War, race, society, and the mind… Nadesan’s collection of 19 Tamil short-stories explores all these topics, steering the reader through the horrors of war, complexities of race relations, issues relating to mental illness, and the idiosyncrasies of society. He paints a broad canvas with stories following local and diaspora Sri Lankans of all races. And they take place globally, from the cold of the Alps to the heat of Australia.
The stories’ characters are human. Nadesan brings out the subtle and nuanced emotions we all experience. There are no heroes or villains in his stories – all of the characters are imperfect human beings with strengths and weaknesses. Hence the stories appear, and I think some actually are, real. He does not judge people, allowing the reader to make his or her own mind up. Nadesan’s work is commendable; he easily sidesteps the pitfalls faced by similar Tamil stories, avoiding hyperbole and forced moral judgements.
With vivid imagery that linger in the reader’s mind, the stories are not only enjoyable but also express complex meanings. One can read them slowly, reflecting and savouring the hidden messages. Below, I describe some key stories. A summary of the all the other stories are shown in the table which follows.
Horrors of war – Suicide fighter
Through first person narrative, the protagonist heartrendingly portrays how a senseless war machine uses an uneducated and brainwashed child as cannon fodder. The puppet masters have no sense of human decency and exploit the trusting and sacrificing nature of others, in love (as in the case of an innocent village girl) and in war (as in the case of the child). The romanticism of suicide fighting meets the stark brutalism of the communities it affects.
Mental illness – Telephone
The author tells two parallel (seemingly autobiographical) stories using first person narrative. The author is dealing with an able bodied but mentally ill (delusional) young man who has trespassed into his clinic in one story. He is chatting online with a friend who is portrayed as sane but with delusional beliefs (trespassing into the author’s belief system?) in the other story. In both cases, the men do not realize that they are delusional. The former is mentally ill in a clinical sense. The latter, though not clinically ill, behaves no differently. The author challenges the boundary of mental illness by this comparison.
Race relations – Childbirth
A Muslim man bent on revenge against the LTTE wants to join the army. He changes his mind after seeing the generosity of his Tamil friend who gave is sole business asset (the lorry) to his him to lift his family out of misery. Thus the love resulting from private benevolence (and sacrifice) overcomes the hatred arising from atrocities of war. Despite the darkness portrayed throughout his stories, Nadesan clearly believes that there is hope and capacity for change.
Social – Love letter from prison
The author narrates the story of a girl whose boyfriend is in an Australian prisoner. The girl also offers emotional support to convicted death-row prisoners in the US. However, she cannot cope with a mere suspicion that her boss may be acquainted with terrorists and quits her job. The author, through her, shows how prejudice leads to irrational beliefs and inconsistent Behaviour.
Other stories (classified by themes)
# Page Title (Tamil) Title (English) Theme
Theme1 – Horrors of war
8 61 ஆற்றோர கிரமத்தில் அவளொரு துரோகி She is a traitor in the riverside village. The author vividly describes the horrors of war and the cruelty of village folk to suffering victims.
13* 106 தற்கொலைப்போராளி
Suicide fighter (bomber). (described above)
15 121 சாந்தி தேடும் ஆவி
Peace searching soul. A village shopkeeper explains that hope helped to overcome their suffering during the war years.
Theme 2 – Mental illness
1 12 கிறுக்குப்பிடித்தாலும் ஆம்பிளைதானே Even though he is mad, he is a man. Grandma justifies the protagonist’s (the vagrant madman) fetish and voyeuristic behaviour to her daughter and grandchildren. And she urges her daughter to continue to feed him out of charity.
7 55 மனக்கோலம் Mind maps. Story about a family suffering from schizophrenia (hallucination and delusions) of their child resulting from war.
14* 116 தொலைபேசி Telephone. (described above)
Theme 3–Race Relations
3 22 பிள்ளைத்தீட்டு Childbirth (not an exact translation). See above
4 33 அவன் ஒரு அகதி He is a refugee. A Tamil boy who wanted to join the LTTE decides to become a refugee when he comes to know that he was born Singhalese but adopted by Tamil parents.
10 82 காதல் தீவு
Love island. A high caste girl brought up by her loving single father elopes with her low caste lover risking their lives. A moving love story based on the historical context of Nainathevu.
Theme 4 – Social issues
2 16 தென்னையும் பனையும் Coconut and Palmyra palms. Contrasts the Australian migrant life (lonely but bountiful life coconut tree) to a village peasant life (fulfilled but poor life).
5 38 சலனங்களுக்கு வயதில்லை. There is no age barrier to temptations. A middle aged Tamil professional on an overseas holiday has fleeting feelings for a similar woman.
6 48 MA 370 MA 370 A story of hatred and betrayal using the MA370 disaster as background. A wife hides her disinterest in knowing the fate of her suspicious husband who is trying to find out about her (perceived) infidelity.
9 74 இது எங்கள் கதை This is our story. A sad story of poverty and loneliness. An orphan woman is presumed dead and ready to be dissected by medical students. But she stirs up and tells them that she is no orphan and asks them to inform her relatives.
11 89 குற்றமும் தண்டனையும்
Crime and Punishment A handsome man marries a beautiful woman but the marriage fails as she has a child outside wedlock. The husband commits suicide. The protagonist (the man’s nephew) ‘punishes’ her by throwing rocks at her house. A complex theme which explores subtle issues.
12 96 சிவப்பு விளக்கு எரியும் தெரு Red-light district (not exact translation). Interesting story of a man, his wife, a middle aged ex-sex worker, and a young sex worker.
16 133 பிரேதத்தை அலங்கரிப்பவள் One who dresses dead-bodies. Story of a woman whose job is to ‘dress’ the dead.
17 139 பொலிடோல் Poison. A smart woman is forced in marriage to a nice but incompatible man. A story of adultery, pregnancy out of wedlock and suicide. The author makes no moral judgements.
18* 149 சிறையில் இருந்து ஒரு காதல் கடிதம் Love letter from prison. Discussed before
19 154 மெல்லுணர்வு Romance. Story of red-light districts, and romantic behaviour. By portraying a sex-worker as an intelligent and sympathetic human being the author avoids making a moral judgement.