For most Australians, I suspect, Sri Lanka is the source of asylum seekers from the civil war, (1983-2009) and in metropolitan cities and suburbs, also the source of cheap and cheerful cuisine in Sri Lankan eateries. But Melbourne’s Immigration Museum tells us that a small community of Sri Lankans (then called Ceylonese) was first counted in the 1871 Australian Census, a community which grew after the end of the White Australia Policy to nearly ten thousand by 1976. The website goes on to say:
Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka in 1983 resulted in a significant intake of immigrants under the Special Humanitarian Program. Subsequently, Sri Lanka-born arrivals have come here under the Family Reunion Program, or as Skilled or Independent immigrants.
Today, Sri Lankans make up the eighth largest immigrant group in Victoria, with 43,991 people recorded in the 2011 census. The community is culturally diverse, reflected in the languages spoken at home: 53% speak Sinhalese, 16% speak Tamil, and most others speak English. Religious diversity follows a similar pattern, with 42% Buddhist, 12% Hindu and 40% Christian.
37% of the Sri Lanka-born population in Victoria are tertiary educated and are employed as managers and professionals; 25% work in clerical, sales and service; and many others work in trades, production and transport.
(Source: Origins, History of Immigration from Sri Lanka, Immigration Museum Melbourne, viewed 19/6/16)
So it’s pleasing to see that Australia has another author from the Sri Lankan diaspora to join the award-winning Michelle de Kretser, and by the look of this debut, Rajith Savanadasa has a great future as an author ahead.
Set in Colombo in the aftermath of the civil war, Ruins is a story of a family in crisis. The generations are in constant conflict over issues big and small, and the old familial certainties don’t seem to fit into the new way of life in a city in transition.
Anoushka is suffering the travails of teenage years, trying to cope with the torment of friendship issues; she has a yearning for an iPod so that she can listen to the kind of music she likes (and her parents disapprove of); Niranjan is hoping to make big money out of his start-up company but he’s hanging around with the wrong crowd. His father Mano is struggling professionally as journalism falters not only because of the digital age but also because of political corruption; Mano’s been neglecting his wife Lakshmi too and she’s got herself tangled up in a risky quest to find a missing Tamil boy.
Savanadasa introduces his Australian readers to an unfamiliar world, one which is strictly gendered, class-based and overtly racist. The book is narrated by each of the five central characters, beginning with the servant Latha whose sense of social inferiority is reinforced in all her daily interactions. Waiting to chaperone Anoushka home after school, Latha knows that Anoushka doesn’t want to be seen with her.
…She worried her friends would think I was her mother. Sometimes I wanted to tell her, ‘When you’re standing next to me, anybody can tell I’m just a servant, and you’re my baby nona. Nobody will mistake it. ‘ But I kept quiet. (p.8)
For Latha, the Herath family is her only family. She has only recently discovered that she has a brother, a brother who only comes to visit because he wants her to come home and wait on his wife while he works overseas in Dubai. Her sister Akka used her too. But although she thinks the Heraths are a good family, no one shows her any respect or affection. She works seven days a week for a pittance, and there is no certainty that she will be allowed time off to attend her nephew’s funeral. The only reason Lakshmi is kind to her is because she, a devout Buddhist, believes she needs to build up meritorious deeds to ensure an auspicious reincarnation.
The layers of the story build up in each distinctive voice. This is Anoushka, uncomfortable about the bullying of the socially inferior goday girls:
The TMMs [too-much-makeups] were talking about some party on the weekend. Natalie had been there with the rest of her kind, with boys – cricketers, ruggerites and other dudeheads with slicked-back hair and halfway-buttoned shirts. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to go to those parties anyway (and if I did Ammi would kill me). And that was fine. They could talk about whatever. But then they turned around and laughed at the goday girls, you know, the supremely uncool characters like Chamari and Dushanthi who’ve come from rural places like Mulleriyawa and Monaragala on a scholarship. (p.24-5)
Niranjan is at that age when self-delusion suggests that quick money is easier than getting a proper job, the job his parents expect him to get after the expense of sending him to Australia for his education. I predict that most readers will have a good chuckle when the nature of his start-up company is revealed.
Goddam backward Lankan investors. They just didn’t get it. Didn’t recognise vision if it kicked them in the head. Cash wasn’t exactly flowing in, the start-up was in discovery phase and I was hungry. I didn’t have the money to go to the Commons, let alone Gallery Café – but that wasn’t the only reason I went home for a late lunch. I needed to use a phone, call that chick who had found my mobile at Zanzibar. (p.139)
Mano is suffering from delusions too. After drinking far too much arrack he thinks he can romance his wife despite his philandering:
She was having a nap and it was dark in her room. I had to go very slowly to make sure I didn’t fall over. When my knees hit the edge of her bed I stopped and waited for my eyes to adjust. I could finally see her, at least her outline, lying on her side, knees together, one arm underneath the pillow and the other behind her like she was handcuffed or something. I waited for her to wake up for a long time, but how long can you wait? I had an idea. What if I got into bed so that when she woke up she’d get a good surprise? Who knows, maybe she’d even feel a little naughty. My god, I remember the days when we did a regular trip down to Galle or up country. In those places Lakshmi was more romantic. (p.85)
In your dreams, Mano, in your dreams! Lakshmi is far too busy being discouraged by life. She is of Tamil origin, her skin is a bit darker than Mano would really like, and her kids are careful not to speak their mother tongue. It’s not easy for her when the Tamils are vanquished and she is surrounded by triumphant victors, and since she lives vicariously through her children, she is obsessed by Niranjan’s night life in the nightclubs of Colombo:
The terrible fate of a mother is that her child will one day leave. At first they seem close but boys are forever drifting away, just to trouble their parents. Ever since he got back from Australia, Niranjan’s been doing things to try and upset me….
Niranjan goes roung-gahanna and comes back drunk in the middle of the night, gets up late the next day, goes to work and does it all over again. On weekends he goes completely missing or returns just before the sun comes up and sleeps all day. I barely see him. I tell him, ‘Niranjan, what’s the meaning of this?’ but he just laughs, his perfect teeth making him look mean. (p.95)
As you can see from the extract above, Savanadasa sprinkles his text with Sinhalese and Tamil expressions, but it is so skilfully done that the reader can always work out the meaning from context. The setting is different enough to be interesting to readers like me who haven’t been to Sri Lanka, but it’s not exoticised. The characterisation is vivid, and the narrative drive is sustained as the plot layers build up. In the end it’s Latha who makes sense of her world even though she has no illusions left.
I really enjoyed Ruins. Highly recommended.
Author: Rajith Savanadasa
Publisher: Hachette, 2016
Source: Review copy courtesy of Hachette.
Available from Fishpond where it is due for release on June 28th: Ruins
or direct from Hachette where it is also available as an eBook.