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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

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Real and imaginary homelands

Salman Rushdie, in his essay ‘Imaginary Homelands’, written in 1982, has this to say. “It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back........but if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge ...that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost...”

This is probably what happens to most diaspora, writers, even from Sri Lanka. So I thought, as I picked up ‘The Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey’ by Suwanda Sugunasiri, who has been living in Canada since 1973.

Su Ha Ja Sugunasiri, that is how he was known during his young days in Sri Lanka, through his Sinhala Short Fiction, translations and critical studies, and also as ‘Madhupa’ through his column in a Sinhala newspaper. He had left our shores nearly five decades ago on a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. In the West, in Canada, he is known as Prof. Suwanda Sugunasiri among the academics and the Buddhist community. He is the founder of the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, Faculty of Divinity, Trinity College at the University of Toronto. He has written a weekly column for the Toronto Star since early 1990s. Sugunasiri has published four volumes of English poetry. This is his first novel.

Sugunasiri had never severed the umbilical cord with his motherland. His memories were always alive, through his work among the Canadian Buddhists. He is the Founding Editor of the Canadian Journal of Bhuddhist Studies, and authored ‘Rebirth as Empirical Basis for the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths’. Among his literary works we find, ‘Faces of Galle Face Green’ and ‘Sri Lankan Literature (Sinhala, Tamil, English) with Prof. A.V. Suraweera.

In ‘The Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey’, we find a home-sick writer, haunted by some sense of loss and wanting to look back, without much difficulty. Though he says it is ‘in a mythical setting, within the wider geographic context of South Asia, in which the mythic comes to be in dalliance with the historic(al), the experiential and the spiritual’, it is not very difficult for the reader in Sri Lanka to identify such places and people. Yet to a reader outside Sri Lanka, who is not familiar with these names, it could be a setting anywhere in South Asia, which Sugunasiri has achieved through his style of writing.

As he says in his introductory pages, quoting from the Dhammapada, many among humans, unable to reach the shore beyond, run along the (hither) bank. This run is not at an even pace over a smooth path, but over rugged terrain, creeping through thorny bushes, climbing over obstacles, some falling down by the wayside, others manage to crawl along, while still others prefers to sit down and watch those who run past them. It is about these human beings, among them the untouchable woman Thangamma, that the story is woven about.

Sugunasairi tells us about the race, caste and class issues as seen in a South Asian village in the mid 20th century, and move into the urban society, of the early twenty first century. The story is about young men and women who try to uplift the lot of these people, with genuine concern and how politically motivated, power hungry people exploit such situations.

He has used his knowledge of Buddhism, about the concept of rebirth and karma as we see it in our part of the world, and woven a tapestry which would please a wider readership. Milton, the school headmaster’s son of a ‘respectable caste’ marrying the latrine-cleaners daughter, Thangamma, from an ‘untouchable caste’ of a different ethnic community. Milton who becomes Milinda as he gets involved in a nationalist movement. But the Untouchable Woman, Thangamma is the heroine, the true woman of Asia with a practical mind, adaptable to any situation, to face any hardship, deprivation and also with the strength and the willpower.

The author also has used his poetic license when describing certain places and incidents, perhaps with his intention of reaching out to the readers outside Sri Lanka, and as an author exposed to the culture of the East and West, he has used the license well. Unless he was covering up his failure to ‘reclaim precisely the thing that was lost’.

How successful Sugunasiri’s attempt to disguise places and names in the story, in order to make it an ‘Imaginary Homeland’ could be judged only by readers outside the ‘homeland’. We try to relate the names and places familiar to us in our homeland.

His first attempt at a novel, which had been twenty years in the making, is an indication of what he could produce as a writer of fiction in the future, now that he has retired from his academic duties.

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