Miracle Under the Kumbuk Tree


BY Lakshmi de Silva

Congratulations to the perceptive judges who have given the National Award for the best English novel of 2012 to Miracle Under the Kumbuk Tree, an unusual and refreshing novel.

Daya Dissanayake might be blasé, having won the award twice before: in 1998 for Kat bitha (Mirror Wall), an innovatively structured tale of 5th and 10th Century Sigiriya and in 2007 for Eavesdropper, while Chandraratnage Bhavantara Charikava (launched simultaneously with Moonstone, its English transcreation) short-listed for the first Swarna Pusthaka Award by the Sri Lanka Book Publishers Association shared the prize with four others in 2007, and 2013 brought him the SAARC Literary Award.

Dissanayake’s novels have a freshness and unpredictability spurred by an athletic imagination; he takes all knowledge for his province, not presumptuously but as an inquirer: Miracle Under the Kumbuk Tree, however is firmly rooted in the dust and tears of our common earth. It is the epic of a totally unfounded love which prompts Babli to try to give her life for her father.

I quote Regi Siriwardene

"In 1845 a brilliant young Jew … later to become Prime Minister of England wrote a novel … He called it Sybil: or The Two Nations because the whole purpose of the book was to bring home to his readers that there was not one English nation but two.

"Two nations: said one of Disraeli’ characters "between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones, or … different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners and are not governed by the same laws"

These words were written about 19th Century England, but might they not with even greater truth be applied to twentieth century Ceylon?"

Daya Dissanayake’s greatest virtue is that he sees Sri Lanka ‘steadily and sees it whole’’ he writes well (though not in the narcissistic manner of Romesh Gunasekare) and gives us an evocative portrayal of a world we see daily but do not perceive – the rural underclass – a culture incredibly foreign to snug Colombian gatherings – perhaps dangerously so.

Dissanayake’s presentation of them, as of monks, evangelists and money makers is admirably unvarnished and knowledgeable

‘You have been crying for no reason, so now you have a reason to cry’ father would say as he beat her.

‘It’s because of you that we don’t have any peace" mother would shout back; ‘you know very well why the child is crying. She is hungry’.

Babli had not known what hunger really was, probably because she had been hungry all the time and had believed that it was a natural feeling for everyone to have a burning sensation in the stomach, to feel an emptiness, to keep yawning all the time.

They did not always fight. Babli could recall days when there was some laughter, and the aroma of a chicken curry. On such evenings father … would show mother a bottle.

‘Make a good curry, woman, then you can have some of this’

But on most days, dinner was a slice of bread with a little grated coconut, or a plain roti; often they did not have any chillies or even salt at home.’

An appalling accident and the bounty of the Timothy Foundation make the child of illiterate day-labourers in Anamaduwa a computer-literate urban girl with two segregated lives.

Nonetheless Dissanayake highlights inclusiveness. Babli’s desperate act focused the attention of her boss, Damien Selvaratnm, her village, and Brendon of the Foundation on the need to support her attempts to save her fiftyish alcoholic father from cardiomyopathy.

‘We can help Eddie by doing a Bodhi Puja and also making offerings to Awarlokiteshwara Bodhisattva’

‘You can also offer a mass and pray at your church’ Sudu Banda said.

Gunawansa himi looked at Sudu Banda in annoyance for getting Brendon involved.

‘There is no harm in that’ said the Chief Monk turning towards Eddie ‘It can only increase your confidence that … your heart will get back to normal’ the Chief Monk added hastily, before the other monk could say anything to disrupt the close understanding that was developing….

Born and bred in a Buddhist environment Dissanayake sensitively mirrors another kind of devotion as Babli prays at Kochikade finding many other non-Christian worshippers at the church – Buddhists, Hindus and a few Muslims.

‘In your loving kindness, hear my prayer for my parents. Give them long lives and keep them well in body and spirit, keep them always in your care … Grant that through your grace I may always be their support and comfort’.

She felt as if an immense load had been lifted off her mind.

An acute and adept publisher has commented that strong characterization more than plot is an attraction: Eddie who ignores his grown daughter, stolid Javi, Selvaratnam masterful and fastidious, Gunawansa himi, his narrow minded zeal tempered by practicality and the indomitable Babli are interesting and convincing. Set in a world far from perfect yet never hopeless Miracle under the Kumbuk Tree makes lively reading.

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