Eye for detail and graphic word picture of human emotions

Book facts: “The Dove That Flew Away”, by Rupa Amarasekera. Reviewed by Anne Abayasekara. Sarasavi Publishers. Price: Rs.150

Rupa Amarasekera made her debut as a short-story writer in the former “Lanka Woman” edited by the late Clare Senewiratne, but she is no newcomer to the art of serious writing.

A versatile author, at home with both Sinhala and English, she has over 30 books to her name. Her first novel, “Yugayaka Peraliya”, was awarded the “Martin Wickramasinghe Birth Centenary Award” in 1990.
In 2002, her book, “Towards A New Home” won the State Literary Award for the best children’s book in English. The title of `Kala Bhooshana’ was conferred on her in the same year.

This, her first published collection of short stories, contains ten tales simply related against a variety of backdrops from a border village, to Vancouver and wartime Poland, to Peradeniya campus, a conversation on a train, a hospital ward and other settings.

The title story, “The Dove That Flew Away” vividly and poignantly depicts the turmoil and exodus of human beings caught in an ambush by terrorists. Rupa successfully shows that ethnicity or affluence don’t count when a large, mixed group of traumatized people are herded together willy-nilly in a refugee camp readily opened in a Buddhist temple.

Eye-witnesses to the massacre of loved ones, the tormenting memories and the unbearable pain they share, draws them all together. As Rupa so aptly describes it, “They were like fish caught in a net, big and small, all struggling for dear life, like the fish caught in a net a man was hauling at the far end of the tank.”

Rupa has the writer’s observant eye for small details. I was struck by her reference to a kingfisher perched on a tree, “waiting like a saint for a fish to peep from the slushy water of the tank”, when “it would give up its trance and flit down like an arrow………….”

The shortest story, “The Till”, is memorable for the graphic word-picture the author draws of a woman who is transfixed in her doorway when she answers the door bell to find a schoolboy outside, stretching out a till towards her as he asks her to buy a poppy on Remembrance Day.

A multitude of memories of her lost soldier son who as a boy wore the same school uniform as this child, flash instantaneously through her mind and she stands mute and immoveable.

Rupa’s daughter lives in Vancouver and the story she recounts of a woman friend who is among the guests at her daughter’s home one day, has the ring of truth.

This friend, Krystina, tells of her Polish grandmother who lived in a little village in Poland when the Nazis took over and how one cold winter day the old lady was moved to compassion when she looked out of her window and saw some emaciated Prisoners-of-War shoveling the snow on the roads under the eye of two Nazi soldiers.

She scarcely had enough food in the house to feed her own family. When she opened the door again in the afternoon and saw the men still at work, looking “like scarecrows, thin, forlorn and hungry”, she hit on a plan. She called her young daughter and gave her some breadcrumbs to put in her outspread apron, telling her to go outside onto the street and “throw the breadcrumbs high up into the air, as if you’re throwing them to birds,.” - which is what the girl (mother of Krystina), did.

In “The Burst of the Monsoon” we see the effects of a long drought, the story focusing on a venerable elder of the village, Vidane Mama, who had worked his fields for years and has now handed over to his son. “Where the earth had cracked, it looked as if a thousand mouths were gaping at the sky, sticking out a thousand tongues crying for water.” The imagery instantly registers with the reader.

The writing is sometimes uneven, but always readable. A tale I particularly enjoyed is the last one, the only humorous story in the book. Called “A Change of Heart”, it portrays the unbelievable post-Peradeniya transformation of a vociferous erstwhile `rathu sahodaraya’ (my words), of the Peradeniya campus, known to one and all as “Socialist Lenin” who used “to profess to us all the evils of capitalism, the monstrosity of the burgeoise, the suffering of the proletariat, wooing us to join his Trotskyist Party.”

The narrator could hardly believe her eyes when she happened to meet the same man years later at a wedding, “a tall man in a dark grey suit, very smart, shoes shining, Brylcream top, with a Saville Row look”. He had obviously married well, for his wife, was “as huge as a barge, decked in gold from top to bottom………..” The brief encounter between the two one-time campus-mates left me with a smile on my lips.

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