When Every Happy Plot Doesn’t End with a Marriage Knot: Love Marriage

Hello dear SepiaReaders, it’s that girl with half a face again. I’ve been absent from the bunker for a while but fresh air is vastly overrated so I wormed my way back in. I hope to hunker down in the bowels of our concrete barracks and start posting furiously. Whether this is promise or a threat greatly depends on how drunk you are while reading this. Cheers!

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To kick things off, I’m delighted to discuss the debut novel by non other the mutiny’s own V.V. “Sugi” Ganeshananthan, Love Marriage. Published recently by Random House U.S., the book will also be available in Canada, the U.K. Italy, France, Romania, and Germany. So GO BUY IT, wherever you are. Sugi’s posts on Sepia introduced us to a eloquent writer unafraid to tackle to thorny issues surrounding the Sri Lankan conflict with even-handedness and humor. In Love Marriage she pulls off the astonishing feat of writing about Sri Lanka with an honesty that doesn’t simplify, tackling issues without a trace of polemics, and a love that still remains clear-eyed.

Super full disclaimer: it’s proved incredibly difficult for me to distance myself enough to write a fair review. I know and adore the author as a person, she’s a fellow Sri Lankan, instead of some Kaavya Viswanathan-style American Desi fluff, she wrote about Sri Lanka. And instead of a pretty “beaches and jungles” treatment, she delves into a sticky thicket of diasporas, internecine warfare, generational drift, ‘ethnic’ identity creation, politics, love, nostalgia, loyalty…

(Uh, wait. The book is a fun read, I swear!)

To continue disclaiming: I wrote a review a while ago and kept revising it. Then Sandhya’s awesome Q&A was in the works so I sat on the review so we’d get both pieces up simultaneously. Then I found out that the dastardly speedy Ultrabrown posted a review today (with mistakes!!) so to juice things up a bit, this review was rewritten to go head-to-head with the fearsomely logorrheic (or, to use my favorite made-up word for him, verbacious) Manish.

Prepare to duck as the verbal darts (or in my case, coconuts) fly!Manish, as we’ve learned to expect, begins with the cover. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t like it. But while I’ve disagreed with him about covers before, I don’t take him to task on aesthetic considerations because a) I don’t care, b)he has a right to dislike, c)covers are meant to invoke subliminal associations with other books you may remember fondly. He’s too smart for that, so well, fine.

Coconuts thrown: 0 (Hefted, but not thrown)

I do grit my teeth, however, when a reviewer passes judgement on a book he/she clearly didn’t read very carefully. How can you pontificate when you make errors in a basic summary? From the review:

The book is written through the eyes of Yalini, a girl in her early 20s whose parents Murali and Vani left Sri Lanka after the anti-Tamil pogrom of ‘83 and built a comfortable life in Toronto.

Actually, they moved to New England. And they certainly left before 1983 since Yalini was born in July 1983, as the riots began in Sri Lanka. It’s pretty clear on page 17:

I am Yalini, their daughter. In July of 1983, I was born in the same New England that had welcomed my parents, Vani and Murali, so long ago.

Coconuts thrown: 5 (Her birthday is hugely symbolic, she’s in her 20s when her family moved to Toronto, to take care of a sick uncle, and the throng of Sri Lanka Tamils in Toronto is a strange and new experience for her. How do you miss this?)

There’s even a remarkable passage in the book that splits Yalini’s birth with the events on TV:

it’s a girl, the nurse said to Murali, at last my father. I was swaddled in blankets and placed in his arms. I immediately caught hold of his Heart with both tiny fists… I was born, and halfway around the world, Tamil people died, betrayed by their own country, which did nothing to save them… the television was already on. My father’s colleague’s sat around it. They had been waiting for the new father to emerge, to ask about baby weight and names. Now their good wishes died on their lips. No glad handshakes, no questions about the child. Instead they watched my father watching the news. And there on the screen, my father saw everything he had once believed in, burning.

To get back to my point about evaluating texts based on faulty reading, from the review:

Similarly, a trope which could have been desi film homage actually reads more like cliché. One of the plot machinations which gets Vani into her marriage with Murali involves her identical twin sister suffering a horrible accident. But there’s no obvious wink to the reader.

Where to begin..the identical twin accident was between Murali’s mother Tharshi and HER twin, Kunju. The “plot machination” so glibly referred to gets Murali’s mother Tharshi together with his father Jegan, and has nothing to do with his own quiet wooing of Vani.

I’m also quite mystified as to why this scene was perceived as desi film homage and therefore owed the reader a wink. It was as powerful as a similar scene in Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting. In Desai’s book the cause of the tragedy remained unknown, either self-immolation or the machinations of an an evil mother-in-law (hey, no one called that Bollywood! I’ll see your trope and raise you, Manish), while here sheer randomness of the accident deepens the tragedy:

As Kunju set the oil lamp down on the mat on the floor in front of the household shrine, the edge of her mother’s sari caught in the flame. It ran up the silk like a long-legged and hungry spider, licked at her long braid, edged toward her face and wide dark eyes. It wound around her waist like a caressing hand and lit her body up her slender throat to her face. (p.71)

Coconuts thrown: 7 (3 for the mistake, 4 for the off-mark snark)

On to more analysis:

The author erects certain metaphors in Caps like The God of Small Things, which makes them inexplicably Twee. The same Affectation used to define Terms in legal Agreements somehow becomes adorable in Literature.

Okay, I can see how the random seeming use of Capitalization can seem odd or Annoying to a reader. Especially, ahem, a Western reader. But the neat thing is that both The God of Small Things and Love Marriage seem singularly unconcerned about whether a Western reader gets it. Those random caps? That’s the most desi thing about writing in English you can do. Sort of a Victorian stylistic twitch that lingered past the Edwardian and well into the Elizabethan years in the colonies. As a sidenote, I believe Susanna Clarke used the same olde-style in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to give it that 1800s olde-tymey feel. Anyway, my point is that this isn’t an affection on the part of the author as much as it is an authentic hewing to the affectations of a particular culture. God, I mean, I remember being sent off to weekly elocution lessons back in Sri Lanka, miserably stumbling through Daffodils and other such cutting-edge poetry.

Ah, where was I? Something about overly literal recursive metaphors?

But in this book, the metaphors recurse — the literal symbolizes things of the same form. To wit, instead of noses for dandas, hearts for Hearts. The book uses flesh-and-blood pumps to represent flawed emotional Hearts, and arranged or love marriages for proper or improper Marriages. And this strikes me as far too literal.

Hmm, no. The book does use the body and its various parts (Murali’s imagined heart murmur) and illnessess (Kumeran’s cancer) as a metaphor, but not for something as obvious as emotional states. Instead it’s an examination of questions: when does a body, the flesh, bone, sinew, become a person? After death? Before we kill? Does a heart hold secrets? How do the secrets hide? When do they murmur to the conscious mind? Does the past flow in our veins? When you are a refugee, a nomad, a displaced person and have nothing, certainly no possessions, no mementoes of the past…does your body carry that intangible weight? If we are the children of the displaced, as Yalini is, what can her parents give her of her burned, bullet-riddled, decimated past beyond that which they genetically bestowed upon her….and the stories of aunts, marriages, and relatives, that come with it?

Coconuts thrown: 10 (read the book again!)

Moving onto the larger issue of the LTTE, Manish claims:

But she soft-pedals the central problem with the LTTE, the reason why people call them terrorists: their willingness to target noncombatants, to kill people unaffiliated with the Sri Lankan military or high-ranking politicians.

This is a matter of opinion, and cannot be anything but. I’m pretty firmly on record as anti-LTTE in every way, but to ignore the human faces behind the nihilistic stripes is not the path to redemption or solutions I think. For the most part, the raw recruits are terribly young men and women who are damned if they join or damned if they don’t. And the book, while deeply sympathetic to Tamils, is careful to note the death of noncombatants: a Tamil teacher shot for trying to arrange a cricket match with the Sri Lankan Army, a mayor killed at night, an ex-fiancee killed in a bomb blast, a friend’s brother murdered for disagreeing. With these examples and more, the LTTE are held accountable. The problem of LTTE support in Canada is addressed at well. The drug and gun sales that funnel money back to the LTTE, the turf wars that may erupt at any time between the supposed Canadian LTTE loyalists:

Their sons, the right age and size and anger to be militants, in the wrong country. The thing about anger: it always goes somewhere. (p. 140)

Manish, machang, you know I love you. I await your riposte breathlessly.

Anyway, this post is already beyond the bounds of decency, so here’s my quick take:

Despite the title this is not a story about love. Or marriage. Or even about the relationships (uncle, cousin, brother-in-law) that arise from marriages. The marriages are like small interlinked frames, upon which hang larger themes of identity, nationhood and morality. Clever and effective devices used to approach that migraine-inducing issue of the conflict in Sri Lanka.

Kumaran, the uncle picked up revolutionary ideas while in Britain and returned to Sri Lanka to join the Tigers, only to find out his former fiancee died in a Tiger-planted bomb blast. Kumaran who protested his sister Vani’s marriage to the improper Murali with threats of LTTE retribution, who is cared for by both upon his deathbed. Uncle Neelan, who married a Sinhalese and remembers the his village offering her tea in a broken cup, a “small but unspeakable rudeness in a country where all hospitality and love begins with tea.” Logan, the dorai of a tea plantation with cooks at his beck and call who works as a security guard upon immigration to Canada. Beautiful aunt Harini who marries a shiftless drunk but loves him still. And the deepest secrets of aunt Uma, who slowly walks backward into the labyrinth of her mind.

These and more are bequeathed to Yalini, who also faces a doppelganger…her cousin Janini, Kumaran’s daughter and an LTTE soldier in her own right. The divergent paths of the parents have created daughters of stark contrast, and nowhere is this more sadly and lyrically embodied.

Propriety is mentioned frequently, but as with all mentions of marriages, arranged or love-induced, the book really uses the variations between, the divergence from propriety, to examine the muddy ground between Sinhalese or Tamil. To note that neither is blameless, neither is Proper in its position. This is really the first novel to tackle the Tamil exodus from Sri Lanka, and the fragmentary structure suits the story well because there is no Truth here that the reader can boldly face. We can only understand the tragedy of Sri Lanka obliquely, through vignettes….the book holds a mirror up to various aspects, and staring at the mirror, we must struggle to piece together the imperfect whole.

There are no answers, there is no one true narrative, but surely this is a beautiful start:

It would be false to say that there is a beginning to a story, or a middle, or an end. Those words have a tidiness that does not belong here. Our lives are not clean. They begin without fanfare and end without warning. This story does not have a defined shape or a pleasant arc. To record it differently would not be true. (p. 57)

45 thoughts on “When Every Happy Plot Doesn’t End with a Marriage Knot: Love Marriage

  1. The young lady on the cover is dressed like a married North Indian woman. Looks the same too. To be precise a Rajasthani one. Why’s that?

  2. Well, to be fair, Manish did say he had mixed feelings about the novel, so perhaps it wasn’t all bad?! Haha. Regardless of which review you look out, this book sounds very intriguing…

  3. I’ve disagreed with him about covers before

    IIRC you’ve agreed with me about litexotica in general! Though it’s true you’ve defended sari borders as good marketing.

    How can you pontificate when you make errors in a basic summary?

    I’ll address this tomorrow, don’t have the book with me now. Until then, try cocktails :)

    It was as powerful as a similar scene in Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting.

    Identical twins / horrible accident really has to be written carefully to overcome the deep cliche it’s become. This didn’t get over that barrier.

    I can see how the random-seeing use of Capitalization can seem odd or Annoying to a reader.

    Wasn’t Snark.

    The book does use the body and its various parts (Murali’s imagined heart murmur) and illnessess (Kumeran’s cancer) as a metaphor, but not for something as obvious as emotional states.

    In some passages, Murali’s Heart clearly refers to romantic interest, which due to overuse barely qualifies as metaphor.

    the book, while deeply sympathetic to Tamils, is careful to note the death of noncombatants… With these examples and more, the LTTE are held accountable.

    It’s a very mixed take. A killing over cricket is obliquely condemned via the entire country having become senseless. There are at least two passages which specifically gloss over LTTE tactics and culpability, which seem to specifically excuse them.

    This is really the first novel to tackle the Tamil exodus from Sri Lanka

    Certainly the first I’ve read. And one gives it bonus points for that, like one did with The Namesake or Where’s the Party, Yaar? But that’s quite aside from whether it’s good writing, or flows well, or is non-cliche, or pushes the envelope.

    You’ve got to raise an eyebrow at a story where the Heart is a central metaphor, and an identical twin meeting with a horrible accident crop up in short order. They’ve been done, and done, and done. You’d need to navigate them carefully and reinvent them to make them your own, and this particular story didn’t try.

  4. The book sounds very interesting! However, with reference to the post, I wonder if you could: (a) move the “quick take” section so it appears before the response to Manish’s post.
    or (b) add subheadings to the two sections.

    Might help readers like me who come looking for Cicatrix’s review (and are not particularly interested in a response to Manish’s).

    As for the capitalisation issue, I wonder if you’re being a bit too defensive. I don’t understand what it has to do with Western or Desi readers. I thought it was simply annoying to some people and interesting to others. With The God of Small Things, the capitalisation was purely stylistic. It was used as a means of emphasis (on the other hand, isn’t the over-use of capitals in Indian English characterised by capitals for common nouns?).

  5. Perfect review, Cicatrix– very tempting duel spectacle that doesn’t give away a thing… obviously, one must buy and keep, despite the cover, as well as read while luxuriating…

    I noticed the Capitalizing thing very recently– I think it comes from English Lit syllabi in Desh leaning so heavily on Addison & Steele, Jonathan Swift, Sheridan– works that come down from Time Immemorial, if you know what I mean. Also, the subjunctive is used as a politeness, as in, “The Dalai Lama would visit Seattle next week” or “train services would resume from Sunday” and similar.

  6. Nice review. I had totally judged the book by its title/cover, but I look forward to reading it now. I’m curious to see how she describes Toronto’s Tamil community. The reference to ‘turf wars’ is a bit dated, that died down years ago.

    The hesitation to condemn the LTTE comes across as authentic to me, whether intentional or not. Most SL Tamils, no matter how aware or educated, can’t bring themselves to unequivocally condemn the LTTE. I don’t think it’s affection, I don’t think it’s pride, but there is some sort of barrier there that I identify with.

  7. The hesitation to condemn the LTTE comes across as authentic to me, whether intentional or not. Most SL Tamils, no matter how aware or educated, can’t bring themselves to unequivocally condemn the LTTE. I don’t think it’s affection, I don’t think it’s pride, but there is some sort of barrier there that I identify with.

    I’ll tell you exactly what that barrier is – the very real specter of being physically hurt right here in North America by LTTE or LTTE’s sympathizers. I had known it wouldn’t be long before someone in the SL Tamil diaspora goes to Harvard, writes a book and not only talks about the conflict from their ‘ view ‘ but actually turns the reality upside down by making the aggressor the victim. The West won’t doubt it because to them a minority terrorizing a majority is just unbelievable.

  8. I would like to read this book but I usually don’t buy a book until I’ve read it, mainly because I’ve wasted so much money on books that I’ve ended up disliking :) But the review sounds okay. With regards to the book, is there any mention of the murder and mutilation of 13 soldiers which set off the riots of 1983? I would have to agree with Verisimilitude. DBS Jeyaraj himself had his bones broken on Canadian soil for critiquing the LTTE in his now defunt newspaper Munchari. So I wouldn’t be surprised if V.V. Ganeshananthan tries to whitewash them. Nothing is going to take away the fact that the LTTE just assasinated yet another democratically elected Tamil politician – Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.

  9. retorts, I think what you are observing is a simple reflection of the fact that while the majority of SL Tamils identify with the aspirations of the LTTE (the right of Tamils to self-determination), they do not necessarily agree with their methods.

    verisimilitude/vik, I think students of history would agree that it was the chauvinist Sinhala government that is responsible for the creation of the LTTE. if you find that somewhat surprising (you shouldn’t), i refer you to a couple of exhibits: a) Brian Senviratne, a Sinhala expatriate Consultant physician at the Queen Mary Hospital in Australia and the cousin of former Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike, speaking on Sri Lanka: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&ct=res&cd=14&url=http%3A%2F%2Fvideo.google.com%2Fvideoplay%3Fdocid%3D-3787296124515655148&ei=W64QSN24IYrQiAHDrZGyCg&usg=AFQjCNHOiC47f8CnAWfVFKlwqjt8FQs2qw&sig2=gT0hTpLWj-7-SYWa89UXlw

    b) Neil DeVotta, Professor of Political Science at Hartwick College, writing about Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism and its root causes in the Sri Lankan conflict: http://www.eastwestcenter.org/fileadmin/stored/pdfs/ps040.pdf

  10. 9 · Verisimilitude said

    I’ll tell you exactly what that barrier is – the very real specter of being physically hurt right here in North America by LTTE or LTTE’s sympathizers. I had known it wouldn’t be long before someone in the SL Tamil diaspora goes to Harvard, writes a book and not only talks about the conflict from their ‘ view ‘ but actually turns the reality upside down by making the aggressor the victim. The West won’t doubt it because to them a minority terrorizing a majority is just unbelievable.

    While not condoning LTTE violence anywhere in the world, I do think that novels can (and do) blur the line between the political and the personal. Braiding the lives of their characters with larger contemporary events, they render real the effects of politics onto ordinary folks. The novelist may want her readers to empathize with her protagonists (which may or may not map onto her actual political convictions). I think gleaning The Truth from a novel is dangerous — although I don’t think a fiction writer bears any responsibility for distortion (unless she is knowingly producing propaganda; I think intention counts for a lot here*).

    While novelists certainly alert me to history, I cannot hold them accountable for veracity (although novelists are very good at exposing human vulnerability to upheaval and how different forces pull at us when we’re trying to figure out The Right Thing to Do and how history is stamped onto everyday life generations after some Big Event). But given the marketing of the publishing industry and the enormous hold language (even or especially fictive (adj.?) language) has on us, I am glad that readers, reviewers, and journalists are making it known that the writer’s account is not the only version of truth or the final opinion that settles the debate on either side. So thanks to both VVG and the readers on this board who’ve given us much to ponder, and have maybe inspired some of us to become more familiar with Sri Lanka’s recent history.

    • eg William Dalrymple has a different responsibility to his authors than VVG, even though both their works have some element of fiction and history interwoven through them. Similarly, I have different expectations when I read Vikram Seth’s travelogue v. when I read A Suitable Boy, although both intend to capture the flavor of a given place at a one time.
  11. Oh Manish! You came and you riposte with no meaning!

    (click the link, that’s sort of a joke.)

    Though I have to say, changing you original review from this:

    The book is written through the eyes of Yalini, a girl in her early 20s whose parents Murali and Vani left Sri Lanka after the anti-Tamil pogrom of ‘83 and built a comfortable life in Toronto.

    To this:

    The book is written through the eyes of Yalini, a girl in her early 20s whose parents Murali and Vani left Sri Lanka after anti-Tamil pogroms and built a comfortable life in America.

    AFTER this review came up is a little sneaky, n’est past? Deleting “of ’83″ does make a bit of a difference. You could/should use a strikethrough instead?

    Anyway, we’ve agreed about the content of litexotica, but not so much about the covers. Mostly because I just couldn’t get worked up enough to argue much about covers.

    You also misread the coconuts thrown for off-mark snark… I said your comment re desi film homage/wink was snarky, not about using caps.

    You’ve got to raise an eyebrow at a story where the Heart is a central metaphor, and an identical twin meeting with a horrible accident crop up in short order. They’ve been done, and done, and done. You’d need to navigate them carefully and reinvent them to make them your own, and this particular story didn’t try.

    Okay, if you insist that identical twins/horrible accident is a deep cliche and that the metaphors are overused, I’ll agree to disagree. I’ve got to raise an eyebrow though, at your expectation that a novel that traverses really complicated and delicate terrain successfully (we’ve all tried to write about Sri Lanka and seen the comment sections become a bloodbath in five minutes) ALSO reinvent metaphors… all while you couldn’t seem to simply read the book without bungling the plot points.

    Rahul, cue up the next video!

  12. Best recent use of a word my grandma uses in print (Thanks for the scathing link, Neale):

    This isn’t criticism. It isn’t even performance art. It’s thuggee.

    It’s time to bring Thuggee back. Because, friends, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.

  13. a little sneaky, n’est past?

    Stay tuned, grasshopper, the update isn’t done yet.

    your expectation that a novel that traverses really complicated and delicate terrain successfully… ALSO reinvent metaphors

    I’d settle for it not trading in cliche and repetition. Look:

    ‘I never thought I would get married here, her Heart said to his… Thump thump thump, replied the doctor’s heart, pleased at its success.’

    ‘We remember him. We remember him. We remember him.’(And a similar repetition later in the novel.)

    As a reviewer once said, ‘Delete, delete, delete.’

    I said your comment re desi film homage/wink was snarky, not about using caps.

    Didn’t say you did. Go back to the text? (Note: comment edited by admin)

  14. Actually Dismayed, I think it’s pretty reductionist to lay the blame entirely on allegedly “Sinhala Governments” seeing as most Sri Lankan governments have been held up in power by minority parties like the Ceylon Workers Congress (representing most Indian Tamils) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (representing most Muslims) and other Sri Lankan Tamil parties. They could have walked out at any time and have the government fold if they felt like it, but they didn’t. I think you also need to look at the role Jaffna Tamil politicians played in formenting seperatism and violence. As the saying goes, you need two to tango.

    Biran Seneviratne (married to a Tamil lady) is well known among Sri Lankan circles for his pro-LTTE, pro-Tamil nationalist line of thinking. That’s what gets him from one Eelamist conference to another, and a bit of fame in his old age. He certainly loves flaunting the fact that he’s Sinhalese with some claimed ancestry to Chandrika Kumaratunga – almost all his articles begin with that. I myself find it amusing. But the thing is, no one’s gone and assasinated him for critiquing Sri Lanka, or the president, or the military. But I’m sure you know what happens to many Tamils who dare to point out any flaws in the LTTE or its hierarchy. Even people like Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who build bridges between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities are regarded as threats and taken out.

    I just hope Ganeshananthan’s book is not an attempt to soft peddle the violence and terror of the LTTE under the facade of a story book. I will be reading it.

  15. 1 · Verisimilitude said

    The young lady on the cover is dressed like a married North Indian woman. Looks the same too. To be precise a Rajasthani one. Why’s that?

    I have to disagree. The sari style is normal. The woman stands at a temple door with half-head covered in polite old-fashion style. What is particularly North Indian about it? Haven’t you seen women like that in South Indian temples?

    “Love Marriage” has gotten on my list to read this summer. Particularly, I want to see how the author treats Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto. There is definitely some internal “fear” in speaking against LTTE. I find that it was similar to some attitudes in Punjabi community for speaking against Bindranwale. Atleast around Greater Toronto.

  16. I have to disagree. The sari style is normal. The woman stands at a temple door with half-head covered in polite old-fashion style. What is particularly North Indian about it? Haven’t you seen women like that in South Indian temples?

    No. I have seen north indian women cover their heads in south indian temples. There is no concept of respect by covering hair in south india.

  17. must even fiction written by SL Tams contain some smarmy and contrived passages where it is made indisputably clear that terrorism is morally repugnant to the SL Tam community? I find it quite depressing that those who bear the brunt of Tiger-boosting’s inevitable negative effects in the SL Tam diaspora are those most trenchantly taken to task for ‘moral equivalency’ or ‘insufficient terrorism-denouncing.’ At some point, does it not become obvious to the reviewer that such a literary staged toppling of Prabhakaran’s bronze statue in the diaspora’s public square is as empty of meaning as that which occurred in Baghdad?

  18. 18 · Kushil Jayasuriya said

    Actually Dismayed, I think it’s pretty reductionist to lay the blame entirely on allegedly “Sinhala Governments” seeing as most Sri Lankan governments …

    It is somewhat reductionist, but mostly accurate. I didn’t feel the need to get into the details of Sri Lanka’s sordid post-colonial history, but I think that despite the relatively small role played by minority parties who naively placing their faith in the majority parties, it was ultimately the responsibility of the Sinhala leadership for engaging in what Neil DeVotta characterizes as a process of “ethnic outbidding” by playing to the insecurities of the Sinhala masses and, in the process, depriving Tamils of their rights in the Sri Lankan state. I think it is of paramount importance to understand the emergence of a hardened and ruthless LTTE in the context of decades of Sinhala oppression, marked by several significant historic events such as the overnight passing of the Sinhala Only Act, state-sponsored colonization schemes of traditionally Tamil areas, discriminatory admission policies against Tamils, the burning of historic landmarks such as the Jaffna Library, state-sponsored pogroms such as Black July in ’83. While I hardly condone the violence and terror of the LTTE, it is all too easy to lose sight of the historic events that led to the birth of this organization. I simply wanted to point this out, for as they say, “those who forget the past, are doomed to repeat it.”

    18 · Kushil Jayasuriya said

    Biran Seneviratne (married to a Tamil lady) is well known among Sri Lankan circles for his pro-LTTE, pro-Tamil nationalist line of thinking…But the thing is, no one’s gone and assasinated him for critiquing Sri Lanka, or the president, or the military.

    Actually, Seneviratne has undergone some serious hardships as a result of his openly pro-Tamil sentiments. He has been ostracized by the Sinhala community in Australia, who have gone to great lengths to tarnish his reputation and prevent him from earning a livelihood. While certainly an eccentric individual, he firmly believes that he is speaking out for Truth and Justice. I have no doubts that if he were residing in Sri Lanka, the government would have put a hit on him, as they have on prominent Tamil journalists and politicians. Again, I do not wish to absolve the LTTE for their deeds, but I think it’s only fair to point out that both parties are guilty of the same crimes.

    18 · Kushil Jayasuriya said

    I just hope Ganeshananthan’s book is not an attempt to soft peddle the violence and terror of the LTTE under the facade of a story book. I will be reading it.

    And I just hope that individuals such as yourself cease to focus exclusively on the violence and terror of the LTTE, and adopt an even-handed approach by acknowledging the violence and terror unleashed by the Sri Lankan Government upon the Tamil minority.

  19. There is no concept of respect by covering hair in south india.

    Yes there is. South Indian Muslim, Protestant and Catholic women (the latter wear large pottus on their foreheads even while inside church without raising the priest’s ire).

    Widowed brahmin women with shaved heads cover their heads too. But I am not sure if they cover their heads out of respect or for some other reason.

    Technically I shouldn’t be talking about South Indians/Tamils here. This book is about SriLankan Tamils and I, for one, am able to accept this cover-page woman to be SriLankan.

  20. Yes there is. South Indian Muslim, Protestant and Catholic women (the latter wear large pottus on their foreheads even while inside church without raising the priest’s ire).

    they wouldn’t be in a temple (i was responding to a comment abt south indians covering heads in temples). but let me clarify, south indian hindus do not cover hair as a mark of respect or whatever. maybe if the sun is hot, yeah. otherwise no.

    Widowed brahmin women with shaved heads cover their heads too. But I am not sure if they cover their heads out of respect or for some other reason.

    i don’t know where you get this one from. widowed brahmin women in the south do not shave their head. come to think of it, i don’t think there is any occasion where brahmin women shave their head—men do in the event of a death in the family, not women. and i think it is largely true of other communities as well, though i am not sure how “largely” is largely.

    maybe you are reading too much of all-look-same variety literature.

  21. bytewords,

    i don’t know where you get this one from. widowed brahmin women in the south do not shave their head. come to think of it, i don’t think there is any occasion where brahmin women shave their head—men do in the event of a death in the family, not women. and i think it is largely true of other communities as well, though i am not sure how “largely” is largely. maybe you are reading too much of all-look-same variety literature.

    I don’t know where you get the right to speak so authoritatively about this. Sri Lankan women (at least older, more traditional women) do cover their hair. I know a South Indian Brahmin who’s widowed aunt was confined to the house because she refused to shave her head when her husband died.

    I can list plenty of examples, but the larger point is that, given (obviously!) the massive ethnic, religious and cultural variation in South Indian (and SriLanka for that matter!) it’s ridiculous to argue that “there is no concept of respect by covering hair in south india” except “maybe if the sun is hot”.

    WTF?? You are making mountains of molehills and your aggressive tone is rather misplaced.

  22. i don’t know where you get this one from. widowed brahmin women in the south do not shave their head. come to think of it, i don’t think there is any occasion where brahmin women shave their head—men do in the event of a death in the family, not women. and i think it is largely true of other communities as well, though i am not sure how “largely” is largely

    .

    See pages 11 & 12 in this link. And please note that I am not making a judgement about the practice now. I am just giving evidence that the practice existed. Sometimes, although rare by then, as late as the 70s and 80s in Chennai.

    maybe you are reading too much of all-look-same variety literature.

    Why are you pelting me? Have we even run into each other previously somewhere? Or did I just manage to somehow offend you now?

  23. I don’t know where you get the right to speak so authoritatively about this. Sri Lankan women (at least older, more traditional women) do cover their hair. I know a South Indian Brahmin who’s widowed aunt was confined to the house because she refused to shave her head when her husband died.

    I am speaking of South Indian brahmins, don’t know of Sri Lanka. And I have no idea of this south indian friend of yours, but it is not the norm—possibly they lived elsewhere in India. While double standards exist in remarriage—widows almost never marry but widowers almost always do, it is even uncommon for widows to wear white only like in the north.

    And I don’t have the “right to speak authoritatively”, but my knowledge is from rather multiple tragedies surrounding my family. And given how orthodox my extended family is—they pretty much consult the “shastras” for everything, some of them even go into sainthood in the ultra-orthodox denominations of Iyengars—suffice it to say that if there was any traditional basis in these practices, they would have been followed, if not, someone would have commented snidely at every possible occasion.

    Why are you pelting me? Have we even run into each other previously somewhere? Or did I just manage to somehow offend you now?

    This is the thing—you are reading this book that professes intimate knowledge of what is supposed to be tradition—including names of people? From everything I have seen, and from every widowed woman I have known in my family, extended family, friends—all of whom I berate for being hardcore retrograde, not one has done this. Read the previous para of what I said as well.

    I can’t even stand most of my extended family, but this “accusation” (doesn’t matter whether you “meant” it or not) isn’t true. I hate it when people write books and give examples to bolster a pre-determined theory, and that is what I mean by “all look same” variety literature. I am not pelting you, I am typically incensed by ridiculous generalizations like this. You laugh at people who say everyone in Europe speaks French, but call this scholarship?

  24. My tamil grandmother covers her head with a shawl, but only when it’s snowing outside.

    I can’t believe you’re arguing about this.

  25. This is the thing—you are reading this book that professes intimate knowledge of what is supposed to be tradition—including names of people? From everything I have seen, and from every widowed woman I have known in my family, extended family, friends—all of whom I berate for being hardcore retrograde, not one has done this. Read the previous para of what I said as well. I can’t even stand most of my extended family, but this “accusation” (doesn’t matter whether you “meant” it or not) isn’t true. I hate it when people write books and give examples to bolster a pre-determined theory, and that is what I mean by “all look same” variety literature. I am not pelting you, I am typically incensed by ridiculous generalizations like this. You laugh at people who say everyone in Europe speaks French, but call this scholarship?

    You are denying a practice because it didn’t happen in your family? How fair are you? The women I have seen with my own eyes, in my lifetime, in my family-and-friends circle didn’t exist because you say so? Denying real people and hiding them in the closet (for whatever reason) is as sad as it gets.

  26. You are denying a practice because it didn’t happen in your family? How fair are you? The women I have seen with my own eyes, in my lifetime, in my family-and-friends circle didn’t exist because you say so?

    No, I didn’t because of “just because of my family”. If you had read my previous para (and my full comment):

    And I don’t have the “right to speak authoritatively”, but my knowledge is from rather multiple tragedies surrounding my family. And given how orthodox my extended family is—they pretty much consult the “shastras” for everything, some of them even go into sainthood in the ultra-orthodox denominations of Iyengars—suffice it to say that if there was any traditional basis in these practices, they would have been followed, if not, someone would have commented snidely at every possible occasion.

    Besides, the number of south indian brahmins is not all that high—there are pretty much only a handful of different types.

    Denying real people and hiding them in the closet (for whatever reason) is as sad as it gets.

    ??? I started by saying that south indian hindus have no concept of covering heads for respect, you said otherwise. You brought up a ritual of widows shaving their head—I am saying it is not customary for south indian brahmin widows shave their heads. I am not saying your friend’s aunt didn’t do it, I am saying it is not a south indian brahmin tradition. I even pointed out what really is the double standard—they are not allowed to remarry.

    So if you had read my full comment, my basis for believing these rituals are not mandated by anything south indian is that my relatives who go into sainthood are the ones who “put down the law” on these things. In your language, they are the “popes” of their denominations, and the denominations I am talking of are the really hardcore ones. If they don’t do it, none of the dozen or so other big denominations are likely to follow them either.

    I am not even sure how you distinguish south indian brahmins—culturally there is a distinct identity. if you are looking geographically and point to someone in telangana or border andhra/orissa/belgaum and say “aha you are wrong”, there is no point in continuing further.

  27. 28 · bytewords said

    You laugh at people who say everyone in Europe speaks French, but call this scholarship?

    is this a reference I’m not getting or are you judging a novel by the rubric applied to scholarship?

  28. is this a reference I’m not getting or are you judging a novel by the rubric applied to scholarship?

    it is a reference to this. basically the tendency of a lot of south asian “scholarship” (what i referred to as the all-look-same brand) to muddy evidence so that some predetermined notion is validated, rather than systematically drawing conclusions from evidence.

  29. Still_Dismayed, I would say it is very reductionist :-) Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Muslims are both Tamil speaking. So if they felt that there was any overt discrimination against Tamil-speakers their representatives could have very easily caused many Sri Lankan governments to fall by walking out. Even the minor Sri Lankan Tamil parties could have taken a stand if they wanted to, but they chose not to. No doubt they were and are “traitors” to those who sympathise with the LTTE and its ideology. I wonder, perhaps this was one of the reasons why thousands of Muslims were ethnically cleansed from Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu by the “sole representatives” of the Tamil people? Neither of them identified with the separatism and confrontational nature of Jaffna Tamil politicians who did not want the priviledged position of Jaffna Tamils in colonial Sri Lanka to end. You speak as if separatism came about after the incidences you mention above, but Chelvanayagam (who wasn’t even born in Sri Lanka) was advocating just that before independence was granted to erstwhile Ceylon.

    Sinhalese was going to be the official language of Sri Lanka one day or the other. What I disagree with is the timeframe in which it was introduced. Other than that I think it is perfectly reasonable to have Sinhalese as an official language in a country where over 75% of the population use it as their mothertongue (Tamil is an official language too mind you). As for “colonization”, instead of reading LTTE propaganda I would suggest you research more into it. You’ll find that landless peasants from all ethnic groups – SL Tamil, Indian Tamil, Moor, and Sinhalese were provided with land, and sometimes a home. Infact, a large segment of the current population in the Vanni is composed of Indian Tamils who were given crown land. In the Maheweli B and C schemes in the east, Sri Lankan Tamils and Moors were given pride of place with zero allotments to Sinhalese. Ditto for Thirukkovil which is now a Tamil majority area within a Muslim majority area. Now why not take some time out to think about the fact that over one million Indian Tamils were settled in “traditionally Sinhalese areas” in the Central Province by the State. Infact, the Sinhalese peasants were forcibly removed from their farmlands and still have not received any compensation. The government is currently in a process of transferring land deeds in these areas to landless Indian Tamil estate workers. Do you hear the Sinhalese making a hue and cry about “colonization” by Tamils? No.

    Today the only mono-ethnic areas in Sri Lanka, out of bounds to Sinhalese, Moors, Malays, Burghers and all other non-Tamils are those areas run by the LTTE. The rest of the country is multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious.

    I need to adress this so please forgive the length of my reply. You talk of “discriminatory admission policies against Tamils” but there were none. If you’re talking of standardisation here (which I think you are) it certainly was not based on ethnicity like the LTTE and Tamil nationalists will have you believe. Once again I urge you to do some reasearch instead of regurgitating the same old propaganda. Standardisation was put into place to ensure that students from poorer backgrounds in areas with less educational facilities would have the opportunity to gain admission into university. Tamil nationalists claim that “Tamils had to get higher marks than the Sinhalese to get into university” but this is really a load of bollocks. The two most developed areas in Sri Lanka at that time were Jaffna and Colombo (and to a lesser extent Kandy). Students in all universities were overwhelmingly from these two areas because they had the best educational facilities and the best English-medium schools in the country. When standardisation was introduced, students from both these areas REGARDLESS OF ETHNICITY had to get higher cut-off marks that students, say, from Vavuniya or Galle or Trincomalee. So a Sinhalese, Moor, Malay, Burgher OR Tamil in Jaffna had to get higher cut-off marks than a Sinhalese, Moor, Malay, Burgher or Tamil student from “backward” area like Kegalle. There was no ethnic bar there. After its introduction the percentage of university entrants from Colombo and Jaffna was reduced and those from “backward areas” increased.

    While the Colombo Sinhalese (and Tamils, Moors, Burghers) accepted this without much hoo haa, Jaffna Tamil politicians made it into a race issue. They didn’t care that it provided better opportunities to Tamils from Eastern Sri Lanka, Tamils from “backward districts” such as Kilinocchci, Mullaitivu,Mannar or to Indian Tamils. The Tamil political leadership was dominated by Jaffna politicians so the views and opinions of other Tamils never reached the fore. The Jaffna Tamil politicians went on their usual confrontational path and this was where the canard “Tamils had to get higher marks than the Sinhalese to get into university” came into existence.

    I hope you realise that TODAY students from Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Vavuniya (all areas which are almost 100% Tamil because of LTTE ethnic cleansing) can get into university with lower cut-off marks than students from Kegalle, or Colombo, or Kandy? This is because these areas have been classified as “backward areas” due to the war. In other words, the “evil, genocidal, racist, bigoted Sinhalese government” has recognised that students from these areas do not have the same opportunities as students from other areas in the country. I think is quite fair. But the strange thing is I don’t see any of the Jaffna Tamil politicians or Tamil nationalists complaining about that fact, and going on about “Sinhalese have to get higher marks than Tamils.” Yet they still bring up this bogus claim that “Tamils had to get higher marks than the Sinhalese to get into university” to justify their separatist campaign.

    Burning of Jaffna library and riots of 1983 – there is no justification. The state failed in its duty, simple as that and it will forever be an embarassment and stain on the Sinhalese. But the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983 were sparked by the murder and mutilation of 13 soldiers in Jaffna by the Tamil New Tigers (forerunner of the LTTE). In other words, the LTTE was around before the events of 1983. The same sort of violence took place relatively recently in Gujarat against Muslims when a train in Godhra was torched and around 60 people in it were killed. That sparked days of anti-Muslim violence. I am not justifying what happened here, just pointing out that there was an event that set it off; it did not happen spontaneously. What led to the birth of the LTTE was not just the actions of the Sri Lankan government, but the separatism, confrontation and scare mongering practiced by Jaffna Tamil politicians. Their Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 (again before the 1983 riots) sealed it; the Tamil politicians were certainly doing their own “ethnic outbidding.”

    As for Seneviratne, I’m not surprised if he is ostracized by the Sinhalese community in Australia. Perhaps he doesn’t deserve it, but the man does not see ANYTHING wrong with the LTTE. Infact, IMO he would probably do swell as one of its generals or the next Tamilchelvam :-) I hear he is having land problems, has to pay up thousands, and is now appealing to Tamil nationalists/Eelam supporters the world over to write letters to some council/shire. Sometimes one does have to sing for one supper I suppose.

    And in reply to your final comment, I agree the Sri Lankan governments down the line haven’t been as forward looking as they should have been. They have failed at nation building and should have been far more sensitive to Tamil concerns. But in my opinion, if anyone wanted to ‘destroy’ the Sri Lankan Tamils, there would be no agent better than the LTTE; they are destroying the community from within and have done it quite successfully, all the while claiming to fight for “freedom.” You seem to want to equalize the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, so do let me know when Prabhakaran can be voted out in an election by a dissatisfied electorate :-)

  30. 20 · bytewords said

    No. I have seen north indian women cover their heads in south indian temples. There is no concept of respect by covering hair in south india

    There was a concept of respect by having your head covered in South India. Not entirely, but half-covered as seen in that picture. My mother is one of those rebels who walked into their village temple without doing that in her time. That is why, I said ‘old-fashioned’.

    When I said temples, I don’t mean the famous ones where people visit from far-off places, but local temples where only local ladies visit on Fridays after their “head-bath”.

    In any case, this is my personal experience and nothing in the picture says anything extra-ordinary (ie, North-Indian specific) to me. May be most people are familiar with North Indian attitudes. But that doesn’t exclude ALL the South Indians from having the pallu over their heads :) .

  31. Okay, this is hair-covering non-issue has gone on long enough. Consider the point moot and now dead. Next comment about it will be deleted.

    Kushil Jayasuriya, you are entitled to your view, but supporting links are always a good idea. The comment is also excessively long. Please consider yourself warned.

    If this thread degenerates into a Singhala-Tamil piss-fest, comments will be closed, so please consider your words carefully and maintain a civil tone – this applies to everyone.

  32. in my opinion, if anyone wanted to ‘destroy’ the Sri Lankan Tamils, there would be no agent better than the LTTE; they are destroying the community from within and have done it quite successfully, all the while claiming to fight for “freedom.”

    The above quote (which I agree with) does not invalidate the following (which I also agree with):

    it was ultimately the responsibility of the Sinhala leadership for engaging in what Neil DeVotta characterizes as a process of “ethnic outbidding” by playing to the insecurities of the Sinhala masses and, in the process, depriving Tamils of their rights in the Sri Lankan state. I think it is of paramount importance to understand the emergence of a hardened and ruthless LTTE in the context of decades of Sinhala oppression, marked by several significant historic events such as the overnight passing of the Sinhala Only Act, state-sponsored colonization schemes of traditionally Tamil areas, discriminatory admission policies against Tamils, the burning of historic landmarks such as the Jaffna Library, state-sponsored pogroms such as Black July in ’83.
  33. There seems to be either a trend for multi-generational Sri Lankan diaspora epics taking in the civil war in the world of publishing these days.

    Anyone heard of this writer called Roma Tearne?

    In Bone China, she explores three generations of the De Silva family, who see the decline of their tea plantation in the political limbo between independence after 1948 and the rise of a Sinhalese government that imposes draconian language laws. Three sons head for Britain, their idealised land of refined literary culture.

    [ link ]

    I wonder if it is coincidence, fashion, or a genuine coming to the surface of stories from the Sri Lankan diaspora about this experience after the nessecary perspective of time and distance has passed.

  34. the rise of a Sinhalese government that imposes draconian language laws. Three sons head for Britain, their idealised land of refined literary culture.

    See, I don’t have sympathy for those types either…they actively look down on local languages (in this case Sinhala) and traditions (which are often part of their own cultural heritage)…while always aspiring for some European fantasyland (or trying to create that in India/Sri Lanka, etc).

  35. See, I don’t have sympathy for those types either…they actively look down on local languages (in this case Sinhala) and traditions (which are often part of their own cultural heritage)…while always aspiring for some European fantasyland (or trying to create that in India/Sri Lanka, etc).

    More like trying to escape a fratricidal civil war and having an image of the country ther are migrating to. Nothing to do with looking down on their own languages and traditions. And having a fairytale image of the land they are going to is no worse than having a fairytale image of the land you left behind.

  36. 36 · Sepia Intern said

    If this thread degenerates into a Singhala-Tamil piss-fest, comments will be closed, so please consider your words carefully and maintain a civil tone – this applies to everyone.

    How about a ‘read the book’ rule? that’s what I’m heading out to do.

  37. Have to agree with byteword. The cover pic is a North Indian woman in a North Indian temple (in the Dilwara style of temple architecture). Sure we shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but I would be hard pressed to relate that pic to a Tamil woman in a temple in Tamil Nadu or Ilankai for that matter, and hence say with a cursory glance on the book shelf that it was a story set with Sri Lanka as a backdrop. Perhaps it was done as a marketing tool to draw a more pan-Indian audience or what was considered Indian in a tourist brochure kind of way.

  38. 17 · Manish said

    Stay tuned, grasshopper, the update isn’t done yet.

    whatever happened to manish’s promised riposte and clarifications after rereading the book, and what exactly about his comment was “edited by admin”?

  39. At my request, Manish kindly agreed to have the comment edited to remove a spoiler. The deleted section was replaced by “(And a similar repetition later in the novel.)”