By Charles Sarvan –
Romesh Gunesekera has several books to his credit including ‘Reef’ which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and has been translated into several languages, including Chinese. Not many other Sri Lankan, English-language, literary texts have received such reader and critical attention.
‘Noon Tide Toll’ (hereafter NTT) consists of short stories, vignettes, divided into North and South. The narrator, Vasantha, retired from a state corporation at the age of fifty-five; bought a van and now drives passengers, visitors or residents, all over the Island. Making Vasantha a van-driver enables the author to bring in different individuals set in different situations and locations. Being “merely” a driver, paid to be of service, no notice is taken of him but Vasantha is a quiet, alert and perceptive student of individuals and situations, even as he is sensitive and responsive to landscape and nature. Seeing while politely pretending not to look; discretely observing in the rear-view mirror, he is the lens through which we glimpse and understand the characters, their relationship, values and aims. With and through him we surmise their past, evaluate their present, and wonder about their future.
An islanded persona, Vasantha is literally with his passengers but not of them: see in this context, Frank O’Connor, ‘The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story’. With a degree of urgency, he says he must write before “I forget what has happened, what I saw, what I thought, what I believed on all those journeys north and south. The hopes, the aspirations, the secret guilt embedded in our shaken lives” (last page of NTT): cf. Sivanandan’s ‘When Memory Dies’. Vasantha’s father was a self-taught revolutionary who had worked as a barefooted caddie at the expensive, and therefore exclusive, Golf Club. Vasantha too, though lacking in formal education, is an autodidact with a knowledge that his passengers, “superior” in income and class, don’t suspect, much less possess. (Gunesekera employs a similar devise in ‘Reef’ where the narrator is a village boy employed to be a servant to a man from a high, feudal, family. The servant proves to be more resourceful than the master: see, “‘Reef’: a Chekhovian awareness and mood” in Sarvan, ‘Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches’.)
Post-conflict Sri Lanka is a brave new world of infinite possibilities, and there are many large-scale projects and much refurbishment. But the phrase “brave new world” with its echoes of ‘The Tempest’ (Act V, Sc. 1) and Huxley’s dystopian novel of that title, sounds a note of scepticism and caution. Sri Lankans are proud to live in a republic but want to be kings (p. 81), even as the Chinese (“If you are going to live in this country, I think it would be a good idea to learn Chinese” observes Vasantha ironically) are Communists who want to be super capitalists. Vasantha reflects with sad irony that the culture “we revel in now is the culture of impunity” (p. 229). He changes the colour of his van from white to blue because “white vans” create anxiety – and not only in Tamils.
Gunesekera is no satirist like Swift whose ‘A Modest Proposal’ is perhaps the most “savage” satire in the English language. He is an ironist and, rather like his creation Vasantha, is self-effacing and quiet. Some may lightly go through NTT, but that would be a mistake and a loss. The work is perceptive and sensitive; deeply caring and, therefore, with an undercurrent of sadness. Vasantha is too frightened to tell an army major a truth and adds, “It is a problem a lot of us seem to have these days” (p. 47). “You don’t have to be Tamil to feel anxious” (p. 56). A camp by definition is temporary accommodation but the army camp in the North visited by Father Perera and his friend from England seems very solid and permanent. To build a statue in the North of a Sinhalese king who defeated a Tamil prince in the second century BCE is, indeed, a strange “reconciliation route” (p. 28). Sometimes, Gunesekera’s irony tends toward sarcasm, as when the thousands of terrified women, children and men who, at the end of the war, streamed over the lagoon are described as representing a “victory march” (p. 39) but this is rare. In another unexpected astringency (a phrase applied to Jane Austen) Gunesekera employs an arresting paradox when he refers to a mob attacking the shop owned by a Muslim while shouting “vile pieties” (p. 19). How can one be extremely impious in the name of piety?
Gunesekera does not try through Vasantha to ‘explain’ all the individuals who make an appearance. After all, full understanding of a human being is an impossibility, and so some are left unknown, un-understood, shrouded in mystery, such as Miss Saraswati who runs the Spice Garden Inn at Kilinochchi, once the headquarters of the Liberation Tigers: “Miss Saraswati intrigued me. She seemed to come from […] somewhere dark and hungry and deep. Somewhere beyond the blackness at the end of the garden, where even the moonlight shrank back” (pp. 101-2). For some, the past is too much, and the much-heralded future too late (p. 118).
Gunesekera creates effective simile. For example, Vasantha may drive far but, both literally and figuratively, he is restricted: “I reach the edge and have to turn back like an ant on a floating leaf”. Long sloping green roofs are spread “like wings pinned in flight”. He smiled “one of those large lopsided smiles, like a split coconut”. “His belly hung low and heavy and was streaked with long hair. He looked like a bear in wet pyjamas.” “In the dark, the sea seemed a troubled creature coiling and swirling and slapping its washing on the sand.” Creative unexpectedness has young men circle two women not physically but “with newfound jargon”. A striking image is of the sound of heavy and deliberate footsteps coming down the stairs: “It was a mind that was coming down the stairs”.
The title of the anthology is capable of different readings. Noontide is usually spelt as one word but here it is broken up into Noon and Tide. If morning is the beginning and night the end, then noon is the high point, be it in the life of an individual, an organisation or a country. But if the tide comes in at noon, isn’t it unusual, more danger than promise? A character in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ advises that there is a tide in the affairs of men. If seized and properly used, good fortune results; if neglected or mishandled, there is a price to pay – as the alliterative “Toll” suggests. So too with a country and the opportunity that History, sometimes, presents it with. If opportunity is omitted or mishandled (to alter and continue Shakespeare’s words) it will be “bound in shallows and in miseries”.
I don’t know whether the Literature section of Departments of English of Sri Lankan universities offer courses, optional or obligatory, on Sri Lankan writing. Such courses will encourage creative writing. To study one’s own literature-in-English in the context of English literature by others will be mutually enhancing. During my years at Peradeniya there was no such course, but then, that was more than half a century ago. Now there is no dearth of worthwhile material: at random, Jean Arasanayagam (poetry) Macintye (drama), Elmo Jayawardene (‘Sam’s Story’) come to mind. To such a corpus, Romesh Gunesekera’s work will surely be a rich and rewarding addition.