Ajith Samaranayake, Ceylon Today, Giraya, James Goonewardene, Punyakante Wijenaike, Servants, Terrorist Trilogy, The Awakening of Dr Kirthi, The Terrorist’s Daughter, This Waiting Earth, Thisuri Wanniarachchi
Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
At the launch of The Terrorist’s Daughter
By Thisuri Wanniarachchi
At the Taj Samudra Hotel, August 14th 2014
It is a pleasure to speak at the launch of Thisuri Wanniarachchi’s second novel, The Terrorist’s Daughter. But I must confess that I wondered initially what had prompted a young lady I did not know to ask me to do this. Though I spent many years promoting Sri Lankan writing in English, at a time when the academic establishments of the day tended to look down on this, that was a very long time ago.
Yet having read through the novel, I began to understand. One of my criticisms of the literary establishment at the time was its celebration of what I termed the ‘village well’ syndrome. So Punyakante Wijenaike’s brilliant and very sophisticated novel Giraya was torn to pieces, but there was adulation by a Colombo academic of the wife in This Waiting Earth, as representing the real village woman. The sharp social criticism of a village elite in the later novel was not highlighted, nor was James Goonewardene’s The Awakening of Dr Kirthi, still perhaps the best analysis of what had destroyed the administration of this country.
I have long felt that works dealing with these higher levels of society are also important, because after this is where decisions that affect larger groups of humanity are made. My own writings, uniquely at the time, dealt with the very highest echelons of power, in that my first novel was based on the ethnic violence of 1983 and I indicated there that that violence had received the blessings of the highest level of decision making. So the entire Terrorist Trilogy dealt direct as it were with the events of 1983 and 1987 and 1989-90. My next novel, Servants, was in a different vein, but its subject matter was similar, since it too, if more obliquely, addressed social and political developments during that long drawn out period of crisis.
Interestingly, there has recently been a revival of interest in these books, and Ceylon Today serialized the latter and has now begun on the Trilogy. I am not sure what prompted the erudite editors of Mosaic, which finally gives us a cultural section that parallels the great work of journalists such as Ajith Samaranayake in the past, to have asked me about Servants. But perhaps it is that, once again, we are confronted, given the events at Aluthgama and the increasing open expression of racial prejudice, with the sort of social crisis that hit us so hard in the eighties.
I am too old now for fiction on this subject, so I was delighted to find in this book a young writer who was willing to tackle it head on. But she deals with it through something she seems, to understand well. Her principal subject is the hedonism of the young, led by the children of those in positions of power, and the corruption that results from devotion to what money can buy.
Some readers may find in this book a harsh attack on the President and his family, for the main love interest in provided by the terrorist’s daughter of the title and the youngest son of an incumbent President who is the father of three boys. Though Thisuri takes pains to establish a fictional situation in which the incumbent stood against the President who had won the war in 2009, her satire obviously has current relevance. And what stands out in the body of the book is the life of drinks and drugs and deals that the younger generation engages in, with full confidence of impunity.
I must admit that much of this struck me as exaggerated, with a bill of over a million rupees at a night club on one occasion, with a half consumed 15 gallon bottle of Moet Chandon as one reason for this. But I am doubtless naïve, and certainly the most horrifying scene in the book, the murder of a rich young lady, must be based on a real incident. Reading the narrative one naturally recalls the Royal Towers condominium incident, which just recently came to judgment.
All this paints a pretty bleak picture. But Thisuri in the end provides what seems to be a happy ending. This is after the terrorist’s daughter decides to flee the country, clad in a burqua, when the story of her origins breaks. She is of course fearful that the President will have her killed to stop his son’s involvement with such a possible source of embarrassment. But the President’s son, the charming Chitesh, pursues her to Norway where she had gone, since the man who adopted her was a Norwegian diplomat in Sri Lanka who later became ambassador. And after their romantic reunion, the story ends with the President and the first lady delighted at their first grandchild.
To be honest, I do not think that this quite works. Despite this ending full of sweetness and light, the reader is left with a rather sad impression of the country. But at the same time the awful situation described is obviously not the whole story, because the analyses in which some of the youngsters engage suggest elements of hope. Yet the overall impression is of people being swept along in a tide, and in particular the depiction of violence and self indulgence, as a widespread way of life, is deeply worrying.
Thisuri anchors her story in reality, by using names that are familiar or half so. The Norwegian ambassador is called Hattrem, which was the name of the very capable man who was here at the end of the war. His wife is a Fowler Watt, which struck a bell I had to think about, before registering that this was the head of the Colombo International School some years back. The President is called Dharmadasa, and his career has similarities to that of President Premadasa. His predecessor, who won the war and was then defeated, is Rajawansa. And Thalya’s real father is quite straightforwardly Pottu Amman, thinly disguised as Pottu Arman.
All this might make for, not a willing suspension of disbelief, but a sense of the absurd. This is perhaps necessary, because the depiction of extraordinary events does require exaggeration at times. But the novel goes beyond that too in its sustained descriptions and development of characters and situation. The cumulative effect of this reminded me of Richard de Zoysa, when I first began writing, telling me to keep going when I was not sure of certain sections. He was I think right, because the important thing is to sustain the narrative and the characters.
This was in the little house on 8th lane where we gave tuition to a host of bright youngsters, including the present Warden of S. Thomas’ and the wife of the leader of the opposition and the head of the most productive NGO in the country currently. Thinking of them, and their more simple entertainments and enjoyments, and contrasting this with the world or nightclubs and violence that Thisuri portrays, I worry for the country. But I also need to realize that times have changed, and I should not idealize the past and regret the activities of a new generation. As she puts it so sharply, ‘nobody likes something they don’t understand’. But despite this she remarks that ‘the world will revolve with or without them. The colors will still revolve in the sky. And life will go on.’ So we have to believe in redemption and reconciliation, we must assume that in time a President might accept a Tamil daughter-in-law, we should prepare the ground for someone like the idealistic Sharitha coming to power. Auden wrote at the time the Second World War broke out that we have to love one another or die. We have to keep hoping that humanity will adjust, and overcome the temptations of money, and of struggling for power without any sense of purpose of what power should accomplish.