This review was originally published on the August 15th edition of the Ceylon Today. The original review can be found here
I must confess that I was so taken up and fascinated by the chapter Dashman in the Good for Nothing collection that I forgot it was a book of short stories. I started reading it, knowing the genre very well. But I proceeded with the first story, losing myself in a tale told so well. Absorbed in it and dying to know the rest of it, a totally different second story had me lost. I wanted the same to continue. It is the shrewd writer, Sathis De Mel. He calls them The Good for Nothing Stories. If you still opt to read the collection even after that bold declaration, whom can you blame? De Mel has kept expectations pretty low. That is something the pessimist in me admires.
If it is on the contrary, what a delightful surprise you find. The Good for Nothing Stories do exactly the same. “Details make stories human, and the more human a story can be, the better,” said not me, but Ernest Hemingway. That is the next trump card De Mel plays and you are caught. Even after reading the whole book of short stories, Dashman, the first story in the collection remains my favourite. In some ways it had a bit of the familiar Funny Boy effect. Using a simple story, a lot about class consciousness, disparities between your very own family, demarcations, definitions, and identity are brought to our focus. How the story is firmly set in a specific geopolitical setting is very insightful. “That is how people in Moratuwa used to let others know the ages of their children.
I was one year younger than Prince Charles and the same age as Princess Anne.” If this is not amusing enough, what is? This is just one example of the many that follow. What kind of a name is Dashman for a girl? I wondered. Then comes the story behind. “Daesaman, meaning a fragrant and cute little local white flower in Sinhala. The highly anglicised members of the family had corrupted her beautiful Sinhala name to sound like an English name!” The story is full of funny happenings.
The best is how they imitate their Colombo 7 cousins. “Mimicking their use of cutlery with two pairs of wooden sticks.” They have their imaginary meal, imitating their English, using the few words of English they know. “’She shoo sey sho shai foo foo,’ I would say to my brother imitating Dashman and he would reply by saying ‘Shooso ho ho she sau shock chock shock,’ This would be our game for the rest of the day!” You cannot help but think of yourself, at some point in life doing something similar. From this to more serious aspects the author moves on letting us join their family circle. The collection has 12 stories, each dealing with different aspects, different layers of society.
The Name and the School is yet another very thought provoking story. What is there in a name, we ask. But in reality, everything is in a name. As much as we love to think that anybody with a good education is valued for its worth, things are different. If one comes from a school that has less regard for whatever the sad reasons, will you be treated the same? It is easy to post a ‘Say NO to Bollywood Nepotism’ or whatever but how clean are we of our own sins? If we look at each social strata, from school, university to workplace there are a thousand examples.
We like to believe that life is fair and there is equality but the reality is different. The Clash of Civilisations takes us further into exploring the differences. We are asked to accept and respect differences but how ready are we? How much do we even know of other cultures, their thinking, their hardships? “The outrageous rain which lasted long enough for us to chat gleefully was definitely arranged for us by her god, answering her prayers, Nadia firmly believed.” De Mel does not laugh at these sensitive things.
At least I want to read it without recognising a probable tinge of sarcasm. “Nadia was already praying five times a day to her god to remove all the barriers that would prevent her from entering Colombo campus.” Painful Achievement is yet another story which lays bare the threads of a complicated human psyche. Sumana proudly tells her friend that her son took her to a cafe in Melbourne where they had something called, “Kapu Cheena”. This ‘Chinese Cotton’ turns out to be Cappuccino. Be it The Comical Duo or The Dansela De Mel, confronts reality. He takes different slices from different cakes of life. “A short story is a different thing altogether-a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger,” said none other than Stephen King. One should not miss these kisses in the dark.