An Unusual View of Life in a Universal and Timeless Narrative



Reviewed by

Prof. C K Seshadri

(Professor Emeritus of Literature, Baroda MSS University, Gujerat, India.)

What is Canadian Literature? Thanks to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s policy of multiculturalism, is it not ‘literature originating from Canada’? This, of course, is what makes Michael Ondaatje, of Sri Lankan origin and writing on Sri Lanka, and Rohinton Mistry, of Indian origin and writing on India, ‘Canadian writers’. Among the latest to join the ranks is Suwanda Sugunasiri, a long-standing Canadian of Sri Lankan origin.

The Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is the love story of a couple, divided by caste (a uniquely South Asian feature) and ethnicity. It is also the story of the struggle of an individual’s journey of discovery of one’s self and one’s roots. In that sense, it has a spiritual dimension with its distinct Sri Lankan and Buddhist flavour. It is also the story of one’s past cultural heritage, destroyed by the advent of foreign colonial masters. The story seems to have more relevance and meaning in the new, modern globalized technocratic world, where conflicts of different kinds have their origin in a lack of understanding the other point of view.

The story begins when Swadesh (literally ‘one’s own country’), an expatriate, returns to Sri Lanka after a long stay abroad, and meets Milton, a Shakespearean scholar and critic, and an old friend.

Tangamma, the heroine is not just the latrine cleaner’s daughter but a human being who, encouraged by her husband, learns English and learns more about the Buddhist heritage of her country. It is she who gives Milton a new name, Milinda, takes him to Sigiriya (Lion’s Rock), to show that history is life. She cures him of his ‘colonialitis’ and makes him realize that his ancestors had mastered the art of constructing a wonderful system of irrigation as early as 5th century. The references to Anuradhapura, Thuparama compound, the architectural wizardry of nine floor structure with 1,600 monolithic granite pillars and 100 rooms on each floor—all suggest the glorious past that was overrun by the onslaught from south Bharata first and then Europe over the last 500 years.

Milinda, the male character, taking to a political life after his ‘conversion’, sees Marxism as not being the answer to many of the problems that face his society; nor is secular liberal humanism. He advocates consensus politics, efficient administration, civility in the government and efficient communication. But as for Tangamma, it is spiritual happiness that matters – by being free from enmity, free from anger and practicing compassion. It is as if she is saying that universal peace is possible if we all weave a blanket of friendliness to all.

Sugunasiri adds a verse quotation from the Dhammapada for each of the four ‘Books’ that make up the novel, and elsewhere, too, occasionally, setting a decidedly Buddhist context to the story. Does he mean to suggest the benefits of Buddhist thought and belief towards solving much of the problems facing the country? However, one suspects an element of didacticism in his ‘epistle’. He seems to see communal harmony through spiritual upliftment. His references to Shakespeare, Milton, the game of cricket etc., however, show the impact of the West on the colonies. At the same time, references to myth and history take us back to a distant past.

The author combines the mythical, historical and spiritual elements to tell an essentially human story of passion and emotion. He uses the story within a story technique of narrating his story which is reminiscent of Pancatantra and the Buddhist Jataka Tales, entailing not just this life but other rebirths as well. He also uses the cinematic technique of flash back while going back in time and place. Thus it can be said that his technique of narration is both universal and timeless. The novel shows that the writer is a scholar, steeped in the tradition of both eastern and western literary culture.

The story is strong on dialogue. This, of course, is an ancient form of telling a story, used by Plato. It was also used by Buddha and his disciples. It also reminds us of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna in Gita of Mahabharatha where Krishna discusses the meaning of life with Arjuna on the eve of the great battle.

Sugunasiri is a unique Canadian writer in the sense that unlike many other writers of South Asian origin living in the west who write about immigration and their struggle to come to terms with life in the new environment, he has chosen to write about his experience of growing up in his own country from a distance which helps him recreate both history and his own interpretation of it. Writing in English, he is able to reach a wider audience so that they could understand and appreciate the country’s heritage and its spiritual dimension. At the same time, he cannot help but give his novel a Sri Lankan flavour by using a number of local words and idioms which, at times, seem to affect the fluent reading of the novel.

The novel is dedicated to ‘the oppressed women of the world’ and so has a universal theme. Oppression of women is not confined to South Asia or Africa or Latin America. It seems to be a phenomenon prevalent all over the world, including the enlightened West, though the nature and degree of oppression and its extent may vary from country to country. Does Sugunasiri suggest this by calling his novel an odyssey, a Greek epic, attributed to Homer, describing the adventures of Odysseus in the course of his return from the Trojan War to his kingdom of Ithaca? Or, does he suggest that the struggle against oppression of women is a never ending struggle?

Canadian literature is strongly influenced by international immigration, particularly in recent decades. The South Asian diaspora, because of its colonial past, uses English to express itself but goes back to its roots for inspiration. Sugunasiri’s novel is an attempt in that direction. He has succeeded in presenting a very unusual view of life in the past and its relevance to the present times. Few attempts have been made to present Buddhist philosophy in the modern context and that seems to distinguish this work of fiction. Will his next novel be more Canadian in its context and content?

Nalanda Publishing Canada (ISBN 978-0-9867198-0-6)

(Available on KINDLE or Amazon,, Untouchable Woman’s Odyssey is distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Books

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