Many Roads Through Paradise; An anthology of Sri Lankan Literature
Edited by; Shyam Selvadurai Penguin Rs 499/- Pp 493
This anthology of literary voices from Sri Lanka offers a unique “opportunity to know a country and its various cultures in a holistic way.” In a war torn land where people are trying to heal deep wounds in the aftermath of widespread devastation, the anthologist hopes to provide “an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities.” This literary bouquet will excite readers everywhere, by offering an intricate mosaic depicting Sri Lanka’s peoples and their cultures. Translations from Tamil and Sinhala are also included to give a faithful representation of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and literary diversity. For Indian readers, this collection shows how similar we are beneath the superficial differences. It also serves as a warning, portraying the dire consequences, the stupendous human toll, that results when neighbouring linguistic and religious communities sharing the same homeland push their differences to the point of fratricide.
The selections are grouped to show the build-up of social evils and events leading to intensifying conflict. The opening poem, The Chariot and the Moon by Mahakavi, portrays with powerful intensity the fate of youths of lowly caste, “who spread their wings to touch the moon” only to fall before the “frenzied passion” of people who consider their fellow human beings to be inferior. Our Valavu, by Vimala Ganeshanathan rekindles memories of old Jaffna, when life was peaceful, and “thieves were few”. As foreign rulers converted locals to Christianity, there sprang up eccentric hybrid names combining foreign names with the local Tamil ones. But in this melting pot of cultures with the “overlapping paints of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, the American missionaries could not make a dent in the caste system.” Let’s Chat in the Moonlight shows how the social evil of untouchability is deeply ingrained even in the souls of moderate intellectuals who publicly preach against the practice.
The Perfection of Giving is rife with irony and satire, showing how the haves oppress the have-nots while professing morality and piety. “Big Auntie is always talking about giving,” says a little child, “but she’s not going to give Kusuma even a New Year present... Big Auntie is very mean.” The Hour When the Moon Weeps shows how lifelong oppression makes a basically good and sincere man want to take another’s life. “Thoughts of his elder and younger sons and of his wife who lay abandoned and later died in his hut, began to emerge. His life’s purpose after they had passed away, surged up in his mind as well. He must kill Mr. Hassan tonight.” The Rag by Nihal de Silva is “a toxic portrait of class rage turned inward and outwards,” which precipitate into the first and second JVP insurrections.
Several of these stories and poems deal with the plight of people dispossessed of their homes by war. In Cheran’s poem Cousin, “Upon ripped and fragmented land,
men who hold no attachment to it
squat, holding weapons.”
The House in Jaffna by Isankya Kodithuwakku is about patriotism, nostalgia and disenchantment. Through all his years as an expatriate who fled to England to escape the war back home, Mr. Nadarajah dreams of returning to his beloved Jaffna. News reports of a peace deal make him leave behind a well-paid job and comfortable life to head back home. But the reality of post-war Jaffna shatters all his hope and joy. “Yes, he would be able to get rid of the patches of green mildew on the ceiling and even fix the sagging. And yes, he could buy furniture for the house and even rebuild the temple so he could walk to it twice a day. But that splash of the bucket being let down into the well, it would never be quite the same splash because the hands that let it down were now too different. And even more than that, the ears that lay in bed and listened to that splash were too different. Mildew could be taken away from ceilings, but never from hearts and minds.”
The pieces in this collection explore every upheaval that has made Sri Lanka what it is today. From insurrections to the tsunami, from civil war to riots and excesses by the IPKF, these stories touch upon them all. In Yasmine Gooneratne’s words:
“The joys of childhood, friendships of our youth
Ravaged by pieties and politics,
Screaming across our screens, her agony
At last exposed, Sri Lanka burns alive.”
These are also stories of human beings and their experiences in troubled times. Child soldiers abandoning promising academic careers to end up biting a cyanide capsule; women who go to the Gulf to slave as maids; the schoolgirl Krishanthy, who was gangraped and murdered in 1996 by six Sri Lankan Army soldiers, after she was returning from her A-level exams; the widow who weeps for her dead soldier husband; the moderate politician whose pleas for peace talks are shattered by a deadly bomb blast; of feisty Burgher families who enjoy living and loving; their stories are voiced here.
This must-read collection brings to life the complex mix of beauty, human sentiments and fear that defines life in modern Sri Lanka.
This review is published in Sunday Herald