Novelist unfolds link of ‘Terroritis’ with ‘Englishitis’ and ‘Colonialitis’
Posted on May 5th, 2011

A review  By Professor Shelton A. Gunaratne

Suwanda Sugunasiri, 75, a Sri Lankan Canadian who lives in Toronto, has just published his first novel [An] Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey (Distributor: A Different Booklist, Toronto).  Sugunasiri describes himself as a poet, a columnist, a literary critic and a Buddhist scholar. Shelton Gunaratne, professor of mass communications emeritus Minnesota State University Moorhead, wrote this review.

The quoted words in the headline come from the novel itself. The lead male character of the novel, Milton Abhiman, claims, “Terroritis is killing me every working moment “¦ I lost a wife to De-Andhrese [Tamil/LTTE?] terrorism and a daughter to De-Leonese [Sinhalese/JVP?] terrorism” (p. 300).

Suwanda Sugunasiri’s 364-page novel revolves around the dramatization of the unconventional marriage of a higher-caste, English-educated De-Leonese youth (Milton Abhiman who subsequently adopted the nationalist name Milinda Nihatamaana) hailing from an unnamed coastal village down South [resembling a village in Tangalle?], to an untouchable De-Andhrese lass (Tangamma Shanti who subsequently was ordained Bhikkhuni Karuna), the daughter of the lavatory cleaner Muttusamy who lived in the vicinity of the Baduruppa (Rented Grove) cemetery on the edge of the village. Tangamma is the lead female character of the novel.

The terrorism to which Milinda/Milton refers has an uncanny resemblance to the terrorism that frustrated Sinhala youth initiated in the “ƒ”¹…”70s and to the violence that disgruntled Tamils unleashed in the “ƒ”¹…”80s. He admits his role in fanning the flames of terrorism when he quips, “But who birthed [the terrorists] “¦ [I] “¦ and my wacko class “¦ blindfolded in our colonialitis and Englishitis “¦ I betrayed a whole culture, a whole people, a whole religion” (pp. 302-303). The precocious Tangamma had coined the terms to describe the likes of her husband Abhiman””‚a name bearing the De-Leonese meaning arrogant or proud””‚who flaunted their colonial values and obsession with majestic English.

One night, Tangamma banters her husband: “Oh so you’re this nominal Buddhist””‚born to it but never pay attention to it. You’re like most of your friends, aren’t you? Have you ever considered “¦ that you’re all still in the grip of colonialitis “¦ the itch to monkey the colonial master!” (p. 165)

Now that arrogant Abhiman had adopted the name Nihatamaana (a name bearing the De-Leonese meaning humble), he admits to have been the victim of Englishitis as well. He””‚a Shakespearean scholar and a leading commentator who influenced the thinking of the ruling elite as the editor of the Daily Misnews [Ceylon Daily News?] published by Right House [Lake House?]””‚neglected the study of De-Leonese because of his obsession with English and attachment for sustaining colonial traditions. Thus, the lad whom the folks of the village of his birth called Podi Mahatteya””‚the son of Iskowla Mahatteya and Loku Nona””‚had not learned to read or write De-Leonese although he had the will to self-study Russian. Now, he admits that English had “oppressed” {p. 295) him over time. The Abhiman-type elitists, identified as Colombians in cotemporary parlance, characteristically rejected the Buddhist values embedded in the island’s village culture, including the rich De-Leonese language and literature.

Complex Novel

Sugunasiri’s is a complex novel because it is a story within a story within another story””‚his story, her story and the narrator’s story. Swadesh, the narrator, puts together a manuscript of a biographical novel written by his friend Milton/Milinda whom he meets after 25 years. Swadesh, now a Canadian citizen, commutes from his hotel in Mount Lavinia to his friend’s home in Cinnamon Gardens, where his friend’s childhood caretaker Dasa welcomes Swadesh. The author keeps silent about the absence of Tangamma and the couple’s daughter until almost the end of the story when the narrator exults “how wonderful to see a resolution to a millennium-old love-hate relationship” (p. 349). Swadesh had met them once before leaving on his sojourn to Canada. Milton and Swadesh first got to know each other when Swadesh, through project sponsor Tilan, became the translator of Milton’s contributions to a children’s encyclopedia of science published in installments.

Although the author states that the book is a work of fiction and that any resemblance to persons, places or languages “is purely coincidental,” he actually uses a mixture of real and fictitious names that the reader can readily identify. I cannot think of any Lake House editor of the “ƒ”¹…”50s married to an untouchable woman although I am familiar with the renowned Tissamaharama-born Lankadipa editor D. B. Dhanapala (1905-1971), who was married to a Tamil. However, based on my five years experience as a CDN journalist in the “ƒ”¹…”60s, I can attest that the characteristics attributed to Milton fit in to those of the typical journalist of the Lake House English-language press of that era. The author’s inherited cultural background, rather than his adopted Canadian traits, comes through clearly in this novel.

Critique

Let me define the criteria that literary pundits say make up a good novel, before I venture to critique the first novel written by Sugunasiri, who was born and raised in the island’s deep South””‚the breeding ground of several leading writers as Martin Wickremasinghe, Gunadasa Amarasekera, and Jinadasa Vijayatunga. I, who wrote some 25 “Village Sketches” under the penname Arcadius for the CDN Saturday Magazine in 1965, too was born and raised in the same territory.

In a novel, the experts assert, the story tends to make up of certain cardinal elements in a dramatic framework: exposition (introduction of the setting, plot, and main characters), conflict, intensifying action, crisis, climax, resolution and moral. However, this order may change from one fiction to another depending on the author and his or her intention. In a novel such as War and Peace there are several sub-plots within the master plot involving a large number of complex characters.

Let us critique Sugunasiri’s novel in terms of its exposition first.

As already noted this novel is a composite of three stories””‚one within the other. First, the story of Abhiman/Nihatamaana comprising Story Present II (pp.39-309), namely, the four books””‚on Growing; Away from the Rented Grove; Mother Pearl O.T.E.; and Grown.

Second, the story written by Tangamma is absorbed into the novel’s Story Past (pp. 313-351)””‚”the bridge in the Jataka story structure” (p. 314). The Story Past shows the connection between the main characters of the novel and those in past historical episodes. Under hypnotic trances, she identifies herself as Manimaykhalai Apsarai at Ajanta (with Milton as Prince Uthayakumaran), as King Elara

(with Milton as Dutugemunu), as Kuveni (with Milton as Vijaya), as the Lion Sinha (with Milton as Sinha-baahu), and as Asokamala (with Milton as Prince Saliya).

Third, Swadesh, the narrator, puts together the novel as a whole (a) by writing Story Present I (pp. 3-24) to introduce the setting, plot, and main characters of the novel; (b) by inserting commentary throughout the text to clarify points; and (c) by writing the Postlude (pp. 355-364) to enable the reader to understand the novel’s resolution and moral. Moreover, he inserts pertinent quotes from the Dhammapada preceding each major section to facilitate the reader to formulate the moral that he or she could extract from each section. The reader can construe the resolution and the moral of the entire novel by referring to the quote preceding the Postlude:

Never never appeased is hatred by hatred

By non-hatred alone overcome it is

This is the eternal Dhamma

–Dhammapada, 5

This strategy enables the narrator to interconnect all sections of the novel with a Buddhist theme.

Now, let us briefly examine how Sugunasiri gives life to his novel through the deft execution of conflict, intensifying action, crisis and climax by focusing on the Interlude””‚a section that appears to have little relevance to the novel’s plot until the reader runs into its surprising resolution in the Story Past, then reaches the ultimate climax in the short Postlude.

Sugunasiri presents his novel in the nadagam style popularized by drama maestro Ediriweera Sarachchandra in the “ƒ”¹…”50s and the “ƒ”¹…”60s. The Interlude is an exemplar of the use of dramatic prose a la Sarachchandra. A conflict has arisen between the king of Wanga and the Lion Sinha who fathered a son and daughter through Suppa Devi. Now that the king has offered 3,000 pieces of gold for the head of the Lion, the son (Sinha-baahu) decides to kill his ferocious Lion father in a one-to-one battle. The masterful rendition of this fratricidal act in action-oriented diction enables the reader to visualize the event. Excerpt:

“Oh,” the Lion roared now. “So my dear son, you have come to slay me.” Opening his mouth as wide as he can, he gave another roar, enough to blast Sinha-baahu’s eardrums” (pp. 35-36).

But the author commits some errors as well. His habit of using unattributed quotes in the dialogue between Swadesh and Milton in the introductory section [Story Present I] confused me despite re-reading the conversation multiple times. The chapter mentions two manuscripts: one, a draft of the “mostly biographical” (p. `10) novel written by Swadesh, which he hands over to Milton; and two, a “bundle of papers” (p. 9) on “my responses to all the mindlessness “¦ of the last few years” that Milton passes on to Swadesh. This ambiguity casts a cloud on Sugunasiri’s expository skills as a novelist because he confuses the reader on the very focus of his novel despite the later clarification “It’s all in there “¦ My life story,” a quote attributed to Milton (p. 23).

Moreover, the author frustrates the reader by not adequately revealing the identity of the novel’s lead characters””‚Milton/Milinda, Swadesh, and Tangamma””‚in the introductory chapter (Story Present I). The informal names identifying both major and minor (Dasa, Tilan, Marcus JeyaweeraSinham, Rajaratna) characters simply demote the stature of the character in the story. Milton’s family name Abhiman (p. 22; p. 101, p. 244) appears sporadically by sheer chance. Such informality may fit the short story, which is too short for character building, but not the novel.

Another weakness is the author’s tendency to go out-of-focus by getting into excessive detail as in the description of a New Year celebration (Chapter 9), which goes out of the way to create an erotic scene in Lankan English:

Several women, wearing their tanapata, were washing straw mats as others beat their laundry at a nearby rock. As a young lamissi walked over, he found himself following her with corner of his eyes “¦ Lamissi. Breast up. Nice word for one just past puberty “¦ [The lamissiyo] gave an occasional glance at the frolicking ilandaari young men in the water “¦” (p. 73)

The Interlude, which explicates the story of Sinha-baahu””‚ resembles the nadagam-style version of Sarachchandra. Swadesh, the narrator, mutters to himself that he is impressed with “how Milinda has given a literary touch” (p. 36) to the Sinha-baahu story in the Mahavamsa, thereby confirming the focus on Milton’s manuscript, yet hiding the connection between the legend and the novel until the end.

Positive Traits

Notwithstanding the drawbacks, Sugunasiri’s first novel stands out for the following reasons:

The novel’s remarkable ability to portray authentic village life in rural Sri Lanka in the mid-20th century, particularly in Book the First in Story Present II, for the benefit of the putative Colombians, the western-oriented English-speaking audience. The portrait of village life that Vijayatunga brilliantly captured in a compilation of autobiographical sketches titled Grass for my feet (London: Edward Arnold & Co., 1935) has clearly influenced Sugunasiri. He also mentions (p. 101) his familiarity with the works of Leonard Wolfe (Village in the Jungle, 1913) and Martin Wicremasinghe (Madol Duwa, 1964). Perhaps, he was also acquainted with my own portrait of village life that I wrote for the Daily News in the mid-“ƒ”¹…”60s. Although Vijayatunga, Wicremasinghe and Wolfe belonged to the colonial and Sugunasiri and I to the post-colonial era, our depiction of village life reflected the slow transition from feudal dependence to relative independence.

As the Weligama Podda of yore hailing from the village of Pathegama, I was surprised to find myself in the boots of Milton in several instances:

ƒÆ’‚¯”…¡¥ Just like Dasa was to Milton, Ithaali Maama was to Shelton. They were childhood companions/ playmates. The names Milton and Shelton suggest our affliction with Englishitis and colonialitis.

ƒÆ’‚¯”…¡¥ Just like Milton looked forward to practice bicycle riding after school, so did Shelton. Just as Milton injured himself when he “let go of his hands off the handle” (p. 44) and crashed on a sandy patch along the dirt road, so had Shelton along the Batawala-Pathegama dirt road.

ƒÆ’‚¯”…¡¥ Just as Milton left the village to attend Christ Church (school) and Churchill College in the city, so did Shelton to attend Carey College and Ananda College.

ƒÆ’‚¯”…¡¥ Just as Milton liked to roam the woods with “his bamboo-pistol in hand” (p. 59), so did Shelton who roamed the hilly woods of Pathegama in the company of his playmate shooting at cadju puhulang on trees and what not.

Thus, I conclude that Sugunasiri’s portrayal of the rustic, bucolic life in the South is authentic as it could be. Rendering Lankan village ethos in British or North American English is not an easy task. Sugunasiri wisely uses Lankan English to achieve this authenticity. Although American and British audiences may find Lankan English an irritant because of their ignorance of Lankan culture, the novel is well worth for consideration as a text for improving competence in high-quality Lankan English. However, the author should publish another edition of the novel without the numerous typos to make that happen.

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