Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Whirlwind by Ayathurai Santhan

First I shall grouse about the Grataien. It is really irritating not to be able to read the shortlisted works and sometimes not even to be able to read the winning works until a year has passed. So this year there were three manuscripts and two books and of course last year's winner got published just in time as well. I have yet to pick up copies of the two winners - this year and last year, but my aunt who went for the Gratiaen picked this book up for me.

I didn't go for either the shortlisting or the award night but the literary chatter was that there was this interesting book written by a writer from Jaffna about the time the IPKF was stationed there. In fact, I thought at the time, that this might have been a sure winner. Then I read the book and straight off, I will tell you if it had won, I would have been dissapointed.

In my opinion a prize winning book has to stand out. While this book actually had what could have been a gripping story, the writing style left much to be desired and I was not even sure that it should have been shortlisted.

The story is set over a very short period of time. Perhaps over a few days. When the IPKF came as so called peace monitors to the North of the Island, they saw all the people there as Sri Lankans - an identity the Northerners had erased from their psyche and they saw all Tamils as potential LTTErs. Concentrating on one village that has all the people rounded up and housed in one compound that had one toilet for around 400 people, the people are confused if they are there for their safety or being detained. The depiction of the Indian army is sketchy and not drawn out yet it does not turn out to be a weakness of the book, for the slim novel in fact concentrates on the relationships, hardships and fears that the Northern Tamil families were going through during a period that they hoped would save them and yet became another kind of horror for them.

When you read this book, you feel for our people and what they have had to go through. They are mere pawns that are toyed with all players - the LTTE, the Sri Lankan army, the Indian army. Ayathurai Santhan is careful not to tread on the ideology of the average Northern Tamil person. He shows all these people as victims, being tossed from one side to the other at the whim of whoever rules. It might have been interesting if he had taken a stance, for after all the LTTE could not have existed and been successful for so long, without popular support in the area. The book ends without resolution.

The writing is replete with Sri Lankan English of the lesser kind: akward, clumsy and sometimes grammatically incorrect. Now, I hope I don't get flak for this comment. For example: "Though everyday, Sivan had passed by this house often, this was the second time he happened to be inside." Is a sentence written in the way Sri Lankan's typically speak. And there is nothing wrong with that if it was written as direct speech.

My final comments is that this is a book that I highly recommend only because there is a dearth of writing in English about the conflict from the Tamil perspective. I admit that it is written in a sometimes crude and akward manner, that the story could have been fleshed out better, that as it is, it is not a very strong book. But it is important that all Sri Lankans be able to read about our history, and what better way to do it, than through fiction, the different voices and perspectives of our history - be it good or evil. I applaud Ayathurai Santhan for taking the courage and writing such a book. I just wish it had been edited much more and we would have a stronger perhaps even a prize winning book. I look forward to more books written from varying perspectives, perhaps one that is sympathetic to the LTTE cause for we need to know how part of our own people wished to secede from the country in the hope for a life of equality, justice and peace.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Prince by Manu Gunasena

This is a story that has been told for hundreds of years in many different ways. Yet, while it is a story that all of us know there are many who have not read it. When I picked up The Prince by Manu Gunasena I was pleasantly surprised to find that it read well and was simply told. In fact so simply that at first I was under the impression it was a book written for children.

The book starts with the dilemma of a North Indian prince who has been having confusing dreams. Living a life of decadence (dancing girls, Madeira wine, music) the young prince finds himself bored and unchallenged. He wants something but cannot quite name his want.

That is our introduction, the next chapter takes us to the very beginning of the tale - the story of the miraculous birth of the prince. The two childless wives of the king beg him to take another wife, then, the elder wife dreams of a white elephant entering her soul. Thereafter is the conception and birth of the prince followed by predictions of fame, fortune and worldly power.

The prince grows up within the palace, lacking for nothing. He is cosseted and protected and sees nothing but luxury and 'happy' things. But his search for that certain something ensures that he rebels and eventually he comes face to face with the very elements that the king wanted to protect him from: old age, sickness, death and the ascetic.

He now finds a name for his quest- the Stoic Stone and soon he leaves home as a mendicant in search of this elusive prize. Eventually after many years and many paths, he finds it. The Stoic Stone or Nirvana as we know it becomes his forever.

Many readers would have guessed that the story is about Lord Buddha, however, credit goes to Manu Gunasena for retelling this ancient tale in a straightforward yet interesting way. Admittedly many adults might find the book too simple for them but towards the end of the book, it shifts direction and becomes sharply philosophical.

The book is a very easy read with each chapter featuring a Manu Gunasena poem. This is one feature I could have done without. The poems were not very good and detracted from the tightness of the chapters. Consider one:

Betwixt life's splendour and fates' gloom

the Prince now rooted stood;

He had himself, the knowledge loomed,

sans thought spawned sorrow's brod.

Now that he had sired sorrow

His search couldn't wait the morrow,

now nothing would intrude;

To stir his will, his pledge fulfill;

Renounce the world; the truth distill.

If I have a resevation about this book, it is that he will lose his audience. If they are children by the time they get to the end of the book, they will get lost within the philosophical debate. If they are adults they might get bored before they got to the philosophical debates. But all in all it is an interesting read and a book I would recommend parents buy and read to their children. For in the end, it is a story that deserves to be told, it is a story worth knowing.