On “Wednesday’s Wife and Other Stories” by Lalitha Withanachchi

Lalitha Karalliadde Withanachchi (also published as Lalitha Withanachchi) writes Wednesday’s Wife and Other Stories – a collection of thirteen short stories – in 2003. This is her fourth collection after The Paddy Bird, Little Bamboo and her Gratiaen Award-winning volume from 1993, The Wind Blows Over the Hills. The stories – quite characteristic of Lalitha’s other work – draw from a rich and diverse depository of memories collected through a life lived in different parts of Sri Lanka (such as Anuradhapura, Kandy and Badulla) as well as in Nigeria. These memories are often gleaned from an eventful childhood, youth as well as memorable career-experiences the writer had had as a teacher.

z_p92-howSix stories in Wednesday’s Wife and Other Stories deal with situations in rural Nigeria and Germany. In the Nigerian stories, life and culture in the rural outback are recorded through the eyes of a Sri Lankan teacher to whom the experience is a mixture of fascination, alienation and novelty. For an interventionist from a culture removed from the Nigerian dynamic, Lalitha’s perspective often comes across as relativist and non-judgmental: one which, in spite of a deep-rooted Buddhist convention, looks without any palpable sense of condescension on native practices such as polygamy. On the contrary, the narrator’s empathy and inclination to investigate the deeper and complex realities of such customs are powerfully brought out in stories such as “Wednesday’s Wife” (culturally, the term ‘Wednesday’s wife’ refers to the third wife of the family).

The stories in the collection often bring to fore a strong Buddhist cultural tradition which defines the background and value system from which Lalitha emerges as an individual. This aspect is crucially resonated in stories such as “The Spirit of Vesak”, “The Bell No Longer Rings”, “A Change of Heart” and even “The Postman’s Ring”. The latter is a story  (probably based on a childhood memory) where the narrator’s father who is a fiscal officer is distraught on the eve of a hanging. A man tempered by Buddhist teachings, he is against the grim prospect of capital punishment and is opposed to it being administered at Bogambora Prison. Even though his work requires him to be there at the occasion the event itself takes a toll on his person and spirit. On this particular evening, the father is distracted as the prisoner to be hung had earlier appealed against his sentence and was believed to be in line for a reprieve; except that that restraining order had not yet been received in Kandy. The story captures the dilemma and trauma of a man who feels the futility and apathy of hanging, and of his relief when the order forbidding the execution comes through an urgent telegram at 4 a.m, amidst pouring rain.

IMG_20190302_232805Likewise, Lalitha’s stories focus on themes with deep and penetrating moral and spiritual implications, without being religious in a superficial way. Her preoccupations include themes of parental neglect by children who, for various reasons, have moved away from their homes, as seen in “Little Derrick Comes Home” and “Blessed Are the Meek”. Both “The Postman’s Ring” and “The Bell No Longer Rings” are attempts at recovering a lost time and place — both, even nostalgically playful with scenes, memories and cultural experiences which have faded into an irrevocable past. Both “The Spirit of Vesak” — set in an urban school during Vesak week — and “A Change of Heart” — which takes place in a Badulla home to which a celebrated monk known to the daughter-in-law makes a visit — are written in the third person, incorporating in each story a character named Lalini as its nucleus. It is assumable that Lalini — quite reminiscent of the name Lalitha — is a thinly veiled persona of the writer’s own agency. Both heroines look on material-minded, chaotic and vanity-ridden universes correct themselves based on core Buddhist values.

Lalitha Karalliadde Withanachchi is not a short story writer who has received a beckoning from the English academy in any way. In spite of one of her stories — “The Tip of the Iceberg” — being featured in an edition put together to commemorate 50 years of Sri Lankan writing in 1998, her story-telling has had scant mention in courses dedicated to the subject. She has not been featured in any prominent syllabuses or reading lists. Her name had not been featured among writers with whom high-brow debates on “representation”, “authenticity” and “cultural resonance” had been developed. In spite of that, Lalitha’s writing has a strong echo of culture as a performative act. She unassumingly brings to light the play of culture in mundane and perfectly day-to-day situations without descending to the incredible and ludicrous. However, in terms of craft, her stories are at times uneven and inconsistent. Yet, her better stories such as “The Postman’s Ring”, “The Bell No Longer Rings”, “A Change of Heart” and “Blessed are the Meek” are powerful renditions of Sri Lankan life rich with cultural context. As a writer, Lalitha rarely overworks the cultural aspect; and even so seldom at the expense of the smooth flow of the story. In this regard, Lalitha leads by an example from which even some of Sri Lanka’s internationally bestselling writers can humbly learn.

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