The lonely exile as a creative writer

(A review of ‘SRI LANKA – Literary Essays & Criticism" by Charles Sarvan. Sterling Publishers, New Delhi 2011)

Review by Jayantha Dhanapala

Suddenly, the columns of our newspapers are full of reports on the "diaspora" referring of course to the Sri Lankan Tamil expatriate groups in foreign, mainly Western, countries. The current political use of the term, which in its original capitalized form referred to the enforced Jewish emigration or "scattering" from Babylonian and, later Roman, times and the Zionist project of the Diaspora, is clearly pejorative and is associated with support for LTTE terrorism, the continuing Tamil separatist cause (such as it is) and with efforts to raise the issue of accountability for alleged war crimes. It is a conscious choice over a number of available synonyms - "expatriate", "refugee", "non-resident" (as in non-resident Indians or NRIs), "overseas" Sri Lankans (as with the Chinese or hua qiao) or émigré. The involuntary situation of an exile from his or her country or a member of a minority - whether ethnic, religious or economic - within a country can also be tragic and has been a crucible from which creative writers have drawn material for their work in several parts of the world.

That, to my mind, is the central motif in Charles Sarvan’s recently published collection of essays and literary sketches as he reviews English writing by Sri Lankans and reflects on themes such as racism. Sarvan, himself an expatriate Sri Lanka Tamil for almost five decades, combines unalloyed liberal values with a great sensitivity to language. His critical skills were honed in the Department of English at the University of Peradeniya and sharpened further in the University of London as he earned a Masterand a Ph.D. His personal experience of living the life of an exile included teaching in Nigeria, Zambia, the Middle East and Europe where he now lives. For Sarvan, writing about Sri Lankan literature in the English language is an umbilical link with the home country – a participation in the social and cultural life of a country he left as a young adult but for which he retains a deep and abiding affection. He acknowledges some overlapping and ‘expiry by date’ statements drawing as he does from pieces published in different countries at different times.

Sarvan’s approach to literature is best described in his own words – "Literature, like other art forms, appeals to the imagination, gives pleasure and delight, provokes thought and helps in understanding. But ……texts are also "worldly" and even where they appear to deny it, they are nevertheless a part of the social world, human life and times." I would like to juxtapose, or more precisely to complement, that view with the words of Regi Siriwardena, by far the greatest Sri Lanka intellectual I was privileged to know, who wrote "..great literature is that which has the greatest capacity to change and renew its meaning with evolving human experience". (Lanka Guardian, 1979)

Of the Sri Lankan writers Sarvan begins with Ediriwira Sarchchandra’s "With the Begging Bowl" exploring the experience of a village monk turned Ambassador pitchforked into the sophisticated world of Paris; struggling to find an indigenous idiom of diplomacy amidst the pettiness of Embassy rivalries, bureaucratic red-tape, a wife’s infidelity and the contradictions of a post-colonial society; finally returning to Sri Lanka a nervous wreck. Interlacing all this is Sarvan’s own perceptive commentary on the milieu Sarachchandra writes about. Romesh Gunasekera’s "Reef", Carl Muller’s trilogy, the novels of Shyam Selvadurai, Rohini Hensman and Elmo Jayawardena ; the short stories of Jean Arasanayagam and Pradeep Jeganathan are among the literary works Sarvan reviews. Although the publication does not presume to be a comprehensive survey of Sri Lankan writing the absence of any comment on the novels of Michael Ondaatje is curious. I would also have liked to compare Sarvan’s assessment of that ingeniously crafted "The Chinaman" by Shehan Karunatilaka with my own. Sarvan’s volume refers to plays and poetry written by Sri Lankan writers. With the trilogy by Carl Muller and the literary works centred around the plantations of Sri Lanka Sarvan goes into some depth commenting on the socio-economic situation of the Burgher minority and the plantation workers of Indian origin in the country. With the latter there is a wide-angled lens used to bring in writing about the slave trade of Africans and Indian plantation workers being transported to Fiji, Malaysia and the Caribbean drawing out thematic similarities. I was surprised and disappointed that Amitav Ghosh - whose novels have chronicled the colonial history of the East so poignantly and whose second novel in the Ibis trilogy – "River of Smoke" – has just been published – is not mentioned.

In separate sections Sarvan has his philosophical reflections on life as a journey ("Buddhism, Hinduism and the Conradian darkness") and on racism. His own creative writing comes in three slim pieces at the end and one hopes their reception by readers will encourage Sarvan to write more.

(The book is available at Vijita Yapa Bookshops at Rs. 990/-)

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