This review was originally published in the Sunday Observer and can be found here.
By Udan Fernando
Perhaps, an unfortunate occupational hazard of an academic is that he or she loses the ability to say something in simple language that makes sense to an ordinary person. In most cases, academic writing is unnecessarily complex, convoluted, incomprehensible – and boring. Such styles of writing cast a heavy shadow on emerging academics. They would perhaps think that if they don’t follow the convoluted style, their work will not be taken seriously.
The nonagenarian social scientist, Kumari Jayawardena, however, is a rare exception to this. She is not only bold enough but also abundantly talented to write something in simple English though the content can be serious, complex and heavy. The published version of Jayawardens’s PhD thesis, The Rise of the Labour Movement in Ceylon (V.K Jayawardena, Durham: Duke University Press, 1972) is a seminal piece of research with meticulous archival research. But it reads like a best-seller fiction that one doesn’t want to close.
Flipping through the pages of the recently released book, ‘The Good for Nothing’, made me think whether its author, Sathis de Mel, is doing a ‘reversal’ of Jayawardena. The author and his publisher, in a rather modest and simple manner, present the book as a collection of ‘stories’ which means they belong to the genre of fiction and short stories. What I meant by a ‘reversal’ is that what gets presented as a pleasurable fiction becomes a wholesome social commentary laced with rich and thick layers of historical and contextual particularities. The author is well known and well respected in his professional sphere which is not directly related to literature or writing. His very first attempt in publishing a fiction seems to have earned him an instant recognition as an astute writer.The so-called stories represent a great deal of diversity in terms of the style, length and temporality. The book contains twelve stories. Broadly, they can be classified into ones reflecting the story teller’s childhood and adolescence (1950s to mid-60s), his University and younger years (1970s) and mid-life and beyond (1980s onwards). Temporally, the stories written from the author’s vantage point, presumably auto-biographical and semi-auto-biographical in nature, cover a substantial period of contemporary Sri Lankan history. As such, the stories take the readers down a long and winding memory lane as the vast majority of the stories are well positioned in the particularities of the corresponding phase of context and history. Hence the stories depict the evolution of Sri Lankan society with a great deal of nuances and dynamics.
There is an obvious geographical positioning and focus of the majority of the stories. It is the coastal city of Moratuwa, in the Western Province. Put together, these stories weave in a beautiful tapestry of Moratuwa’s complex historical and demographical evolution at a macro level, interspersed with the diverse life-styles and sub-cultures of its people at a micro level. The Moratuwa stories can also be seen as a quasi-ethnographic account with a thick description, rich in details ranging from artefacts to language to customs and rituals (a telegram or postcard is sent to announce a visit, Ford Zephyr car, getting a suit tailored in England through a mail order, Miller’s Cargill’s and Seneviratne Brothers, dinky cars, English Black Magic chocolates, Ebert Silva bus, to mention but a few).
The stories skilfully capture the diverse demographic settings and classes (also their transition, stagnation and deterioration) and have it as the stage while bringing in a particular set of communities, families and individuals as characters of each story. In my opinion, this is one of the unique contributions made by the author to social sciences particularly to disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and cultural anthropology.
The author’s striking brilliance of chronicling a Moratuwa ethnography, is best reflected in the stories around his childhood which is set in the 50s and 60s. I shall not take each and every story here for reasons of brevity and to avoid spoiling the readers’ pleasure of a rare choice of plots and characters. However, I shall take a couple of stories to illustrate how well the author had crafted a rich ethnographic account of Moratuwa. The story titled ‘Dashman’ is perhaps the best in this regard. In a way, it is the Martin Wickramasinghe’s celebrated trilogy, ‘Gamperaliya-Kaliyugaya-Yugaanthaya’ of a certain section of Moratuwa people. It is also a Moratuwa case study of ‘Nobodies to Somebodies’ by Kumari Jayawardena (Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, K. Jayawardena, London: Zed Books, 2003) , given the fascinating account – which is depicted through the story – the author makes on the accumulation of wealth by a certain section of Moratuwites, the resultant migration of such classes to affluent areas of Colombo, their tokenistic links with the not so-rich or poorer relatives. ‘Dashman’ surfaces the class and cultural divide as well as the tensions between the so-called ‘Big-Relatives in Colombo Seven’ and ‘Country Cousins’ left stagnant in Moratuwa with a sharp sense of analysis and a fine mix of empathy, wit and humour.The stories also bring in another very unique feature of Moratuwa which is its inclination towards Left politics. Historically, Moratuwa ‘seat, ’as it was called then, was considered a strong bastille of the Left, particularly the LSSP. Here lies a question. Moratuwa is known for its ‘kana-bona’ sub-culture given its indulgence on eating, drinking and merry making. The question is how such a populace in Moratuwa who would spend all their money for parties, feasts and sing-songs, arrack, fashionable attires, etc., subscribe to an egalitarian and communist ideology. ‘Sama-samaaja-kaarayaas’ are an essential element of the Moratuwa’s colourful demography.The stories capture this dimension extremely well, also with an inimitable sense of satire, cynicism and even ridicule. Particularly, the period during which the Left was part of the government in the sixties and seventies, holding prominent ministerial portfolios and the largesse they showered upon on their supporters in the form of jobs in banks and other government establishments feature as a backdrop in one story. However, Moratuwa’s Leftist glow has changed drastically since 1977, with the overwhelming victory of the UNP.
This review would be incomplete without a reference to the overwhelming emphasis given by the author on cuisine and culinary matters. Most stories carry a comprehensive food commentary. Here again, the literal meaning of the term used for Moratuwa’s sub culture, ‘kana-bona’ (eating-drinking) is elaborated. This sub-culture, arguably influenced by the Portuguese presence in the coastal belt, is brought to the fore in a true ethnographic style. The dishes unique to Moratuwa (and in one story, food in Galle, including the Muslim cuisine) are featured quite prominently to prove author’s passion and familiarity of the subject. Invoking a visual imagination within the reader by an author is something but making the reader salivate or an urge to sniff the food is definitely another!
Sathis de Mel’s ‘The Good for Nothing’ infuses a breath of fresh air to Sri Lankan fiction written in English. The author’s eloquence in English as well as the excellent bilingual skills (a fine example is how one story brings Raigamayay-Gampolayayi, two folk story characters with Laurel & Hardy) is well reflected by the natural, unpretentious and authentic style of his writing. Stories also witness that they have emerged from an authentic ground through the long years of lived through experience of a story teller who is abundantly gifted to tell the tale with a rare talent of fixing a literary cocktail with a base of ethnography that sends the reader through an unusual high!