Slice of Lankan life

Slice of Lankan life
It’s difficult to believe that an entire nation can be contained within one book. Many Roads to Paradise is an encapsulation of the essence of Sri Lanka that includes its history, social fabric, heart-wrenching tragedies, slow-healing wounds and rising hopes. This book absolutely teems with life. This an anthology of Sri Lankan literature which is compiled by Shyam Selvadurai, who has also won many awards in the US and Canada. When you read the introduction you get a sense of its direction and purpose. The compiler has carefully pieced together the entire broken heart of the nation. The book contains works of Sri Lankan writers in English as well as others translated from Tamil and Sinhala.

As Selvadurai says, “In a post-war situation, this anthology provides an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities... Of which they have remained largely ignorant due to linguistic differences.” It’s divided into four sections, but “to promote this ethos of unity, I have not, as many previous anthologies … divided the work by the three language streams.” The sections have separate themes like social structure under The Chariot and The Moon; wounds of displacement in No State, No Dog; passions of differing natures under Love in the Tsunami and Healing the Forest “devoted exclusively to the ethnic war from 1983 onward,” in the form of quiet yet piercing poetry.

The first section gives you a bird’s eye view of the class divisions. The opening poem, from which the section draws its name, is the perfect introduction. The translated poems, in fact, read much better than the translated excerpts from novels.

The Perfection of Giving is a poignant story about a servant girl, employed and brought up by a self-righteous spinster. It touches you deep down with its echoing refrain of karma. No State, No Dog gives you a insights into the lives of poor Tamil estate workers unceremoniously packed off to India, uprooted from their soil, feeling the ground slip from beneath their feet. The image of the dog waiting tirelessly at the edge of the road is one that stays with you long after. Hole-in–the-Heart, an excerpt from Love Marriage is a beautifully written story that describes love and conflict with equal ease. But then, conflict is a recurrent theme in Lankan literature, where the war and the tsunami provide the background to most of the stories. But the displacement depicted in The Homecoming certainly catches you unawares: a woman who goes to work in the Arab states for two years with dreams of creating joys for her family, upon her return finds her dream in splinters and herself looked upon as no more than a “whore”.

But the biggest punch is reserved for the last: poems — each spilling out like a once-beautiful scarred body… one whose poet disappeared in the war in 2009, another whose poet — editor of a major paper — assassinated for speaking out, a third, a German Jew, who lost her family in the holocaust… here a poem that speaks of dead, young bodies floating up on the rivers… there a mother who faces her son returned from war.

The book ends with the spectacularly vivid poem The Moon at Seenukgala as epilogue, posing as balm for wounds too deep to heal… but with an extension of hope that “This, is the way home.” Despite having so much to offer, for the non-native this is but a prelude that whets the appetite for more offerings Sri Lankan. It makes you want to reach out to this scarred and wounded neighbor, and share a bit of the pain captured so singularly.

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