Some things in life never change
Family tales and stories of a man humiliating a snake charmer by grabbing the snake and draping it around his shoulders may be told as they are. With no frills, and with as little garnishing as possible.

In this, the author does well, in this autobiographical book Brass Bands and the Medicine Man. Sometimes, his prose is essay like. But he is writing of ordinary lives, and the trajectories that are taken by lives that are lived despite everyday irritations and tribulations in family existence, such as heart attacks for instance, or asthma (and as if that was not enough) ulcerative colitis.

This is a book that has no overarching message - - its a chronicle of life, and the life of a Sri Lankan now living in New Zealand who takes in the unfolding reality with some complaint - - but with a great deal of curiosity.

The book also lends to feelings of optimism, amidst an ever-changing order. Some lives retain their sheen because of people insisting on amusing themselves with small wonders. Such as the small wonder of the brass band, the small wonder of beautiful New Zealand, or the small wonder of the snake charmer who gets angry when his snake is lifted out from the box by one man from the watching crowd.

There was a somewhat forgettable Hollywood movie many years ago called "Ordinary People". A review had it that this movie was anything but about an ordinary family, because it was about a dysfunctional family: an alcoholic father and a mother prone to getting into affairs with a string of men.

But while it can be argued that dysfunctional families are ordinary because many families are dysfunctional, there are ordinary families that are ordinary because they are functional. One might even say "functional" in a mundane humdrum everyday kind of way, but their functionality makes them ordinary.

But such ordinariness cannot be the stuff of a novel or a story, even though such ordinariness may be the stuff of say a diary or a chronicle. But yet, I was recently reading Colombo Diary, U. Karunatilleke's storybook rendition of life as lived in Colombo during and after the 1971 insurgency.

However, even that book revolves around the unmistakable changes of the time in the political landscape. There is a political story to be told, of a nation fast losing its innocence.

By contrast, the Brass Bands and the Medicine Man is a story that does not deal with political or existential angst. Maybe existential angst slightly, but it is about life, and its pleasures and pain told as it is, and to that extent the book is a straight read -- and it has to be complimented for that. It has no hidden meanings or cryptic messages, it is a story which tells with a fitting essay like faithfulness, the facts of family life, to a man who is finding life in New Zealand quite good, almost as good the life he led in Sri Lanka (and vice versa).

It is a tale of personal discovery as opposed to a nation's discovery of itself, as it was with Karunatilleke's Colombo Diary. It is a story of a man who is working out his pain and his existential angst - until he reaches a state of self-actualisation. That's the jargon. In real terms, it could be anybody's life.

Back to Top  Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.