Friday, May 23, 2014

Tamil Tigress by Niromi de Soyza

Tamil Tigress was published in 2011 and ever since I heard of it, I wanted to read it. Who wouldn't? The story of a female child soldier who joined the LTTE and fought in the civil conflict - it sounded a best seller even in the abstract. But for a long time, I was ambivalent on getting the book, finally, I managed to get my grubby hands on a copy and read it over three days.
It taught me a good lesson. When you sometimes hear of something over and over again, especially with regard to books and movies, you might either be put off or have really high expectations that are never fulfilled. It was the former for me, regarding this book. I was put off for many reasons: that she chose a Sinhala name to write the book, when she was clearly Tamil, I was put off by all the comments I heard from friends who read it, who said she trivialized the issue, it was not accurate, etc etc.
But now, here I am, one of those who read it and I am so glad I did. First the debate on the name. Apparently, she adopted the pseudonym in honour of Richard de Soyza. But I still can't think why she chose a Sinhala name. There are so many other Tamil's she could have honoured, if she didn't want to write under her own name. But pseudonyms for no reason are not new at all, even in Sri Lanka (refer Ashok Ferrey) and so I could not hold that against her for too long.
In reading the book, I forgot all the charges. I was totally into it from beginning to end.
The story, is of a young Tamil girl, who moves  from Kandy to Jaffna after the riots of 1977. Not many people know or remember that before 1983 there were other riots against the Tamils. Her father leaves her with her grandmother and goes to the Middle East to work, some months later, her mother and younger sister join her. In Jaffna, she witnesses the burning of the library in 1981, and then came the riots of 1983. The young girl, enamoured by the Tigers, romanticizes the notion of freedom fighters. She speaks of seeing young boys casually toting guns around the town, spoken off in hushed whispers with tinges of admiration and the young girl is hooked. It was a time when the Tigers were in charge unofficially. The Tigers would regularly speak to children in school and Niromi heard them speak. I am not sure if that had an impact or not but quite early on she wants to join the Tigers and together with her childhood school friend, off she goes.
At that time, the Tigers were not keen on having female cadres, and not keen on enlisting under age children. A far cry from what they became. But Niromi, speaks of a period, when the Tigers were still forming as the dominant group. There is an air of innocence, of hope in a strange way, of wanting things to be different and trying to find ways, albeit all the wrong ones, of righting wrongs.
Her book focuses on the time of the IPKF mainly and ends in 1988. It is important to remember that time frame, because her experience of the Tigers were completely different to what they later became.
Regardless if her facts are true or fabricated. Regardless if Tamils swear or don't swear accurately, if they had boyfriends or not, to me the story rang true. Her descriptions of the training, of jungle life, guerilla skirmishes and day to day life, reveal a side that we in the south had just no idea what was happening.
In segregated Sri Lanka today, we have no idea how the youth of other communities really live. We think we know, but we don't. And through the ethnic conflict, the complete separation of communities of North and South, made us have images and views of the other, that became embedded in stone.
To me, it was refreshing to read a book where boys and girls are interested in each other, have fun, even amidst the struggle for the rights of their people. Prabhakaran, Mahatthaya, Kittu, and Thileepan, familiar, even fearsome names, became human. Her distant love interest Roshan, seemed very real, even the emotions she captured are real in a Sri Lankan context, where the sexes are distant from each other.
The way she leaves the Tigers, shows that it was a time, when free will did play a part to some extent. There were many who resigned and many who were asked to leave, and also many executions and eliminations to those they perceived as not having behaved properly and who were traitors. 
Niromi, left the Tigers, finished her education in India and managed to emigrate to Australia, where she still lives. She has become a prominent literary figure, doing the circuits and speaking of her experience.
It is a good book, well written, and worth a read. If I have one criticism, it is that Niromi does not talk much about Tiger ideology. It is more a recounting of an experience than a philosophical reflection of the Tigers. It makes me wonder, if like in the army, there would have been recruits in the early days among the Tigers, who were all fired up to fight on behalf of their ethnic group but with very little understanding of what it entails.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Facing the Taliban by Anoja Wijeysekera

Sometimes you come across a book that is well written and has a pretty unique story and you are pleased as punch that it is a Sri Lankan story - yes this book is that good. Ok, except for really minor editing grouses (which perhaps only a picky reader might detect) the book for the most part stands out as a good read. Anoja Wijeyesekera has a lovely writing style and while most memoirs or first person accounts can tend to be heavy on the "I" factor, it is perfectly understandable in this instance as it is quite a unique story.
Here you have a Sri Lankan woman working in an all male office, in a fundamental Muslim country, in a patriarchal environment, in a war torn region, during a despotic reign, managing to hold her own with dignity and calm. Hats off to her.
Anoja Wijeysekera leaves her husband in the UK, and her youngest daughter in an English boarding school to take up a four year post with UNICEF as the Resident Project Officer in Jalalabad approximately 95 miles away from Kabul.
She details her next few years describing her working relationship with her male Afghan colleagues, with the Taliban, with the people of Afghanistan and especially with the women. She writes of a journey that is principled and fair and in the end both sides - the seemingly inflexible Taliban and herself end up with a grudging respect of each other. The ordinary Afghan citizen is portrayed as being caught in the middle of a vicious tug of war between what they feel is decent and what is imposed by the Taliban. The unfortunate Afghan women despite their clearly second class status and inferior position come out shining like beacons of light with their fortitude and their courage and hope. Anoma too, ends up understanding in some small way the alien culture that she is placed in and understands that the Afghan word is one of honour and trust that does not depend on pieces of paper to ensure the word is kept.
She describes the beautiful country, the fruits, the food, the hospitality and the people. Likewise she was an ambassador of the Asian woman combining gentleness with steel and the perfect example of Buddhism in acceptance, tolerance and openess. Values that many so called Buddhists in our country should share.
The book is written without judgement or condemnation even though Anoma witnessed brutality and harshness first hand and had to negotiate difficult terrains of teaching the Taliban to respect women and authority and rules and fairness. She manages to convey a love of a country, a love of a people and at the same time, the absolutely tough life and environment that exists in a country like Afghanistan.
The book concludes with her leaving Afghanistan soon after 9/11 (with her brother narrowly escaping disaster in New York) with her promotion as Country Representative to Bhutan. As she puts it from hell to heaven and yet in her book she reveals that even in hell she found heaven, for in in this book she  writes a tribute to Afghanistan and her people. A super read and congratulations to a  Sri Lankan woman who deserves applaud not only for her journey and story but also for her tale. And finally to cap it off for me the cover of the book is superb!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Moon in the Water by Ameena Hussein

So there is this hangup of mine. I don't like reading books that everyone is raving about at the time it comes out. So despite many people telling me I must read this book, I took my time and I am glad I did or else I might feel I was influenced by their opinions.

 I had read her previous two books and I am a fan. In them she has a distinctive voice and a certain rawness that was appealing. And look at that cover! It is fabulous if not a little risqué.
This novel has more polish and is in a different style from her short stories. It is a very easy read and engaging from beginning to end. I might have done away with the Prologue but writers seem attached to them.
 Because Ameena Hussein is a Muslim, it is understandable that she writes a novel that deals entirely with a Muslim family. A young very modern (living together with her boyfriend, living in a foreign country working, educated abroad - is it realistic, I ask?) Muslim woman comes back to the country when her father dies in a bomb blast. She has one sister and two brothers. She is the eldest in the family. When she comes back, she realizes that she is adopted and that because of some convoluted aspect of Muslim Law she can't inherit from her father who dies without making a will. She also realizes that she has a blood brother and off she goes to find that brother who has had the most different life from her. She is not upfront about being his sister and I suspect he is falling in love with her and is mad with her for hiding that fact. They part on strained terms but later on start meeting and talking and also seem to be stepping over the boundaries that rule brothers and sisters. Then tragedy takes place and soon after the book ends.
I don't want to spoil the story which is why I stop there. Hussein, puts in everything and the kitchen sink: there is allusion to the war, there are debates on Muslim tradition, there is a big section on the JVP, there is the Tsunami, there is post tsunami rehabilitation, there is sibling unease over her adoption, there is anger, love, betrayal, friendship, etc etc . So despite its fairly slim size, it is a novel that speaks about a hell of a lot of things.
But don't let that frighten you. Hussein has a lovely easy writing style. While she may struggle a bit at the beginning, the novel gets stronger and better as you read along. While she may pontificate too much on issues, there is certainly food for thought. And when I came to the end of the novel, I was quite moved.
She has wonderful descriptions about the country, about the customs and traditions of the Muslim community and really lyrical passages on how the protagonist feels about love. My favourite characters were RaushenGul and Abdullah. The former the young woman's mother, who is quite a feisty woman in her own right and the latter, the young woman's fiancée who comes out as being sensitive and truly loving her. One of the loveliest passages for me was right at the end of the novel, when he goes to visit her before flying back to the home that they both shared without her accompanying him.
Perhaps as is often with first novelists, there is this need to talk about everything. I look forward to her second novel but I confess I like her earlier style compared to this one and hope she continues to develop as a writer.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

open words are for love-letting by Malinda Seneviratne

One of the best things about having friends who read, is that you can borrow their books. Though, some are as protective of their books as they are about their money! Visiting friends last week, I saw this book of poetry lying on their coffee table and asked to borrow it. What with Malinda being short-listed for the Gratiaen and all and I don't think, this book is available for sale, I was interested.
This is the third or fourth time Malinda has been short-listed for the Gratiaen and not won. A sort of record in itself I think. From what I heard of his previous work, he is a good poet and this book confirms the impression. Malinda is a damn good poet!
Firstly, I love the title: open words are for love-letting. The poems are a mix of the personal and the political. From poems about his sister (I was recently told she is Ru Freeman), to daughters, father, mother (the poem is called Ammi) he goes on to make poetry on The Mother of all Wars, War criminality, An open end-note from Geneva etc.
I am not an academic analytic critic. But I am a reader. I read something - I like it or I don't like it and use this blog to talk about some books I have read. For me, poetry should be enjoyment, whether it makes me think, whether I love the way, the words trip fast upon each other, the rhythm, the words, the sound. So for me, it is all the more difficult to review a book of poetry, as there could be good poems and bad poems in the mix offered but all in all most of the poems I read in this collection, I liked.
But after all this, I have a question: Why didn't Malinda win the Gratiaen? Aside from his politics, he is a good poet and shouldn't that be the criteria for winning? I have read Lal Medawattegedera's pervious works and didn't like any of them. I doubt that he can develop to be a writer of such astounding quality that he just had to win the Gratiaen. I saw Kalumaali and thought it was dreadful (poor Ruwanthi, what happened?), and then we have two unknowns - Rizvina Morseth and Saroj Sinnathamby alias Ashok Ferrey and we all know what his writing is like. Rizvina is the unknown quantity here. If she didn't win and being extremely biased against the other contenders, either the work or their previous writing style, I would have put my bets on Malinda winning. But he didn't. To answer my question we will have to wait a whole year for Lal to put his novel out for us readers to judge, a year too late, if he was worthy or not. And you can bet on it, that I will be reading the book.

I leave with one of Malinda's poems:

Differently colored sibling
non-identical twin
of city space
and urban things,
territory of the timeless
the hide and seek
and seek for hide,
target and shoot,
spotted meat
and jaw-jaw
fang and claw,
visitor's unmercuried mirror
reflecting but unseen

I don't know where you can buy the book, but if you see it lying on a friend's coffee table. Pick it up. Its worth a read.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

There is something about reading a book that is talked about so much. Everybody asks me, wherever I go, if I have read this book. It comes highly recommended and so it travelled to the top of my 'must read' list. I was a little frightened. Would the book make me so sad that I would get depressed and think about it all the time? Would I cry? Would I be able to finish it? etc etc.
Wave, is a book by a tsunami survivor. An expat Sri Lankan who was on holiday in Sri Lanka and was in Yala with her husband, her two young sons and her parents. They had been staying for four days in a hotel just outside the wildlife park and had even met a friend there. A young woman who lived in America and would teach Sonali's young boys the violin whenever they visited the home country together.
The book starts with the tsunami. You are taken straight to the event. That morning, when they saw the wave and began running. Running past her parents room, running, running. Getting into a jeep and finding her music friend and her father also in the jeep there. You understand, the panic at the moment, when she talks about the music friend's mother unable to clamber onto the jeep, being left behind, and the father jumping out to be with her. All seems well, there is no water in the car park, the hotel is as it should be. But soon after the jeep is in water, water in the jeep, up to the chest, then it turns over.
She next wakes up after it is all over. When she is rescued she is all alone. No husband, no children, no friend. She is found and taken to the ticket office at the entrance to the park. Then later to the hospital.
From then on, Sonali relates the events that followed and what happened to her and her life on the loss of virtually her whole family. She gives you in blinding detail her thoughts, her feelings, her suicidal wishes, her support system, her inability to cope with the loss and how some nine years later, it is still raw, still painful, still horrible. She is still alone. She writes well, and she write honestly. There is even humour in this book, and that is an amazing feat. She is a very brave woman, I thought, at times. She is so open about her feelings. She is so frank and wishes to portray it as it is, no whitewashing here.
I had feelings, when I was reading the book. But I don't want to talk about them now, I will mention them later in this review. At the end of the book, I closed it and continued to sit on the chair by the window, looking out at the street below, watching cars and people walk by and thought of Sonali and her tragedy.
But now, here is my secret, I just didn't like the book. I was moved, I was sad, I thought it the most horrible thing to happen to a person, but what did it teach me? What was left when I finished the book?
I have read any number of personal tragedy stories, all quite different from Sonali's, some to do with gang rape, others of wrongful imprisonment, of torture, of hostage, of losing family under different circumstances, of war, natural disasters etc, but I was drawn to each of those books, because the survivor (because you have to be a survivor in some sense to even write about the event) has come to some resolution. Despite all they have gone through, they have come to a point in their life, where some peace, some enlightenment, for lack of a better word has entered their soul. And then I realized, that is what has happened. When Sonali lost her family, she lost her soul. The entire book is an ode to herself. It is to some extent self-centered in a way and there is a refusal to change. She is unable to change, move forward, understand what has happened. She lives continually in that moment, unable to see anything or anyone else.
I thought about the hundreds of other women on the North or East Coast who endured first war, then the tsunami and lost many family members. I thought of those on the South Coast who were poor and then the tsunami came and took everything including family members. If they wrote their story, how would it be, what would their lives be like, their mental state etc. And yes, they didn't, so we have this story to show us, what perhaps thousands of others have gone through and are possibly going through. But, somehow, I know, that there is a different story out there, of someone who came out of it and would show me through her example, through her loss and resolution, what it is to be a greater human being. Someone who can teach me how to be a better person. How, after going through the most horrible loss, can still come out of it and show me, teach me, what is to be human. And you know what? I have discovered, that there are others out there, who also didn't like the book for the same reasons. It seems almost heartless to not like the book, but there you have it. I too have to be honest about a book I read.

Friday, March 29, 2013

There is something I have to tell you by Madhubashini Ratnayake

 To write a long novel needs skill, dedication, commitment and most of all a good long story to tell. Certainly Madhubashini Ratnayake has proved that she has enough of the first three and the Gratiaen judges thought she has enough of the last component, after all they awarded her the Gratiaen Prize for 2011 awarded in 2012 but I am not sure that she succeeded.
There is Something I have to Tell You is a fabulous title. The story is woven around a few characters, the walauwe son, the servant's son, the samanera living in the temple next door, the girl next door, the university rich kid, the revolutionaries, etc etc. Nothing we haven't read about before. But a good story can take an old theme and make you see it with new eyes. A good story can weave a fabric around your imagination filled with the colours and sounds of the writer's skill. Has Madhubashini Ratnayake done that? I am not sure. There is a story certainly, and it is a familiar story, nothing unusual, it talks about all the issues we as a country have gone through. But perhaps as happens to many first novelists they want to talk about everything that has happened in our entire history. If they could bring Vijaya's arrival into a modern novel as well, they would. So the novel is set during a time of post independence but there is constant reference to the pre-independence struggle as well as the ills of colonialism. Then we have the lean years, the JVP struggle and the LTTE (not dwelt on much but referred to). We have Sinhala nationalism, and Sinhala chauvinism, and the sane voices that to my mind didn't hold true. It was too much a nod to political correctness a token reminder of how things should be. But despite my misgivings and my holding back of praise, it is a novel that I would recommend one reads.
We have expected much from Madhubashini Ratnayake, she has given us some collections of stories that have received good reviews, so I was expecting a wonderful novel. It is a novel that could have been wonderful but is not. It could have done with much editing. In fact editing down. Five lines cut out of every ten, would have made it stronger and tighter and faster. It could have done with a spellcheck as well. It was a novel that I took a long time to finish and I would lose interest in it half way, which is not a good trait for a novel. It is certainly not an easy read. But I emphasise again, it is worth reading, because in my mind it deals with serious issues by a writer who is the backbone of the Sinhala middle class. . To me I saw the novel as a door into the writer's mind and others like her, of what they think of their own country and how they feel, truly feel about where their country is headed. She definitely has something to tell us but perhaps she could have done it better.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cry for Me a Little: Stories of the Souls by Mariam Riza.

 Its been a long time since I wrote in this blog and its not for lack of reading material, its just that I took a long break from Sri Lankan books. The Gratiaen Prize was last month and Madhubashini Ratnayake won this year but we will have to wait for at most a year until the book is published so that we can see if it is worthy or not a la Shehan Karunatilleke, Vivimarie, Ruwanthie de Chickera etc. But I have in my hands a Gratiaen shortlist from this year. At the shortlist reading at the British Council, the reader of Mariam Riza's work was so amazing that he made it a strong contender for the prize, yet now having read the whole book, I realize he could have read any of the other candidates and made them equally strong.
Mariam Riza has a lot to say and she says it bluntly. No censoring of language or situations, she addresses a multitude of situations - conflict, trafficking, drug testing on animals, and poaching are just a few. The book also traverses the globe - stories on Rwanda, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia and of course Sri Lanka are some of the countries. So it presents itself as being a sophisticated collection for the world reader.
Written in a style that is typically Sri Lankan (sloppy writing, bad grammar, wierd punctuation and capitalization) she addresses topics that are usually shunned in Sri Lankan books in a manner that is in your face. It is a style that might have worked had the author paid a little attention to details that make a book well written and above average. Having said that, I have to imagine that the Gratiaen shortlisted the book more on content and subject matter than writing style.
Most of the stories start well but then end up going nowhere or in a direction I personally did not want them to go to. The story read at the Gratiaen shortlist was titled The Smell of Roses. The direct and blunt rantings of a male gigolo peters out to become a love struck teenage like obsession that has no bite. A story titled Wrongful Imprisonment which flirts with the theme of prisoners in Guantanomo is so weakly written that you wonder what kind of President of a country has such a nincompoop working for him. After reading several stories that dealt with serious themes but failed to deliver, I began to wonder why the author would write about these topics if she didn't make the effort to ensure that the reader was moved not only by the subject matter but also by the writing.
The stories are undeniably powerful and deal with themes that are current, political, social and humanitarian but for me, the experience of reading it was frustrating with the turns and twists that some stories took that rendered them inane, and bad; and unrealistic dialogue that was featured in other stories that made them unbelievable and soppy. To cap it all off the cover, perhaps to reflect the depressing title was shaded grey depicting something I could not quite decipher so I could not even take a break from the writing to gaze at the cover and get inspired.
Mariam Riza has talent but she needs to hone it. As it is a first book a lot can be forgiven but I shall look forward to her second book and hope that it will be a lot better.