On the Strengths and Weaknesses of “Stories” by Charulatha Abeysekara Thewarathanthri.

Charulatha-Abeysekara
Charulatha Abesekara Thewarathanthri

Charulatha Abeysekara Thewarathanthri writes with much commitment, a deep sense of society and culture, and a mastery of imagination. In fact, the least imaginative detail of her novel Stories, is its title. The story begins with the newly consummated love affair between a Sri Lankan Tamil youth who had earlier arrived in London for his higher studies and a girl whom he seemingly bumps into along a random campus corridor: a Dimuthu Elizabeth Morgan, who had been born to a Sinhalese mother (Kumudu) and a British father (Blake). Cheran and Elizabeth arrive in Sri Lanka and the latter goes in search of a Nuge Ela Walauva: the manorial estate home of her maternal line where she had been brought up for four years during her childhood. In spite of a prolonged absence and of having had no connections over time, Elizabeth and Cheran are well received by her folk and are provided with accommodation. From here on, the novel builds up in the narrative past and by centering on Elizabeth’s childhood at Nuge Ela, where she was fondly referred to as Muthu.

Charulatha is a strong story-weaver and Stories is powerful in its attention to detail, its conjuring of human complexity and in the realistic portrayal of the semi-feudal walauva culture; even though that culture is solely assessed from a walauva-centric, dominant perspective. Her characters such as Gamini, Kusum, Maha Kumarihami are essentially three-dimensional characters with a complex depth that adds to the vigour of the narration. The presence of Suranga, the grown up doctor-son, and the close affinity he offers Muthu are equally refreshing in the latter’s years spent at Nuge Ela, where she has otherwise often felt emotionally alienated. This overall distance and non-connection are not conscious (and in their minds, the elders are bestowing on Muthu the best care), but Muthu’s own reception of the adult world. The intimate – almost organic – connection Muthu alternatively forms with nature – the trees, the various parts of the woods, the fields, the river, and her faithful dog Tenshi – offset the dislocation she experiences among the walauva hands and her relatives. Her situation is summed up by the narrator in the following words:

Being shuffled through so many caretakers, she had learned that her little body did not belong to her. Adults, familiar and unfamiliar, had picked her up, kissed and hugged her, fed her, washed her, put her to bed, sent her to the naughty corner, shook her, pinched her, smacked her, made her colour, made her count, given her to one another, submitted her to unwanted affections, and sometimes rejection even cruelty. They basically had their way with her as and when they pleased (54)

51a697283692171d8707021157d27deb-348x450In her ‘alternative universe’, Muthu is happy and free. She is often seen as an “abnormal child” who does not conform to the behaviour of other children; but is seen smiling with and muttering to nature. She is rarely heard to speak. The aunt and her husband – Kusum and Gamini – who become her foster parents try to home-school her and communicate to her a sincere affection, but Muthu’s responses are frugal. However, as the story develops, Muthu becomes aware of voices that speak to her, instruct her and keep her company. These voices belong to a ‘gentleman’ and a ‘lady’, and through that synthesis Muthu becomes familiar with an ‘insight’ – or, even, a ‘foresight’ – of which others are poor (this motif which is reminiscent of William Blake’s work adds to the reading when we realize that Muthu is, in that sense, the daughter of a Blake). This ‘super power’ motivates the plot to move in a new direction and for newer possibilities and situations to be entrenched into the story.

With her ‘insight’, Muthu begins to find missing objects about the house, hunt down a young child of two (Latha) who had been beaten by an angry anti-Tamil mob of Sinhala villagers and thrown into the river, and even bring back to life a drowned man by placing her blood-soaked palms on that man’s chest. The villagers now begin to speak of Muthu as a bewitched child with powers of sorcery. In fact, Charulatha causes her novel more damage through this allowance of the ‘supernatural’ to take off into full flight, than Muthu does to the good name of the walauva. The saving of Latha – where the child in Muthu jumps into a river to be floated downstream and to reach an even younger girl who had hours earlier been assaulted by a racially-charged mob and thrown into the river – is to challenge the plausible. Under what conditions was this small girl to survive her being thrown into the water for her to be still alive on the bank? How probable is it for Muthu to perform her feat of swimming downstream without drowning? After a head on battle with the currents that sweep her and upon safely reaching Latha, Muthu also improbably carries the half-drowned girl on her shoulder a reasonable distance until she arrives at a doctor’s home.

Seneviratne – the trusted man servant – drowns and is pronounced dead by the vedamahattaya. But, Muthu had had fore-knowledge of such a tragic event and with the assistance of her ‘voices’ she perfects his resurrection. Her palms, smeared by her own blood, brings the dead man to life once they are placed on his chest. With this growing practice of her super power Muthu also becomes a seer of sorts when she reveals to the family how they may trace down Suranga’s beloved, who had been stolen away by her parents in spite of her secret marriage to Suranga. These lower-middle chapters impoverish the symmetry and promise with which Charulatha sets out at the beginning.

Stories is also a weave that insists on the co-habitation and intermingling of ethnic identities as well as class and caste aspects. This is one of the earliest features that catch the eye, pronounced in sections such as the following where Charulatha directs the reader attention to the history of the island:

Jaffna was the city at the top tip of the island, the big city of the Northern peninsula, where, thousands of years ago, speakers of Tamil had poured down from South India and settled, thriving and driving the Sinhalese downwards where they set up kingdoms in the central and southern parts. Occasionally the groups clashed, when the Tamil kings invaded the northern-most kingdoms. After years of occupation, a Sinhalese would drive them back to the North. Like a constant quarrel between two brothers, no one could quite put their finger on who started it, or why. No one really took it that seriously either (14).

Conceptually flawed, and over-trivializing of a much more deeper historical and political evolution, this is perhaps the most controversial passage of the novel. In this, one can sympathize with the “brotherly” variable Charulatha is driving towards in establishing a long historical relation between the Sinhala and the Tamil, but at the cost of a complexity which is ill-served in the process. But, that, perhaps, is a theme for a different essay.

GP
Stories being awarded the Gratiaen Prize in 2015. Also in pic, Prof. Walter Perera.

In the intricate, overlapping, inter-permeating universe with which she familiarizes the reader the notion of insularity ethnic and religious extremism wields as a sword is challenged and undermined. Muthu’s mother, Kumudu (Sinhala, udarata) marries Blake Morgan (British, school teacher). Their daughter Muthu / Liz marries Cheran Selvanayagam (Tamil, Jaffna). Anula marries / runs away with a Tamil worker (implied as Malaiha Tamil) gives birth to Latha. Suranga (Buddhist, udarata) marries Nelum (Christian, Pahatha-rata). In the closing stages of the novel, it is also implied that Kumudu — after all — would have been an adoptee, making her roots even more obscure. Perhaps, it is not an accident that the novel is set in Ratnapura in Sabaragamuwa: a region where diversity, traditional variety and cultural heterogeneity meet. This easy symmetry and co-culture is set against the walauva setting which is also seen as a benevolent and well-meaning feudalism. The pragmatic reasonableness of Kusum as well as the stern prudence of Maha Kumarihamy inter-fuse a reign that is (seemingly) acceptable and productive for the walauva, the workers and the villagers alike. What we find in Nuge Ela is an ‘easy-domination’: where the dominant and the dominated exist in a close and easy relationship. This universe is of high functionality and efficacy with no dissent or friction. The only persons to have challenged the walauva – we much later learn – had died mysterious deaths.

The concluding chapters of the novel betray in Charulatha an attempt to achieve some sort of completion or a ’rounding off’ by fast forwarding the story in a way that it includes details of the ‘narrative futures’ of the dramatis personae. This would not have been necessary, specially as it injures the rhythm and tempo of the story. As a fact, the hurried and scurried sections which are more visible towards the end offset the slow, gradual build the novel had achieved up to its lower-middle chapters. This undue hurry breaks away from a symmetry which the overall form of the novel had earlier achieved: a symmetry that suffers by the writer’s chase after theme (to complete the facts of the story) at the expense of the form (structure). To quote Suranga out of context, “well… all the pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place” (191); but, in the context in which I use the quote that indeed can be suggested to be a drawback. In the end, the meeting between Liz and Cheran in London is implied to be a consequence of a long chain of events that are essentially connected with one another — and not a random crossing of lives, as Cheran believes it to be. The repeated re-crossing of paths in such improbable ways — when repeated once too often — demotivates the reception of the text, while rendering it incredible.

Stories is unpretentious and written with understanding and commitment. It articulates clarity and empathy in relation to the society and the people it characterizes and the human essence of the relationships they have. The novel has its own philosophy and sense of history and the present. It is politically sensitive to historical turbulence (such as the 1983 riots) and implies within its own build — as well as through the goodness of persons such as Gamini, Kusum, Suranga, Soorya and Vaishali who heed neither race nor religion — an outlook to surpass such ignorance and intolerance. It is one of the better novels to emerge from Lanka in the recent years.

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