Mr. Jayaweera’s Missing Articles in Shyam Selvadurai’s “Cinnamon Gardens”.

My oldest sister, Dayawathy was calm and gentle girl, fervent Buddhist, always offering flowers at the temple near our village. One day, she went to make offering. When she did not return, my mother went to look for her. She found my sister on the path. She had fainted. When she revived, she had become a different person. For no reason at all, she would scream and run from our hut, trying to tear off her clothes. Sometimes she would disappear in the evenings only to return in the morning exhausted. Of course, people in village said that there was only one thing wrong with her. She was possessed by a devil, and from the state of her condition it had to be most feared demon, Maha Sohona (sic). So my mother decided that a sanni yakuma (sic) would be held to exorcise the devil. (p. 126).

The above is a monologue stenciled out of an anecdote a 35-year old man from Galle shares with two Colombo-resident young women. The speaker, Mr. Jayaweera, has been educated at a school referred to as Galle Mission School — a second language English speaker, having learnt it at school — who, then, had for a time been employed as a clerk in an estate. Jayaweera comes from a challenged economic background and following a workers’ strike he instigates he loses his clerk post. When we first meet Jayaweera, he is newly arrived in the Colombo Mission School as an office clerk. All this is found in Shyam Selvadurai’s memorable novel, Cinnamon Gardens (1999) which is set in and about that eponymous suburb of Colombo in the late 1920s.

For the benefit of the the reader, Mr. Jayaweera is further characterized as follows: “Although [Jayaweera’s] English was, for the most part correct, he spoke with the accent of a Sinhalese person for whom English was not their first language, mispronouncing his ‘w’ as ‘v’, elongating short vowels, substituting ‘p’ for ‘f’. And from time to time, he dropped his ‘the’s’ and ‘a’s” (97-98). These highlights are set out to distinguish Mr. Jayaweera as a first language Sinhala speaker, as well as to set him apart from the majority of the book’s characters who are from top Colombo families, and are well rehearsed in the English language and the culture it implies.

imageSelvadurai’s characterization of Mr. Jayaweera employs familiar pattern used by a host of writers who have had to sketch second language, under-proficient English speakers from rustic backgrounds. A convenient example is found in V.S Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur (1957), where — unlike in Selvadurai’s case — the linguistic and social impoverished are also subjected to caricature. The variables such writers often use to accomplish the outlined task show common features: pronunciation, grammar patterns, lexical oddities, abnormal idiomatic imports and colloquialisms are among the blocks with which these impoverishment are honed. Put together, these characters are meant to bring out a ‘rustic’, ‘non-refined’, ‘half-cultured’ ambiance through which that character’s ‘outsider’ (to the social and class norm) status is established. As hinted, Jayaweera — with his peculiar pronunciation, missing articles and the like –, and in spite of other virtues and merits he may possess, does not qualify for high society.

But, is depriving a character of pronunciation and lexical competence the best way to locate her/him in a social and economic tier of a particular kind? Moreover, how realistic is Mr. Jayaweera’s portrayal with inconsistent articles and (infrequently) simplistic vocabulary? This, too, in a man who had received an English education in Galle’s Mission School and has had a strong professional exposure of many years: after all, we are told, Mr. Jayaweera is now in his thirties. Jayaweera’s language issue, therefore, is a ploy used by Selvadurai geared more at underlining his social standing than his education. But, in order to achieve that end — and since social status and language are often (thought not necessarily) closely intertwined —  it is necessary for him to make Jayaweera speak this ‘lesser English’. There are, of course, other writers — a convenient example, yet again, being R.K. Narayan, who achieves this effect with effect — who are yet capable of characterizing different economic tiers without marking them for language.

Road-Scene-Colpetty-Ceylon
Colpetty in pre-independence Ceylon 

As such,  Selvadurai comes across as being unnecessarily over-eager to make Mr. Jayaweera loose in his linguistic repertoire.Consider the following sentences, reproduced here with applicable corrections:

“My oldest sister, Dayawathy was calm and gentle girl, fervent Buddhist, always offering flowers at the temple near our village.”

“My oldest sister, Dayawathy was a calm and gentle girl, a fervent Buddhist, who always offered flowers at the temple near our village.”

(The corrections consist of two missing articles and a rewording of a phrase.)

“One day, she went to make offering. When she did not return, my mother went to look for her. She found my sister on the path. She had fainted.”

“One day, she went to make an/the usual offering. When she did not return, my mother went to look for her and She found my sister on the path. She had fainted.”

(Here, an article has been added, while a conjunction has been suggested.)

In the immediate example above, it is notable how in Selvadurai’s original the sentences are simple and are devoid of complex or compound constructions. This hint at linguistic/word deficiency is further shown through the following line: “When she revived, she had become a different person.” (my italics).

But, then, consider the following lines that immediately follow the (interesting) show of inadequacy alluded to earlier:Sometimes she would disappear in the evenings only to return in the morning exhausted. Of course, people in village said that there was only one thing wrong with her.” Here, consider the use of the word “only” — the way the word has been used in the two different sentences. In the first instance, the word has been used to conjunct the following two sentences:

1. Sometimes she would disappear in the evenings.
2. She would return in the morning exhausted.

Then, in the line that follows, the word has been used colloquially which, differently phrased, can be used as: “The people in the village concluded that her problem can be none other than –“. The dexterity Mr. Jayaweera shows in using this one word with tact, aptitude and flexibility confronts the earlier observation of his linguistic inferiority. This is one representative instance of a pattern that cane be mapped through the text. In any case, as the novel progresses, Jayaweera’s English, too, becomes less and less inferior. Either, his English improves for the better, or else — linguistic ‘otherness’ already established — Selvadurai makes less effort to maintain Jayaweera’s second rate speech in the later chapters of the book.

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Selvadurai

At this juncture, two cultural terms — both from the Sinhala folk discourse — have been used in explaining Dayawathy’s ailment and the remedy undertaken: “Maha Sohona” and “Sanni Yakuma”. Even if Jayaweera’s English is meant to be poor, it is against Selvadurai’s intention for him to be inarticulate in his own first language, Sinhala “Sanni Yakuma” (සන්නි යකුම) of course is one of the main shanthi karma methods popular in the southern lowlands, which is also often called the “Dhaha ata sanniya”. However, the voicing of “Maha Sona” (මහසෝනා) as  “Maha Sohona” (මහ සොහ‌ොනා) is palpably odd and alienating. The difference between “sohona” and “sona” — within the native culture — is akin to the difference between two utterances from two distinct languages. In other words, while Shyam Selvadurai may call the particular devil under probe Maha Sohona, Mr. Jayaweera never would.

If the name of the game is pronunciation, in vocalizing “Maha Sohona” Mr. Jayaweera — the social and economic other of the posh and refined socialite type — strikes back at Selvadurai who — in the final analysis — should have been more original (if not foolproof) in his construction of the counterpart of his class and social milieu.

 

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