By Sivanesan Sinniah –
This is an anthology of twenty one short stories dealing with various topics and various places in Sri Lanka and a few in Toronto. An overview of the backgrounds of some of the stories in this collection is given by the author himself in the foreword. The readers will have an idea of the customs and traditions of Sri Lankan Tamils and their efforts to preserve them, wherever they are living now. I went through all the stories and found that the author has painted a vivid picture of the Jaffna villages and other places appearing in the stories. The history of the villages which have been passed on from generations by word of mouth have been well documented by the author and will be used by future generations. Hence I thank the author for his foresight. I found most of those information about the villages were new to me even though I was born in Jaffna. The descriptions are so authentic that they captivate the attention of the readers and add flavour to the stories and make them interesting. His style and presentation is very lucid and smooth running. He has a natural gift of imagination along with clear and concise story telling. All in all this anthology is interesting and informative. Especially to readers who are new to Srilankan way of living and their internal family feuds .
I found some details given in some stories were unwarranted or antisocial in the present context but at the same time they throw light on the evils of caste system which prevailed in the Jaffna society three decades ago. Instead of very vivid details a casual mention may have been ideal.
Now I venture out to deal with salient features of some of the stories one by one. Some of the stories deal with questionable activities of Jaffna Tamils of the past and present. The first story titled “Strange Relationship” deals with lesbian love and the reactions of a Sinhalese family. The same applies to any Asian family to such controversial issues which are not addressed properly even at this twenty first century. The tragic ending of the story appears to be to pacify the family concerned. This story brings out the ignorance of the Asians of the mental and physical make up of same sex lovers, which is abhorred and denounced. Incidentally the book is given the same title as that of this story.
The second story is also a controversial one in the eyes of the Asian society and not much spoken about, but found rampantly because of tourism. Pedophiles make it a point to travel to some of these countries including Sri Lanka. This story is set in the background of Bentota a beautiful seaside village in Sri Lanka a famous tourist spot. This brings about the social degradation and the teenagers attraction to quick money and falling victims to pedophile and the spread of HIV.
The third one paints detailed events in a rooming house in Colombo and its suburbs run by government servants for government servants living alone, when their families are in Jaffna. This may be because of economic and social reasons. These rooming houses were in old dilapidated houses with leaking roofs and badly maintained surroundings. These were found mostly in the sixties and seventies and I am not sure of these after the 1983 pogrom in the Sinhalese areas. I was familiar with these rooming houses as some of my friends lived in them.
The story titled “Marriage” describes the life of a typical Jaffna family where the male sibling or siblings takes the responsibility of arranging marriage for their sisters by saving money for giving dowry and leading a frugal life. Some of them pass the age of their marriage in this process and remain a bachelor throughout their life. The dowry system was an evil societal custom prevalent in those days and was given up during the three decades of war in Sri Lanka. I hear now it has shown its ugly head among some of the Diaspora Tamils.
“Rainy Day” is a story depicting the atrocities of the Sri Lankan army in Jaffna during the war, even though the story is happening in Badulla ,a town in the central province. “Retribution” is also a similar one dealing with the same topic told in flashback. “Roadside Singer” another story also falls in this category. The author has used many forms of story – telling with vivid details of the background so as to captivate the attention of the reader. “Beauty” is a story set in a rich and influential area in Colombo called Cinnamon Gardens, similar to posh areas like Bayview or Richmond Hill areas of Toronto.
The story set in Jaffna titled “Well” depicts the typical family feud over a well and Malayan pensioners bringing large amounts of money to Jaffna and building big houses for their children. “Gabriel” is a story connecting Toronto and Puttalam a coastal town in South Sri Lanka. This gives details if Kaffir community from East Africa, who were brought to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) as soldiers by the British and some of them settled there. This was an interesting piece of information which I was not aware of. Incidentally most of the stories contains historical information of villages which have been passed for generations by word of mouth and the author has taken the trouble of recording them and he deserves an honourable mention.
“Rajan’s soul” and “Loneliness” are both set in Ontario and brings out the social issues faced by mostly immigrants. Stories like Chit fund, Intermarriage, Temple Entry, Bribe, and Caste are some very familiar events and the way of life of Jaffna families of those days before the war. Especially the caste system of those days were very well illustrated in these stories. The author may have avoided some details or treated them very casually. I found them a bit out of place at the present context. A Canadian or a Western reader may find them distasteful and may form a negative opinion about us. The story “Barren” deals with the modern technique of artificial insemination which is commonly practised by childless couples.
Most of the stories with Jaffna background deals with some lost practices like crying for money in funeral houses ( Oppari ), animal sacrifice in some temples, temple entry denied for some Harijans etc. These events are very well documented and may serve as valuable information for our younger generation.
All in all this anthology brings out the life of Tamils mostly and a few Sinhalese families from various strata of Sri Lankan society. Author’s wide knowledge of the history, customs and traditions of these families are evident from these stories.
The general get up and formatting of this anthology, including the captivating cover is well done. The publisher Notion Press of Chennai, India deserves commendation. I recommend this book to all readers who are interested in knowing about Sri Lanka and its people. I congratulate Pon Kulendiren for his uncanny ability of remembering events and details of his experiences in these stories and making it an interesting anthology.