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These two debut books by talented writers from Sri Lanka and Nepal made me think of these nations within the sub-continent which have attempted fiercely to step out of the shadow of India. Both books refer to the bloody politics of the sub-continent. Both chide their people for their prejudices and orthodoxies. In both books, there are references to being mistaken in the West for Indians. Both have been short-listed for major literary awards. Both are available in bookstores now.
But they are very different books.
Told from multiple first person perspectives, Munaweera’s intense first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Literature and traces the trajectory of the civil war that culminates in the murderous bloodletting between the Sinhala and Tamil population. The story of Yashodhara Rajasinghe’s clan pours out in beautiful prose that evokes the halcyon preoccupations of this idyllic island in more peaceful times. Yet the seed of future communal conflicts are already present, fueling mutual suspicion and hostility. Interwoven within stories of love and heartbreak, gain and loss, the book documents how the Other community can be dehumanized and brutalized. How religion ceases to be a code of ethical conduct, and instead becomes a marker of identity, which must be protected.
The Sinhala children in the book hear voices of resentment and fear in statements around them.
From Seeni Banda, fisherman:
“Tamil buggers, always crying that they are a minority, so small and helpless, but look! Just over our heads, hovering like a huge foot waiting to trample us, south India, full of Tamils. For the Sinhala, there is only this small island.”
From a voice in a violent mob: “They take our land, our jobs. If we let them, they will take the whole country.”
From Uncle Ananda:
“The government can’t fight these bastards without our help … You and your bloody principles. You sit on your arse in America and have principles.”
The book looks at ethnic violence from many vantage points. We hear the author’s voice in Yashodhara’s:
“There are no martyrs here. It is a war between equally corrupt forces. I see their eyes glaze over. I realize they do not desire a complicated answer. They wanted clear distinctions between the cowboys and the Indians, the corrupt administration and the valiant freedom fighters, the democratic government and the raging terrorists. They want moral certainty, a thing I cannot give them.”
There is the perspective of onlookers, victims, and perpetrators. There is Sylvia Sunethra, the stern Sinhala matriarch, sternly lecturing the murderous mob that has arrived at her door. She is protecting the Tamil tenants upstairs from this mob, her private long-running feud over loud music and stolen mangoes fading in the face of such malevolence. But the mob will exact a much higher price for her descendants. On the other side, we meet Saraswathi, living in the War Zone, for whom the political war has become too personal, has taken everything that she and her family have to give and more. There is the smell of death everywhere, and only the jasmine flowers provide respite with their fragrance. Munaweera writes that belonging and nationalism are replaced in Tamil minds by thoughts of “retribution, partition, secession.”
There are some light-hearted moments in the book, but the relentless gore in the second half, while central to the story, left me weighed down by the bleak storyline. And yet these scenes of communal violence are not so different from scenes that continue to erupt with frightening regularity in so many parts of the world. Particularly pernicious is the hint of state-sanctioned violence towards minorities. The violence that Munaweera describes seems depressingly familiar.
“In their earth-encrusted, calloused fingers, they clutched clean white pages, nearly corner-stapled. Census accounts, voting registration, pages detailing who lived where and most important, who was Tamil, Burgher, Muslim or Sinhala. And in these lists are revealed precision and orchestration in the midst of smoky, charred flesh-smelling chaos.”
The narrative confirms that there are no heroes in the war. That there are no winners in the war. Only those who come to collect what remains of the dead. We hear the keening sound made by Yashodhara: “A sound to make the war makers quake and flee like the ancient demons, taking with them their weapons, their land mines, their silver-tongued rhetoric, their nationalism, their martyrs, and sacred Buddhist doctrines, the whole pile of stinking bullshit.”
In The Gurkha’s Daughter, Parajuly, with his keen eye for social satire, comes across as the witty cousin who can do wicked-funny caricatures of the conservative, unpopular relatives. His stories cover a wide swathe of Nepali diaspora and include, but are not limited to emigres, displaced Nepali refugees, retired soldiers, widows, Maoists, prostitutes, unemployed youth, Christian missionaries, empty nesters whose kids are in the United States, whites going native, servants and dutiful daughters. Parajuly’s tone is much lighter, though there is a thread running through the stories of promises that have been broken. “The Gurkha’s daughter,” for instance, tells not of the much glorified military careers of loyal British warriors, but of the economic travails of families left behind.
In “A Father’s Journey,” a dutiful daughter is made aware of the limits of filial duty as the same-caste brahmin husband her father has chosen for her turns out to be an unworthy buffoon. We learn that the daughter has absorbed her parents’ upper caste preferences to her own detriment.
Parajuly is not afraid to overlay his stories with political developments. In “No Land is Her Land,” reference is made to the separatist movement for Gurkhaland and the expulsion of ethnic Nepalis from Burma. Police brutality is hinted at, but nowhere near the graphic detail of Munaweera’s narrative.
But whether Parajuly is referring to the lowly servant girl who seems to be the only one free of prejudice (“The Cleft”) or chronicling the plight of a shopkeeper when the tall thief is the daughter of a benevolent landlord (“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”), the prose sparkles. “The Immigrants” is the tale of a recent arrival to America navigating an alien landscape while craving the taste of home. “When I told people I was of Nepalese origin, they instinctively asked me if I had ever climbed Everest,” says the main character, who, like the author, is half Nepalese and half Indian.
Nepali words pepper the utterances of Parajuly’s characters. And though an English translation glossary exists at the end of the book, he is unabashed about the liberal smattering of words that only a Nepali would understand. Possibly this is payback for all the questions about Mt. Everest and Darjeeling tea that Prajwal Parajuly has encountered.
Perhaps he decided, as his character in “The Immigrants,” to just “let people continue living in their uninformed bubbles.”