Sunday, November 15, 2009

Keerthihan's Kite - story by Sandi Titus, illustrations by Anura Srinath

My neice who is around five, got what I thought was a fabulous present for a book. I am still not sure where it's available or how much it cost, but I am sure bookshops like Odel and Barefoot will have it.

One of the problems I have about Sri Lankan books for children is that either they are boring or they are badly done. The writing is bad, the illustrations are bad and there are so many mediocre books around, you wonder how parents can buy any of it for their kids. There are exceptions of course, I have seen a few nicely done children's books, one of my earlier reviews was on MilkRice that still remains my favourite present for kids. But the general rule is that children's books need to improve here in Sri Lanka.

Now this book looks expensive and I presume it is expensive. This makes me wonder how many people would pick it up for their kids. But as the saying goes: Good things no cheap; cheap things no good. But the book looks good that much is obvious.

This book is primarily for little children and an older child of 5-6 might like to look at it on his own. But best of all, it seems to be a good introduction to the English, Sinhala and Tamil languages. Yes, you read that right. Keerthihan's Kite is a trilingual book for children.

I have not heard of the author or illustrator: Sandi Titus and Anura Srinath respectively, but one name I recognized in the credits is Michael Meyler (who brought out that most entertaining book, Dictionary of Sri Lankan English).

The story is rather simple. Keerthihan, a little boy who lives in Jaffna, wants to fly his own kite, like the big boys around. He decides to make his own kite and after a series of disasters, he eventually makes a kite that can fly.

Each page has only one sentence written out in all three languages. Sometimes the first sentence is written in English but not always. Sinhala and Tamil, also have their turn at being on top. The rest of the page is devoted to brightly coloured illustrations that make the page very attractive.

Towards the back of the page, you have an interesting feature. There is a transliteration of Sinhala and Tamil in English. This is of course not going to help you to learn the Sinhala and Tamil script but it is certainly a first step to start learning any of the other two languages. It is excellent for Sinhala and Tamil readers to learn English as well.

Right at the very end of the book is a DVD that has the narration of the book in all three languages, with basic animation of the illustrations found in the book. I thought it was very very nicely done.

To my mind, perhaps a few parents will see the value of this book and pick it up for their children but more importantly it is a book that schools and libraries should be forced to buy, if they don't happen to see its worth straight away.

In this day and age when we know it is so important to learn all three languages of Sri Lanka, it is a good start to see a book like this in the market. I hope more trilingual books will be produced in the future.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

That Deep Silence by Punyakante Wijenaike

My grandmother says that one of her favorite books of all time is Giraya by Punyakante Wijenaike. To be honest, I am not one for these old time stories, so I haven’t read it and somehow don’t feel like reading it yet. Perhaps one day.
Wijenaike is a prolific writer. This is her sixteenth publication in her writing life. She has won many prestigious awards, among them the State Literary award; she has been a Commonwealth Prize winner and a Gratiaen Prize winner. When ones hears this about an author, there is a certain expectation that needs to be met. And it was with this expectation that I took That Deep Silence to read.
To be frank Wijenaike is not my kind of author. Her themes can be seen as hack and overdone to the hilt. But when reading this book, I felt it was seeped in sadness, nostalgia and mourning and it is that which I will talk about. There is pathos in Wijenaike’s writing. It is a remembrance of times past – when all was good and well. However, instead of Wijenaike conveying that by retelling the stories of the good old days, she dwells on the horror stories of today. It is her focusing on the negative of modern life that forces you to realize that the past was glorious. Perhaps that is her technique. For instance, there is very little to be happy about in this book. All is doom and gloom. Is this what the conflict has done to at least one literary creator? Possibly.
Most of Wijenaike’s characters are middle or lower class members of society – some of them used to belong to the landed gentry but have now been reduced to virtual poverty. There is a lack of feeling between children and parents, there is a lack of communication and camaraderie between husbands and wives, there is plenty of conflict, abandonment, abuse, and murder.
Her war stories are trite – a soldiers widow, a child soldier. They have all been done before, in much the same manner. There is nothing different or exceptional in these stories. There are stories of sexual repression, that may have been apt in another era, and a story that deals with homosexuality in an uncomfortable manner. I am not sure of it being that relevant in today’s world with that impact. The story of cancer is stereotypical. Some of the stories like Living for the Day, seem to be inspired from newspaper reports and most of her stories remind me of those you find in the papers, in the creative writing section.
Wijenaike’s poetry is more from the heart, than being well crafted. They seem to be semi ramblings again on the themes of loss, sadness, displacement, conflict, death. The poetry comes out as being a genuine concern for what is happening to the country as well as the society. And yet, in her poetry, she is able to break out of her depression and write about a butterfly, an ominous rain cloud, which is a welcome respite from the heavy atmosphere she has created.
The whole book is like one big cry for help. It is in a sense as if Wijenaike, who is more at home writing fiction like Giraya, has through her desperation on the state of the country written this straight from her heart. How good it is, depends on how the reader takes it. If it is taken in the spirit that I think it is written in – an inability to stand by and watch as the world of the writer collapses, then that’s fine. However, if the reader expects writing of an excellent quality and is thus disappointed and unable to see the message of the writer, then more’s the pity.
Wijenaike’s nicest story is No grass for my feet. An account of growing up in the 1930s and onwards. Perhaps it is based on her life. If that is so, I hope her next book is her autobiography. It will be a book worth reading but I hope she can drop her ‘all is misery’ style and write the account as it is – sadness, happiness, hope and despair. After all a life is not just one emotion, it has its fair share of all. What we must remember is that after sadness, joy does come. I hope Wijenaike remembers that too.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Uprooted by Martin Wickremesinghe

Translated by Lakshmi de Silva and Ranga Wickramasinghe.

I didn’t know this book existed until I read that the Hi book club was featuring the book. So of course though I wouldn’t be caught dead at the book club, I trotted off to get the book. So my first complaint is that it should have had much more publicity than it got. My second complaint is what’s with the cover? Its godawful! Certainly not one to encourage a reader to pick up. Boring covers will turn off readers. So I wish they had taken the trouble to give me a nice bright cover.
Having studied in English, and my Sinhala being shaky and all, I had not read any of Martin Wick’s work. while I was growing up. It was only recently that I read Madol Duwa, in translation. I had heard about Martin Wicks, and they seem to make a big deal of him and all that, and the literati think that he is the greatest of any of our writers, so I was keen to read him. Therefore, a thank you is in order for those who made it possible for me to read this. And a message that I would like to see more translations of our Sinhala and Tamil writers out there.
Now onto the book. Firstly the translation cannot be faulted. It was wonderful to read such a beautifully translated book. I remember the awful translation of Madol Duwa, that ruined a good book for me. Translation is an art and the combination of Lakshmi de Silva and Ranga Wickramasinghe (a relative of the authors?) gave the novel an authentic feel. They obviously know their subject and author well and that is the key to good translations.
I really liked this novel. Is it a different story? Is it told in a unique manner? No and not quite are the answers. It is a sweet story, nicely told. But to me not gripping. Perhaps I am jaded by my twentyfirst century outlook. So I tried to put myself in the place of a reader of 1944. My grandmother was ten years old, my grandfather was twenty years old. Perhaps he would have read the book, but honestly my ten year old grandmother should have managed the book as well. It is simply written, the language is not innovative or beautiful, but it was written well. Was this a startling story of the time? Not really, I should think. If it was startling at all, I suppose it was the fact that children, young people and adults of that time were reading stories of Western heroes and heroines and here at last was a story for the Sinhala people. But wait a minute, this was written in Sinhala, so it was a different audience that Martin Wicks was writing for. He was writing for the Sinhala reading man and woman and child. This is a story that I feel they could have very well lived. A traditional family living through changing times, fallen fortunes, upwardly mobile young men and impoverished genteel women looking for security through marriage.
In the introduction, I am told that the novel is an imported art form. So perhaps that is why Martin Wick’s is so lauded, it is because he introduced to the Sinhala reader a mode of reading and therefore thinking through the form of written story telling.
For me some of the behaviour of the characters were not in keeping with their character, for instance, I was not sure why Nanda’s mother, who initially was so vehemently opposed to Piyal marrying Nanda would even encourage her second marriage to him. In my experience of the older generation, they are loathe to forgive and change and would carry grievances and tradition to the nth degree. Was Martin Wick’s like modern Hindi films trying to show the Sinhala society how they should behave, as opposed to how they actually behave. Who knows?
Today, when Sri Lankan literature especially in English is having a period of revival, it would have been lovely to have had the opportunity to meet Mr Martin Wicks, have him featured at the GLF, but alas! I believe he is no more.
While I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but make comparisons. Martin Wick’s published this book in 1944, Ulysess by James Joyce in 1922;The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald in 1925; Gone with the Wind by Margeret Mitchell in 1936; 1984 by George Orwell in 1949; Lolita was published in 1955. My critics (and there are so many, as we discovered when I reviewed Colombo Streets) may say these writers wrote in English, they had an advantage. So let’s take a look at some non-English writers of the same period and what they were writing. Maxim Gorky had already died by 1936, as had Lorca who was assassinated in August 1936 by Franco’s nationalists. Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Gitanjali in 1913; Herman Hesse published Sidhdhartha in 1922. In 1928 Ting Ling had published Miss Sophie’s diary about the sexual fantasies of a Chinese woman infatuated with a young man; In 1929, Rilke published Letter to a Young Poet; Astrid Lingren wrote Pippi Longstocking in 1945, Solzhenitsyn published One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962. I have heard of every single one of these writers and read their writing (with the exception of Ting Ling, but was intrigued when I read about her and her writing, so had to include it, to strengthen my case). So what is the point you may ask?
While I liked Martin Wick’s Uprooted a lot. I don’t think it comes close in quality of writing or subject matter to any of the works I have cited above. If these writers many of them Martin Wick’s contemporaries were writing such edgy, thought provoking, socially relevant commentaries, how is it that Uprooted in my opinion doesn’t compare.
This is just my opinion, I am sure that many out there, will jump to the defense of Martin Wick’s and quite justifiably so. But we have to be realistic. We are a small country that is yet to produce a world standard of anything from anyone who has lived in this country. I had to add the disclaimer or else I would be inundated by examples of Sri Lankan born writers living out of the country. That doesn’t cut it for me. Martin Wick’s is a good writer but is he a great writer? Is he Sri Lanka’s greatest writer from the twentieth century? If yes, then I am disappointed. But to end on a good note. I await the translations of the second and third books of the trilogy with eagerness. Truly, I can’t wait to read them.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wedding Gifts and Other Presents by Asitha Ameresekere

It’s funny that apparently short stories in the West do not do well. Publishers evidently are loathe to publish a first time author’s collection of short stories and prefer to launch him with a novel and then publish the short story collection. And yet, when I think of Jumpha Lahiri and Rohinton Mistry, they burst onto the literary scene with short story collections. And then followed up with novels. So, I don’t know, perhaps my impression is wrong.
Maybe, Asitha Ameresekere would not have got an audience in a western publishing house but here in Sri Lanka the short story rules. Lucky for us, for that allowed Ameresekere to get published here. If you are looking for short stories written in a typically Sri Lankan style, then this is not the book for you. Born and brought up in England, the only thing Sri Lankan about Ameresekere is his name and ok perhaps the way he looks. (At the Galle Literary Festival, he was compared to Abishek Bachaan! – a bit of a stretch to the imagination, I think.) Anyway, here is a book written with understated humour, wit, impeccable style and language.
This slim collection has twelve stories that zip up and down a strange universe. The first story deals with Sri Lanka and ever after that the country or its citizens are never again mentioned. I sometime wonder if Ameresekere threw in the token Lankan story to appeal to those here for you can see his heart lies elsewhere. It must be admitted that the story set in Sri Lanka is the most awkward and despite its setting is also not typical of Sri Lankan short stories. But never mind, it was entertaining if implausible.
My all time favourite story is the Shame of the Pig, a strange love story if any, but so beautifully written and so imaginatively told, that I feel Ameresekere shines here as a short story writer. The elements are all there: the language, the plot, the craft, the depiction.
Some stories are immensely short, and others are perhaps unnecessarily long. I had the impression of reading through twelve short short films and so I was not surprised to learn that Ameresekere is primarily a film maker. It shows in his stories. You can see the story rather than be simply reading it.
In reading this collection, I kept on wondering how many Sri Lankans would find it appealing. Then, I had to remind myself that I am a Sri Lankan and I find it appealing, and I can’t be that unique, so perhaps there are others out there who liked the book. I would be interested in getting feedback on this point.
I will admit that I think his stories to a Sri Lankan reader may be slightly odd. They may not be easily understood but that is not a bad thing. Literature can be many things at once.
I wonder if Ameresekere will be a popular read in Sri Lanka. If I can predict something, I will say no. He is too international, not slapstick funny, too sophisticated for the general local reading public.
After reading Ameresekere’s collection, I began to wonder why the short story was so popular in Sri Lanka. Most Lankan writers find it easier to start with writing short stories. A quick research on the web, gives me that: A short story is like prose fiction but more intense and compact than a novel or a novella. In the twentieth century for the first time, the short story didn’t have to revolve around a plot and very often readers claimed that nothing ever happens in the short story. Ameresekere’s stories are written so beautifully that it takes you a while to realize there is not much of a plot. It is more a feel of time and place.
In ending I have to mention my weakness for covers – and this cover is simply beautiful!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

China Bay Blues by Afdhel Aziz

I have two favourite Sri Lankan poets. Vivimarie van der Poorten (whom I have reviewed earlier) is one and Afdhel Aziz is the other. In this book of poetry, Afdhel Aziz crams a staggering 93 poems and one short story into his first collection of poetry. Interspersed with interesting photographs by Shehani Fernando (though if you took the photographs out, you wouldn’t have missed them), the poems are light, deep, frivolous, tender, passionate, imaginative, jazzy … let me stop there, or else I would run out of adjectives. So, what do I like about this book?
I like that China Bay Blues is modern, snappy and yet there are poems that turn my insides to water. I like that China Bay Blues has love poems written by a guy, is patriotic without being Sinhala Buddhist, and male bonding is between father and son. I like that China Bay Blues finishes with prose in the form of a short story that is to me still like a long poem.
Afdhel Aziz uses language that he is comfortable with. Don’t look here if you want village lasses, odes to ancient kings or chaste love poems. Instead you have raw sensuality: For instance:

Your naked body is silhouetted against
The bare boards of the wooden floor
as you tread softly to the window and
look at the quiet square below the window.

The line of your back
as you lean out, hiding
your skin with the curtain

Now is the time to live. (Quartert, Kandy)

It is like a scene from a movie. I can imagine the scene. And that is perhaps what I get out of each of his poems. Strong imagery that creates such a vivid scene, I can say almost say: I was there! The best part of it, is that his poetry speaks to me. It says what I want to say to lovers, parents, countrymen – just better than I could ever do.
The poems address a multitude of topics. His poem titled Patriot has this great line:

‘So will you die for your country?’
Surprised, I counter
‘Surely it is better to live for it?’

What a great concept? It takes the idea of patriotism that has been traditionally thought of in one way and turns it on its head. With Sri Lanka currently poised at the crossroads, perhaps its worth to take such an attitude towards our countrymen.
Afdhel Aziz is perhaps one of our truly modern poets writing in English. He takes everyday objects and traces the multiple lines of historical meaning. He writes about the hummingbird, about a secret garden, a tattoo, a light house, a radio song. He is obsessed about jazz. And reading his poems on jazz have made me aware of the sounds, the rhythm, the feeling:

Sweet soulful song
from shiny brass horn
fingers moving like hydra
as the notes sound high up
to the heavens

like butterflies hovering
around the wings of a sail
curved in the breeze

pursed lips, brow furrowed
in concentration, as
cheeks puff in prayer

air turns to gold
and the wind sings along
the memory of home
the echo of jazz
when Miles plays . . . (Miles away)

It has been too long since Afdhel gave us another collection of poetry. Afdhel Aziz, I await.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Colombo Streets by Thisuri Wanniarachchi

A recent trend in Sri Lanka is to start writing books at a young age. A few years ago, a fourteen year old boy wrote a thriller. It was well written if somewhat gruesome and disconcerting from one so young. The latest book in this trend is from a fifteen year old school girl. Colombo Streets, has a catchy title and a distinctive cover. The production of the book is good and inviting to the casual reader. And after seeing the launch in the newspaper I was intrigued and picked the book up. But I was soon to decide that if there is any reason to ban children from writing books, this is it.
After having read the book, and expressed my displeasure to my friends, I honestly had no intention of reviewing the book, as I thought this blog had dealt too much with bad writing and was looking around for a good book of Sri Lankan literature. But after reading the interview that Thisuri Wanniarachchi gave to the Nation newspaper, I felt that I had to write a review on both her interview and her book.
First the interview: She claims that she doesn’t like to read much and she hates reading. She implies that reading is a waste of her time and she may as well spend that time writing. Here is a piece of advice: You can’t be a good writer, unless you are a good reader. She has the audacity to admit that she has a weak vocabulary because she doesn’t read much and that people have called her writing style ‘simple’. She is under a misconception. Her writing style is not simple, it is simply bad.
Her interview goes on to say much more that is silly and trite and I wont dwell much more on that. Now onto the book.
The gist of the book is as follows: A young Tamil girl from Kilinochchi is adopted at the age of ten by a Sinhala grandmother who lives in Colombo. Favoured by the grandmother, cheekily called J- Lo, her Sinhalese adopted sister Sarah feels jealous of Indeevari. Sarah, a champion swimmer begins to feel ill and to everyone’s shock and disappointment she is diagnosed with cancer. She moves to Singapore for treatment and after some time she is sent back to Sri Lanka with no hope for recovery. Eventually, after being introduced to a charismatic Buddhist priest she is healed.
It should have been a feel good book but it wasn’t. Why was this?
According to Thisuri’s interview the ultimate message of the book apparently is to leave people with cancer a message of hope. But there were so many other messages found in the book that reduced her primary message. For instance, there were many complicated situations that needed to be handled delicately – the issue of displacement, cancer, ethnic conflict, generation gap, adoption etc. The book seemed to breeze through not tackling any issue with the sensitivity and delicacy that was warranted. In fact, the book almost trivialized all the issues it dealt with.
Unevenly handled, the book glosses over Indeevari’s situation of displacement, conflict, and adoption. The book also handled the subject of cancer carelessly, which is a disservice to those stricken with cancer and who know first hand what it is to go through a serious illness.
I would like to end on a positive note, therefore I would say that Thisuri’s use of language was modern and young and reflective of the age of the narrator.
A word of advice to indulgent parents: Encourage your children to read first, buy them books, rather than publish their book. They will thank you for it, when they are ready to write their novel as adults.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Stable Horses by Vihanga Perera

According to C.S. Kaushalyan, the protagonist in the novel Stable Horses, the Salalihini Sandeshaya nor the Hansa Sandeshaya are epic poems. Consider his statement in Vihanga Perera’s new Gratiaen shortlisted novel: “To say the least, none of the Lankan writers had ever – ever - versed in epic formats.” But perhaps he didn’t know of our epic poems existence and for that he could be forgiven in making such a broad statement. But I do hope that statement is not a reflection of Vihanga Perera’s personal opinion.
Just weeks after the Gratiaen Prize shortlist, I picked up a copy of the book.
The very first sentence, the very first paragraph was unfortunately replete with akwardness, missing articles, spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes that are so numerous, they cannot be listed. The sentence construction of the whole novel was also clumsy and graceless but that could be a particular style and I could get used to it, if it was consistent. Think Animal’s People by Indra Sinha or Londonstani by Gautam Malkani. The point was that it wasn’t. Even though the blurb at the back says: “It is the story of his entering a literary competition. With the necessity of winning. With the urge to rhyme it to the top.” The novel itself other than for the introduction is nothing about the literary competition but rather about the complexities of life and growing up.
Perhaps Vihanga Perera is writing for an uber intelligent reader. And that I confess, I am not. For us average readers, this book was confusing in the chapter arrangement, confusing in the presentation of ideas, confusing in the use of language, confusing in the theme. I admit that it was a tough read for me. The book begins with informing the reader the book is to be submitted to the prestigious GoldenFoot prize. Everybody and their grandmother knows that this is a reference to the Gratiaen Prize. Ok, so the judges may have had a little giggle at that ‘clever’ reference. Then the ‘novel’ but it really is a series of interconnected short stories, with pompous and vague titles, stumbles through a series of themes: A young man working unhappily in an advertising agency, arranges to meet a young woman later that day. We are then taken into a chapter that delves on an attempt at writing poetry or song, I am not sure which. To tell you the truth it is not that good. But perhaps that is point the author is trying to depict. Then there is a little aside about saving drowning ants in the loo, a little pseudo- philosophizing and then we are moved abruptly onto a lover’s parting. Perhaps one of the better chapters. After that a school teachers funeral, a rambling on the last year of school, and then onto another good chapter on rejection at love again. Then more bad trite chapters and a good chapter. It goes on and on.
Oh dear! I am rather upset. Here I am, an amateur reviewer who has not read the winning submission at the Gratiaen and is reviewing now the second Gratiaen shortlist and its not going well either, I am beginning to wonder if something is wrong with me! Perhaps I cannot appreciate good writing by our good Sri Lankan authors. It must be me because the alternative thought that the Gratiaen judges could be wrong, is too disturbing.
What really bugs me about this book, is that the author spent a few weekends in his newspaper column complaining about the difference between Sri Lankan English and Standard English and then I find that this book is nothing but Sri Lankan English and written badly at that!
Don’t get me wrong Vihanga Perera has potential. His writing has moments of being funny, clever, witty, etc but to get there you have to wade through numerous hours of pure rubbish. So in the end, I don’t think its worth it at all. At this rate, I have to take back my previous review on the Gratiaen shortlist and say that Anthea was much better! Trite, but much better.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Mango Tree by Anthea Senaratna

When the Gratiaen shortlist was announced and I noticed this book among the six, I went out and bought it. Dressed with a nice attractive cover which is also quirky, Anthea Seneratna presents the reader with 16 stories in 121 pages. I read the book in one evening as it is a very easy read. I found some of the titles of the stories rather intriguing: Two Pieces of Chicken; Wednesdays and Weekends; Shut –ins; Rainburst etc.
Let me digress for a moment to set the stage before I comment on the book per se. Imagine yourself driving down Arnold Coomaraswamy Mawatha on the weekends, looking at the paintings hung all along the park boundary. Imagine yourself evaluating the paintings. While there are some extremely talented artists to be discovered here, most of them are pleasant, entertaining, nicely done but absolutely ordinary. They have talent but it is like a drawing room talent – certainly not art gallery talent.
When a book is shortlisted for the Gratiaen, you expect it to be art gallery talent not drawing room talent. Unfortunately, The Mango Tree while sweet and nice and pleasant and nicely written with good English and no grammatical errors, is eventually a mediocre book. It is definitely drawing room talent.
Now onto the stories:
It’s amazing how many middle class writers are obsessed about the poor, the underprivileged, the seamy side of life. A life that they know nothing of, can hope to know nothing of and they certainly would not want to know anything of and it shows in their writing. I call it the guilty middle class woman syndrome. So they will write about poor illtreated housewives, they write about soldiers injured in the war and unable to fit into ‘normal’ life. They write about unhappy women, unhappy situations far removed from their own experience.
For a book to grip you, to hold you spellbound, there has to be an element of truth and reality in it. Good writers, and I am not talking about great writers, but merely good writers have that ability of taking you through the most mundane of situations but holding you spellbound. When Arthur Golden wrote Memoirs of a Geisha, I am sure most readers completely forgot the writer was not a geisha, not a woman, not a Japanese. In Sri Lanka we have a few writers who can do this, but not many. Among the younger writer’s however, I can see a different breed who write about what they know, in their own style, and that makes all the difference.
For the first time since I started this blog, I am stuck. I do not quite know how to finish this review. I am not sure if I can say any more. But I will try. For a light read, this is certainly a good book. The English is good, the grammar is correct, some stories are amusing. The ones that stand out for me are: Tuition Class, Freedom Bound. Some stories had no point or were an indulgence for the writer. Perhaps if it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize I might have been kinder. But because it was, and because I expected so much more, in all fairness to those who read, I cannot. However, I hasten to add, that I am sure there will be many people who will read this book and like it. It may sell well, and I do hope so. But in the end, in my opinion the book is a self indulgent exercise that has been offered to the public as literature.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


In this day and age, when children would rather play computer games and game boy, it is difficult to find an alternative that would hold them spell bound for hours. So it is in this context that I trawled through some recent children’s books and came across a book that had been published last year. Like any other plebian, I judge a book by its cover and the cover was nice, bright and attractive. The book was a collection of stories for children and was called MilkRice – another catchy title, I thought, that gave no indication of what was inside the book, but was still Sri Lankan enough to say a lot.
There are nine stories that cover a range of situations. Instead of repeating each and every story, to fill space let me tell you what I liked.
I liked that all the stories were imaginative, Sri Lankan (I liked that part a lot actually), short, simple and easy to read. The target audience would be I think around 9 years old, perhaps a parent could read it to a 5 year old. Anyway, I also liked that some big names had got together to write stories for children. Authors like Faith Ratnayake, Neluka Silva, Lal Medawattegedera and Premini Amerasinghe, had contributed. I loved the little drawings that accompanied each story, giving it a Sri Lankan touch. I also liked that the stories would give the Sri Lankan child a vehicle to identify what it is like to grow up in Sri Lanka, rather than for them to read stories set in the West and for them to read about valleys and dales, crumpets and jam, rosy cheeks and ski holidays.
I liked that all the stories had a moral, some subtle some not so subtle. For instance, there were stories that spoke about being humane to animals, another story was about bullying. Two stories were about fabulous imagination, another two stories were about difference and how it should not matter to us, and one story about child soldiers. The most sophisticated story was about the child soldiers, the most imaginative story was the one about hats. The story my nephews and nieces loved was the one about the cat, rat and snake. And the story that my little cousin adored having read to her was the one about the aeroplane. All this goes to show that this is a little gem of a collection for Sri Lankan kids. Something about ten years ago, children didn’t have. A book of stories to call their own.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Theravada Man by Manuka Wijesinghe

After having read Manuka Wijesinghe’s first book Monsoons and Potholes which I enjoyed very much even though it was repetitive and a bit of a difficult read, I approached her second book just released early this year, with some trepidation. The launch of the book at Barefoot in Galle at the wonderful Galle Literary Festival was well done, even though the attendance was poor. The skit performed by the extremely talented Indu Dharmasena, Sangvada, Michael Meyler (who knew the man could act as well) and Manuka was hilarious. In half an hour they had reduced this 359 page book into a complete story. Quite a feat!
To my utter surprise the book read well. The story flowed on and on and most important of all kept the reader’s interest. The central figure the Theravada schoolteacher who was referred throughout the whole book as iskolemahaththaya is looking for a wife. Hooked up with an astrologer, they engage in various philosophical discussions that cover all aspects of life until they reach the desired object – the wife. Once married, the schoolteacher’s wife referred to as iskolehamine, as she is also a teacher, produces a number of children, replaces the astrologer as the recepient of various philosophical discussions, and discovers close to the end that she has been nothing but merely a goal post in the iskolemaththaya’s life. There are various kavi’s that are interspersed in the text that even though I read them diligently were rather distractive. Other than for historical documentation, reproducing the kavis in whole did not add more to the novel. In addition the novel has two playlets that they call nadagamas, which while entertaining to read, again was not essential to the story. I fear that both were included because they could not be published anywhere else.
Not having met Manuka personally but heard her speak briefly, I suspect that the book is written the way Manuka speaks. The book is rather breathless as it speeds its way through from beginning to end. There are many interesting philosophical discussions on the way but it almost seems that the book is secondary, and that the writer is using it as a way of transmitting her critique on life and philosophy to the world at large. Sometimes the reader feels battered. Sometimes the reader feels lost. Sometimes the reader feels it could have been said in many more words less.
But the final word is that on the whole it was an entertaining book. Typical of her previous writing there is a cause, but it is less pressing, less intense. I preferred Monsoons and Potholes because it came from the soul. But Theravada Man is better written, more slick and it is only right at the very end, that you ask. And what was all that about?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Rolled Back Beach by Neluka Silva and Simon Harris

There are some things about a ‘tsunami’ book that make you jump to conclusions. First, that it is dated, this means that if you are reading it in 2009, you know it is all about 2004 December 26th. Then you know it will be sad. Then you know that it will be written most probably by a person who wasn’t even caught in the tsunami and who will employ pathos and emotional blackmail to make you feel really bad about not being caught in the tsunami. And finally, you wonder is it worth it?
When I got The Rolled Back Beach by Simon Harris and Neluka Silva as a gift, all those thoughts went through my mind. And I am happy to report that I was proved quite wrong regarding the last conclusion. It is worth reading.
First I was jolly pleased that I got a book as a gift, it’s such a rare thing these days. My mother remembers being given books ad nauseoum when she was a child. But not any more. Today, most people give you silly clothes that don’t fit, or ugly things for your home. A book, in my opinion is the best gift of all. You can read it and then if you don’t like it you can give it to someone else!
Anyway, I am straying. So I got this book and thought it must be the first time that I saw a book of fiction that had only two authors. And then I began to read. Now here is a note of caution for writers. When there is an obvious difference in the style and standard of the writing between two authors it can be a difficult thing to review a book. Most often you would probably like some stories of both in somewhat equal proportions. But what do you do if you like one author much better than the other. Well that is what happened to me. In this collection, I liked all the stories of Simon Harris (except for Beth’s Bear,) and while Neluka Silva is not a bad writer and is quite creative, her stories kind of paled next to Simon. So let me explain why.
Simon Harris writes with a style that is restrained, pared down, and evokes much description from a few sentences. In fact in my mind typically English. And let me hasten to add that is not a bad thing. Let me illustrate, his first story has this: “It was as if all life had been sucked from the night air and replaced with an oppressive stillness that clawed at the old man’s throat as he laboured down the hill beckoning beyond the darkness, barely remembering as a boy how he had raced the same route from Sunday mass to the pebbled beach beneath the watchful gaze of a lighthouse, dormant at the far end of the fort.” Ok that is a really long sentence. But it is like a movie. You can just imagine the scene. His story Comic Relief, another example of beautiful, funny and evocative description that is still sharp, not maudlin and mushy,and in four pages describes rather accurately the bureaucratic nightmare that exists in Sri Lanka.
So, you get the picture about Simon’s writing. Now onto Neluka Silva. If I had read her stories on their own, in her own little collection I might have been charmed. She writes in a typically Sri Lankan way, using a lot of conversation, colloquialisms, charming mannerisms and very local. Perhaps her stories are too local. They remind me a bit of Elmo Jayawardene’s stories. Anyway, what the stories are about for both of them is no surprise. They deal with various aspects of the tsunami – heroisms, shame, fundraising, relief work, grief, regret, and I suspect many of the stories must be true.
So my final word is that it’s a nice book to have and I look forward to more of their writing. But here is a word of advice. Publish separately.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shrapnel by Neil Fernandopulle

I picked this collection of short stories because it had won the Gratiaen prize. That fact was announced on the cover. But the cover itself was certainly not appealing. The appearance of the book, cover, look etc was rather dull and boring and I would not have gone out of my way to pick it up if not for the mention of the prize. What can I say? I am shallow. Nice covers and nice print jobs appeal to me. Anyway, this book was published nine years ago and a lot has changed in the printing world since then, so I suppose I should not judge this book by its cover.
I should have gathered from the title that the stories inside would be all about the war. The back cover has a nice blurb: Shrapnel is not about war. It is not about peace. It is not about love or loss. It is not about discovery and disillusionment. It is not about passion and remorse. It is not about the trees and the sky and the here and the tomorrow. It is about all these…
But once I started the stories, I realized it was about the war and the futility of peace. It is all about loss and inadequate love. It has too much disillusionment and not enough discover. It dwells on remorse and fleets through passion. There is nothing about the trees and sky, and an excess about the here and dismal tomorrows.
If you think by now that I didn’t like the book. That is not true. The stories are well written and well told. Perhaps it’s the beating over the head of the theme that tired me out and made it an effort to read.
Neil starts strong. The first story of the collection is strong and short on what else but the ethnic conflict. Highlighting the opportunistic practices of the state, he leaves the reader with a sense of loss and pathos, in describing what happens to a dead child terrorist. It has an interesting take to it and a unique style.
But after that story after story I felt it was much of a muchness. He came again into his own with the last few stories. The best story for me was: Seed dispersal patterns of the Dipterocarps of Sri Lanka. Written with a light hand, clever, witty, funny, and yet conveys so much so lightly Neil shows the talent that he has for writing that is hidden in his previous stories. Then Delirium about a grandmother who perversely refuses treatment for cancer as that is the only thing she feels she can control is also a good story. Dear Vichy about food for sex in a refugee camp is another gem.
But over and over I couldn’t help that I was reading a Sinhala film masquerading as a collection of short stories - Slow, sometimes listless, heavy and descriptive.
I know we live in a time of war, I know that it is hopeless but there is no need to be heavy handed about the theme. Death seems to pervade the book. Death in all its forms. It could be that the book is reflective of our times. Happiness is scarce, joy absent, what remains, is drudgery, no escape, doom to be captive to our karmic destiny.
Thus, the stories have a sameness which could be a good thing and a bad thing. It holds the collection together, true to its title and yet the same time the reader feels brutalized at the end. At the end of the reading, the reader has been battered with stories that have causes, they have morals and they have lessons that we the reader need to learn. And the worst thing is that we have to learn it without humour, without lightness, and without love.