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K.S.Sivakumaran's Columns!

Two Lankan women writers!

Maleeha Rajon:

MaleegaRajonLet me introduce the writing of two women writers from Sri Lanka. One writes in English and the other in Thamil. I cannot write an exhaustive review of these books as this is only a literary and arts column of brief gleanings. Maleeha Rajon, a Malay woman proficient in both English and Thamil.She is an English teacher and a trained Thamil teacher. I came to know her as a colleague in the staff of Alethea International School in Dehiwela.Her first collection of short stories in English was published in 2002 and the title of the book was 'The Dance of Life '. She belongs to the Wadiya Group of Writers, among whom are the dramatist, producer, singer and English teacher, Haig Karunaratne. The book has the distinction of a foreword by Ashley Halpe, Emeritus Professor of English, poet, translator, playwright, musician and scholar. 

Ashley notes the 'the unaffected simplicity of Maleeha Rajon's style and her unfailing quietness of tone from a limpid translucent medium for perceptive sketches from life as well as imaginative evocations of less familiar strands in the tapestry of Lankan experience '. 

Another estimation of Ashley rang true when I read her stories rather belatedly. This is what the professor said: 'They (the stories) make us crisscross the country and beyond into the Diaspora, weaving through the layers of class and the varieties of value - systems that contribute to the richness of Lankan mosaic'. 

He adds: 'Her characteristic form is the sketch, catching impressions without being merely impressionistic... in all the stories there is an admirable attention to relevant detail of character and background' and concludes' Permeating all the stories is a generous sympathy with the human condition. Never judgemental, the author presents the raw predatory mentality of the professional beggar and the deep calm of the village monk with equal serenity, though touches show that she is well aware of the demons of greed, hate and fear. The whole becomes an encounter with a deeply humane mind'. 

After this beautiful summing up by Ashley Halpe, what more can I say ? I can do one thing: to attempt an analysis of one of her stories. The story is titled: 'Kunkumap Pottu' (The Vermilion Mark ). The story is narrated in first person by a middle-aged Thamil woman, Gauri, married for 27 years to Ragu. She dresses up to go temple to pray for her son's birthday. Between her home and the temple there are five army camps. 

Her 'pottu' in her forehead easily identifies her as a Thamil woman. As she gets ready to go, she recapitulates how she got married with dowry, including jewellery given away on the demands of her mother-in-law. (Here is an implicit criticism of the typical Thamilian dowry system by the writer through her character. 

The author also uses the Thamil words applicable to some pieces of jewellery and give in footnotes the English equivalents). 

Her 40 sovereign jewellery was dutifully given to the groom before the wedding. Now, all that had gone during the Black July 1983, except her 'Thali' (a pendant symbolizing Hindu marriage ). During that horrendous genocide, she had to wipe off the 'kunkumap pottu ', before running for the lives of her husband and hers. Their son Sathyan was hidden in the neighbour's kitchen. But Alas, the child running three days of high temperature died. Sathyan, was buried by their neighbours (the Herath family) without his parents at graveside. (The writer on behalf of her character says) 'We had no children after Sathyan. 

It was as if my womb refused to house any more life, to be lost in time of terror. Ragu was devastated. A mental wreck. I was forced to take over, for I had only Ragu now. We lost our baby. We lost everything, our peace of mind, our sanctity as human beings, our belief in right and wrong. Bereft of everything we went back to Jaffna'. 

After 10 years the couple returned to Colombo. Gauri worships Durga, while her husband worships Siva. Her goddess, Durga, is the fierce goddess of war but she is also the protector of women, says Gauri. The meaning of her name is golden one. She will never remove her 'Thali' and wipe off her 'kunkumap pottu '. 

So her 'pottu' stays on her forehead till they put her in her coffin. (The writer explains the significance of the 'pottu'). 

She says that it is a part of a married woman's dress and that it gives a woman her status in society. Her character says, 'I wear it with dignity, this ethnic part of my make-up. 'Her friend in the campus described the vibrant colours of 'pottu' she had worn before marriage as 'dhemala paata'. 

Reverting back to the present, the writer speaks through Gauri in ironical terms: "I am tough now, somewhat like Durga, who is said to be a combination of all the fierce energies that her gods gave her. It is also believed that she had eighteen arms to which the gods gave her weapons to fight. Siva's trident, Agni's flaming dart and Indra's thunderbolt were some of them. I am determined to go to temple today, the day Sathyan saw this world. 

If he were alive, he'd be a book-trotting O/L student, just turned 15. Or would he be on the other side in boots too big for him carrying weapons instead of books ? 'Her husband warns her. She says: 'He reminds me of the flurry and excitement my 'kunkuma pottu' causes at check points sometimes. 

What with my vibrant coloured clothes, my 'pottu' and my jewellery 'winking' at them, and my inability to converse freely in Sinhala, Ragu feels it will be a perfect recipe for a showdown at any check point today'. 

Then she meets her former neighbour, Mrs Herath, who has two sons in the army -one in the battlefield and the other in check point in Colombo. Gauri tells her Sinhala friend about her 'pottu' and the predicaments at the check points. Herath replies that even she is not spared and that the soldiers ask for her ID and examines her bag. So, she speaks casually to those who check her. She even gives them some words of comfort. Mrs Herath consoles: 'Like my son, there are hundreds of them manning these checkpoints. That is where the difficulty is, Mrs. Ragu. You are suspicious of them and they of you! 'The story ends there. No judgement passed by the writer, and she leaves the readers to ponder. Cheers Maleeha. 

She is married to Rajan who had lived in Thiru koana malai. 

Maleeha Rajon and A. Santhan are two writers in English who subtly portray the struggle for life of Thamil speaking people in the hands of a small minority of ultra-nationalists, mono-racists and armed men. Aren't we still not going to learn from past history ? I am skeptical of the future of our people - all citizens. 

Padma Somakandhan:

Padma SomakanthanThe other woman writer is Padma Somakandhan. She too had been in the field of teaching and is one of the most senior women writers in Thamil in Lanka. She edits a magazine for women called 'Pennin Kutal'(The voice of Women ). Her husband too (N. Somakandhan) is a leading writer and critic in Thamil, and author of many books. Padma's third collection of short stories is titled 'Vealvi Malarhal'(Flowers for a Ritual - that's how I would call it.) Her previous collections were 'Kadavulin Pookal' (Flowers of God) and 'Puthiya Vaarpuhal'(New Designs ).She had many awards for her works both in Sri Lanka and Tamilnadu. I would like to introduce her third collection 'Vealvi Malarhal '. 

There are 14 stories which were originally published in Sri Lanka and abroad in magazines and newspapers. Eminent Thamil writers Vallikannan (from Tamilnadu), S. Sivagnanasundaram (Nandhi , emiritus professor of medicine) and S.Ganeshalingan (who also reviews books for 'The Hindu' of Chennai) have given their considered views on Padma's writing in this collection. 

As Ganeshalingan says, the writer's feminist views and the crudity of Lankan political and social problems and their atrocities in the past two decades in these stories. Fear of death, fear of war, uprooted refugee life and the tragic consequences are captured by the writer. 

'Nandhi' attributes that even though the writer entered the field of writing in the 1950s, she is a forward looking thinker and a capable writer. 

The keypoint in Padma Somakandhan's writing is her social consciousness and progressive outlook. Most of her stories describes clearly the actualities of what the people in Yaalpanam had encountered in so many years. Their miseries, tragedies, anxieties, degradation and humility are never understood by the mono-racists who are in bliss ignorance and divert their focus on secondary things, even to the extent of negating humane feelings. 

These stories and writing by other writers in Thamil on the agony and the wretched state of living by the Thamil-speaking people should be translated into Sinhala first and English later. Will any concerned people come forward to do this? 

Contact: kssivan1@juno.com 
courtesy: Daily News (Sri Lanka)

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