By Ari Ariyaratne –
Imelda is a Sinhala novel written by Somasiri Munasinghe and published by Surasa Publishers of Colombo, Sri Lanka, this year (2021).
On the Novelist
Somasiri Munasinghe is a veteran journalist who has been writing in English for decades. His journalistic career began in 1981 from Lake House, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Subsequently, in 1989, he commenced working for The Gulf News English Daily, a newspaper widely circulated in the Middle East, in a career spanned ten years. At present, he is the Editor-in-Chief of www.newstrails.com, online news service of Sri Lanka and Canadian news originating from Toronto, Canada.
Somasiri is quite comfortable working both in English and Sinhala languages. Recently, he translated into English two Sinhala novels written by the contemporary Sri Lankan novelist Mohan Raj Madawala as Dear Victoria (2020) and Lovina (2020). Decades ago, I first met him when we both were freshmen college students at the University of Kelaniya. Driven by the sheer necessity, I was just barely commencing my English language learning at the time. Somasiri, on the other hand, displayed his mastery of English to such an extent that he could write articles regularly for Sunday Observer, an English newspaper published in Sri Lanka for the weekend readers.
Somasiri is a scholarly individual who obtained a master’s degree from the University of Colombo, in addition to the bachelor’s degree received from the University of Kelaniya. Equally important, he is a connoisseur. As I still recall vividly, even in our first meeting at the college cafeteria, he was talking about a popular Sri Lankan song at the time known as “Master Sir,” sung by Nevil Fernando. Additionally, on that day, his brash criticism was levelled against Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. Such characteristics have not worn out in Somasiri’s personality even today. For instance, when he called me one morning a several days ago, I told him that I was watching now the reputed German film director Werner Herzog’s movie titled Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). I wanted to watch that film as I was making a reference to Inca civilization in a new book project I am engaged in currently. To much of my surprise, Soma not only expressed that he has watched the movie, but also indicated his familiarity of the film’s villainous main role Aguirre, played by the actor Klaus Kinski!
By profession, I am a college professor of anthropology. I do not think that I possess any credentials that make me fit for critiquing fictional writings or any other genre of artistic creativity. What follows is only a response of an ordinary reader of Somasiri Munasinghe’s novel.
Ironic or Tongue-In-Cheek Narration
Imelda is a novel presenting the reader a delicate combination of heartwarming and heartrending memories and passion. Its dramatis personae, such as Sugath, Carman, Imelda, and Jerami, come from diverse and intricate racial, linguistic, religious, political, economic, and cultural origins. They inhabit an expansive geographical landscape that transcends the physical boundaries of several nation-states, including Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines, and Canada.
The story is delivered mostly in tongue-in-cheek flavor. Even in the first sentence of the narrative, this factor is evident. Although Mudalihami sir teaches geography, which is about the world’s geographical, political, economic, and cultural heterogeneity, as well as homogeneity (borne out by heterogeneity), he is more interested in knowing something else: How does Sugath’s name contain parts stemming from two leading categories in the local caste hierarchy, goigama, and karava? He does ask his students the geographical question of the Orinoco river’s locality, but he does so while peeking at the buttock of Ms. Allepola, the English teacher!
Sugath’s name also generates irony! It derives from the Pali root word “sugato” denoting the meaning “auspicious,” “fortunate” or more literally “well gone.” Indeed, it is an epithet for Gautama Buddha. However, Sugath was given that name by his parents not only to celebrate his birth but also to celebrate his father’s plea on his mother’s love emulating the male hero bearing the same name in Karunasena Jayalth’s melodramatic novel golu hadavatha! Sugath’s father enjoyed success in winning mother’s heart, so they had eloped from the village in one moonless night secretly to begin a life together! However, according to Tagalog, the Austronesian language on which Filipino, the national language of the Philippines is based, sugath is the wound, says Imelda! As it turned out, Sugath’s life is neither auspicious nor lucky! When he became a prime suspect for manslaughter during the infamous 1983 communal riots in Sri Lanka, Sugath escaped to the United Arab Emirates with a fraudulent identity. However, he had to return to Sri Lanka eventually as a prisoner!
Imelda’s name also generates irony. It is a feminine Spanish/Italian-given name with the meaning of warrior woman or powerful fighter. However, Imelda’s parents have given that name to her for a totally different reason. It was to remember Imelda Marcos, the infamous wife of Ferdinand Marcos, an infamous ruler who once ruled the Philippines! Imelda, the female protagonist of the novel, tragically dies while holding on to the memories of Sugath, her incurable wound!
Home (griha) and Homemaker (grihani)
As it is essentially linked to the Sanskrit term griha, meaning abode or household, grihani (or a married woman who does not have a paid job, but instead looks after her home and children) is a term representing the traditional thinking of womanhood. Hence the feminist critique: in addition to its literal or primary meaning, grihani is a term that connotes or invokes the idea that a woman is intrinsically amateurish in handling matters outside of her traditional realm or space, which is, the griha. The existence of the patriarchal Sanskrit term grihapati justifies the above criticism further, as even within the griha, the master is none, but the man! The Imelda novelist also begins his narrative on women from the traditional space of women, which is the household, and the kitchen. His intent is quite the opposite of the male-oriented perspective, however. It is to demonstrate the woman’s ability that often excels that of the man and to show the way she does so with grace and elegance.
For instance, his mother’s success in selling vegetables is narrated by Sugath against the backdrop of his father’s ineptness and failure in the retail business. Unlike Sugath’s father, the mother approaches her potential customers in an innovative way. So, she asks about their health first, and then, just as the village physician customarily does, she “prescribes” certain vegetable items, such as bitter melon for diabetic conditions, snake gourds for urination difficulty, and amaranth greens or kura thampala for lactation insufficiency!
Likewise, it is through the vivid and careful description of Imelda’s mastery in culinary arts that the novelist indicates the growing feelings of love in Sugath’s heart towards Imelda. This, in my view, is a prime instance with which the writer shows his distinctiveness as a novelist. In Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s novel titled malagiya aeththo (“the dead people”), Devendora’s (the male protagonist) feelings of love towards Noriko (the female protagonist) is shown in a similar way. More to the point, in the feature film titled Chocolat (2000) elicited from Joanne Harris’s novel bearing the same name), the growing love of Roux (played by Johnny Depp) on Vianne Rocher (played by Juliet Binoche) is conveyed through image sequences showing how people enjoy the delicious chocolate offered to them by Vianne delicately.
Archetypal Motives and Genuine Human Relationships
Sugath vaguely remembers how his teacher of Sinhalese literature tried to teach poetic sentiments of eroticism when he was a high schooler. Oftentimes, this was done by the teacher while strictly delivering strokes on the palm with a single cane (which was a form of corporal punishment) for failing to recite the relevant erotic verses by memory. However, he can recall in photographic memory how his adolescent mind was filled with sensuous feelings when Indrani, a fellow schoolgirl, let him kiss her when they were walking by the tea bushes in the tea estate located in the vicinity of their village. As Indrani told him while granting that favor, Sugath was very similar to her heart-captured male hero in one of her favorite cartoon tales (chithra katha) at the time! He also vividly recalls, how his feelings of carnal pleasure rose exponentially when he happened to see Carman, the young widow of his own brother (who died in action at the northern theater of war with Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka), was nursing Dennis, their baby, with her exposed breasts. Likewise, Sugath has been amorous of Imelda, the Filipina wife of Jerami, a Filipino, on seeing her beauty as she walks about the kitchen and the living room of their home in Dubai.
Sugath is not voyeuristic in his interest in women by any means, however. Furthermore, his yearning for women’s company is not solely based on the intent of having sex with them. For instance, when he was at the Sri Lankan artist’s studio in Dubai, his appreciation of the beauty of Rohama, the nude Ethiopian model, was neither voyeuristic, nor sexually oriented. As a matter of fact, the celebration of sensuality is not seemed to be the intention of the novelist. His aim, rather, is to stress the point that, genuine human relationships occur only with archetypal motives, and not with secondary connections such as nationality, linguistic orientation, religion, the country of origin, kin links, caste, and the likes. Thus, Sugath begins to recognize love and its warmth through his physical attraction to Carman and Imelda. On that point, Carman’s ethnic origin as a Sri Lankan Burger woman, as well as her position within Sugath’s own natal family (as the widow of his deceased brother), are not crucially significant to Sugath. Similarly, Imelda’s ethnicity and nationality as a Filipina, her social role in Dubai as Jerami’s wife, and her being the mother of two children living in the Philippines are literally insignificant issues when it comes to Sugath’s love and attraction for her.
Katherine in The English Patient and Imelda in Imelda
The way Imelda falls in love with Sugath and how she clings religiously to the spirit of that love until the tragic end of her life is reminiscent of the character buildup of Katherine Clifton, the female protagonist seen in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient (1992).
In a revealing moment in Ondaatje’s novel, Katherine is asked the following two consecutive questions by Lazlo Almasy, her lover: “When were you most happy?” and “When were you least happy?” Katherine’s answer for both questions is melancholic but resounding “now.” What unveils her response is the nature of the dilemma that she has been grappling with. While Almasy is Katherine’s lover, Geoffrey Clifton remains her estranged yet legally recognized husband. For Katherine, parting from her lover is predicated in her union with him at their rendezvous.
Imelda’s circumstances and her love for Sugath are similar, to a certain extent. Although not recognized in the Philippines, which is their country of origin, Imelda is the wife of Jerami in the United Arab Emirates, the country of their residency. Moreover, Imelda is a woman who has given birth to two children, and they still live in the Philippines. Such circumstances of her past (and the present) notwithstanding, she is falling in love with Sugath and dreaming to start a new life with him by immigrating to Canada. In both novels (The English Patient and Imelda) however, the female protagonist dies tragically, leaving behind her mentally and physically devastated lover, the male protagonist.
Somasiri Munasinghe evinces to his readers that he is a storyteller whose raison d’etre is tongue-in-cheek narration, in addition to conveying happy and poignant memories passionately. This proven ability will certainly help him in his future endeavors as a novelist. That is why I consider Imelda as a novel very much worth reading.
Ari Ariyaratne received his Ph. D. in anthropology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. He is Distinguished Professor at Heartland Community College, Normal, Illinois, and College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Ariyaratne is the author of the textbook titled Key Concepts of Cultural Anthropology (2020). He can be reached at: Ari.Ariyaratne@heartland.edu or firstname.lastname@example.org