Sri Lanka of the Shy and Beautiful…

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“I returned two days ago, from having listened to an enlightening discussion at a Refreshingly Sri Lankan event; on the subject of the recent flourishing of Sri Lankan literature. It was held in conjunction with the annual Asian Festival of Literature, held at Asia House, New Cavendish St. London.

What a packed house!  I was relieved to have made it in time for a seat of my choice. Considering the bleak  and somewhat wintry scene outdoors, a fair bit of stylish colour to an alluring fashion  sense, complimented the light mood.  I believe the event was sold out!

Here’s to sketching out a few highlights.

First, a mini-concert consisting of Sri Lankan instrumental music followed by a speech and later, George Alagiah (a famous BBC journalist) moderating the writers’ session, in the company of Romesh Gunesekera who has just released a new hardback in The Prisoner of Paradise, Roshi Fernando for her linked stories titled Homesick and of course, the Singapore based award-winning novelist, Shehan Karunatilaka for Chinaman. Karunatilaka arrived in London, just a few days ago. He was flown over by one of the Festival’s sponsors, Sri Lankan Airlines.

It was amazing how both the invited writers and the audience couldn’t get enough of exploring ideas on cultural and individual identity.

Published excerpts of each author’s work were read out with a sharp air of confidence. With what tenderness and worship, were the passages carefully sketched out to the formation of vivid, illuminating scenes by the  respective authors. With what enveloped beauty, did each writer hold court to that distinct literary ownership; one of ongoing contemplation to the tricky if not fascinating subjects of world culture, identity and displacement.

A series of varied questions then spilled out from across the scale, ranging from mother tongues, the priority of the English Language used in Sri Lankan literature, the animosity on subjects that refuse to ‘meet’ or ‘blend’ with each other eg. war stories & community stories that never seemed to be placed together in their proper context or harmony when written about in Sri Lankan books etc… Did anyone for instance, notice that Sri Lankan writers tended to avoid war stories..and so on…

Not really, chipped in Karunatilaka who then offered intriguing examples of local writers back in their homeland, now tackling the painful subjects of history and violence in the past. Although, he couldn’t really be sure if these were fiction or non-fiction. There were certainly plots involving suicide bombers and the Tamil Tigers, he recalled wistfully. There was a time, he added with an air of pride, that you’d be lucky to find the works of at least, two Sri Lankan writers anywhere in a Colombo bookshop. Now, it would be perfectly normal to happen upon a burgeoning row staring out from the display shelf.

Sadly, not all of the homegrown titles managed to rise above average fare. Which was when Karunatilaka, felt that if he put his mind to it, he could tell a pretty good story himself… at least do a better job than a few others he’d read earlier. Some inspirations for war stories were given. Nigerian literature in this context was praised highly, especially the works of Chimamanda Ngozi. There were murmurs of approval.

Meanwhile, remarkably funny one-liners, refused to be left out and peppered the discussions. When a Bangladeshi, Punjabi, Indian, Sri Lankan Tamilian or Singhalese sit together on a South Asian panel, they all have one thing in common, interjected Karunatilaka and that is of course, that they all love dhall curry! The audience roared! Karunatilaka was a natural comic and often had many in stitches, with his stories on drunks and cricket plus, give and take a few solemn bits, his extravagant humour on life.

In a pub in Colombo, you never worry who’s Tamil or Singhalese, smiled Karunatilaka, broadly. All you care about is, ‘how far the fellow was batting…’ That was the small show of definite unity amongst a lot of us. “We all lived in a bubble, you see,” he went on to explain. Bombs were going here…bombs were going there…and we just thought…well, that’s them and this is us. Life had to go on.”

The questions continued to pour in. Were Sri Lankans in Europe as friendly with their neighbours as those back home?

An elderly Sri Lankan gentleman stressed that he had lived in England for 45 years and on taking a bus to Scotland, the nearest passenger would still not have bothered to say anything to him, more than a smile or perfunctory greeting. Whereas if you took a bus in Colombo, by the time you reached the next bus-stop just five minutes away…everyone in the bus would in a blink of an eye have found out about each other’s ancestry, uncles, aunts, cousins, generic charts and what-have-you. Be warned! Even skeletons in the closet might have been accidentally unravelled.

Fernando disagreed that this was the case. That she liked springing conversations with people or strangers, was in no doubt. Perhaps it was the writer in her, that made it an oddly curious or fascinating thing, to want to do, she admitted shyly.

Gunesekera agreed with the elderly gentleman that people tended to leave each other alone now…and not as they would have done, years before. He said that we lived in a time where it would seem politically incorrect, rude even…to ask someone where they were from.

Someone asked Fernando if she continued to feel Sri Lankan or British? How about Romesh or Shehan? Was Roshi secretly Homesick herself which is why she titled her book as such?

From somewhere in the front, the lady who first broached the question of homesickness, hinted that Fernando had psychologically placed herself in her fiction. She continued to plead her case stubbornly to Fernando for a few minutes and I think that this sudden observation, caught several people unawares.

“This is a new age of movement,” explained Gunesekera kindly who had himself, travelled a great deal and so he felt that not just Asia but also Africa, Europe and other island cultures all tended to collide with each other when it came to cultural similarities or community living. The writing on the wall was simple. In 2012, no culture stays insular!

Everyone speaks English now, enthused Fernando. “That was my mother tongue. Only our parents and older relatives spoke Singhalese to each other, so they could keep their family secrets hidden.”

I really enjoyed the experience on a personal level.  Not just that a fair bit of humorous quirks and jokes on cricket stories were brandished about.

George Alagiah was afraid of being late that he rushed from the BBC studios after presenting the 6 o clock news. Never in his life, he said laughingly, had he read the news so fast. Viewers would have been taken aback! Fernando was the most chatty…she had a lot to say and intensity ruled her conversation. Her answers were often rambling slightly but her eloquence was delightful to watch. Her fluidity and grace were most apparent not just through her sophisticated personality but also in the way, she read her passages with care and love. I was reminded of an elegant ballet dancer, intent on polish and refinement, while managing a  nimble piroutte.

Karunatilaka stayed the most bashful.  Still, everytime he piped in, the audience would reward his rollicking good humour with a laugh. Gunesekera offered an absolutely pleasing air where, an endearing schoolboy charm accompanied by a longish silvery mop, would ensure he always mirrored the tall, lanky lad.

As Gunesekera read from The Prisoner of Paradise, where he said, he aimed to capture ‘the world in his book” – he had after all mentioned this to George Alagiah the day before when Alagiah had telephoned the authors to let them know how the session would run within the opening 3-4 minute frame. In this way, Gunesekera could explain what he was ‘trying to do.’

As for me, I slid into my seat and could think only of the affectionate, lost characters in Reef.  With such a pleasurable memory laid before me, tears of joy sprung quickly to my eyes as Gunesekera’s voice resonated through the room.

Note: Photograph of Romesh Gunesekera is by Yemisi Blake.

Further Reading:

a) The Prisoner of Paradise reviewed in The Telegraph

b) Romesh Gunesekera on YouTube

c) Homesick reviewed in The Guardian.

d) Interview with Roshi Fernando in the New Welsh Review.

e) Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka reviewed in The UK Independent.

f) Interview with Shehan Karunatilaka in Eleutherophobia.
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