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Monday, 19 December 2011

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Nine stories of crackling cruelty

This is Shirani Rajapakse’s first publication and in which creative writing soars to levels profound. To tell of the author is essential - her period with the Sunday Times, the Daily Mirror and thereon to international organizations - the World Bank and Commonwealth Secretariat. She worked as a Consultant Writer cum Editor, and then turned to the writing that has now carried her to so much creative fame.

Her book, ‘Breaking News’ with its (over print of fierce tiger stripes and murder, the seizing of the children, tells of what so many - Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, sacrificed, and as a police officer said (‘The Boarder’ Chapter 8):

‘These terrorists are only interested in destroying this country and they don’t seem to care if they kill their own people as long as they get what they want’.

Let’s take Shirani’s stories, shall we? It is sad, yet so true that the husband who steps on a land mine is rushed – a breathless drive through the Vanni – to a hospital where a log was cut off, where so many lay around him, living in a world of pain. His family stayed away until a relative took him home. May be this whole story, despite its gruesomeness, brings us closer to the suffering the man carried home with him. What of the family? Let me quote:

‘The folks at home... stared in horror. They didn’t know what to do and how to react. They were embarrassed for him, for themselves. They spoke in whispers, and didn’t realize how the silence screamed out... The family thought he was mad. He wanted to cry out to them to treat him as they always did...

‘He heard his mother talking softly to a neighbour... ‘We sent him to earn a living, feed us, clothe us, build this house. But look what the fool had to do. Now he’s of no use to anyone...’

This, to me, is the real pith of this story. It is, and was part of this country to bring the Tigers to heel. But it was also accepted that many would die. But as a one-legged man comes home, everything disemboweled, he screams to live, but has to face a home where he is unwanted, not inside but outside too.

In ‘The Boarder’ there is the Tamil girl, Selvi. Her brother brought her to Colombo, to the boarding of a gentle Sinhalese woman. Selvi’s father had been killed by the LTTE. As Mrs Kaluarachchi told her husband:

‘We can’t be living in suspicion of all Tamils, can’t we? They are having a hard time, just like us’. But Selvi had her orders. In the bus, crowded in the evening rush, she sat up when a policeman entered, picked up her bag, stood up let out a loud cry and lifted her arms over her head. A flash – a loud noise – havoc. It was on the next day that there were pictures of the bomb site and the head of a terrorist in the side of a ditch. It was Selvi!

To readers, the stories unfold – the man from the East who hasn’t come to get married and the Planet that says he will do so but fifteen years later. There is ‘Emerald Silk’ – the woman who stands beside a waterfall, washing away the dust of leaves, thinking of the man in the dump he had called home that he wished her to share the cramped existence of his life, not hers. It was her emerald-silk dress that led her for the last time to his cardboard home – finally at peace with herself, free from each raindrop, her chains lost in the dust of his imagination.

This is a story that needs careful reading, and I will not go on to the Engamma with that terrific front cover, ‘Breaking News’. There is ‘The Boy from Wellawatte’ and his language disease and how Pauline cried when Rohana Wijeweera died, and which, to her people at home, was a sign of oncoming madness. All she said was: ‘That guy Rohana Wijeweera is dead’, and when questioned said: ‘What in the world possessed you to think I knew him?’

She cried because the pictures in the papers showed Wijeweera pale-skinned and shaven, with hair well-combed. Not the Wijeweera with his dirty ragged beard, long curly hair, who wore black-framed spectacles. She said the Army must have killed the wrong man. This is a story that tells of Pauline, far from mad. She just wanted to be noticed!

In ‘Like Driftwood on the Kelani’, Swineetha looks at the Kelani river with swollen rain and the security guards at the entrance at the bridge towards Colombo. There were terrorist threats and time was when teenagers from the shanties would dive off the bridge. It was suicide, but who cared?

Swineetha, as was said, had seen the mangled, scarred bodies. She would then haul them up and bear them to the sea. To her it was a revolt against Nature. The river people had stopped counting the bodies - just a waste of time, and even the police showed a lack of interest. But one day, no one could recognize any of the bodies, bloated and disfigured, piled up on the side of the bank. Swineetha knew that her story had ended.

For so long she had searched for the loved one she hadn’t found. No one noticed her standing at the bridge, the Kelani calling her. Finally, we have Sepalika, the little girl born in the dawn when the flowers bloomed and perfumed the air. Sagara, the girl who tells the story, was named after the ocean. One day came a warning, that a gang of men were approaching the village. The family ran into the jungle, but Sepalika, with a rubber teat in her mouth and wrapped in a blanket, was hidden behind the almirah.

The jungle was the only place to go to when the terrorists attacked. They didn’t care if the people were farmers, old, with children or women. There was an army camp that did routine checks but the terrorists hid behind the villages and attacked at night.

When the family returned, the house had been turned upside-down. The head of the Buddha image had been crushed. The mother had left the roti plate on a low fire. On it a bundle sat, smouldering. Sepalika lay on it, the colour of cinder. The mother fainted.

Years later Sagara came to Colombo, earned a living, stayed in a house where a tree with tiny white flowers and orange stems was the same tree that grew in his village garden. He would cry – Sepalika – my silent prayer to all I have missed.

I trust readers will not accuse me of writing so much of what the author has given me. When one has nine stories to handle, one needs to be rather relentless, but please remember, this is only a small part of the creative writing that carries so much more. - Carl Muller

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