Stories that have a kinship with us

Prof. Lakshmi de Silva reflects on ‘Yesterday is Another Country’ by Somasiri Devendra

“A sudden inky blackness. No reassuring star, no dim-lit lamp at a window.”The sureness of the lines promises pleasure – the security a reader enjoys when a writer can do exactly what he intends. I remember first reading “Yesterday is Another Country” on a verandah overlooking a brilliant sea at one angle, a river lively with pleasure-seekers at another – but the book kept me reading, savouring the quality of a turn of thought or phrase.

“Questions and doubts crossed and ricocheted in my mind, compressing eternity into a split second.”
Here is a man who has read not only eagerly but acutely, absorbing the way words and rhythms work, which is why “Tap on The Shoulder” is taut, expressive of a character’s mind and milieu and moving in its depiction of human responsibilities.” And so the offender literally had to run for his life, with the whole community chasing after him, with only one thought in mind: to kill him.”

“Second Chances”, “The Cross on My Shoulder” and “Vultures! Vultures!” come as sequels to “Tap on The Shoulder.” “Sometimes a lifetime can be pressed into just a few minutes.” This is as true of short stories as of reverie, and this group offers a fist-full of acute insights: perceptive, harsh or tragic.

Devendra appears not only widely read but knowledgeable, regarding men and matters. It is a hard and impressive discipline, not as self-indulgent as creating colourful characters and landscapes that entertain but cannot enlighten anyone, redolent of consumerism.

Now that girders surround the BMICH “That First Sunday” is topical – but also timeless, with all the excitement and danger which test men in a Joseph Conrad conflict between time and terror.
“Sir … sir … The Hall is burning.”

“Thick black smoke was pouring … But no one had taken charge of the situation … Workers and policeman were milling around. Some people were in shock, in tears, while others were racing around, checking various spaces.”

“The drama was over” – but not the problems created – and only real life can offer complex messes of such magnitude – repairs, a race against time hampered by physical and legal barriers. It makes very good solid reading, only running an icy finger down your spine.

Devendra is adept in catching the precise flavour of experience. In “The Suburbs of the Mind” he catches the liberation of being in London for those who saw the searchlights pencil the message of freedom across the sky at Galle Face on that first Independence Day.

“He became a happy nobody, coming out of himself in a so-familiar strange and foreign land”
Subtle too is the hinted pun, linking time and thyme with fragrance and the passage of years
“the air was, suddenly, full of Rosemary and thyme”.

Equally effective is the recurrence of a phrase, pages apart ,“…just two persons, equal and unhampered by invisible barriers and absent friends”. “Raven” is the tale of a laudable assassination – “This is to be a commercial contract”. It is also the cherry on the cake.

The elegant cover which carries intimations of reflective ease in glossy black, grey and off-white with just a hint of bronze on the spectacles is in keeping with the mellow note of harvested experience.
Although the author does not see himself as a conscious artist, many of the pieces in the collection are appealing in different ways.

“The Hat” communicates the tempo of youth and the physical and intellectual exhilaration of Peradeniya. “He was a Good Boy” tells of the tears of the world with admirable quietness. “The Myth Maker” with its serene gravity reveals the empathic flow of the writer’s imagination as he recreates the aura of faith and fervour surrounding the Tooth Relic in the Kandyan Kingdom.

“Mansions of the Sea” is factual and fascinating and flows well in the telling of the last sea-going vessels of Dodanduwa. It reveals what too many of our writings do not, kinship with the people of this island.

[The author can be contacted at]

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