Suwanda Sugunasiri’s UNTOUCHABLE WOMAN’S ODYSSEY:  A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Progress with a touch of Conrad and a taste of Mark Twain
Posted on March 2nd, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey (‘2014, Nalanda Publishing Canada. ISBN 978-0-9867198-0-6.), a novel by Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri, a Canadian of Sri Lankan origin, is a story set against the socio-political background of southern Sri Lanka. The novel was first published in 2010. It covers an eventful period in the island nation’s recent history from  the halcyon days of early post-colonial years to  the tumultuous present as viewed through the author’s mythopoetic imagination. The story is about Milton  Abhiman (lit. Milton the Proud), the culturally deracinated Shakespearean scholar (from the De Leonese race), who returns to his native Buddhist heritage as Milinda Nihatamana (Milinda the Humble) and his wife Tangamma, the untouchable woman (from the De Andhrese race) who realizes her Buddhist spiritual goal as Venerable Karuna. The story is presented to us mainly through Swadesh, Milton’s ‘friend from Canada’, who visits him after a twenty-five year absence, while he is lying in his deathbed. But in this intricately structured novel Swadesh is not just a detached narrator, but a participant observer who is himself reported to us by an omniscient primary narrator. So, Swadesh is a character in his own right. He, in fact, represents the truly adequate personality among the characters.

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All three characters undergo a process of internal transformation, at different levels though; Swadesh’s metamorphosis seems to have happened outside the context of the story. The experience of personal change or growth is conveyed through an attempted reconciliation between disparate elements (‘a marriage of incompatibles’) like East and West, past and present, personal history and societal history, etc., which, apparently is designed to be more an intellectual and spiritual experience than a physical and temporal one, more a cultural than a political process.

The novel may be described as an example of religious fiction, i.e., inspirational literature with a religious meaning, an early example of which is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). The Alchemist (1988) by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho is a modern illustration of the genre; Coelho’s novel, in my opinion, could inspire the religious of any persuasion. On the inside of the dust cover of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey there appears the following phrase: ‘My 75th year gift to humanity’, which implies the main intention of the senior writer: The novel, in fact, is intended to be a gift to humanity in the form of a Buddhist inspirational piece offered to fellow humans for their moral edification (though this is not so explicitly stated anywhere else in the book). Most modern readers of literature, however, subscribe to the critical principle that prompted the early 19th century English poet John Keats to write to his friend Reynolds: ‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us’. In defence of Sugunasiri’s novel against any charge of obtrusive didacticism (though such a charge is unlikely), we may say that while there seems to be a clear moral/religious purpose behind the work, it is entirely free from tedious moralizing. The novel is, instead, a play where the homiletic truth that it embodies is played out, is effortlessly developed. Swadesh, the principal narrator, has the most intimate understanding of the events that have unfolded in the lives of the protagonists, and is in a position to penetrate deep into the possible inner motives of those characters.

There is a similarity between the narrative point of view of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of darkness (1899) and that of Sugunasiri’s novel. It seems to me that the moral message that Swadesh is made to communicate is conceived in the manner of Marlow the main narrator in Heart of Darkness where to him (i.e. to Marlow) the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze….”. Just as Marlow is reported by an unnamed primary narrator in Heart of Darkness (one of the five sailors listening to Marlow’s story), Swadesh is relayed to us by an omniscient primary narrator in Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. The externality of the novel’s moral is not hard to establish in spite of the fact that the novelist introduces each division of the text with an epigraphic quotation from the Buddhist classic Dhammapada in an apparent attempt to provide a kind of choric commentary on the action as in ancient Greek drama. But these ‘choric comments’ do not in any way interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of this fast moving tragic-comically delightful narrative. (Let me, at this point, kindly remind the readers that, by logging in to www.academia.edu, they could access my [Rohana Wasala’s] paper on Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey, which I wrote, as usual, with the common readers in mind; my focus there is on the literature, rather than on theoretical issues.)

It is ‘an extraordinary first novel’ in the words of the late Professor Chelva Kanaganayagam of Toronto University, Canada. It is a unique fictional work in a number of ways: in its conception of characters, in its evocation of the historic past, in its narrative style and narrative point of view. Its originality makes it difficult to label. But one may venture to describe it as a postmodernist work in spite of its modernist concern with matters of human consciousness. The psychological realities that are being explored do not show any final resolution: Milton, in his sudden transmogrification as Milinda, dies, physically ill, and mentally as unsettled as ever on account of the tragic experiences in his personal life (his wife and only child/daughter are murdered by terrorists); he is also mortified by self-incrimination for having  been a Western stooge at first and then a Marxist lackey; he blames himself because the aberrant ideologies, attitudes and behavioral norms  that people like him championed, as he believes, have contributed to the violent socio-political upheavals and the resultant culture of terrorism  that ultimately claimed the lives of the two persons he loved most in his life. Like the railway station building engineer Tsukuru Tazaki in Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013), Milton hardly succeeds in his personal moral growth despite his nominal transformation from Milton to Milinda. Tangamma’s attainment of her spiritual goal is more substantial than in the case of her husband Milton in the sense that she faces her death at the hands of terrorists with a strangely unperturbed mind, while calmly showering compassion on them in her Buddhistic maturity, and making herself immune to the suffering by meditating on soullessness (anatta). The novel draws attention to the importance of the practical application of Buddhist contemplative wisdom as encapsulated in the Dhammapada quotes in the face of the inherent unsatisfactoriness of one’s life.

Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey can also be described as postmodernist in terms of the most striking feature of the novel, which is its intricate narrative structure, and which in turn emphasizes the work’s fictional nature. It is a unique combination of the classical ‘story within story’ mode of story telling as exemplified in the ancient Indian classic Pancatantra and ‘the story present and the story past’ structure of the Buddhist Jataka Stories. Both these can be seen at work in this novel. The story present constitutes the main text while the story past the subtext, each investing the other with meaning. The author’s obvious interest in the structural aspect reflects his concern with potential reader response.

Sugunasiri is a poet of repute in Canada. His use of the English language is poetic. This is one factor that accounts for the absorbing quality of Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey. On the opening page of the novel, we have Swadesh, on his first visit in the country of his birth after an absence of twenty-five years which he spent in Canada, walking on a tarred road in Colombo; he kicks ‘his slippered foot in the direction of some crows’ hopping around on the ground looking for scraps of food only to draw a caw from them; it is a bright, warm sunny morning. The town is springing to life…. His brief meeting with his old friend Milton, the anglicized man of letters turned  fervent nationalist, takes place in the gloom of the latter’s lonely house. The two exchange their autobiographical novels, each requiring the other to review his work. But Milton dies soon after, and Swadesh is there to provide Buddhist spiritual succor to the dying man. He reads Milton’s novel and Tangamma’s ‘Herstory’ in his hotel room. Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is the record of Swadesh’s last encounter with his friend and of those documents with his appreciative asides on the texts where he himself is a character…. On the last page we see a contented Swadesh completing his reading of the manuscripts as he settles down in his first-class seat on the ‘Air-Brazen’ plane – ‘well-buckled into a first-class history’ he thinks – as it takes off ‘on its majestic flight through the emptiness of the sky….’   (Canada bound).

The gentle humour that enlivens every page dispels any gloom that the potentially sombre thematic preoccupation of the novel might cause in the reader’s mind. For all its gentleness, the humour is not without a certain satiric pungency. Chapter Seventeen named ‘Revolution’ (pp. 134-157) provides examples to illustrate the point. Sugunasiri’s humour is without rancor, though the criticism could be biting like Mark Twain’s. In this connection we may refer to the latter’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (1884). Samuel Longhorne Clemens (writing under the pen name ‘Mark Twain’) thought it necessary to warn the reader of Huckleberry Finn in a NOTICE added to the ‘Explanatory’ to the book in these words: ‘Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot’. (The name ‘Mark Twain’ suggests a certain self-admitted duality of personality real or imagined, and this duality incidentally fits the character of Milton, the fictitious putative author of the biographical manuscript that became the novel we are discussing.) Average modern readers might hardly agree with Mark Twain, particularly with regard to whether there was a motive to his work. Of course, readers have known all along that the author was joking. He most probably had a serious motive in writing this story. Huckleberry Finn actually is the story about Huck, a motherless homeless waif brutalized by his alcoholic father. After many educative adventures as an orphan, he learns to accept moral responsibility in preference to social respectability, to reject the conventional moral code in order to do the right thing. He rescues a runaway slave called Jim (an adult black man) who becomes his loving protective companion in his own fugitive state, in contravention of conventional rules at that time when slavery was legal and slaves like Jim were somebody’s property. At the end of the story, his Aunt Sally offers to adopt him, but Huck decides to set out on his own for a future as a mature person because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Huckleberry Finn can be described as a Bildungsroman, a novel about the education and moral development of a person, usually in their formative years. Despite the fact that the characters in Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey are already adults when they start, they also embark on a journey of intellectual and moral maturation and reach different levels of fulfillment. We may justifiably describe it as such a novel. But their final maturity levels remain unresolved, except perhaps in the case of  Swadesh who seems to have transformed himself before entering into the domain of the narrative.

In addition to this, the legacy of Mark Twain may be said to be evident in Sugunasiri’s work in two other areas: in the plastic use of language and the element of satiric humour. To illustrate both, let me quote from the two writers: In Chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn (Signet Classic, 1959) we read:

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking – thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking”. (p.209)

Here what happens is that Huck finds the received social and religious norms so unjust that he can’t pray while conforming to them; these conventional beliefs deny Jim the slave his humanity. But now Huck helps Jim to escape (this is an offence against the rules because under slavery Jim is someone’s property) and is ready to go to hell. He thinks going to hell is better than living in a society like that. Readers can’t miss the seething satire contained in the words put in Huck’s mouth.

Following is what we read in Chapter Seventeen entitled ‘Revolution’ in Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey:

You know, I come from a farming family…..Dakune. Yes, as a farming family, in the South, for as long as I can remember, we’ve lived a hand-to-mouth existence….In this blessed country of ours, all you have to do is throw a seed on the ground, and some water. Before you know, budding leaves are waving at you, and soon challenging your taste buds. No soil could be richer anywhere on earth more than on this Paradise of ours” (p. 139).

The scene may be assumed to be from around the time of the 1956 nationalist ‘revolution’. Inspired followers of Mr Bandleader are gathering in order to stage a ‘European clothes burning’ demonstration. They are going to make a bonfire of trousers and shirts. Government employees have been asked ‘to trade their unnational for the National’ dress. A rather sceptical Swadesh is among them. He asks a person standing near him, So, what made you come here?” Above is that person’s answer. Even the casual reader cannot miss the revealing satire of the words, of which the speaker is unaware. His speech betrays his personal vanity, his low level of education and his weak powers of understanding issues.  Isn’t this use of language and humour comparable to what we are familiar with in Mark Twain?

(Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is available on Kindle and in Sri Lanka at Vijitha Yapa Bookshop, Colombo, and Namel and Malini Punchi Theatre, Borella’.)

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