By Wilfred Jayasuriya –
Homing stories may be a genre; if so, the genre would include stories like Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje and Return to Fontamara by Ignazio Silone. Silone’s story is about a man who has been convicted of murder, in Italy in the mid-nineteenth century, but who returns after reprieve to his village in Southern Italy. He had not commited the murder, but he refrained from proving his innocence before the court, as that would have resulted in his fianceé being brought to dishonor instead. That was an example of sacrificial love. But his release from prison is not greeted by fanfare, as was Nelson Mandela’s. There is no one left who knows him.
In Ondaatje’s fictionalized memoir, a multiplicity of intertwining stories create an impression of a land once lost and found again. He left Ceylon as a child and after twenty-five years in Canada, returns to his childhood places and times and recreates them with magic realism. The unreality of the past as seen from the sober present is the source of the “mythisizing” narrative, which is both real and unreal, making it one of the great stories of modern fiction.
The book that concerns me at present, Home to Lanka, is an account of a similar return of a Jaffna man, who had lived in this country, Ceylon, when it was a “native land” for the multiple races that lived comfortably in it, for most of the one and a half centuries of British rule and its “wonderful peace,” which was the seed bed on which grew, for the first time, a Ceylonese middle class. He had been at Peradeniya University in the luscious post-independence decade of the fifties, and then gone to USA to study, and work thereafter. He is an academic, who marries another academic, meeting each other when they were postgraduate students. The story is an interwoven account of the past and the present, both abroad and in Lanka. In such a situation how or where does one begin and where end?
The author decides to begin at the point when he returns to Lanka after a lapse of many years, apparently in the hope of finding himself anew. There follow a series of episodes, representative of hope, which however is never finally fulfilled, though “hope springs eternal you know where” as a Bank of Ceylon wag told a young, rather flat chested woman.
The five “movements” that compose the story are titled Colombo, New York, Peradeniya, London and Jaffna. These are places the hero Kumaran visits on his search for unity. The opening sentence, “Airports are maddening thresholds, compounded as they are of fear and anxiety, the severance of ties, however brief or long, and the tensions of the interregnum between the past and the future, a perfect rendition of the luminal structures of a life,” introduces the reader to the characteristic analytical mindset of the narrator. Feelings are placed in the context of a vision or visions. The sentence assumes a reader who is able to feel the immediacy as well as the generalizing nature of the experience. “It was no longer possible, in fact, to return to Lanka, with any prospect of work.”
The question of work is brought up as Kumaran talks with his neighbor in the plane.
“Kumaran turned to his companion and asked, ‘What do you teach?’
‘English, English as a second language.’ The man paused for a moment. ‘I am from New York. I was brought up in Brooklyn. When were you last in Sri Lanka?’”
The implicit question of a man, born and bred in New York and therefore having English as his mother tongue or first language, going all the way to Colombo to teach it as a “second language” is opened but not explicitly noted.
“The stewardess whose plump and bounteous body was elegantly contained in a tightly wrapped saree came down the aisle and checked the seat belts.” This sentence is characteristic of the professional skill of the author, interspersing significant action within the many dialogues that take place in the story. It is clearly an Air Lanka plane.
“‘I hope we leave on time,’ his neighbor said, ‘I am told they are always late.’”
Thus with apparently casual and random remarks the author introduces the mindset of the hero as he “returns home.” The “bounteous body” of the air hostess when compared with the spare, athletic bodies of the uniformed women who have that designation elsewhere, suggests the longed for bounty that the native land promises but does not provide. Thus is set the mood of expectation and irony which characterizes the novel.
His two sisters and their families await him at the airport. “His sisters had grown fatter, but they did not look any older, merely a little riper than before.” A nice touch, like “bounteous.” His nephew and niece are both dressed in blue jeans.
“’Blue jeans. How come everyone is dressed in blue jeans.’
’That is the fashion here,’ his niece said. She was named Revati, but at her insistence, everyone called her Ray. She had become an attractive and bubbly young woman, free and easy in her manner and movements.”
So the hero who went abroad in search of fresh fields and pastures new (as the saying goes) is now surprised at how fresh and new the abandoned land and the people have become. It is the hero who has lost and what the story narrates with such light and poignant skill is the “heritage of loss” that the absent years have brought. The narrative strategy is to marshal all the losses and present them in passing, as casual references, in the first section titled “Colombo,” and then go back in time, in the later sections, and describe how the losses came about. We are left, in the end, with the stoic and philosophical hero, for whom the passage of time has not dimmed the validity of the past.
Section two, titled “New York” begins with: “Kumaran’s recollections of his trip to India and Cherry were not too pleasant. His wife, Manju, had moved into an ashram in Cherry. She had severed all connections with him and their son, Rudy, except for a couple of letters.” The story of his marriage to Manju, a Punjabi Brahmin fellow student in an American university, traces a typical path. Initially it is full of happiness at breaking the cultural barriers between India and Lanka. Though both were Hindus, the gradual distancing from each other in the non-traditional atmosphere of American life takes the form of a fellow student, Susan, a young American woman, who actually moves into their apartment as a common friend. By enacting this drama the author symbolizes the intervention of modern cultural values into traditional feelings and attitudes. It is a beautifully managed symbolic event. It leads to the breakdown of the marriage as well as the separation of the three persons from each other.
I am reminded of a very brief short story titled “Dead Men’s Paths” where Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian Nobel prize winning novelist, writing in English, combines the symbolic and the real by telling about how a fence built across a path leads to the cultural confrontation between modern and ancient, resulting in the elimination of the modern, as symbolized by the destruction of the fence. In Home to Lanka the marriage is broken by the departure of Manju, the Indian wife, to an ashram in India and by the departure of Susan, the third party, from the apartment, leaving the hero isolated. Rudran, known as “Rudy,” the child of the marriage of Kumaran and Manju, has married an American and has abandoned ties with his parents’ culture. Kumaran is left alone.
“They had both lost him. Foreigners to the language of the country—at least to the language of the streets, shops, schoolyards, dance halls, and music centers, even to the religions and attitudes of the times—they had become foreigners to their son too. He had been reluctant to bring his friends, and later his girlfriends , home. His home seemed strange and outlandish to him…even before he went away to college in California, both Kumaran and Manju knew they had lost their Lankan-Panjabi son to America.“
This poignant tale which is told with great reserve and diplomacy, and local colour and detail, considering the sensitivity of the topic, thus paints the current situation in Kumaran’s life and explains his decision to revisit the past, homing to Lanka.
The third section recalls Kumaran’s university years at Peradeniya, which has iconic status as a dream achieved. The best of all the 150 years of transforming British rule was symbolized by the outreach of the formerly colonized Ceylonese to parity with the civilization that the world had achieved. The freedom of the young from adult controls and ways, the freedom of the young to build their own world was symbolized by the Peradeniya University. One may call it the Ceylonese dream.
Kumaran returns to Peradeniya University to redeem the dream. His most vivid memory is that of his affair with a Sinhalese fellow student, Sujatha. It is not the ethnic divide alone that prevents a successful fulfillment of the love between her and Kumaran, however. It is Kumaran’s caution, his detachment from strong and fruitful emotion, his desire to allow reason to play the dominant role that makes Sujatha run away. It reminds me of one aspect of The Great Gatsby, where the woman tells the man, “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys, Jay [Gatsby]. Rich girls don’t marry poor boys.” And that of course is why Gatsby embarks on the Gatsbian American dream of changing the past. Kumaran only thinks of the past. He does not want to relive it. He only regards it as inevitable. The book does not contain a tragedy. The hero is a realist. How come it wasn’t different? Peradeniya students will remember this familiar scene.
“As he walked towards her the train started pulling out, and Sujatha looked at him wistfully. He waved frantically as he ran beside her window. The train gathered speed and Sujatha called out, ‘Come and see me in Colombo.’
In the end, he didn’t go and see her in Colombo.”
The trajectory of the story proceeds from Peradeniya, where the young Kumaran was a student, to the “real world” of London, with the full approval of his family. That was the way that colonial Ceylonese were allowed to step into the real world of experience and opportunity, according to the British colonial ethos. It is, however, a post colonial experience. After the London experience he is not able to marry and settle down in Ceylon, though his family hoped he would. His emotions do not fit into the world he had left behind. “He was starting to feel trapped. He told his mother that he could not marry anyone at this time because he was going to America. Now he knew he had to leave soon.”
The novel ends as Kumaran returns to Jaffna, his birthplace. “He would go and finish his duties—his duties to his father’s soul, his duty to reconnect it to himself, to the family.” But he finds barriers – political, historical and deeply personal—that make it almost impossible for him to reconnect, to truly come home to Lanka.
*Wilfred Jayasuriya -Professor at ANC Education ,Colombo