The post-colonial experience is still fresh for the children of the sub-continent. We grew up hearing tales of British excesses, values, and vices. As Indians, we experienced, at least vicariously, the horrors of the Partition, a name used more often than not to refer to the blood-stained labor pains of our countries’ naissance.
Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, had it no easier. Although they were not partitioned, recent events have proven that perhaps a partition might not have been too terrible, given the conflicts between the Tamils and the Sinhalese natives. For the unintiated, the Sinhalese are the native majority, who argue that the minority Tamils, migrants from Southern India, received preferential treatment during British rule. Post independence, Tamils claim that the Sinhala-majority government discriminated against them. These seeds of conflict blossomed into a raging feud between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist movement with early covert support from India, who saw them as a convenient tool to destabilise a neighbor and fellow aspirant in the global rat race. The Indians then switched to supporting the Sri Lankan government, in a bid to be seen as the regional power, and enable detente in the region.
One of the lasting legacies of the British, apart from the afore-mentioned political strife, was the English language. All parts of the sub-continent have produced peerless writers in English, from R K Narayan to Salman Rushdie in India, to Bapsi Sidhwa and Tariq Ali in Pakistan. Sri Lanka produced Michael Ondaatje and Shyam Selvadurai, among others. The term ‘diaspora’ has come to refer to the plethora of English writers from the Indian sub-continent, the Empire striking back, as it were (to borrow a Time magazine cover story title from a few years back).
Mary Anne Mohanraj, author of the new collection of stories “Bodies In Motion”, therefore arrives with a variety of literary and historical baggage. She is a visiting professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and executive director of DesiLit, a South Asian literary organization. She has two previous literary collections and published stories on the alt.erotic.stories newsgroups, among other places. She founded a speculative fiction magazine, Strange Horizons, and the erotic webzine, Clean Sheets. Various other literary adventures followed, including a Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Utah, whose dissertation was the novel-in-stories collection now published as “Bodies In Motion”.
The collection charts the arcs of intent of two Sri Lankan families, from the 1930s, and the waning years of the British Raj, to modern America, with its follies and individual failings, before ending in a village by the sea in Sri Lanka, with a wizened old crone, once a young girl with a secret forbidden passion.
Lusts—individual, illicit, destructive—are channelled by most of the characters in these stories. They grapple with social pressures, compulsions of duty and selfish wants, before, for the most part, giving in to what they know cannot but hurt, wound, or doom. It is as if they all, and individually, carry the burden of their ancestors—oppressed and oppressors.
The two families symbolize, as it were, the two histories of Sri Lanka. The Kandiahs have their roots in affluent Colombo, beneficiaries of British collusion. The patriach, Thani Chelliah, is able to send his favorite daughter to the West, once he comes to terms with the place assigned him by the colonials—equal but apart. The daughter, Shanti, promulgates a dynasty with her husband, a Tamil Brahmin from Jaffna, who perhaps marries above his station.
The other story arc features the Vallipurams, from southern Jaffna, who seem to be born under a dark star, flawed, and hurtful. Raksha marries a Kandiah daughter, and becomes an alcoholic, the worst kind, before dying in an accident, aided perhaps by his wife, who wants freedom. His father, Sundar, while nominally a Buddhist, and who considers himself peaceable, non-violent, yet carries a dark brooding anger within himself, packs his daughter off to Sri Lanka to marry a stranger, who has betrayed her before her arrival, having sired a child by another woman. She discovers this betrayal when the Other Woman arrives at their house in Jaffna, bleeding and carrying a trembling child, having escaped from the slaughter of her parents by the Tamil Tigers.
Every one of the characters is trying to define their identity—sexually, politically or socially. The inability to come to terms with themselves makes them prone to slipping and sliding down the slope of temptation or betrayal. The vast sweep of time and history make a concordance almost essential, and constant reference to the family trees in the front of the book necessary. Writing styles and forms vary—such as a story where the tale is told from two points of view, both in the second person singular, or another, where the parenthetical story is a retelling of the Ramayana, with a subversive spin on the main characters. A third is epistolary, and a rare few from an external point of view—a character introduced to tell their own tangential tale, while still delineating the story arcs of one or more of the central characters. The sadness inherent in many of the characters rarely leads to any sort of catharsis for them, but the writer enables a weary catharsis in the reader.
The compact book is a whirlwind of emotion and personal adventure, with much insight that might slip by on first reading. The disparate worlds and cultures seem too close, often enough blending into one another. The political milieu of the characters is like a brooding presence, especially in the later stories, coming to the fore only in a couple. This is good, else we might be treated to a harrowing series of tales about the minutiae of oppression. The collection is a portent of good things to come from a promising author.
Also, the author is on a book tour, and I hope to meet her, and report back, soon.