Book Review


Rajith Savanadasa's Ruins

--Binoy B Agarwal

Publisher: Hachette

Genre: Fiction

Extent: 341pp

Price: Rs399

 

Nayomi Munaweera's What Lies Between Us

Publisher: Macmillan

Genre: Fiction

Extent: 288 pp

Price: Rs 499

Two Sri Lanka born novelists-Nayomi Munaweera and Rajith Savanadasa- explore the centrality of family against the backdrop of the civil war that raged in the north and the east of Sri Lanka during 1983 to 2009.

 

In her recent novel What Lies Between Us, author Munaweera examines the mythic glorification of motherhood and the (im)possibility of becoming a perfect mother. The story is told by a female narrator from within a cell: the physical confinement prefiguring the larger thematic engagement with social incarceration of women through cultural notions that suggest mothering as the ultimate achievement. However, what makes parenting difficult here is not the rebellious or spoilt child, but a traumatic incident of sexual abuse that the protagonist experiences in early adolescence that continues to haunt her in later years too.

Consequently, What Lies Between Us is a poignant tale of a young Sinhalese girl growing up in a well-off family. Surrounded by a doting mother, a devoted maid and the gardener, Samson, with whom the young narrator seems to be very close, it all seems to be a paradise. However, the descriptions of the lush landscape of Kandy echoing with the squeaks of joy and peals of laughter from the child are marred forever when tragic incidents cast a perpetual shadow on the lives of the two women – the child and her mother.

In the wake of the 'shameful' incident and the tragic suicide of her father who drowns himself in a river, the mother-daughter duo is forced by circumstances to leave their home and migrate to America. Despite the presence of their Americanized relatives, the scars of the past continue to terrorize their lives, making it difficult for them to lead normal lives. The girl's growing-up years are punctuated with nightmares of bodily violation. In between, the author also deals with new forms of subtle racism that reminds the character of her own colour, the source of her foreignness. Gradually, the story takes us through her adulthood where she finds Daniel, an artist from West Virginia, whom she marries and together they have a daughter. Never free from the guilt and shame of her past and overwrought with anxiety, she becomes hysterical, ponderous and overprotective about her own daughter that leads her to commit the most unforgivable crime.

Without giving away much, it needs be acknowledged that What Lies Between Us is a heart wrenching novel that dares to explore the often ignored issues of child abuse, post-partum psychosis and mental illness – all of which are a reality that is hardly taken cognizance of even when they are too close to home. Moreover, despite her Diasporic experiences and their referencing, the novel is not about nostalgia and longing for a mythic homeland unlike other Diaspora novels.

In a similar vein, Rajith Savanadasa in his debut novel, Ruins, explores the tensions underlying familial relationships and how they affect the relationship dynamics. However, what broadens the scope of the novel is the way in which the civil war fought out in the distant north and east of Sri Lanka foregrounds how war and political activities affect personal lives.

Narrated from each individual's point of view, the novel opens with Latha, the maid of the house where the Hearth family lives. The family finds itself on the verge of falling apart in the aftermath of the civil war. The fundamental tension comes from the fact that Mano Hearth is a Sinhalese while his wife is a Tamil, an identity that they have to conceal in the light of the prolonged years of conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. What adds to the isolation and anxiety is the children's own struggles with identity, peer pressure and career goals.

The novel is, in fact, stories about five different individuals. For Lakshmi, even while she works hard to keep her Tamil identity a secret from the neighbours, she is on a mission to rescue a lost boy of her early Tamil neighbour who went missing during the war. With the help of her journalist husband, Mano, she hopes to bring him back from wherever he might be. Mano, on his own part, has to struggle to keep his press going without antagonizing the government. On the personal front, he attempts to revive the long lost romance between himself and his wife and fails miserably in the process. Their teenage daughter Anoushka struggles to fit in the cool group of girls. And owning an ipod is her way of achieving that. Moreover, she also seems to struggle with her desire and despair at seeing her best friend Natalie enter into a relationship with a boy. She secretly hopes to have her and is consequently confounded by her sexuality. Her brother, Niranjan, an ambitious man with a foreign degree and high hopes from his well connected and affluent uncle, wishes to carve a niche for himself by establishing his own startup but falls in the wrong circle of friends.

In this microcosm the members of a family deal with their own desires and demons, identity and politics, and somehow believe the war will not touch them. They fight a lonely battle until the second half when a miraculous sense of  transformation sets in following a trip that they collectively undertake. The second half of the novel is once again told in first person by each character who begins to recognize their failings and attempt to bridge the gaps and the silences.

Of all of them, it is Latha, the maid, who, with her keen sense of obligation towards her masters and children, stands apart. Savanadasa doesn't create sympathy for her. Rather, she wins our affection through what she does. It is her understanding of life that slowly emerges and the epiphany she has during the long solitary walk following the death of the nephew in the army makes her character memorable.

The author, in focusing on the interiority of his characters, lets the story unfold itself. Precisely because of this the dilemmas, the drama, the longing and the ambivalence become more palpable and are closely felt. It is worth mentioning here that Ruins is loosely organized around an ancient artifact translated as 'moon lamp' and termed 'moon-stone' that symbolizes the Sinahlese Buddhist philosophy of life. It not just showcases how larger politics shapes our everyday world, but is also how ordinary individuals fight their solitary battles.

Together, these two novelists turn the focus on the domestic and familial relationships. In the process they demystify the idea of family and home as being  spaces of privilege and protection.

...............................................................................................................................

Binoy Bhushan Agarwal is an Assistant Professor of English at Aryabhatta College, University of Delhi.