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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

Book review: Vannathikulam (Butterfly Lake) – a novelette of understanding and hope

H. L. D. Mahindapala

Dr. Noel Nadesan, the author of Vannanthikulam has careered through many roles: a veterinarian who passed out of the Peradeniya University, a journalist (he is the Editor of the Melbourne-based Uthayam, a Tamil community newspaper in Australia), a Tamil political activist and now as a novelist. All these roles come into play in his novelette Vannathikulam. Naturally, it is not surprising to find a combination of a variety of experiences weaving their way delicately through the novelette, turning it into a rich tapestry. His biography and fiction meld into an enchanting story of understanding and hope.

Normally, Tamil literature tends to be infused with bitter hatred, demonizing the majority Sinhala-Buddhists. The surprising element in Vannathikulam is the broad understanding of the complex forces that interacted and produced the over-determining political crisis in which two lovers from two houses (like Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet) are trapped. Dr. Sooriyan, a Jaffna Tamil veterinarian, working in a Sinhala village, falls in love with a Sinhala school teacher, Chitra and marries her. But they find that there is no protection for them to live either in the north or in the south because of external threats to their lives from the volatile communal crisis. So they migrate to a safer haven in Canada.

The story line is familiar but the dramatization of it through intricate details, narrated with a disarming simplicity, lifts Vannathikulam into an endearing work of fiction. Surprisingly, within the short space of a novelette it covers the entire gamut of the political forces without being preachy. Like all good narrators Dr. Nadesan tries to maintain a balance presenting all points of view. His protagonist Dr. Sooriyan sees no difference between the Sinhala kings of the past and the present rulers. He articulates the fears of the minority Tamils who have suspicions about the majority. But he doesn’t spare the Tamil politicians and the misguided Tamil youth either.

Dr. Nadesan covers most of the political issues without being too dogmatic, or without losing the impact of the fast-moving narrative. He injects politics unobtrusively as an integral part of the evolving narrative. Here’s an extract that may shock the partisans who were fixated on Sinhala colonization of Tamil land: “How can we tell Sinhalese people in Padaviya and Medawachchiya that the Sri Lankan Government had colonized areas where Tamil-speaking people lived by allocating land in these areas to Sinhalese people? Didn’t the Sri Lankan Government allocate jungle lands at Akkarayankulam and Kanagaranyankulam to Tamils? And how many Tamils were prepared to settle down in colonies in Padaviya?

“The fact is that Tamil politicians were not only hasty but also entered the ring without any basic plans. I thought that their actions were tantamount to the actions of an irresponsible man of a family who jumped from a moving vehicle in anger because the conductor of the bus had scolded and assaulted him, yelling at him and his whole family to jump out.” (p.114).

This is where the balance comes in. Dr. Nadesan, like Dr. Sooriyan, (they are inseparable) is not a defender of the Sri Lankan government. The overall sympathy of the narrator, Dr. Sooriyan, is for the Tamil minority but unlike other misguided partisans he can assess and analyse where the Tamil political leadership too went wrong.

Dr. Nadesan’s insights into Tamil politics are valuable to understand the competing forces that bedeviled Tamil and Sinhala politics. In this paragraph he sees what went wrong with communal politics on both sides: “The changes that had taken place in Jaffna were clearly noticeable. During the 1970s it was possible to freely travel anywhere during the day or night. Several vehicles passed through Jaffna roads even around one in the morning, when midnight shows in cinema halls ended. The midnight shows were abolished in 1980s. Politics which dominated conversations during election times then, had now become a daily topic. Tensions erupted everywhere.

Successive governments would need to bear the responsibility for the creation of such tense situations. Generally, the youth were of the opinion that there was not other alternative but to resort to violence. They spoke with more faith drawn from the power of weaponry than in the strength of masses in their political struggle. It was generally accepted that there should not be any opposing views. They had determined that such opposing views would only destroy unity. I was deeply worried over this state of affairs.” (pp. 39-40)

Here Dr. Nadesan reveals a fundamental factor ignored even by the best of political analysts. He focuses on the fact the Tamil militants derive “more faith from the power of weaponry than in the strength of the masses in their political struggle.” This is borne out by the accumulation of weaponry by the Tamil Tigers who have, by and large, lost the popular support they had earlier as “boys” by relying on the power of weaponry. Their strength is in the weaponry and the day that weapons go out of their hands the Tamil masses can be expected to react differently.

This sole dependence on arms has intoxicated the Tamil youth who brook no dissent. Led by Prabhakaran they have eliminated the cream of the Tamil political elite. It is, no doubt, a worrying state of affairs. The growing disenchantment with the Tamil separatist movement arises from the violent and authoritarian attempts made by the Tamil Tigers to suppress and oppress dissent.

The strength of the narrative is in exploring these hidden forces which even the leading sociologists have failed to grasp. Consider the role played by rumours as opposed to the exaggerated claim of the government of the day fanning the flames of anti-Tamil riots. Rumours played a decisive role even in the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1918. No one can blame the British of propagandizing for one side or the other. When a tiny spark was ignited at the traditional and annual Kandy perahera, with the Muslims trying to silence the drummers as they passed the mosque – a right which the Sinhala-Buddhist enjoyed from the time the perahera began – the rumours spread far and wide saying that the Muslims had burnt the sacred Temple of the Tooth. Rumours added fuel to this tiny spark ignited in a Kandy street and it spread far and wide, bursting into a conflagration setting fire to the whole nation.

Similar rumours played a critical role in spreading the fires of communal riots. Here is a passage that describes this common trend: “When I was your age, (says Chitra’s father to Dr. Sooriyan explaining how he came to wear a gold tooth) ”the 1958 racial riots took place. Those were the days when we were wandering around without any jobs. There was news that the Sinhalese had been murdered in Jaffna. It was rumoured that Sinhalese in Medawachchiya had also been murdered. We were told that the Tamils were coming from Vavuniya in buses and lorries to kill the Sinhalese living in Padaviya. When we heard the news, the other youngsters and I got together and travelled toward Vavuniya to confront them. On our way, the army stopped us and requested us to get back home. We refused. When an army officer attacked me with his rifle, a tooth broke. I still feel ashamed for having believed in the rumour.” (p.98)

The following is a moving incident which encapsulates the other side of the communal violence that broke out sporadically in the fifties, sixties and seventies, mainly as a mob reaction to the confrontational politics of the mono-ethnic extremists of the north. It also points to the general theme of the book which gives hope to both communities: “When I was studying at the Peradeniya University, the Sinhala and Tamil students were residing together in the Mars Students Hostel. At the height of the racial tensions in 1977, hooligans burnt down Tamil shops at Peradeniya Junction. Some Tamils were murdered. Others were forced to flee or sent to refugee camps. As a result, all other students’ hostels were closed down.

Nevertheless, we continued to stay in the same hostel. From our hostel we came to know that Sinhala hooligans from the adjoining village were going to target our hostel that night. When the Sinhala students came to know this news, they immediately broke the legs of all the beds to use as weapons and got ready to counterattack in order to save us. They also told us to join in the attack. The hooligans had given up their intention when they had heard of the student’s readiness to challenge them. The Sinhala students deemed us as friends and not as Tamils.” (p. 107)

This brings out the underlying theme of the book: the divisions within the two communities are not visceral. The two communities are not divided irrevocably like the Jews and Muslims or even like the Muslims and the Christians, as they have been in history. There is a traditional bond between the two communities. Except for the lunatic fringe and the die-hards in the majority community the average Sinhala villager and the elite have responded to the legitimate needs of the minorities with commendable humane sympathy and generous, sometimes even self-sacrificing, responses.

To take one recent example, the Sinhala villagers rushed to the Tamil neighbours in the east with provisions when the tsunami hit them. There was no government, no NGOs, no TRO to help the Tamil victims of the tsunami in the first days of the tsunami hitting the eastern coast. They came later with their respective political agendas. The response of the Sinhala villagers was not dictated by politics. It was more than a nominal gesture of goodwill too. It represents the innate human bonds that had tied the two communities together down the ages. Even though some of the NGOs and Churchmen pursue insidiously divisive politics these are two communities that have been put together by overwhelming historical forces which no man can put asunder.

Dr. Nadesan’s novelette gives hope to this common bond that unites the two communities. When Chitra and Dr, Sooriyan get married they tied the indissoluble and indivisible knot. It confirms that both can live together whatever politics comes in between them. They may even have to leave the country as communal tensions deteriorate. But they leave together to live together even though their new home is miles away from their native land.

As the plane takes off the runway Dr. Sooriyan reflects on the past and the future: “This (Sinhala) woman seated next to me had given up her birth place, relatives and her community. If only those butterfly eyelids could take wing and flutter across whole of Sri Lanka.

“From my seat, I could not see anything through the window glass.

“Is it the tears in my eyes or the clouds of the sky that darken my sight?”

In conclusion, it is necessary to emphasize that though the emphasis in this review has been on the interweaving politics that has come in between the two communities this novelette is not a political tract. It is a simple narrative of two lives caught in the vortex of Sri Lankan politics. Dr. Nadesan, who first wrote the book in Tamil, got it translated by Kandiah Kumaraswamy. Judging by the flavour of the translation (and not knowing Tamil) I can only guess that there can’t be much of a difference between the two.

It is a narrative of our times and Dr. Nadesan’s has told it with the power that goes with simplicity. It is a book that should be read particularly by those who think they know what is happening in Sri Lanka.

Vannathikulam - a novelette by Dr. Noel Nadesan is a Vijitha Yapa publications, Colombo, Sri Lanka

- Asian Tribune -

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