18 April, 2024

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Sriyani Hulugalle’s ‘Shadows Of Hantana’: A Romantic Experience For Readers

By W A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Heroine of a difference

Former World Bank senior economist and novelist, Sriyani Hulugalle, has published her latest novelette in Sinhala under the title ‘Shadows of Hantana’, a story she had penned when she was at the University of Peradeniya in the 1970s. This is her third published creative work, the previous two being ‘Beyond the Rainbow’ and ‘Cherry Blossoms’. Contrary to these two works, the present work which she had written when she was passing her teenage years is a romantic novel peeping into the depth of love, sacrifice, and betrayal.

Hulugalle has written this story at a time when Sri Lanka’s Sinhala romantic novels had been heavily influenced by the genre introduced by Karunasena Jayalath through his ‘Golu Hadawatha’ (The Silent Heart) in 1960s and a series of subsequent works written by him and many others on the same theme. In these stories, love blossoms in the heart of a teenager, usually a girl, with no life experience. She is not aware that she is being manipulated by evil forces of society, first giving her hope, and raising her to the sky and then, dropping her to the ground shattering all those hopes. Hence, the heroines or heroes in these novels are defeatists. Readers finish the books with anger and resentment in their heads. Hulugalle’s creative work is different from this popular genre.

True, there is love blossoming in the heart of an inexperienced young girl. But this girl differs from her counterparts in other novels and does not take the defeat as the inevitable fate. Instead, she makes an unusual sacrifice for those whom she loves and reaches her final goal of seeking academic excellence outside the country and away from those who had been known to her. In this sense, she is a heroine conquering the world which is hostile to her through understanding and persevering till she reaches her goal.

Economist becoming a novelist

An economist, for that matter, a country economist, has no time to savour in romantic experiences. Hulugalle had a very busy professional life when she was in the World Bank. She was to promote many development projects in Sri Lanka for the World Bank to finance. Starting from the concept paper on a project to negotiate with Sri Lanka authorities and final completion of same, she was burdened with the heavy work involved. Her work was extremely complicated by the anteriority which Sri Lanka had earned in successfully completing a project. The main issue had been the delay in implementation or the halfway through its implementation. Hence, she carried her projects on her shoulders as if a mother carrying a child. Given this handicap on her side, her publishing two creative works previously while she was at the World Bank was a credit beyond appreciation.

Now in retirement, picking some handwritten papers containing a story which she had penned more than five decades ago and rewriting it suitably to meet the aspirations of today’s readers is an exercise which will earn her extra credit. A dozen of poetic works which she has completed recently and added to the end of her novel as separate pieces of enjoyment give further credence to her creativity which an economist – a practitioner of the so called ‘dismal science’ –is not entitled to have.

Nishadi’s story

The story is woven around an upper middle-class girl, Nishadi. Hulugalle introduces Nishadi’s story to readers in a prologue in which one of her a campus admirers, Nuvan, visits her just before her departure to the UK for further studies leaving Peradeniya and its memories behind forever. Nuvan is puzzled by her sudden decision to leave the Campus when she could have completed her degree in flying colours there. Nishadi tells her story to Nuvan which she had not told anyone earlier. So, readers, together with Nuvan listen to her story. But she gives a piece of advice to Nuvan as well as readers displaying her maturity in life and superiority as a character in a novel.

Says Nishadi: “Nuvan, we aren’t fools to complicate our lives knowingly and there is no meaning in it. I’m going to tell you my story so that you’ll clearly understand it. I’m telling you a story which even my brother-in law, Sanjaya, doesn’t know. But after listening to my story, don’t sympathise me. I don’t expect anyone’s sympathy. Because of failed love affairs, people become killers, drunkards, or characters just floating on this realm without a purpose. But I’m not stupid enough to lead a life of a defeatist or end my precious life. After leaving the country tomorrow, I’ll start a new life which will be of service to someone else. I’m not leaving the country for good tomorrow. I’ve some pain in my heart. When that pain gets dissipated…and when I’ll be able to peep through my past without emotions, I’ll come back…Nuvan, I’m telling this story to you so that you’ll properly understand me” (translation mine). The readers are thus given a glimpse of the tough character – firmness in making choices and emotionlessness in approach to life shattering issues – that they are to meet later in the novel.

A teased youngster

Nishadi has been the younger daughter of a middle-class family. Relative to her elder sister Dinusha, she has a little darker complexion with a flat nose. Dinusha’s boyfriend, Sanjaya, teases her when he happens to meet her that she would have been picked by her parents from the hospital referring to her skin colour. There is no ill intention in these seemingly offensive pieces of teasing, but Nishadi is internally hurt though she does not demonstrate it openly. Unlike Dinusha who is a selfish extrovert, Dinusha is a selfless introvert. She confines herself to reading books to keep herself away from those making unkind remarks. But she sees people through the characters in those books. Hence, though she is young, she has a better understanding of the world. When Sanjaya leaves for the Peradeniya Campus, Nishadi misses him, but Dinusha quickly gets hitched to her cousin who is a medical doctor and has a higher social status than Sanjaya.

Nishadi enters the Peradeniya Campus and Sanjaya who at that time is in the final year looks after her as if she is his own sister. Nishadi’s friends tease her connecting Sanjaya to her because he is always behind her as her protector. Being afraid of the wildly spreading Campus gossips, Nishadi tries to evade him. But wherever she goes, Sanjaya is there following her like her shadow. While secretly enjoying his presence, she tries to keep a distance from him. But she fails. When she is at home during the long vacation, she is constantly on the lookout for his handsome figure to show itself at the gate without a warning. She runs into a deep melancholy when one day she sees Sanjaya visiting his former boarding house but leaving without coming to see her.

Love and sacrifice

Nishadi is suffering from within because, being an introvert, she cannot express her love to Sanjaya. She tries to express her innermost feelings to him by different gestures which a teenager would normally do. But Sanjaya like a zombie is oblivious to them. She then becomes the jealous lover looking for any other girl who may have entered or trying to enter his life. When there was such a girl, she gets upset. But later it turns out that the girl involved was the fiancé of a good friend of Sanjaya from his school days. He had been asked to help her while she is at the university. It is a comfort for Nishadi but her love is deeply hidden trying to come out in verbal form. Yet words do not come to her mouth when she meets him.

Around this time, another secret admirer of Nishadi, Nuvan, tells her that he has fallen in love with her. When asked whether she has a boyfriend, she answers in the negative. But she says she cannot accept his invitation because she is in love with someone and that someone is Sanjaya. She tells puzzled Nuvan that one can love another without being the girlfriend. Then, Sanjaya who had been oblivious to her gestures earlier turns toward her and expresses his love for her. As a teenager, she becomes a winner, but the fate does not allow her to savour in that feeling for long.

A disaster strikes the family when cousin Chamara marries secretly his lover of the university days and deserts her sister Dinusha leaving her completely devastated. Nishadi cannot bear it anymore. She sacrifices her love and acts as the go-between to reconnect Sanjaya to Dinusha. Her efforts bear fruits and when she sees the happy faces of Dinusha and Sanjaya, she is filled with an unexplainable inner happiness. She gets an invitation from the estranged cousin to come over to the UK and begin her studies anew there. She makes the quick decision to leave the degree program midway through and escape to the chosen comfort zone away from those who had been around her for all these years.

As she had told Nuvan earlier, her heart is being pricked by pain continuously and she needs time to heal. Though she has made this sacrifice to make her sister Dinusha and her lover Sanjaya happy, she is not free from pain. The more she is around them, the greater her pain. So, she leaves for a new environment in the hope that it will heal the injured heart. It will help her to get back to her earlier form.

Depth into romanticism

This is a pure romantic story which is not uncommon. There are many teenagers who make such sacrifices to make others happy while suffering immensely internally. Writers have presented their stories taking the readers through tears, anger, discomfort, and disappointment. By doing so, they make the story a personal experience of the readers. At the end, the readers come to their own judgments, whether to go by the hero or the heroine. It depends on a few factors.

One is how the character has been built by the writer. If he has opened the innermost feelings of the main character to the readers, it is likely that the reader will go by the line chosen by the main character. Another is whether the writer has portrayed the character in the readers’ own socio-economic environment. If the character portrayed belongs to the same social class or the economic environment as the reader, he begins to feel affinity with it. If it is not, it is an alien with whom he cannot have any closeness. A third is the universality of the experience in the prevailing socio-cultural fabric of the society. This fabric changes its colour as well as the patterns displayed from time to time. Hence, a writer has the difficulty in creating a story that will fit for all the seasons.

Portrayal of innermost feelings

In my view, Hulugalle has been successful in the first, but failed to meet the other two requirements. Her writing and the way she has presented how the characters are thinking are ample evidence to the first. Consider how she has presented Nishadi’s first encounter of Sanjaya at the campus: “She met Sanjaya totally unexpectedly when she had not even dreamed of it. If there had been any expectation even at the corner of her heart that she would run into him at the campus, that was before she had plans to enter the university. Since then, her seeing him on campus…her running into him there…was a complete surprise to her. Any memory about him had been pushed safely back to her mind. She was thinking whether Dinusha still had any affection toward him. She was thinking over it again and again until she fell to sleep that night” (translation mine).

Exclusivity of characters

The whole story has been presented by Hulugalle in a typical upper middle-class environment. That class has no economic hardship to worry about. Hence, their worries had been wholly and fully concentrated in how to enjoy life or how to break existing love affairs or renew broken ones. But that is not the university life today or even at the time Hulugalle was studying at Peradeniya. As a result, the experience which she gives to the reader is an exclusive and not an inclusive one. This exclusivity makes it difficult for the readers to view the experiences of Nishadi as their own ones.

Hulugalle: a writer of promise

Through Shadows of Hantana, Hulugalle gives us the promise that she will be a good creative writer just like she had been a good economist of international repute. She is well versed in both English and Sinhala. We, therefore, hope that in future there will be many more such creative works presented to us by Hulugalle.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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