A Lankan in Post-Maoist Beijing

by K.S.Sivakumaran

Have you read the English translation of the Sinhala novel,”Nandhithaya”?

If not, please read it. I shall tell why we should do that in a moment.

But before that, we should know something about the novelist and the translator. They are both women and are extremely talented people. They are bilingual.

The English title of the book is”Chameleon” and it is published by Sarasavi Publishers in Nugegoda.

The women concerned are Sunethra Rajakarunanayake and Vijita Fernando. I know these two ladies who are well known in Lankan literary circles. I know them personally. But it is better to quote some authority figure, the respected English / Sinhala scholar, Dr.Lakshmi de Silva to know more about Sunethra and Vijita.

On Sunetra: “The author of the original work “Nandithaya” (note how the stately serenity of the name which signifies ‘pleasant’ is destabilized by the derisory, ya) is Sunethra Rajakarunanayake, whose MSS of a collection of short stories ‘Sambol Plus” was short listed in 2004 for the Gratiaen Award. Her earlier collection of short stories “Attaining Age” won the State Literary Award in 1997. Yasmine Gooneratne in “Celebrating Sri Lanka Women’s Writing” (WERC 2002) describes her as ‘… much traveled… an overtly feminist journalist whose stories are sophisticated, feisty and funny … A Sinhala novelist whose writing is sexually frank. Her English stories are interestingly cosmopolitan’ ”

On Vijita Fernando: ” Vijita Fernando, herself the author of such compelling short stories as “Circle of Power” and “Wedding in the Family” won the Gratiaen Award as well as the State literary Award for “Out of the Darkness, her acute and sensitive translation of Gunadasa Amarasekera’s sequences, “Asathya Kathawak” and “Premaye Sathya Kathawa”. The quality of her work had already been acknowledged in 2001 by the presentation of the State Literary Award for Women Writing”, her collection of 25 short stories which reflects the individual styles of the original writers with marvelous dexterity”

I like this novel because: it is set in a foreign locale – Beijing in Post -Maoist and Cultural Revolution China; the characters are all women and the points of view are all from the women’s stances and written by a woman who had lived in China; the central character, however, is a Lankan Sinhala Male, who is intrinsically good or maybe he is a scheming exploiter; the novel is cosmopolitan; it provides glimpses of the aftermath of the decadent cultural revolution which did a lot of damage to the greatness of China; it is an expose’ of fakes; and the like.

The book has 210 pages and has five chapters. Except the last one, the rest of the chapters are absorbing and I read them straight without stopping. The last chapter was somewhat boring to me because, I couldn’t understand the significance of it at first reading. You might like to know how the chapters captioned: Sojourn in Beijing, Bunsiri from Thailand, Gabriella Meets Sri Lankan. Apples for Bala, and a Folk Song from Beijing.

Incidentally, this Bala is a Thamilian from Chennai in India. Sunterra makes him speak in his own words and typical South Indian fashion. At least that how the novelist sees a Thamilian from her woman point of view.

I must point out here that the Thamil words that are used here and there are written with wrong spellings and this looks unreal, while the novel is an imaginative creative writing in a realistic canvas.

I think the characters are well drawn. However, let’s go back to Lakshmi to see how she has read the novel:

“”Nandithaya’ presents a crowded canvas filled with characters of many nationalities tenuously linked by loneliness and the need for social warmth in the immensity of a prosperous, consumerist Beijing. Among these are three women, Thai, American and Indian, whose interaction is confined to an occasional shared meal, going shopping or sightseeing and laughing together over the experiences and acquaintances they have in common. Outside this group is Shange, a native who has lived through political, economic and social change; as she sank into the water, fragrant with bath salts in the sunken bath at her friend Dingling’s home, and views the jade green tortoises on its steps, she visualizes the doorless common toilet they used as children. All these women, excluding the cool self-reverent Kiran, have separated from dishonest and brutal husbands; Gabriella, the Italian scholar likewise broken free from an exploitative Chinese lover, but does not know where or whether to go…”

“Into this footloose and fancy free community erupts the anarchic Nanditha, a Sri Lankan”

Now this Nanditha, feel, is an enigmatic character. I think the novelist has succeeded in exposing chameleons like Nanditha who are cool villains in a society, not necessarily Lankan.

Here are some passages from the novel to show you both the writer’s imaginative description and the translator’s rendition into English. They are chosen at random:

“The Sri Lankan man had read somewhere that in Beijing the broad highways on which luxury cars travel are getting broader. Some time back the question had been asked at a gathering of environmentalists at a hotel in Colombo, why Sri Lanka couldn’t use only bicycles as they do in Cuba and in China. He remembered this and smiled to himself.”

*
Professor Nanditha came into our midst dressed in a red checked sarong and collarless, short sleeved shirt of the same material. A gold chain peeped through the opening in the shirt. All the women hugged him an expressed their joy at meeting him. Kiran, who had just come in, put her palms together and greeted him with a “Namaste”. I stretched out my right hand.

“One hand is not enough…for Asian Buddhist friendship, both hands are needed” Nanditha said gripping both my hands and looking deep into my eyes.

*

“My dreams have all been shattered and broken…I married twice. Both were mistakes. I think that men give beautiful promises. whisper words to read your hear, not because they are false. At the moment they say those words maybe they too really believe them. Whatever it is, I will not trust an American or an Italian. Never again!”

*
When it was close to the time he was to leave for China, the Sri Lankan man had read in a copy of “China Today” that in 1979 there were 230 million poor in China But now it says there are only 30 million. How could they have crossed over the development disasters of Mao’s time and the madness of the Cultural Revolution?”

*
People who are old now have gone through every tribulation. We have suffered the insults of the Red Guards languished in prison, and went through a time when we dared not honestly open our mouths even on some happy occasion. So let the old people have a little happiness before they die. I am now too old. Or else I too would have got married” Grandfather started saying this to everyone everywhere in a loud voice.

This novel explores traits in characters of women and men coming from different cultural backgrounds in a cosmopolitan word. Besides it also gives us glimpses of today’s China.

You will enjoy this novel.

Contact: sivakumaranks@yahoo.com

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