Bad citizens: Fond parody of society

By Ben Dunant

‘Is this art or bull---t?’ begins Asgar Hussein’s short story collection, The Mirror of Paradise, in ‘A Tale of Two Artists’, a satire on the pretentions of the Colombo art scene. The reader may well ask the same question of Asgar’s writing – is this art or bull---t? While there are elements of both in these 13 stories, the truth is ultimately neither.

Asgar doesn’t demand of his readers the sort of lofty, sophisticated appraisal, feigned or otherwise, that the abstract painter Shantha from the opening story does from his viewers, with his portentously titled abstract canvases (‘Finite Evolution’, ‘Angst of the soul’). Despite the book’s title, from which you might expect a grim, social-realist dirge on Sri Lankan underclass life – a ‘mirror’ to the sandy beach, swaying palm tree ‘paradise’ promised by tourist brochures (get it?) – Asgar offers up a series of comic fables that gently satirise the anxieties and absurdities of Sri Lankan, largely middle class, life.

A dull accountant frets over the noise of cricket-playing boys, which threatens the calm of his respectable neighbourhood; a man who has spent his working life in England returns to Colombo to relive his carefree schooldays, only to have his nostalgia checked by the presence of an old nemesis; two students play at being prospective husbands and assume false, worthier identities in order to fool rich Kandyan families into lavishly entertaining them for their daughters.

But they aren’t all tales of well-to-do urbanites: tucked in among them are rustic, ‘village’ pieces, where the petty worries of their city counterparts are mirrored in the superstitions of the simple country folk that populate stories like ‘Grease Yaka’, where the fishing community of Makaragoda make increasingly farcical attempts to slay a black furry demon they believe keeps groping their women.

However, set against the ‘city’ stories, these tales of simple, credulous peasants, which take the form of traditional folk tales, can’t help but look condescending. They perhaps betray the writer’s own decidedly urban upbringing in Kandy, and his view of the countryside as someplace ‘other’ – a view no doubt shared by the city-dwelling characters he mocks so expertly elsewhere. Although charming and inventive as individual stories, the ‘village’ pieces together appear as contrived attempts to balance the affluent urban scenario that marks the rest of the book – something Asgar needn’t do.

The blurb on the back cover describes the stories as ‘a satire on human nature […] linked by a comic view of human existence […] intriguing and often outrageously funny.’ Although the better comic set-pieces will make any reader smile, especially those familiar with the insularity and aspirational fervour of Sri Lankan middle class life, it is at no point ‘outrageously funny’.

Asgar is often brutal to his protagonists – who, remaining largely likeable despite their comic foibles, are alternately beaten up, cheated out of millions, wrongly imprisoned and even driven to death. But their fates read more like cautionary tales, with all the cosiness and moral certainty that this implies, than black comedies – a genre which requires a certain trampling over taboos and a consequent discomfort in the reader. Indeed this could be just the sort of cheery, inoffensive poolside reading that tourists indulge in on their two-week visits to ‘paradise’.

Assuming the classical Greek comedy formula, each of the stories’ tragic-comic heroes has a blind spot that hampers their relations with others; in the case of Bandula in ‘A Man of Strong Opinions’, an overly zealous objection to both mosquitoes and politicians, which causes him to offend and alienate others at parties. This ultimately leads them, despite obvious warnings and omens to change their ways, to whatever calamity Asgar has in store for them – and so lessons are learnt and the greater cohesion of the community is validated.

Sometimes Asgar eschews these comeuppances and ends his stories with punchline gags – often scatological, and in one case involving urine – in a last ditch attempt to be ‘outrageously funny’. If they were bolder and wittier, the reader might excuse the shamelessly contrived and arbitrary manner in which these gags are brought about, and their failure to properly conclude the narratives. As such they come off as botched writerly tricks.

Yet, despite the breezy tone of Asgar’s prose – itself a model of good, plain writing that makes the whole thing wonderfully readable – the dark portents of the book’s title aren’t completely unwarranted. Although his characters for the most part enjoy great material comfort – spacious bungalows with fish tanks in smart areas of Colombo predominate – the bourgeois world that Asgar portrays is one crumbling under the heaped-up weight of envy, suspicion and avarice, and whose barricades against the uncertainty and chaos of the ‘real’ Sri Lanka prove thin. A wedding between a Sri Lankan Muslim man and a Dutch ‘Burgher’ woman is ruined due to their respective families’ fussy insistence on differing notions of ‘correct’ wedding conduct, and a drinking session among male friends descends from an exchange of work-related woes into insults and violence.

This is the true achievement of The Mirror of Paradise. What it lacks in belly laughs and black comic shudders, it makes up with a well-observed, subtle, yet fond parody of a society that fails to live up to its own prudish morals – and which constantly needs saving from itself.

An extract from Asgar’s ‘Trouble down Araliya Lane’

“Ranjith stood outside his gate with a contemplative look. A sublime tranquility now prevailed in the neighbourhood. What a charming place this was, he told himself. It was the place he had seen when he first came here. The foliage in some corners of the lane seemed to shimmer, and the sparrows chirped joyously. The world was gentle and meaningful again.

He went to the bedroom and sat down on the rug to meditate. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. There was a profound peace all around. He felt like a placid lake, and imagined that his face had assumed a serene expression.

However, he found it difficult to concentrate on his breathing. His mind wandered aimlessly. First, he thought how the Perera and Sathasivam boys would bully the students who were smarter than themselves when they got back to school. Then he began thinking about his wife. She was some 70 miles away in Kandy, but he could vividly picture her laughing loudly, surrounded by her silly relatives. Then he thought about mosquitoes, romantic novels and the mole on Mrs. Matthew’s cheek.

Ranjith gave up trying to meditate. He felt that the tension of the past few weeks had knotted itself deep in his bones, and would take some time to unravel. But he kept worrying about the effect his stressful job was having on his health.

Then he recalled what his colleague had said about ‘auto-urine therapy’. The man highly recommended this practice. All you had to do was drink a glass of your own urine every morning.

Ranjith also learnt that the former Prime Minister of India Morarji Desai - who lived to the ripe old age of ninety nine - had strongly advocated auto-urine therapy. To this he had attributed his good health and longevity.

If a great man like that could feel no repugnance in drinking his own urine, why should he, thought Ranjith. Besides, there were ancient Sanskrit texts that recommended the practice. It was said to be good for hypertension, among other things. He was determined to cast aside all his misgivings on the matter.

Ranjith woke up early on Monday morning. It was a lovely day, and he felt like lazing around at home. He left a mug of urine to chill in the fridge and then called the secretary to say he was feeling ill and couldn’t come to office today.

He spent the next couple of hours on a couch reading a book titled, ‘The Bliss of Living’. Then, as he was midway through the final chapter, he heard a clicking sound and watched in despair as the door opened. Shanika was back! And she was accompanied by two cousins who had decided to escort her home.

As she saw him, her eyes narrowed and scrutinized him. “What are you doing here without going to office?”, she asked suspiciously. “I’m not feeling well,” he replied gloomily.

In fact, he didn’t feel well at all now. How he wished that she had stayed in Kandy for a few days more. He had enjoyed a quiet weekend alone with himself, and even having to eat the insipid food in the fridge had been worth it.

Shanika then walked towards the kitchen. She said she was going to prepare some sandwiches for her cousins. A moment later, the brutes settled down on the couch, sitting on either side of him. They said the test match between Sri Lanka and Australia must have started, and switched the TV on.

Then they began commenting on the match like pundits. They were telling each other the strategic positions where the fielders should be placed in order to restrain a particular Australian batsman who had just come in. Terms such as deep square leg, gully, slips, mid off, deep extra cover, fine leg and third man were coarsely tossed between them.

Ranjith got up and retreated to the adjoining room. There, he sat down on the cane chair and began reading the last few pages of ‘The Bliss of Living’. At times, he caught snatches of their conversation breaking through the ball-by-ball commentary on TV.

He heard one of them saying he felt thirsty. There was a short pause, and then he heard the voice again: “Sha, a mug of beer…and nicely cool!” A moment later, the fellow told his cousin, “Hmm, the beer tastes funny.”

“Must be some new kind of beer”, the other said, observing that it looked unusually pale. “Now let me take a swig!”

And then it struck Ranjith what they were talking about. He rushed out to warn the man, but it was too late. The fellow spewed out a mouthful and, turning to his cousin with a pallid face said, “Oh sh-- man! This tastes like pi--!”

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