A skilful unfolding of history and romance

The Garland Of Fate, by Ruana Rajepakse. A Vijitha Yapa Publication. Price- Rs. 450. Reviewed by Yasmine Gooneratne.

How fortunate we are, as readers and as writers, that the great story-cycles of India and Sri Lanka are part of our cultural birthright! The 547 poetic tales of the Jataka cycle, the 30,000 stanzas of the Mahabharatha – not to mention the stories that cluster round the Ramayana, that gripping drama which links Sri Lanka with India in centuries-old legend – provide an ocean of resources for poets and storytellers throughout Asia that can never, it seems, run dry. India’s beloved novelist R.K. Narayan has affirmed, from his own experience as an author, that he can think of no fictional plots or human experiences that do not find their counterparts in the Mahabharatha, from whence they flow out in a never-ending stream to be told and re-told in the village homes of India.

Something similar could be said of the Jataka story cycle, which has inspired Sri Lanka’s creative artists in every genre and every generation. Its continuing influence, recognizable in E.R. Sarachchandra’s use of the Kanavera Jatakaya (The Tale of the Red Oleanders) in his Sinhala novel, Vilasiniyakage Premaya, is in turn reflected in Ruana Rajepakse’s novel The Garland of Fate. As one would expect in a work based on a birth-tale of the Buddha, the personality of the Great Teacher is not excluded from the story. Rumours of the Buddha’s presence in the Deer Park reach the ears of the protagonists in the midst of their turbulent careers, and the influence of his philosophy plays its part in directing the paths their lives eventually take. Its Jataka background is skilfully handled, giving the book point and purpose without dominating either its action or its plot, for this is essentially a romantic tale with a historical setting, and not a sermon.

The time is circa 520 B.C. The setting ancient India from Banaras to Takshila. Economic circumstances cause the two daughters of a small-time farmer to be assigned two very different roles in life: the elder (Kaushalya) being given in marriage to an ambitious, social-climbing cloth merchant (Nalaka), the younger (Manjula) sold as an apprentice to a wealthy city courtesan (Maya) whose role she eventually inherits.

Meanwhile, a young man of good family (Asitha) who has become alienated from his family by his parents’ acceptance of an astrologer’s statement that their son was born under an unlucky star – ‘the planet of thieves’- falls in with a gang of bandits. He is captured, and paraded through the city streets prior to execution.

The eyes of Manjula, who happens to be looking out of her window as the parade passes by, meet those of the young criminal: a crucial scene that is vividly captured in V.P. Sunil Shantha’s colourful cover. Manjula is powerfully moved by impulses she cannot explain, even to her friend Ambika:

“I have decided to try and save him,’ said Manjula.

“Have you gone mad? How can you possibly do anything for this man now?”

“I have to try. It may be the only meaningful thing I do in my life, but I have to try.”

“Dear Manjula, you haven’t fallen in love with this man?”

“No – I don’t know – but my mind will know no peace unless I try.”

The practised reader of historical fiction could most certainly, without much effort, explain to the courtesan the precise nature of the impulse she seems to regard as the prompting of ‘fate’!
It is not surprising that the plot line of this novel reads like the synopsis of a play, since the early ventures of the author (a professional lawyer) into creative writing focused on the stage. Ruana Rajepakse’s first play War Story, set in Sri Lanka’s Kotte period, seems to have pointed her in the direction of the historical research which underpins the action and scene-setting of this, her first novel. As fiction, historical or otherwise, The Garland of Fate is notable for its crisp storytelling. Whether the reader takes the novel’s allusions to ‘fate’ seriously or not, the plot moves briskly along, often covering years, and even decades, in a single paragraph. It is remarkable therefore, that despite the speed with which incident follows incident, the personalities of a large cast of characters are depicted in a quick-moving narrative which, if not entirely satisfying to readers who enjoy the deliberate unfolding of thought and motivation they expect from literary fiction, is perfectly adequate for the author’s purpose.

Which is, in essence, the writing of a romantic tale. Ruana Rajepakse creates an ancient world in which all women under thirty are blessed with ‘glowing skin, lustrous hair and shapely figures’, and most of the men who court them stand ‘upright and confident’, their ‘well-proportioned bodies’ active and ‘lithe’, redolent of youth, health and prosperous living. It is a glamorous exotic world replete with colourful incident, providing some measure of sex and violence, climaxing in a clash of sibling confrontation (between Manjula and her elder sister Kaushalya), and lodging at its end a moral message.

It is, in fact, the stuff of which popular drama is made. And if some enterprising local film director were to see in this novel potential for a Bollywood-style tele-drama, I for one would not complain. In the right hands The Garland of Fate could certainly provide us with much more satisfying televisual fare than The Bold and the Beautiful or Maha Gedera, those imported exercises in stupidity and pointlessness which currently hold the nation’s viewers in thrall.

Finally: the fact that some of the characters, including Manjula and her criminal lover, are part of an original Jataka tale, would have special appeal for some readers, especially since their personalities have been developed in ways that are interesting and, given the requirements of a morality tale, believable. It is in her depiction of the minor characters, however, that Ruana Rajepakse gives her imagination free rein and displays originality. Milinda the musician, who is the courtesan’s friend, Ambika (her confidante), Nalaka (her upwardly mobile brother-in-law), and Kaushalya (her sister) are dramatically and realistically conceived. For me, they provide the true substance of the novel, and indicate very real possibilities for successful future writing.

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