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Moments in culture:

A fascinating insight into the cultural motif

Interspersed with incidents from the life shattered by thirty year of conflict, 'Moments in Culture' codifies an uneasy passage of time in the North and the East and particularly in Jaffna, the heart of Tamil Hindu culture. The stories are the woes and agonies of a generation lived under the dictates of terrorism which cast its ominous shadow over the lager tapestry of socio-cultural life of Tamils. Apart from capturing the uncertainty-reigned lives of the Hindu Tamils in North and the East, 'Moments in Culture' has woven many rituals, insightful memoirs and the all encompassing influence of Hinduism in the lives of its adherents, into the text.

Although Hindu customs and rites were woven into short stories, in Moments in Culture, the author Sivanandini Duraisawamy who was brought up in a traditional Hindu atmosphere portrays life of Hindu Tamil middle class families in Sri Lanka in general and in Jaffna in particular.

Like other culture, religion plays a vital role in the social life of Tamil Hindu middle class families. Astrology also plays an important role in life of middle class Tamils. Young boys and girls were inducted to Hindu religion at very tender age. From then on, religion plays a vital role sometimes changing the course of lives. 'Moments in Culture' contains nine short stories and memoirs of the author such as 'Interlude in Ancient Mesopotamia', 'communing with nature' and 'Sindhabaari-My pilgrimage inward'.

The stories are on diverse themes so as to represent diverse aspects of life in Hindu middle class families. They are not only representation of individual experiences but also, at times, reflects the agonies and the inscrutable hardships that the Tamil people of North and East were subjected to due to the protracted conflict. The conflict had destroyed the culturally - rich life in Jaffna, the heart of the Tamil Hindu culture in Sri Lanka. The author has captured the agonies of the generations sandwiched between peace and conflict and uncertainty.

One of the poignant stories is 'The Waif from Mandativu'. The story is about a Sinhala army officer from the South who adapts Ramani, an orphaned Tamil girl from the war-torn Jaffna. Despite stiff opposition from his family, the officer who does not have children of his own, commits himself to bringing up the child. As the child grows up under the care of the officer, she begins to address the Sinhalese army officer 'APPA' and picks up Sinhala. However, the story ends in a tragedy. The brigadier who adapted the girl was killed in a landmine explosion on the same day Rani receives her GCE Ordinary Level examination results. The grief-stricken girl dies at the funeral.

The Army Chief of Staff stood with Mrs. Silva and Ramani by the casket. She was a picture of a grief standing in a white saree unable to control her tears. This was her most dear handsome 'Appa' ready for his final journey. Everyone who had come including the Buddhist priests were wondering who this slip of a girl was and why she was crying inconsolably. Those who knew the story also cried with her. As the casket was draped with the National Flag and was about to be removed in keeping with military honours, Ramani fell over it saying in Sinhala. "You are not leaving me here alone this time. I am coming".

In the foot note right below the story, the author explains that such stories are possible in 'these difficult days'; "In these difficult days of conflict one could imagine that such things could happen helping the two communities heal and come back together as they were in the bygone eras".

It is obvious that the author felt sad about the conflict and the adverse consequences that it brought about in the lives of thousands of Tamils entrapped in the North and the East. As a wife of a diplomat particularly posted in Bagdad she had seen the futility of conflict and how the conflicts had torn apart communities and raising centuries' old cultures to the ground zero.

The Waif of Mandativu' is a short story with full of cinematic properties. It is so rich in creating dramatic situations that it can turn into a film. It can also expand into a full length novel codifying the hapless lives of thousands of people who were sandwiched between war and peace. It is one of the best short stories in the anthology. Like in the novel 'The Waiting Earth' by Punyakante Wijenaike, the story is studded with visual images that virtually create pictures before the readers' eye. Among other things, the story is testimony to the human bond which rose above all artificial man-made barriers such as cast, creed, ethnicity and nationality.

'Jaani's Long Road Home' is a story on a different theme. It is a story where Jaani, a young girl from Jaffna, marries Bala, an expatriate Tamil. Soon marriage turns sour when she discovers that her husband is a megalomaniac who makes it a habit to assault her indiscriminately. She runs from country to country with her eight year old son to escape from her husband's brutality. Towards the end of the story, she finds out that Bala has married her in order to cover up for his insecurity caused by his being an illegitimate child. In 'The Long Night', the author has captured the volatile political situation in Jaffna where the terrorists had commenced their hide and attack operations in the early days of the conflict. Tension gripped the lives of the people. The do-gooders, who had gone to a village to launch a self-employment project during the ceasefire, had tasted the bitter and harsh reality of life in Jaffna after dusk. After a daring escape in the blanket darkness, the deeply disturbed group reached a relative's house in Jaffna.

"The door opened and closed and we crouched inside and waited till the vehicle passed. We moved into the rear part of the house and there Yoga was waiting for us. One could see that he was looking very worried; however on seeing me, he smiled... At the moment the Nallur Temple bell chimed..."

'Charts' is a story where lives of the lovers are torn apart because of horoscopes. Most of the Tamils and Buddhist believe in horoscopes. Though horoscope plays lesser important role in today's marriages, there was a time where horoscope of the couple and planetary configurations and the predictions were firmly believed as gospel truth. After years of separation and leading their lives into the middle age, ex-lover Madhavan and Mohana meet under extra-ordinary circumstances to unite again for life. Here the author suggests the love and strong bondage is more important than the planetary configurations. The other stories such as 'The Cup of Porridge', 'The Surgery and Man Friday' and 'Who takes the blame?' are stories on diverse themes. One of the striking characteristics of the stories is the down to earth diction and author's innate ability to include important religious and cultural events into the stories. However, these descriptions, specially, of the Hindu religious rites performed at marriage were well integrated into the plot of the story so that that they have become part and parcel of the stories. The short stories are a rare instance where the cultural motifs have been skillfully woven into the storyline generating an authentic texture with a unique language. Apart from its immense literary value, book is a glimpse into the rich Hindu culture. The book is written in Standard English although Tamil Hindu cultural motifs were integrated into the text. One of the significant criteria is the author's ability to create life-like characters throughout the book. 'Moments in Culture' is also marked for its readability, clarity in expression and dramatic situations. The book is well edited leaving no mistakes in grammar and syntax. The author maintains an impressive Syntax and expresses genuine views particularly on Tamil Hindu culture. Descriptions of Hindu rituals particularly performed at marriage are depicted in minutest details with footnotes, explaining the Tamil terms.


Book of home-grown wisdom

Author: R.S. Karunaratne

Sarasavi Publishers,

Nugegoda

Price 475

RS (the author as he is popularly known in close circles) has been an acquaintance of mine for many many years. Familiarity breeds contempt? Not exactly and not always. But to be frank as I "viewed his vignettes" in the weekly popular column, I could not help this thought flashing through my "pruthaggnana mind". There he sits so quietly like an epitome of unpretentiousness yet dares to make the SO his pulpit to preach to the whole island every Sunday". To be frank again initially I used to skip his vignettes for within me has sprung a phobia of what could be called "Bottled instructions". Not condescending to read the Vignette column, very irrationally I had formed this prejudice about it. But of course RS with the indomitable human endeavour that he focuses on much in his Vignette column, persisted with the series and nobody eventually could bypass it. Then I began to sense the earnestness pulsating the writings, the admirable resolution to make the reader a better human than what he is already.

Now RS has taken a further step by encapsulating what he considers the plums of his essays in that column into a book to stamp his role of making humans a better species. That explains the birth of "Vignettes on Life". What greater purpose can a writer achieve? Here, I will dwell on a strange story I read that may infuriate some religious fanatics in the island and curse this Buddhist woman writing panegyrics to Moses. Yet I will dare. Moses had stood on the Mount (Mount Sinai, if I remember correct) and was hurtling down rugged rock pieces. On each of the 25 plus rock pieces was engraved a letter of the Roman alphabet, making their first appearance in the world.

"What are you doing?" a curious one had asked.

"I am taking the basic step to improve humanity". Moses had answered thus imposing on himself the role of introducing writing to the world to improve the lot of humans.... Coming back to RS and his book, despite the text being sprinkled with quotations from writers and philosophers from the East ranging from Confucius to Krishnamurthi and zig-zagging via quotes from Albert Einstein and John Milton it is unique as regards the sources from which it draws its rather philosophical content. Boastfulness is conspicuously absent in his writing. Pardon me, but the English writers in our island very often cuts a wedge with the outlying society by some insinuation of exotic living. Sometimes this attitude creeps in non-deliberately due to the better circumstances he or she is born in. But nowhere in Vignettes does this surface. One reason could be that the writer never indulged in a life of leisure and luxury. Whatever it is, the veering towards the average and rugged society of the country is obvious.

The dirty pavements of the mega city, the crowded buses and trains, the backwoods of Wellawaya, the dismal little tutories selling English classrooms of mid 20th century where the teacher is King if not the tyrant..... these provide the crucibles of stirring life from which RS has drawn some very pragmatic messages that rise to crescendos of thought provoking material.

Yet that does not prevent him from entering with his pen to royal courts of yore in East and West and other strange and unexpected venues.

The content thus sweeps over a broad and myriad range. Back from places and courts he would recede to his own life, his own sicknesses as any mortal is heir to and draw lessons from them too for the reader. Knowledge imparted is vast.

Has RS put out a Book of Wisdom? You will have to ask him. He may shrug it off in his own simple way or accept it. You never can predict with writers.

I know it only too well. In fact the first chapter in this book of 50 essays gives hints on how to review a book, I have taken care not to follow them, but has penned this review almost by instinct. That is my weakness and not of the author of the Book of Wisdom. Home grown wisdom. Here are two gem pieces with which I will end this ode. "According to Greek philosophy enthusiasm is God in us"."Knowledge comes only to those who seek it".


Old wine in a new bottle

There is no tried and tested single formula to guarantee the excellence of a novel. If there were such a readymade formula, the fascinating variety of novels would be lost. On the other hand, a formula would quickly bring boredom to the reader. Meanwhile, novels are read by different kinds of readers. Some readers demand entertainment while others may demand ideas, interesting characters, actions, good plot and suspense. You cannot blame any of them because their demands are quite reasonable.

It is a safe bet to consider all the elements in a novel according to the consequences they produce. The novelist has to pay attention to plot, character, theme, and suspense. All reputed novelists try to produce the desired end.

To put it simply, after reading a novel we ask ourselves whether the story has been told well. Has the author arranged the events as in a literary work? Does the novel belong to escape literature? Is it a parable? Is it written to produce only entertainment?

As this is the second novel of the author, a critic cannot apply these standards rigidly. For instance, Rupanthi Bulathsinhala has succeeded in maintaining a steady plot however much it is hackneyed. The reader may have read similar stories an umpteen number of times. However, the author's narrative compels the reader to go through it to a finish.

The flow of the narrative is commendable. However, the protagonist sometimes tends to moralise and she remains a flat character right throughout. The reader is somewhat entertained by the narrative because it ends on a happy note. But one might ask whether life is so simple and easy going.

The main character has been well developed. However, the supporting characters need a little more attention. For instance, Asanka appears to be a flat character whereas his mother undergoes some drastic changes in her attitudes making herself a round character.

The novel adopts a realistic attitude to life. The novelist has depicted cut throat competitions taking place in government offices, favouritism, double dealers, tale carriers, and hypocrites. These qualities should have been depicted through the behaviour of characters rather than through dialogues. If a person is evil, do not say so. Bring him on stage and show him to be an evil person! One redeeming factor, however, is that the novelist has shown us how Sylvia transforms herself to be a compassionate person on the death of her husband.

Taken as a whole, the novel can be read without much effort. However, content-wise the novel is nothing but old wine in a new bottle!


Candid translation and Sinhalese fiction of lasting value :

Sinhalese translation of Mahesweta Devi's "Mother of 1084"

Kumara Perera's Sinhalese translation of Mahesweta Devi's novel "Mother of 1084" is a fiction of lasting value in Sinhala besides being one of the successful translations.

The translator, among other things, has been successful in devising a diction which is true to the original and capable of conveying intrinsic linguistic properties of the original novel. Kumara Perera's translation stands for its innovative manner in which the colloquial Sinhalese idiom has been used particularly for dialogues.

Mahesweta Devi's 'Mother of 1084' is a critical social assessment of the social revolution which rocked Bengal in late 1960s and 1970s. The story is woven around a middle-aged woman in Calcutta, Sujata Chatterjee, from a fairly affluencial background. She has lost the youngest of her sons, Vrita Chatterjee. The protagonist Sujatha was imprisoned in an unhappy marriage. Her husband is a corrupt accountant. The novel narrates her womanizer husband and how she is being abused by both her husband and mother-in-law. Though she resists child birth, she is pregnant for the fourth time and gives birth to Vrita, the youngest of her sons. The story meanders through the roaring Naxilite movement in Bengal and how Vrita, who was grown, separated from other family members who were modelled on father, was shot dead.

Vrita's relationship with his brother has been described as platonic. "One day, Sujata receives a phone call, which changes her life. Her son had been shot dead, for he was an archenemy of democracy. He had supposedly been in leagues with some of the Naxal gangs......Vrita's father, Divyanath has his reputation at stake, and he after some days of intense efforts, manages to keep his son's name out of the papers.....Even his body is not handed to his mother......He would only live with the tag of a misguided youth, and his case would close as No. 1084....His siblings couldn't care less....Vrita was a stigma, a conspicuous blot on their family name, hindering their careers and relationships, and hence, which had to be effaced through every device possible, from their lives, his very existence was to be rendered non-existent..... But for Sujata; the light of her life is gone, and all that remains for her are memories of another day which bring so many unanswered questions reverberating into her mind...Why was her son, a day short of his 21st birthday killed? He could not be a criminal? He was a brilliant student, with a national scholarship and a potentially bright future.... What made him forlorn all his ties with his family.....? What was the cause of his embitterment against society....? Why had he lost all faith in the system, and why did they entrust all their hope in faithlessness......?

Sujata discovers a stranger in her son that she had never comprehended. And it is here that she realizes the supreme significance of this fact, that similarly to the society these rebellious youth were also strangers; strangers whose motives were obscured by upper class societal selfishness, and decadence.

This heart rending tale is thus, Sujata's search for the son she had never known; of what he stood for; of why he had to die; and how, she and ultimately society, the hypocritical intellectuals, the decadent elite, the apathetic middle class; all had failed such disillusioned, rebellious youths. "Mahesweta Devi's evocative passage sums up her remarkable insight into the poverty-ridden Bengali society.

The conditions gave birth to the Naxalite movement. One of the significant aspects of the book apart from being an excellent translation in Sinhala is that it codifies an important phase of socio-political change in the Bengali society.

For Sinhala readership, the Sinhalese translation of Mother of 1084 by Kumara Perera would offer the same zest as that of the original Bengali novel although translation would never be a substitute for the original work. The book is published by Wijesuriya Grantakendraya.


Book launch

"Dandu Anduva"

Jayakody Seneviratne's Sinhala novel entitled "Dandu Anduva" will be launched at Dayawansa Jayakody Book Exhibition Hall, Ven. S. Mahinda Mawatha, Colombo 10 on January 19 at 10 a.m.

Seneviratne is an award winner and is the author of several other novels such as "Kumarihamy, Lokuputha, Vajirapani, Kolaniya, Athavesiyo, Sudu Rukada, Rantharuva, Rubara Doni, Hituvakkari, Nisala saha Visakha."

"Dandu Anduva" is a Dayawansa Jayakody publication.

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