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A Human Document

Indu Mallah

By Shyam Selvadurai
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2014, pp. 481, Rs. 499.00


Shyam Selvadurai, who has edited Many Roads Through Paradise, an anthology of Sri Lankan writers is a writer of acclaim, and has published several books, many of which have won prestigious awards. Browsing through the book, I felt I was meeting old friends. Many of the writers’ and poets’ names were familiar, and many pieces in the book are excerpts from books I had already read. The introduction to the book by the author evoked an intense feeling of deja vu in me. Like Selvadurai, I too, had had a ‘colonial’ childhood; my introduction to the world of books had also been through English books; I too had been taken to a favourite book-shop  from time to time, by an indulgent relative; in my case too, these trips had always been followed up by visits to a patisserie.... The book is divided into five different sections, arranged thematically, under different headings. For example, ‘The Chariot And The Moon’, which takes its title from an eponymous poem, is about class-conflict. ‘No State No Dog’ deals with displacement;  passion and loss inform  ‘Love In The Tsunami,’ while ‘Healing the Forest’ is devoted entirely to the ethnic war in Sri Lanka from 1983 onward. ‘The Epilogue’ rounds up the book on a poetic note. The first section includes a self-contained excerpt entitled ‘The Mahagedara’ from Martin Wickramasinghe’s seminal novel ‘Uprooted’, considered the starting-point of modern Sinhala Literature. The unbreachable social divide between the family of Don Adirian Kaisaruwatte Mahindiram, an elder of the land-owning gentry, and Piyal, the poor school-master who wants to marry the younger daughter of the house, is very poignantly evoked. In a lucid commentary, the author writes: ‘It was not to flaunt the feelings of superiority that the elders of the Kaisaruwatte family clung to the traditions of their patrician lineage, but for self-preservation of themselves and their way of life, now declining in the face of social change.’ The excerpt from A House Divided, by Naomi Munaweera, holds up a mirror to the ethnic tension in Sri Lanka, and the near-irrevocable divide between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Describing the flags of Sri Lanka, and the LTTE, Munaweera says: ‘A rifle-toting tiger. A sword-gripping lion. This is a war which will be fought between related beasts.’   Describing the brutality of the Sinhalese to a Tamil school-girl,(Munaweera herself is Sinhala), the author says very empathetically: ‘There is another ...

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