Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 20, 2017

Sodden Downstream, by Brannavan Gnanalingam #BookReview

Sodden Downstream is an impressive novella from New Zealand author Brannavan Gnanalingam, recently featured in Meet a Kiwi Author.  As you can tell from the cover design, the book is concerned with the everyday, but the question that arises from reading it is, how did the everyday come to be like this?

This is the blurb:

Thousands flee central Wellington as a far too common ‘once in a century’ storm descends. Roads are closed and all rail is halted. For their own safety, city workers are told that they must go home early.

Sita is a Tamil Sri Lankan refugee living in the Hutt Valley. She’s just had a call from her boss. If she doesn’t get to her cleaning job in the city she’ll lose her contract.

The story traces less than 24 hours in the life of Sita, each short chapter identified by precise digital time from 12.14pm to 8.13am the next day, yet it portrays a lifetime in New Zealand’s underclass.  Sita is one of the invisible army of workers in the brave new world of contract cleaning…

Here in Victoria, schools used to have their own cleaners as part of the staff.  They were paid by the department like the teachers were, and they had sick leave and holidays and superannuation just like we did.  Some of them lived onsite and were also caretakers, and most of them were handymen too.  The infamous Jeff Kennett sacked them all when he became premier, inviting them to set up their own contract cleaning business.  And thus began the school cleaning contract merry-go-round:

  • A satisfactory quotation for the work, based on a centrally calculated number of hours per area cleaned, more hours for classrooms in daily use, less for spaces thought by bean-counters to be used less often such as the school library or a gym or computer room (all also in daily use).  Cash-strapped principals took time to learn that the quotation which undercut the last one was a bad idea. They also learned that the person with whom they negotiated the contract was the owner of the business, not a cleaner, not someone to supervise the work done.  Money paid to him is an expense deducted from the money available to staff the actual cleaning.
  • A team of underpaid unskilled workers scamper to cover the areas to be cleaned in what is an inadequate amount of time.  The school is fresh and clean for about two weeks … the workers can’t sustain the pace.
  • Verbal complaints – promises to improve.
  • Written complaints in a logbook – teachers learn that it is less trouble to empty a rubbish bin than it is to record that it hadn’t been emptied. But how do you record general grubbiness?
  • Stains accumulate.  Teachers learn to bring cleaning products and equipment from home.
  • Covert negotiations with a new cleaning company so that the unsatisfactory one doesn’t decamp prematurely in a huff.
  • Back to square one.

Under the radar of this merry-go-round in schools, offices and public buildings all over the country are people like Sita in Sodden Downstream.

Sita used to be employed by the company.  She had the benefit of annual leave and sick pay and holiday pay.  However, the laws changed according to her fellow cleaners, and they all lost their jobs.  They became contractors without the annual and the sick pay and the holiday pay. Or for that matter, even the guaranteed hours beyond the most nominal.  One of her colleagues blamed ‘The Hobbit’ but Sita didn’t know what he meant. That was a movie Satish wanted to see but they couldn’t afford the tickets.  Her boss talked about how the new arrangements would be ‘beneficial to all’ as what he kept getting ‘told by his staff’ was that they ‘wanted flexibility’. No one recalled being asked.  He didn’t give them much choice over the roster.  The much vaunted flexibility was, well, more uncertainty. And a completely destroyed sleep cycle.  If you couldn’t make it on a few hours’ notice, you wouldn’t get many hours the following week. (p.26)

Sodden Downpour takes place in a single day when Sita is called in to work on a day of torrential downpours.  Landslides, flooding and traffic jams don’t alter the imperative.  She is in no position to reject the ad hoc nature of her cleaning job.  When the trains are cancelled, she has to walk…

As the story traces her epic journey from her home in the Hutt Valley to the Wellington CBD, the reader sees that Sita is also inundated by her anxieties.  She worries about not getting sacked, about bringing up her son Satish, about feeding the family on a very tight budget, about inadequate clothing for the climate, and about pleasing her unemployed husband Thiru to avoid conflict.  And, as it turns out, also about concealing their difficulties from the middle-class Sri Lankan community who had the money and connections to settle comfortably in New Zealand before the Civil War.  At one stage, Sita gets a lift from Vasuda, who blithely takes her back to where she started from because Sita is too embarrassed to explain why she is walking in the rain.

Sita is a resourceful women, despite her limited English and inability to make much sense of what is said to her.  She meets a carnival of characters as she splashes her way from one place to another, taking people as she finds them as she had learned to do during the war.  Safety in an urban landscape seems to mean something entirely different to a refugee for whom survival meant life and death.

As she walks, Sita mulls over her everyday difficulties.  Satish wants to be like the other children, so she experiments with spaghetti Bolognese.  This episode would be comic if it were not so catastrophic to the family budget:

Thiru eventually said, ‘Yes, let’s try spaghetti,’ despite the cost of lamb and the fact that Sita had no idea what she was doing.  She had saved for a week and bought lamb mince and a pre-made pasta sauce and had boiled pasta to the packet’s instructions.  They had sat down to eat it with forks.  Spaghetti had proven difficult to control with a fork.  There were a lot of tomato stains on their clothes, which she spent that evening rinsing as she needed the work clothes the following day.  (p.14)

Despite her efforts, Satish tells her that she has made it wrong because his friend Liam said that spaghetti is the best thing to eat.  And when she says that she followed the jar recipe he asks But where is the flavour?  Where indeed?  The food seemed to easy to make and accordingly, tasted easy.  

Sita didn’t say anything.  She couldn’t defend this meal.  She wondered if she should have bought more spaghetti in a can and told Satish to eat it.  Maybe even one of those special $2 cans, with a proper sticker and label.  That would have been tastier.

‘But Appa, [Father], if this is proper Kiwi food, how do they eat this?’

‘Don’t tell them this.  They don’t like it when you criticise their food.  They think our food is too spicy.’ (p.16)

These cultural differences are, of course, part of everyone’s migration experience.  But while postwar migrants arrived at a time of full employment and when jobs were reasonably secure, Sita is struggling to get by in a very different economy, when HNZ (Housing New Zealand) will turf them out of their flat if they are doing ‘too well’, and when every cent they earn or spend is scrutinised by Work and Income, with financial penalties if her erratic income exceeds Thiru’s ‘cap’.  All three of them are carrying debilitating injuries from the Civil War, Sita has untreated gynaecological problems that she is too embarrassed to explain and Satish has not thrived as he should because of malnutrition in Sri Lanka.  Yet Sita feels a confused mixture of guilt, gratitude and resentment: she feels she needs to be charitable because New Zealand had taken them in. She thinks things might be better in Australia but she felt an obligation to stay here. […]   She wanted to repay New Zealand.  

Sodden Downstream is told entirely from Sita’s point-of-view.  She is an educated woman whose knowledge of AC and DC currents and how to do differential calculus and the key themes of Hamlet turns out to be less useful than knowing how to change a tyre.  She is obedient, a girl who followed orders and listened to her elders but finds herself speaking up for a youth being harassed by police.  She is honest, refusing to eat the free food at an art gallery opening when an equally hungry young woman takes her there.  But Sita is no saint: her thoughts are often rebellious and she has an occasionally caustic turn of phrase.  She is just too powerless to express herself.  Not yet anyway…

As the story progresses and the relentless hours pass by, the tension rises.  The reader becomes invested in Sita’s quest and her determination to keep her lousy job.  The pattern of Gnanalingam’s sentences  show that situations don’t change all that much, what alters is the resilience and/or fatalism of the people confronting events.  The climax is reached in the chapter headed 10.48pm – one single paragraph of 10 pages in length which explains Sita’s devastating personal history…

Sodden Downstream is unashamedly political in intent.  Gnanalingam has a go at unsafe workplaces, insecure working conditions, heartless welfare systems and cruel institutionalised poverty and if the picture he paints is accurate then one can only hope that their new government has plans to redress it.  But I suspect that the refugees’ hopes for something better in Australia is naïve.  While the furore over Australian treatment of offshore refugees gets a lot of media airspace, we don’t hear much about the penny-pinching attitude to those on the mainland.  I know from recent personal experience with refugee students that their families are doing it tough, very tough indeed.

Lawrence and Gibson is a micro-publishing collective – which makes it hard to get the book in Australia.  That’s a shame because the social issues in the novel are just as relevant here.  The book has some minor flaws which good editing could have fixed, along with some minor proof-reading issues.  But as an example of a compelling story that bypasses the mega-publishers who might not be interested in its overt politics, Sodden Downstream is an impressive novel.

Sodden Downstream is longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Update 27/12/17 I am pleased to see that the union movement in Australia is calling for legislative change against the casualization of the workforce and that they are going to lobby the Labor Party to make it policy.  About time too…

Author: Brannavan Gnanalingam
Title: Sodden Downstream
Publisher: Lawrence and Gibson, New Zealand, 2017
ISBN: 9780473410292, 178pp.
Review copy courtesy of the author

Available from the Lawrence and Gibson Publishing collective.  Make sure you use that link, the poor design of the home page makes it hard to find where to actually buy the books.  (It’s actually a BlogSpot blog, of all things! Switch to WordPress, guys, and make things look a bit more professional!)


Responses

  1. It’s impossible to imagine what the unions were doing during the casualization of work, teaching as well as cleaning. They and the ‘labor’ party have let us all down completely.

    Like

    • Yes, but it’s been a worldwide phenomenon. Only France resisted it, and they are caving in now too. And to be fair, I interviewed a leader in my teaching union and they were completely blindsided by the Kennett phenomenon. It was a miracle that were able to restrain him at all, and they were one of the most powerful unions. All those small unions never had a hope.

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  2. Sounds like a powerful book – and yes, you are right about refugees here doing it tough. There’s so much that happens under the radar that we don’t know about.

    Like

    • Brannavan is a lawyer by trade, so I guess he hears the stories that inform this book…
      But I tell you, with Medicare so long-established in this country, I was shocked to find that some refugees aren’t entitled to it. Something to do with having interim status or something like that. The baby sister of a kid we enrolled had a shocking cough and the parents couldn’t afford to take her to the doctor. Our welfare officer came to see me when I was AP because she didn’t know what to do, and I put my hand in my pocket and gave them the cash. But that was no solution, because what about the next time? It seems wicked to me…

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      • It is, I hear a lot about this from my brother and partner who are deeply involved with refugees. It’s to do with which Visa they’re on, so they can have Medicare then lose it, then have it again, and so on. Outrageous.

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        • #ShakesHeadInDismay How did we get to be so mean…

          Like

          • I have no idea but the stories I hear from them are distressing – the differential treatment! Yesterday I heard that one of the people in the refugee community they’re involved in is currently in jail because he failed to inform them of some change of address! An “Australian” wouldn’t be jailed for that.

            Like

            • It’s all this paranoia about ‘keeping Australia safe’. Every time I hear Turnbull spouting that phrase I feel like throwing something at the TV.

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  3. When my elderly parents came to this country in the mid 90’s we had to cough up about five thousand dollars to cover their possible medical expenses which was eventually reimbursed after quite a long time. I was raging as my old dad a WW2 vet in the British Royal Navy and had spent most of his service in and around the Indian Ocean defending this country. The materialism and meanness has increased so much in the fifty odd years I have lived here. Whatever happened to The Fair Go?

    Like

    • Well, yes, especially since Australians in the UK get free medical treatment on the National Health (at least, in 2001 we did, when we were there).

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  4. […] Sodden Downstream (2017) by Brannavan Gnanalingam […]

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  5. […] Sodden Downstream by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson) Update 5/12/17 The author got in touch with me via Facebook and is kindly sending me a copy of this.  10/1/18, see my review […]

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  6. […] as it turns out, I have read only one of the shortlist.  My review of  Sodden Downstream is here, and Salt Picnic is on my TBR, but I couldn’t muster enough interest in the other two to […]

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