by K. S. Sivakumaran
Vannathikulam-Butterfly Lake is an English translation of a short fiction originally written in Thamil. The writer is Lanka born Australian Noel Nadesan. He practises in that country as a veterinarian. He has an added appellation – Doctor. His translator is also a Lanka born Australian. He is Kandiah Kumarasamy. The latter’s nom de plume is Nallaikumaran.
Vannathikulam in Thamil means a pond or tank with butterflies. Vannathi has two meanings: butterflies and washerwoman (what we call a female dhobi). Kulam is known as Kulama in Sinhala. Vannathikulam, an ancient Thamil village is now renamed Padaviya in Sinhala.
According to the writer, this short fiction is ‘based on true events laced with a fictional love story, where two souls from different ethnic backgrounds fall in love. They want to live in a bond of harmony overcoming the perils of ethnic tribalism’. So, what this book is about is clear.
Before I seek to go into the story, I must bring to your notice two commentaries by two well known persons. One is senior journalist (political commentator explaining and analysing Lankan and Thamilnadu political scene in particular), D. B. S. Jeyaraj. The other is a former prominent member of the JVP, Lionel Bopage, who is also a Lanka born Australian. Besides these two, the writer has consulted another senior Lankan journalist, H. L. D. Mahindapala, also an Australian citizen. Noel Nadesan has also submitted his original script in Thamil, titled Vaalum Suvadugal (Footprints of Life), to R. Ambihaipahan (Ambi), who is also a Lanka born Australian, for editing. Ambihaipahan is spelt as Ambikaibalar, which is wrong. I had known Jeyaraj, Mahindapala and Ambihaipahan for a long time.
The significance of the book, apart from its theme, lies in the two commentaries included in the book. For general information in recounting the actualities that had taken place in the country not so far in time, it is useful to remind ourselves the follies in which we as citizens have got entangled.
Let me therefore quote salient comments made by the two people referred above, which to my mind are worthy of remembering the past.
Quotes from DBSJ:
“The book is set in the period of 1980 to 1983 as a backdrop.Medawachchiya, Padavia and Vavuniya are in the border regions of Thamil majority Northern and Sinhala majority North -Central Provinces. These places serve as backdrop to the novel. The qualities underlying the theme is about love blossoming between a Thamil male and Sinhala female. This love grows gradually to the stage where both enter wedlock through a registered marriage.”
The above quote makes my task easy in going into the theme of the novel once again.
But what Jeyaraj says later is of significance. He says: ” Whatever the direction taken by political forces determining the contemporary political scene the ordinary people, irrespective of ethnicity, have decent humanitarian qualities.Sadly, powerless and helpless human beings cannot prevent or control the violently destructive hatred unleashed by the demonic forces of oppression. Innocent mortals are crushed and charred by the ferocious horror of present political trends. Yet they strive valiantly to preserve basic values and the inherent goodness of humanity in the face of overwhelming adversity. Padaviya is etched in the collective Thamil memory as a symbol of Sinhala majoritarian racism.”
Now, let’s see what LB underscores:
“In my opinion, one important factor is that Sri Lanka, in the name of defending great Sinhala Buddhist civilisation, linguistically isolated itself by drastically limiting and weakening the provision of English education to its people. Another factor is that while at the economic level, Sri Lanka was willing to embrace capitalism in all its manifestation, at social and cultural level, it endeavoured to retain many of its semi-feudal vestiges. Thamil youth of Jaffna were the first to publicly protest against colonialism.As was clearly visible since the 1940s, sectarian, one-sided and power hungry politicians never endeavoured to work towards building a Lankan nationhood. They continued to harness the differences among socio-economic and ethnic diversity of Sri Lanka peoples, aroused and used each nationalism against each other, to protect their own self-interests and privileges.”
In view of the length of the passages appearing on pages xiii and thereafter, I refrain from quoting, but the ideas expressed by Lionel Bopage are worthy of being understood by the extreme nationalists from both sides of the divide.
Noel S Nadesan says: “During the course of my work, I visited Sinhala villages bordering Thamil areas of North and East Many incidents that took place during my stay at Medawachchiya affected me deeply and left many unforgettable memories.”
He adds:” The Sri Lankan racial riots of July 1983 were neither accidental nor spontaneous. They were meticulously planned and carried out by politicians of that era. Seeds of discord sown in the early 1980s resulted in the pogrom of 1983 and the subsequent armed violence”
Now, let’s come to the realistic fiction. The book is a novel with erotic sensibilities amidst ethnic tensions among the Lankans even as early as quarter century ago. It is refreshing to note that a Thamil man and a Sinhala woman could really love each other despite hatred propagated by a few self-interested ultra nationalists.
Instead of my analysing the theme, plot, characterisation setting etc, I think the story will get its placing if I give you selective passages that explain everything you want to know. It’s contemporary history plus commentary from Thamilian points of view.
The translation helps one to understand the Thamilian idioms better and the the language used is a kind of Lankan Thamilian English. We must remember that it need not be ‘English – English’ as that mode is vanishing if you read contemporary world literature in English. However, a few careless errors have occurred in some places.
The story in 128 pages is divided into short 20 pages. Let me show those portions which struck me for actuality, tenderness and critical observations:
P 3: However, when I went to the University in the south and got to know the Sinhala undergraduates, I realised that the politics pursued by the Sri Lankan Government and the common Sinhala people were two different things.
P10 & 11: Padavia, he explained, is one of the colonies where new settlements prospered. The jungle was cleared for the unemployed and landless youth to settle in these colonies. Most of the inhabitants have come from the South of Sri Lanka. Some landless Kandyan Sinhalese also have settled in these colonies. My father is one settler. We were given not only free land, but also free rations of rice, dhal and dried fish for three years. My father was an early settler of the scheme. Even though the land and rations were given free, people were reluctant to come and settle down, as it was jungle area.”
P 12: Kandyan beauties were glamorized in popular songs. They were often referred to as “Menike’, meaning gem. Their fair skins and aristocratic bearing made them very attractive. However, the charming figure before my eyes mesmerised me. It was one of those sights that capture you eyes, your heart and mind instantly.
After touching the water in the glass as done in traditional Sinhalese custom, I accepted the cup of tea.
P 14; Chitra’s eyes with her fluttering eyelids made me want to change the name Padaviya to Vannathikulam, which meant Butterfly Lake
P 22: However corrupt it may be, it is difficult to go against a system without upsetting the entire social order. I went along with the system. I wasn’t in Medawachchiyato start a social revolution.
Yet in this remote corner, one becomes accustomed to the established ways. There are no rebels or crusaders here.
P 23: They, who were unable to even to keep the court premises clean, could waste the time and money of the Government by postponing this case for the simple reason that I appeared in the witness box with folded shirt leeves.
P 55: She placed the sari on her chest. The red sari on her yellow sari resembled red kumkumam on top of a sandalwood tray.
P 56: She leaned against me and gradually moved down my chest until her head nestled on my lap. When I placed my hand beside her neck and lifted her head close to me, she closed her eyes.
I brought her face closer to me. Now she opened her eyes. I pressed my lips over her s. She closed her eyes again; her hands snaked around my neck like a creeper grabbing me tightly. I wondered how she got her strength, as I struggled for my breath. Nevertheless, my arms ran round her waist and held her tight. I closed my eyes as I felt that it was not right to look at this world.
P 69: There is another place which is hot in cold weather and cold in hot weather.
What is it?
Come closer to me. I dragged her closer to me and rested my head on her breast saying, this is the place. Chitra, have you heard of a Thamil book called Thirukkural? Of Course!
It is said that the saliva of a girl is like a mixture of milk and honey.
P 94: During World War 2, the German Air Force was given categorical instructions not to bomb Oxford and Cambridge Universities. It was an order given by Adolph Hitler. In this case [they] surpassed even Hitler.
They have done it with the knowledge that the Jaffna Public Library is instrumental in making Jaffna people prosper in their education, Rukman said.
This is a false notion. They introduced standardisation with this idea in mind. The militant organisations sprang up because of the standardisation. The educated students started to have faith in the armed struggle. Even schoolchildren said that it is of no use going to school and started joining the militant organisations voluntarily. The youth-cadres who were more educated became their leaders. The issues such as burning of the Public Library will push the entire people towards armed struggle. When an armed struggle commences through incidents of this nature, it would be natural that revenge, enmity and swift justice automatically take the upper hand. There won’t be any humanitarian and intellectual approach o these issues. Then not only the Government but also the entire country will hit rock bottom.
In this country, it is better not to talk in any language. Then there will be peace. Languages have divided the people. Religions have destroyed them.
P107: If all Tamils behave like you then there will be no ethnic problem, one of the Sinhala students commented at that time. (1997 -P’deniya ‘varsity). As far as he was concerned, all Tamils known to him were good souls and only those Tamils unknown to him were bad.
P114: Tamils were killed during the racial riots in 1958. At that time, Tamils never asked for Tamil Eelam. Tamils residing in Colombo and the hill country areas were the worst affected during the riots. These people are destined to live among Sinhalese even if separation took place.
Ordinary Sinhalese people are almost unaware of the numerous problems Thamils are confronted with. The problem of the Tamils was looked as a problem of the politicians of both sides. Many Tamils were murdered in Jaffna during the early part of 1983, being branded traitors.
P 116: Pulmoaddai is an area close to the sea. The people who lived there were Tamil-speaking Muslims. Thennaaaravadi was the adjoining village and Tamil people lived in this village. These two villages formerly belonged to the Trincomalee District. Recently, both villages were amalgamated into the Anuradhapura District. The geographical continuity of Northern and eastern provinces were broken by this proclamation. The intention of the politicians was to deprive Tamils of statehood by settling Sinhalese in colonies and creating Sinhala villages in between the said two villages. These two villages came under my veterinary division.
P 128: Her fluttering eyelids looked like the wings of a beautiful butterfly. Her butterfly eyelids somehow comforted me, providing me with a sense of belonging to someone and security of knowing that she was with me.
This is a story narrated in the first person by the protagonist Sooriyan. He loves Chitra and she reciprocates. Through human relationships coming into his life, Sooriyan recounts the passage of time in the 1980s in the country. The political or rather ethnic actualities are reminded to young readers who might not have been familiar why these racial prejudices came about.
The book is published by Vijitha Yapa Publishers.
I wish readers from the major community knowing English read this fiction based on real events and even translate into Sinhala to undo the prejudices that some of the Sinhalas and Thamilians have towards each other.