself to that of the Reverend Mother who enrols the girls in school and on to the Kachcheri Walauwwa in Galle where they grow up.

One of the strongest narratives that emerge, as you’d expect, is that of Algy’s. Reading through the 22 odd volumes that served as an impeccable record of Algy’s life between the years of 1929 to 1995, beginning when he was only 18 years old, Lilamani looked for nuggets about Mignon. She decided to structure the book largely around a journey to England and back in the late 1930s, when Algy was sent to attend an Officers Training Course in Hendon. The trip is long, with many stops on the way including Aden, Port Said and Malta. Once in England, there are other challenges to be met. Settling in and settling down the couple make new friends even as they overcome one of the biggest hurdles to intimacy in their married life.

Reading between the lines of her father’s diary, Lilamani tried to find the forks in the road her parents faced so long ago. There were many such small yet critical moments that she was forced to recreate out of her own imagination, drawing from what she knew not only of her parents but of the time, to reconstruct events – some of which went beyond the personal to the great political and social movements of the time. “The thing is that while he (Algy) was a very good diarist, he was also a man, so he would put down one sentence and because we knew him we could tell there was a lot of tension but this may not have been conveyed to other readers,”Lilamani says, explaining that as a result she sometimes had to “amplify” what she found in the diary.

A good example is the journey back, when a deathly tension seeps into the narrative. As the WWII engulfs Europe, Algy and Mignon make their way home from England – they are out at sea when England declares war on Germany. Aboard the ship, blackouts are imposed and passengers carry gas masks, attempting to avert the worst from happening. To recreate the journey, Lilamani read extensively and had even included newspaper cuttings with the book until the decision was made to let the text stand on its own.

Despite the odd moments of strain and sadness, the book retains a simplicity and sweetness which the author says was intentional – this was something written originally for her family’s eyes alone. As she continued to write though, she found the narrative sweeping her up and enjoyed the detective work of combing through the diaries and following threads of stories. Soon she knew what the next chapter would be. The momentum helped, especially because as a writer Lilamani usually prefers to express herself in poetry and short stories (her first publication ‘Short & Verse’ won her a Sri Lanka State Literary Award in 2008). Writing a novel she says is among the hardest things she’s ever done.

In a sort of epilogue to the book, Lilamani tells us how the lives of some of the characters played out. Mignon passed away in 2001, just two years after Algy. “They had a full life,” Lilamani says now, “they saw their children grow up and get married. They even met some of their grandchildren.”The epilogue doesn’t say much about the author, though she is integral to the story. Instead, in our interview she confesses she is working on two new projects – one another novel, the second a long prose poem. Considering that both her previous publications have been so well received, her fans already have something to look forward to.

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