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8th March 1998

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Book Review

Capturing that sense of inescapable despair

The Cart - By Somaratna Balasooriya
Reviewed by Yamini Sequeira

The common man and his angst are at the core of "The Cart" , a collection of short stories by Somaratna Balasooriya. Society and the establishment in particular is the oppressor, squeezing Balasooriya's protagonists of every drop of dignity. The present is inescapable and the future bleak.

The fibre of each of these short stories is characterised by a hopelessness, that nothing - high education, politeness or humility can banish. The image of the Big Brother, the army is omnipotent and everpresent at every turn. The humiliation of being routinely searched and questioned is a necessary evil, that which the characters in 'The Cart' can never get quite accustomed to.

Though the writer attempts to cover a wide socio-cultural span by having as his charatacters, professors, educationists, politicians and carters, all the protagonists seem to be bound by a single umbilical cord of despair. In the opening story 'The Inaugural Meeting', a carefully planned political rally by an aspiring politician comes to nought when a bomb blast levels down to-the-last detail arrangements and his political chances to the ground.

Somaratna Balasooriya's prose at times enters the realm of the stream of consciousness genre where every detail and impression of the protagonist is painstakingly conveyed to the reader. He succeeds often in evoking the right pathos with these touches but there are times when the detailed ornamentation palls. The protagonists as a result emerge 'dry' characters with little to be written about except their own blustering righteousness. It is only in the story 'The Professor' that the writer is able to strike the right balance between pathos and character. The protagonist, the professor, comes across as a flesh and blood character who finds the strength to see a ray of light in situations often hopeless.

He is not just a character as swept along by the inevitable tide of 'events and situations' that the writer highlights in his prologue. 'The Professor' instils faith in the reader.

'The Cart' is another story that successfuly captures the silent communion between man (carter) and his bull, the same which the carter cannot establish with another fellow human being. Balasooriya has convincingly sketched the character of the carter, his dignity and his pride in the face of adversity and wretchedness. Other stories like 'Evaluating Examination Scripts', 'Seeking Audience' and 'Brain Drain' establish a realistic socio-cultural milieu where the spirit of Everyman is often snuffed out by the wishes of the powers that be.

There is an abundance of rhetoric and local flavour that evokes the culture and society of Sri Lanka in this collection of short stories. And to the writer's credit, though he is writing about contemporary times he does not fall in to the pseudo-cultural trap - in fact the writer's observations are mostly rooted in reality. Somehow one gets the impression that the Sinhalese version of this novel would be far stronger in depth.

This collection of short stories, is so culturally particular to the Sinhalese that some of the flavour is lost in this, sometimes too simplistic English translation.

The writer's portrayal of socio-cultural ground realities in this collection of short stories could hardly be faulted but he is unable to escape the demons of redundant phrases and situations. No doubt such literary efforts by Sri Lankans would but advance the genre of the short story and this literary effort would definitely find a place in the corpus of Sihnalese literature.

It's all about living and loving

When Memory Dies - By A. Sivanandan
Reviewed by Hussain Packir Saibo

It is a matter for some re- gret that a brilliantly com pelling novel When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan has been so little noticed in Sri Lanka although it virtually lights up the play of relationships between the various communities living in the island in a deeply emotional and insightful manner.

The author has lived in England where he went following the 1958 disturbances here. I was first drawn to read the book after seeing a review titled 'Island in the stream of history' by Melissa Benn, first published in the London 'Independent' and reproduced in the 'Sunday Observer' of February 2, 1997, the review intended perhaps for a foreign readership. "But this is not just a book about Sri Lanka. The struggles it touches upon, both moral and political faces us all: the battle between our hunger for love or learning or success and our need, even passion for integrity," the review said.

While this may be seen as the major theme of the novel, there are several others that have an immediacy and relevance for Sri Lankans which flow over and weave through the entire fabric of this rather longish three part, three generational novel, each part standing out on its own. However, once taken up, the reader, especially the Sri Lankan reader, will be far from wanting to put it down. One cannot but help agreeing with the blurb at the back of the book's cover describing it as a novel of Tolstoyan dimensions. A truly Sri Lankan Tolstoy!

Sivanandan spreads his canvas out large carrying the narrative by father (Saha) who moves as a young man from the hard life of the parched Jaffna countryside to the city of Colombo, then the son (Rajan) born in the upcountry town of Badulla where his father is a sub-postmaster, later marrying Lali, a Sinhalese from Anuradhapura and caught up in the horrendous 1958 communal riots in which his wife is brutally killed. He leaves Sri Lanka for England, a broken man. And the final story is narrated through the eyes of Vijaya, Rajan's son or foster son as the story suggests.

With Vijaya we emerge into the full blaze of the political and communal scenario, its conflicts, roots and origins patterned into an intricate web as the story proceeds. Vijaya joins a militant national party - surely the JVP but under a different name in the novel - in reaction to the crude nationalism that sets Sinhalese against Tamil. At the close we are into the heart of the terror. Ravi, Vijaya's half-brother who has become a militant Tamil shoots him down ruthlessly and mercilessly and Vijaya's second wife who looks on in shock shouts at him. Here's how Sivanandan describes the scene:

"You have killed the only decent thing left in this land," she said with a terrible dignity. "We'll never be whole again."

The search for wholeness is implicit throughout the book. The ending may appear to be pessimistic but there is the underlying suggestion that the wholeness which once was can be yet again. This I believe is the essential message of the book. The novel should be made compulsory reading for those who think otherwise. It is about the power of love that transcends all things else.

'When Memory Dies' paradoxically for me was an evocation of so much exciting and fondly remembered of a forgotten past that is made to come vividly alive. There is much in the novel of socio-political history since the 1870s spun out through the interactions of the characters in the book. Yet it is not simple journalese. Sivanandan colours and transforms all he describes using a limpid poetic prose suffused often with touches of cynicism and gentle humour.

" Saha's half-brother Para from Jaffna is on his first train ride to the hills from Colombo. He thrills to the scenery even as travelling companions in the railway compartment reel off the names of flowering trees.

"Saha sat back and watched his brother drown in the sound of the names and colours of the flowers (flamboyant, magnolia, guava, jacaranda etc..., Para's expression had changed. There was a wistfulness there that Saha had not seen before. Perhaps he was thinking of the water courses they had to hew out of the rough Jaffna earth to water their meagre fields. And here all this wild fertility and an extravagance of water."

There's the joy of memory too as Saha recalls his days at the Peradeniya University: "During the whole of that first year at university my sense of freedom was unabated. I didn't have a care in the world, and I fell in and out of love a hundred times. And... I found myself led into the Music Circle and Mozart and Beethoven."

Again at university there is that first ecstatic encounter with poetry inspired by Saha's Professor whose attention "grabbed me most":

"Himself an acutely sensitive man, he became, as he taught, a sensitised conduit through which the raw feel of Donne and Keats and Hopkins and Eliot was passed on to us..... they answered to my waking sensibilities about religion and sex and fantasy and despair.... And in Keats' feel of things I found hope for my own touchiness."

While there are several episodes in the novel of adolescent love and lovers related with fine humour, even compassion, there is passion which carries echoes of D.H. Lawrence or perhaps Guy de Maupassant. Vijaya is disillusioned with his wife Manel but cannot bear to break with her and the conflict within shows in passages such as this:

"But the burden of un-understanding he had to carry alone. Only in her could he lose himself and only in her was he lost. And the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to immolate himself in her, and the thought arose in him like a desire and caught him like a sob. He rose from the porch and went into her.

"She took him in avidly, generously, with no thought for the quarrel of a moment ago, with no thought of herself, not enclosed any more, but opening out like the sunflower to the waking sun, to take him in, to enlarge him and enlarging herself to take him in."

But there is another kind of destructive passion which comes as an ominous Cassandra-like warning. A firebrand revolutionary in Vijaya's political group speaks of:

"a stirring religious fundamentalism which is frightening, precisely because Buddhism was not a religion, had no God and because.... of that had made .... the nation its surrogate for God. Language, race and religion .... locked him up again in a righteousness of self and arrogance of the nation, and collapsed the hereafter into the now. And it was from such closed circuits of passion that fascism drew its power. The Tamils were the first to be caught up in its forcefield...."

In a recent article on 'Nostalgia in the Sri Lankan Novel' the Deputy High Commissioner of India in Sri Lanka calls 'When Memory Dies' "a tale.... suffused with pain and suffering as the deteriorating communal relations and cycles of violence take a heavy toll." It would be hard not to agree.

Sir Sarvapali Radhakrishna in his 'Idealist View of Life' in the chapter 'The Spirit in Man' noting that "modern literature is essentially trivial," says:

"We are a generation of intellectuals, keen in analysis, patient in observation, but no great art was ever made of observation and analysis.... The true artists undergo profound experience, intense suffering. They have no time to preach. They live and love....."

'When Memory Dies' is all about living in Sri Lanka and it is about love. It truly is art.

What imagination, what fun

Little Red, a puppet show by the Terrapin Theatre was presented by the Australian High Commission at the Bishop's College Auditorium to a highly interested audience of all ages.

The two puppeteers, man and woman, who were many characters in one - producers, motivators and actors - did not rely on string puppets, stick puppets or hand puppets. They settled instead for being the puppets themselves.

The name of the game here was imagination - whole worlds of imagination on the part of the puppeteers, transferring themselves by some strange alchemy to hold the audience.

And what appreciative sounds came out of that auditorium from children in the front rows, which included some quite tiny ones, and the teenagers, parents and grandparents sitting in the middle and higher up at the back of the hall.

The whole show was a wonderful exercise for schools and showed how they could teach English stories and poems in primary schools, through puppets and the very minimum of sets. There was excellent rapport between the pair of actors and the children. They screamed out answers to questions and pointed to the way in which Red Riding Hood should go; and shouted when grandma, half-seen in her partly open tea-chest, was gobbled up by the wolf.

Add improvisation, then to the name of the game - the improvisation that is possible in any classroom. The wolf's incredible mouth was a large steel bucket whose lid was opened and closed, quite realistically enunciating words of the actors concocting.

There were squeals of delight when the last of the three pigs and the cleverest of the billy goats out-tricked the fox. For one glorious hour, just two unnamed actors, who were completely lost in their roles and their art, turned from one character to another with magical transformations and transported the children to a place where they were learning many things without realising that learning could be such fun.

-Alfreda de Silva.

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