By Somasiri Munasinghe –
The main female character of Niru in Chandrarathna Bandara’s latest novel Premanishansa is every man’s dream woman.
She is a headstrong millennial, half Tamil, half British with a famous family name, passionate about Sri Lanka’s buried past, admirable, and towering over those around her without significant character flaws if chain-smoking and guzzling whiskey cannot be counted as vices.
She is a handful for the protagonist Sayuru who is overwhelmed by her beauty and strong personality, but the glue that binds them is their love of archeology that forms the foundation of their romance.
Sayuru’s duty to his family is to cover the footprints of his family’s doubtful heritage as arrack tenderers by fronting as the Basnayake Nilame of a temple built by his father to project a clean image.
The couple’s inspiration for archaeology comes from a handful of well-known scholars in the country whose services to the field are legendary, with Prof. Senake Bandaranayake, Bandara’s real-life guru, leading the pack.
The difference between fact and fiction is razor-thin in this work of fiction, reminding me of Michael Ondaatje’s novels. Many incidents in the early part of Premanishansa remind me of Anil’s Ghost, which also has characters resembling Prof. Bandaranayake and the pioneering archeologist of Sri Lanka, Dr. Senarath Paranavithana.
The unkindest cut of all is when a decision is taken to change the name of the road dedicated to Ananda Coomaraswamy to Nelum Pokuna Mawatha by rulers who are bent on rewriting history to perpetuate their personal and family glory.
“It is the pure fortune of Niru’s grandfather Ananda Coomaraswamy that he did not live to see the new Colombo,” says the protagonist Sayuru, architect-turned archeologist at one point. “When a prominent politician of our time decided to change the name of the street dedicated to the memory of the world-renown scholar, some artists and politicians gathered around him raising him to the level of a demigod,” Sayuru remarks, comparing the incident to a national tragedy.
“They are going to change the name of Coomaraswamy Mawatha,” Niru tells Kevin, a friend, expressing her own opinion about the great injustice to her grandfather.
“Aiyo bloody politics ané,” responds Kevin, who is gay.
“No, Kevin, it is people’s choice,” says Niru, coming to terms with the country’s present-day chaotic racial politics.
The couple hangs around chic Barefoot Gallery and Lionel Wendt among a limited circle of friends. Both join expeditions exploring the island’s buried culture, and Niru is particularly passionate about retracing the footsteps of her famous grandfather by visiting places and people with whom he associated in Sri Lanka and India.
She finds Sayuru a perfect soul mate. They join archeological digs in many places, including spending a night at the Mahapothana cave in the thick jungle feeding dinner to wild elephants, interspersed with intimate moments. Their first full-blown passionate encounter happens at Coomaraswamy ancestral home in Jaffna. Half of the mansion is now occupied by a hospital. Niru also pays a visit to the Jaffna library, which was burnt down in 1981 along with Coomaraswamy’s valuable books including many of his landmark research papers and documents.
The author draws parallels between Niru and the sexually abused heroine Rita in Gunadasa Amarasekara’s Gandabba Apadanaya, a 60s Sinhala classic. Rita is also a Tamil carrying on with a Sinhalese, but she lacks Niru’s resolve and independent spirit.
Unlike heartless Gunapala in Amarasekara’s novel, Sayuru is overwhelmed by Niru’s beauty, intellectual brilliance and probably her famous second name. The author finds some similarities between Rathmalie, the heroine of Vasantha Obeysekera’s Dadayama, and Niru, but the film heroine lacks the latter’s self-confidence backed by her privileged background.
Niru has a showdown with Sayuru’s father, who insults her by calling her a demalichchi, an extremely derogatory term for a Tamil woman. She disappears soon after, and more than 150 pages of the 420-page novel are dedicated to Sayuru’s odyssey to trace Nilu, who surfaces in India. The trip also becomes an accidental pilgrimage for the budding archeologist.
This is perhaps the most arduous pilgrimage in the world, straddling three countries in an area described as the strategic and geopolitical playground of two Asian superpowers.
The author uses Sayuru’s trip to discuss political, social and religious issues confronting an area that is the birthplace of two main religions at the foothills of the Himalayas, reflecting on his relationship with Niru without a clear idea of where he is heading.
This part of the novel has acquired a travelogue quality with spectacular details of the journey and the inherent dangers underlying the region’s natural beauty. A devastating flood poses many obstacles turning roads into impassable muddy tracks but Sayuru carries on with the risky venture anxious about the safety of his lover, who is stranded in Nepal with her mother.
Told in elegant prose with a keen sense of observation, I think Premanishansa is Bandara’s best work of fiction so far, standing as a testimony to how he has blossomed into a fully-fledged writer over the years. If you wonder what Sinhala work of fiction will dominate this year’s book awards in Sri Lanka, you don’t have to look too far.