Sri Lanka: seismic shifts

There was an obvious choice for Sri Lanka. Having won the prestigious DSC Prize for South Asian Literature this January, Shehan Karunatilaka’s cricket novel Chinaman seemed a shoo-in. I’d even bought a copy and added it to the pile of books waiting for me in the corner of my living room before I began to have doubts. After all, shouldn’t I try and get something a little more off the beaten track? Something written in one of Sri Lanka’s official languages rather than the English of the nation’s colonial past?

I went back to the drawing board and fired off an email to DK Agencies, an Indian bookseller that specialises in literature from South Asian countries. It wasn’t long before I was looking at an impressive list of Sri Lankan titles in translation from Tamil and Sinhala. Choosing felt a bit like trying to order a dish from a menu in a language you don’t understand — particularly as, unlike titles released by Western publishers, the books on the list had very little information about them available on the web. Crossing my fingers, I plumped for Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Best Sinhala Novel State Literary Award-winning novel Metta.

Three weeks later, the book arrived, wrapped in a makeshift envelope constructed of two A4 sheets of paper. Regular AYORTW visitor @alualuna informs me that this is quite normal, but for me it simply seemed to add to the intrigue of the whole thing – especially as the package had partially ripped open in transit. This novel really did seem to have taken a tortuous route to get to me.

The book tells the story of Varnasi, her mother Manoramya and Sasha, the man who has set them against each other, as an earthquake hits Sri Lanka during a ceasefire in the recent civil war. While normal life crumbles around them, Sasha and the two women are forced to assess the barriers they have put up against each other, unearthing truths and secrets that have kept them apart and seeking a resolution that, for Varnasi at least, draws on the Buddhist concept of Metta – which, as translator Carmen Wickramagamage explains in her Afterword, is commonly inadequately explained as ‘loving compassion’.

The prejudice that separates people is a key theme in the novel. One of its most compelling parts – the opening section which portrays Sasha’s uneasy position as a consultant-cum-liaison officer for international NGOs – reveals the suspicions that divide the community. Viewed as a ‘peacewallah vulture’ by the warring local factions, Sasha is held at arm’s length by the Western workers and is perpetually wary of getting caught up in some cultural misunderstanding that might lead him to be dismissed, had up for sexual harassment, or worse.

Similarly, the foreigners themselves seem trapped in their own bubble, numbed by flitting from one conflict to the next. ‘They don’t feel the pain of our injuries because they have already seen too much pain in the places they have been’, muses Sasha before urging one of the young woman not to remain in her job too long because she’ll ‘never be able to return to a normal life’.

This insight into human fears and insecurities, gives Rajakarunanayake the tools to unfold the subtle shifts in emotion between Varnasi and her mother as they cower beneath a table through the night. It also enables her to reveal some powerful insights into what it is like living through a natural disaster when all the rules about property and propriety are shivered into dust (the references to the prevalence of rapes and sexual assaults in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, for example, were particularly disturbing).

The earthquake does more than rearrange the three main characters’ lives: it disrupts the narrative structure too. No doubt a lot of this is intentional. Rajakarunanayake makes much of the metaphorical potential of the earthquake – it even changes the shape of the island – so it’s hardly surprising that the text itself undergoes an abrupt transformation.

That said, the book needs some closer editing. Several ideas are restated too often, particularly as the narrative shifts between the three characters. Some of the practical details of the resolution Rajakarunanayake reaches for are also a little questionable and would probably not stand up to medical scrutiny.

I was also tripped up by the strange Postscript, in which Varnasi claims half the story never happened. I’d be interested to know from Sri Lankan literature buffs whether this and the ‘In a Nutshell’ summary at the start of the book are part of a wider tradition in Sinhala literature or innovations of Rajakarunanayake’s own making.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated by what Rajakarunanayake has achieved here. While creating something very specific and personal, and unlike anything I’ve read before, she expresses broad truths. These reach beyond the Sri Lankan coastline to show people to themselves the world over. The printed copy might have struggled to reach me, but its writer had no trouble at all.

Metta by Sunethra Rajakarunanayake, translated from the Sinhala by Carmen Wickramagamage (The Three Wheeler Press, 2011)