How typical the De Silva family is, I am not sure. Mr. and Mrs. De Silva and their two daughters, Rohini and Malini, intrigued me by their contrast to the close-knit family circles I know, where talk and laughter come naturally. Mr. De Silva is a dour, moody character and poor Mrs. De Silva is despised even by her own daughter, Rohini, for her lack of command of English.
Even the two sisters don’t bond. In fact, Rohini’s general attitude to most people, at least in the first half of the book, is one of superiority.
The unfolding of her story gripped me because its narration is wholly credible. It covers the dawn of Independence, the gradual disillusionment that sets in as our politicians show their feet of clay, the alienation of minorities, undergraduate life at Peradeniya university, the 1971 JVP insurrection and the continuing spectre of the JVP, anti-Tamil riots of 1958 and July 1983, the attraction of green and peaceful pastures overseas, the difficulties of integrating into a foreign culture and the pull of one’s own roots at unexpected moments.
The transition of Ceylon from a British colony to an independent country that has yet to be welded into one nation, is seen through the changes wrought in the De Silva family’s lifestyle and especially through the impact those changes have on Rohini.
Her father opens the world of books quite early to his daughters and Rohini responds with enthusiasm. Mrs. De Silva, on the other hand, moves in a world bound by horoscopes and astrology. A dark prophecy by the family astrologer that Rohini might ruin her chances of making a good marriage by fickle behaviour regarding the opposite sex, not only alarms the mother and her confidant who is Menike, the faithful ayah, but leaves a definite impact on Rohini although she outwardly pooh-poohs her mother’s fixation about horoscopes.
Her determination to refute the astrologer’s forecast, keeps Rohini faithful to her first boyfriend, Suren Ramasamy, son of a Tamil lawyer and a Sinhalese mother, when she is almost irresistibly drawn towards a young lecturer named Gehan at Peradeniya University.
A candid glimpse is given of those early days when the new university with its adherence to Oxbridge traditions, is dominated by the English-speaking elite from Colombo schools. Suren makes a friend from among the “grassroot” sector, Ranjit, who gives Rohini an uneasy feeling with his fierce vegetarianism and his revolutionary talk.
This book encompasses a big chunk of contemporary history as seen through the eyes of the young couple plus their parents and the friends. The author doesn’t flinch at telling it like it was with regard to politics, linguistic and religious nationalism, racial discrimination by the majority and the 1983 riots that drives Suren’s parents as well as himself and Rohini to seek asylum, first in England and eventually, for the young couple, in Australia.
The scenes set in Sri Lanka include one of the public grief so spontaneously displayed by thousands of humble citizens when Dudley Senanayake, regarded by many of his peers as an ineffectual or failed politician, died. Maybe, because it had left an indelible impression on my own mind, I was pleased to find it recorded in Rohini’s story.
Rohini’s desire as a new immigrant to find her own place in Australian society and the tacit but insistent pull of her birth country, is convincingly depicted.
|The second edition of Siri Ranawake’s Time and Chance will be launched at the Orient Club, Colombo on October 31 at 5 p.m. This novel first published by Pandamus Press in Australia is published by Kandy Books.
“Here at last, in Sydney, she feels connected to the landscape, to the people of many races, the trees and flowering plants growing so well in her garden. So why does she feel bereft at unguarded moments?” Her life experiences both in Sri Lanka and abroad have taken away any smugness or superiority. She has mellowed and gained a new perspective of people and events.
Here and there, as when the author writes of Sinhala and Tamil New Year traditions and rituals, she seems to be writing with an eye on the foreign reader who will need an explanation. Yet in a short chapter devoted to the annual almsgiving for Buddhist monks held in the De Silva home, Siri weaves in the customs as a natural part of the story.
There are references in the book to the “liberal, humanist tradition” that influenced English-educated Sri Lankans of the past – a notion that is ridiculed by modern Sinhala-educated elitists and self-styled patriots.
Be that as it may, Siri Ranawake’s book carries an underlying plea for recognition of others’ right to an equal place in the sun, whatever their ethnicity or religious beliefs, and a willingness on the part of us all to move from exclusivity of any sort to a warm and inclusive goodwill that embraces all humankind.