By Brian Jeganathan
Vannathikulam (Butterfly Lake) is an autobiographical novella, cleverly woven using fiction and the author’s existential reality in the backdrop of ethno-nationalistic politics and conflicts in Sri Lanka in the early ‘80s.
The protagonist and narrator, Sooriyan, is a young Tamil veterinary surgeon from Jaffna, the former stronghold of northern insurgency. Having passed out from Peradeniya University, he has been posted to Medavachchiya, – a district predominantly inhabited by Sinhalese– which exists cheek by jowl with predominantly Tamil districts, which were gradually being shunted into a recalcitrant civil war.
The story line is simple: Sooriyan arrives in Medavachchiya and shares accommodation with few others, mostly Sinhalese, and then falls in love with his boarding mate Rukman’s sister Chitra, a teacher from Padaviya and decides to marry her. Neither of the families wage war on the lovers, but warn of the perils of interracial marriages in a climate of deep-seated communal antipathy. Rukman becomes a fugitive because of his strong links to the ultra leftist JVP (Peoples Liberation Front), facing imminent proscription by the incumbent capitalist regime. Sooriyan and Chitra, eventually, leave the country following the 1983 racial riots – flying away leaving their birthplace to become migrants in a strange land.
Padaviya, a Sinhala settlement, forms the locale of the romance. It is one of the settlements that Tamil nationalists have singled out to accuse the majority Sinhala governments of calculated colonization projects set up to alter the demographic balance of indigenous Tamil communities.
The period, 1980-83, in which the novella is situated, marked a radical turning point in Sri Lanka’s ethno nationalistic politics. The 1983 July riots and the proscription of the JVP precipitated the rapid militarization of civil society. More than three decades of political struggle for power sharing between the Sinhalese and Tamils was slithering down the slope of militancy and anarchy. On the other hand, several years later, the JVP, having gone underground, re-emerged as the architect of the bloodiest of southern youth uprisings tearing apart whole of civil society.
At a cursory glance, the novella may seem a familiar formula for a piece of creative work, essentially defeatist. However, at another level, the narrative, in fact, sums up the unendurable tragedy that has befallen this island nation of Sri Lanka. Though sketchy, the story resonates with the contemporary plight and flight of men and women, who no longer can live a normal human life in an atrophying society.
The author, Dr Noel Nadesan, succeeds in retaining the literary flavour of the fiction, using the device of fusing together anecdotes to form a coherent piece of work. The style and form combine to present a frank and crucial perspective to the ethno political discourse. In my view, Sooriyan does not stand for rash adventurism, or tokenism, but portrays a fresh humanism that transcends all that is baser in the contemporary ethno-nationalistic politics.
The narrative further fulfills its purpose of demystifying the entrenched jingoist ideologies that have justified the violence and destruction perpetrated in the name of ethno-cultural absolutism. It unravels the pernicious truth how southern and northern politics have been instrumental in demonizing and criminalizing one ethnic group by the other. He also questions the emancipatory political nostrums offered by extreme political breeds such as the JVP.
The novel opens with Sooriyan’s arrival in the farming district of Medavachchiya – a stranger and ‘the other’. Sooriyan’s father warns him “to work very cautiously with the Sinhalese”, but he settles in amicably among the Sinhalese. Contrary to his father’s admonition, he discovers later in the story, how Chitra puts her neck, literally against the cold gun of a Sinhalese soldier to save him: “Instinctively, Chitra held the barrel of the sub-machine gun and shouted in Sinhala: ‘This is my husband’”. By doing so, Chitra, takes on the very personification of the Sinhala hegemonic forces, to protect her Tamil friend, who later becomes her husband. Once again, during the 83 riots, it was another Sinhalese woman, Mrs. Wijesinghe, who offers Sooriyan a gun to protect himself from the marauding Sinhalese mobs. Thrusting the shotgun into Sooriyan’s hands she says, “Please have this gun and torchlight with you. There is only one bullet in the gun. What can we do if anything happens to you?”
Sooriyan’s romance with Chitra sprouts out based on “love at first sight”. Soon, the love-struck couple’s story bourgeons out, but without much fanfare. And the author is extremely cautious not to exploit the Tamil-Sinhala ethnic dichotomy to dramatize or sensationalize his love story. His love affair with Chitra –Goddess with her fluttering butterfly eyelids – is written about as an occurrence, natural and normal. The moments spent with his lover is not larded with mushy, maudlin dialogues. But they are straightforward, witty, and refreshing. After his return from Jaffna, Sooriyan satisfies Chitra’s desire to know what he had told his folks in Jaffna about her: “A Sinhala cuckoo had punched my heart and taken it,” Later he tells his folks, “I saw a girl called Chitra. I had not seen her language, race or religion but I have found affection flowing in abundance from her heart,”
The author’s ability to strip the language of paraphernalia and embellishment gives power to his little narrative. Packed with details, the narrative flows smoothly without hiccups. His anecdotes include the mundane and the sophisticated, but all harmoniously traveling in one direction to form a memorable story. Using the devices of “recollection”, “reminiscences”, and “borrowed information”, the author populates the story with events, and axiomatic tales from Tamil classical literature to give breadth and depth to the story.
In a sense, Sooriyan is the ideal man for our society shredded by communalism and tribalism. Story is rooted in realism. Sooriyan is ordinary and attempts to understand the obfuscating welt of issues as an ordinary human being. He contemplates upon them, questions them, but avoids subscribing to any, as they do not fit into the paradigm of his humanism. His humanism dictates that he should listen to his conscience, and conscience only.
He is not schizophrenic or ambivalent. He deals with the social and political world unequivocally. Hence, he is a realist-humanist. Though he accommodates religion, culture and societal rituals, he is acutely aware of the catastrophic effects of language and religion. “In this country, it is better not to talk in any language. Then there will be peace. Languages have divided the people. Religions have destroyed them,” Sooriyan knows that language is always and all ready ideological; and violence is inherent to religions. This should not be construed as a call for passivity and non-dissent.
When in Jaffna, he feels a sense of subservience in the face of the occupying Sinhala military forces. He is indignant about it: “I have hated it. This type of hatred would not be felt after passing south of Vavuniya. Jaffna is our country. We are a subjugated nation.” Though he is justifiably angry, he does not hastily hold a brief for Tamil nationalist leaders who joined the bandwagon to trundle down the abyss of war. “The fact is that Tamil politicians were not only hasty but also entered the ring without any basic plans. I thought that their actions were tantamount to the actions of an irresponsible man of a family who jumped from a moving vehicle in anger because the conductor of the bus had scolded and assaulted him, yelling at him and his whole family to jump out,”
In a deeper sense, Sooriyan suffers from an acute sense of nostalgia for his native Jaffna, especially Eluvaithivu, the obscure islet, which has been abandoned and isolated by the governments. Though he is attached to Padaviya, where his love sprouts out, he feels the deep alienation from his birthplace. He equates the tragedy in the apt lines “the ordinary people accepted these problems as their destiny, since the Government seemed to them as far away as God’’.
During one of the emotional trips to Eluvaithivu with Chitra, Sooriyan expresses his innermosts disconnect with his birthplace poignantly: “At least, let my feet embrace the soil”. This sense of being exile within one’s own country, gives the tragic edge to the story. Thus, the poetics and politics of the book situate the novella in the realm of tragedy. Sooriyan’s and Chitra’s ultimate deracination from their birthplace and the flight to the unknown culminates in that tragedy, which stems from the abominable and macabre social and political conditions unleashed by the lords of war.