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25th April 1999

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That day of horror and humanity

Book Review

An Enemy Within - by Punyakante Wijenaike. Reviewed by Tissa Jayatilaka

book coverPunyakante Wijenaike's latest work of fiction contains two novellas, two short stories and a verse. One of the novellas is entitled An Enemy Within which also serves as the title of the book. Duminda and Anutta are the short stories with which An Enemy Within begins and ends.

The first of the two novellas, An Enemy Within, resembles a gory catalogue of the harrowing and tragic experiences of some of the victims of the bomb attack of January 1996 that extensively damaged the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and its environs which constitute the heart of the commercial centre of the nation's capital, Colombo. The author tells us that 'the experiences recorded' are factual though she has 'taken the liberty of' rendering them in fictional terms.

An Enemy Within is meant to be a grim record of one more instance of our inhumanity to ourselves and, as a sensitive recorder of the passing tragic scene, Wijenaike has produced a thought provoking work of fiction. While it does not pretend to be a detailed socio-political tract or a comprehensive analysis in literary terms of our national tragedy, it is an honest attempt to come to terms with an aspect of that tragedy. The quotation from Arundathi Roy, 'my world has died and I write to mourn its passing', on the page preceding the author's introduction is, therefore, morbidly apposite.

Duminda, the short story with which the book begins sets the tone for An Enemy Within. The vulnerability and the seeming helplessness of decent citizens caught up in our internecine national political imbroglio is poignantly captured through Duminda, one of its many tragic victims. An intelligent youth with a bright future before him only a while ago, Duminda is now reduced to an inert bundle of flesh and blood. The despairing cry of his father, 'I did not want him to join the war', must surely echo and re-echo from countless homes across the length and breadth of this once blessed country now transformed into a veritable wasteland.

The novella An Enemy Within is episodic in structure. The horror of the January 1996 bomb attack is re-created fictionally for the reader by means of the recollections of Raghu, Raj and Kutti, the three "black Tigers" who carried out the deadly mission, and those of Anula, Renuka, Anura, Perera, Lionel and Siromi who are all among those who become the helpless victims of the politics of dementia that has grabbed contemporary Sri Lanka by its throat.

Wijenaike captures quite well the sense of mutual distrust and the general unease that exists between the Sinhalese and the Tamils living in Colombo. Mrs. Gunasekera, the widowed mother of the dead Renuka, confesses to a not entirely un-understandable though blind and irrational desire to seek an eye for an eye. She wants to go out and kill her Tamil neighbours. She appears to subscribe to one of the conspiracy theories that was in circulation in Colombo in the aftermath of the blast to the effect that Tamils in Colombo had advance knowledge of the impending LTTE attack and, therefore, unlike the Sinhalese, were in a position to take evasive action. Fortunately for one and all, she remembers in good time that one of these very same neighbours, Thurairajah, a colleague of Renuka's who in fact travelled in the same vehicle to work as did Renuka daily also perished in the explosion.

Wijenaike thus expresses vividly the physical as well as the emotional tragedy arising out of political bestiality. To those whose lives were untimely snuffed out there is the relief of the grave. For, after all, there is a finality about death, however painful the passing. To those left behind to endure the loss of loved ones or major physical disability such as losing limbs or their senses of sight or hearing, there is going to be the painful burden of lingering sorrow tinged with grave distrust of their fellow-men. Consider, for example, the predicament of Anura. A young father of two whose wife is now heavy with their third child, Anura has lost his sight and is about to lose a leg through amputation. His loss of faith is incalculable: "How can I have courage and faith when out of the blue I am struck down like this? Can I believe in anything, be sure of anything after this?"

Anura, however, like most of us, eventually finds meaning through suffering. He finds the strength of character to reconcile himself to his sad lot, learns to 'take each day as it comes', and acquires the wisdom to realize 'that existence is like a fragile bubble which could burst any moment'.

By contrast Siromi, the beautician who 'straightened other people's wrinkles and lines' is unable to straighten herself out emotionally. The bomb seemed to have 'removed her inner peace, broken it into pieces' and destroyed her being. She turned into 'a rain-drop hanging on to a leaf, afraid of evaporating in open sunlight.' Hence the enemy within is not merely the suicide bombers who are our fellow-citizens from the North but also our own traumatised selves which makes some of us ill-equipped to carry on living in these polluted times where man no longer seems helper to man.

More crucially there is another group of people who are also a part of this enemy within us that Wijenaike fails to notice. It would indubitably have provided further depth to Wijenaike's literary treatment of our crisis had she also pointed out our own culpability in this regard. We - those of us, that is, who had taken no direct part in the physical violence and hence tend to assume the moral high ground - are ourselves responsible to a significant extent for the awful tragedy around us. Had the "silent majority" asserted itself and fought against the purblind political establishment of this country that has led us down the garden path since 1948, the LTTE might never have come upon us. We are partly responsible for the physical violence that pervades our society today by the violence of our inaction of yesterday and the day before!

Mercifully in the midst of these broken spirits and bodies and all of the other physical and emotional debris, Wijenaike also gives us glimpses of the humanity we, as a people, are capable of. A tri-shaw driver transports the injured to hospital without asking for his fare; a 'human crane, a total stranger to the scene' works tirelessly 'like a machine' to save lives unknown to him regardless of their race, creed or colour. There is much still to be grateful for and all seems not yet lost and through Anutta the undefeatable, the protagonist of the concluding short-story bearing his name, Wijenaike further reinforces our hope for a better tomorrow.

Although episodic in structure An Enemy Within is tightly constructed and the whole hangs together. Wijenaike's technique of presenting the tragedy through the delineation of the trauma and travails of several non combatant citizens caught in the cross-fire of political violence is striking. In the several episodes of woe presented in this novella, time past and time present criss-cross, merge and mesh in such a manner as to give the reader the feeling that time, like the hands on the clock- tower at Janadipathi Mawatha after the bomb, is standing still. This juxtaposition of the past and the present in the lives of the afflicted is cleverly and effectively done and it adds a welcome depth to Wijenaike's technique.

The other novella, Falling in Line is only tangentially related to the general theme of An Enemy Within. One of the protagonists of the novella is Navodit, the young and idealistic medical practitioner, who treats some of the non-fatal casualties of the bomb attack. The awful plight of some of his patients who are psychologically and physically maimed for life figure in his conversations with Annekha, the non-conformist University don who refuses point blank to fall in line with the old-fashioned ideas on love and marriage that her domineering mother and overbearing aunt (Ranee Nanda) hold. Annekha rejects categorically her elders' anachronistic (to put it charitably) view that 'a woman's main role is to marry and bear children'.

Deepthi, the other ma jor character in the novella, ' a woman of depth and substance', out of deference to custom reluctantly agrees to fall in line and makes a disastrous marriage. Haren, her husband, is an unimaginative, lacklustre mamma's boy and offers Deepthi neither love, companionship nor understanding of any kind. Through an exploration of the lives and loves of Deepthi and Annekha, intimate friends from childhood, Wijenaike presents a profile of the new Sri Lankan woman who has broken free of the shackles of a past that, for better or for worse, continues to hold back the less daring in our society.

Falling in Line is a vig-orous presentation of a young woman's spirited and meaningful defiance of what is today considered by some to be a "pre-historic" custom - the arranged marriage - by means of which parents and elders pick partners for their daughters as they see fit. Annekha, the career-conscious, independent woman, refuses to play the role of a docile and pliant creature and settle down with a man not of her own choosing. Useful though family connections and financial security might be, love, intellectual compatibility and other related factors that would make for a congenial partnership are the ingredients that Annekha rightly considers to be of greater significance for a good and successful marriage. And she believes that the good doctor, appropriately named Navodit (suggestive of new ideas, new beginnings), may well fit the mould of the kind of man she would choose to share her life with.

As with the more successful of Punyakante Wijenaike's earlier works here, too, in An Enemy Within a good plot and sound characterization - her familiar strengths - are in evidence. Even minor characters such as Old Sopi and Ranee Nanda in Falling in Line make their presence vividly felt. Certain infelicities of expression (see, for instance, the opening paragraphs of Falling In Line which a literary editor could so easily have removed) disturb an otherwise limpid prose style of the work under review. And this is true of some of Wijenaike's other writings as well.

On the whole, I believe it is fair to say that a lack of a robust writing style is a general shortcoming in Wijenaike's fiction todate. As we notice in The Waiting Earth and Giraya in particular, Wijenaike has the potential to produce a major and significant work of fiction. She is, as we know, capable of plumbing the sombre depths of human experience and exploring the dark passions lurking within us. Regrettably at most times, the language in Wijenaike's fiction does not rise to the level that her creative imagination does.

There seems to be a lack of harmony be tween her thoughts and her works. I am of the view that it is the tenuity of her language that acts as a constraint and keeps Punyakante Wijenaike from producing that outstanding work of fiction she seems quite capable of. But this is a larger issue that needs to be addressed in detail in a different arena.

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