Originally posted by Padraig Colman in the Ceylon Today, on 21st January 2021
Rukmini Attygalle writes in her acknowledgements in her debut collection of short stories entitled Of Saris and Grapefruit, “To all those who, in one way or another helped me to: See clearly; Feel deeply; Laugh heartily.”
The first story in the collection is “The Setting Sun”. The story hints at the dark side of tourism. Wimal impressed his contemporaries with his relative wealth. He was fifteen but “seemed older and was the richest young man in our village. Although, most of the time he walked around barefoot, like the rest of us, he did actually possess a pair of shoes.” One can guess how Wimal makes his money and the narrator is soon following the same path. “’You will work for this gentleman today. Do as you are told, and he will give you a good tip.’ Mr. Jinasena nodded at the man, smiled at me, and walked away. “
In “Dawn of Birth and Death”, we see life in the midst of death. From the terrors of tourism, we turn to the terror of the Tigers. “Kusuma, the eldest daughter now heavy with child, sat on a low stool watching her father busying himself with wood, hammer and nails, making a cradle for his soon to be born grandchild. …No one in the family nor anyone in the village, for that matter, possessed a cradle. Somapala had wanted to make something special for the expected child. Although a farmer, he had inherited his father’s love of carpentry. “
The family’s peace is soon disturbed and their modest expectations thwarted. Nearby Kumbukpitiya village had been attacked by the LTTE. Kusuma “instinctively picked up the child, cut the umbilical cord and separated it from the afterbirth. She ripped her underskirt, wrapped the child in it to keep it warm and nestled it against her.” Kusuma knew that Somapala was never going to come back. “As she cradled the child in her arms, Kusuma’s eyes rested on the legacy left to her son by her father – the cradle which was ‘almost finished’ and needed ‘only a bit of sand papering.’ “
We are in a lighter mood with “Money Lender” and “Let-Down”; both stories deal with the narrator’s encounters with a shrewd beggar called Andoris, who plied his trade mainly in and around Colpetty market. He was double-jointed and had the ability to contort his limbs to such an extent that, when it suited him, he could appear horribly deformed. “He never ever verbally claimed that he was in any way disabled. If others thought so – well that was their prerogative! Their undoing too!”
In the afternoons, he went into the market-square to work as a porter and hailer of taxis. “He seemed to change miraculously from the pathetic deformed figure prone to breathing difficulties to a man-of-action. The agility with which he pranced about on his thin stick-like legs never failed to amaze me. Veins bulged out of his upper arms as he lifted heavy shopping bags, and he seemed very much happier doing this than his morning work.”
The narrator’s eccentric relationship with Andoris begins when she is on her way by taxi to a social function and is horrified to find she has not brought any money. She borrows money from the beggar, which, of course, she repays. “What I had given him was much more, very much more than what money could buy. To him, the entire transaction between us was like an exchange of gifts between two friends. Momentarily, he had been the benefactor and I the beggar. And I? I was so glad. Grateful too.”
Her friends and family disapprove of her friendship with a beggar and she allows them to dissuade her from accepting an invitation to the wedding of Andoris’s daughter. “He probably accepted that socially I was considered his superior, but he knew, that we both knew, that on a basic human level we were equal.”
Leela, the central character in the title story, “Of Saris and Grapefruit” is happily settled in London working in a government office. She gets on with her colleagues but does not want to abandon her Sri Lankan identity and is aware that some people might struggle to accept immigrants. “Leela was proud of her national heritage and no amount of pressure subtle or otherwise would change her decision to continue wearing sari. She stood out like a parrot among a flock of grey pigeons.”
There was an initial British froideur but soon the people she worked with became friends as well as colleagues. Mary, however, still exhibited some reserve and continued to hold back. After an embarrassing incident when Leela’s sari fell off in the street at Elephant and Castle, Mary revealed more about her life and character and displayed her true worth as a friend. “She slowly left the room and returned with the British panacea for all stressful situations, a ‘nice-cup-of-tea’, and shyly placed it on Leela’s desk. Leela noticed a motherly gentleness in Mary’s face, that she had not seen before.”
My favourite story in the collection is “Shared Bench”. This is the longest story in the book and it has subtleties and nuances and twists of plot worthy of a novella. Swarnamali was sixteen when her mother died. She stepped into her mother’s role and took on the responsibility of caring for her siblings. Despite her eligibility to go to university, she joined the local Teacher Training College in Kegalle, so she could stay at home and help her father. Later Swarna went to live in London but made frequent holiday visits. This was the first time she had come to Sri Lanka since her husband Mahinda passed away.
Swarna had taught at the village primary school before she married and left Kegalle and memories come back as she now visits the school. She visits the Teacher Training College and thinks about Mr Raymond, her English lecturer, who showed great concern when she tripped and injured her knee. “He was tall, fair and good looking and also approachable with an easy manner and a good sense of humour.”
She was happy to see today that her favourite bench was still there under the kottang tree. “Again, a sharp memory came vividly to mind. She saw herself, of course slim and girlish and different from how she looked now, seated on the bench sketching when Mr. Raymond happened to pass by. He stops and says ‘Hello’. Swarna’s heart misses several beats; she drops her pencil and turns red with embarrassment, or was it pleasure, she now asks herself? He bends down, picks the pencil and hands it to her. Did her fingers touch his?”
Today, the seventy-year-old Swarna saw a figure of an old man shuffling along the sandy path waving a white stick in front of him. He was obviously blind.” As the blind man approached, she noticed his hunch; his balding head sparsely covered with downy white hair, not scraggy but neatly trimmed. His face was almost completely covered with a thick grey beard. His eyes and upper face plus the bridge of his nose were encased in a pair of outsize extra dark sunglasses that ran across from ear to ear.” The blind man, whom Swarna guesses is about ninety, introduces himself as Andaré (after the blind jester) and the two are soon enjoying a good conversation about culture and philosophy. I will not spoil your enjoyment of the twists and turns of the story by saying any more. Please read it.
This collection of eleven short stories displays many clear insights, much deep feeling and also an engaging sense of humour. Some of the stories are bleak, dealing with the horrors of terrorism and tourism. Some stories deal compassionately with marriage, aging, fading memory and mortality. There is also a lighter note of social comedy and acute observation of human interactions. The stories lead the reader on gently with simple, lucid prose that creates a subtle air of mystery.
Of Saris and Grapefruit is available at all leading bookstores and online at the Perera Hussein website