"The Street" by Pradeep Jeganatha (Sri Lanka)
This is my second post for a new permanent event on The Reading Life. This event will be devoted to short stories of the Indian subcontinent. There is no literary culture with roots older than that of India. I will always admire Edmund Burke for telling the English that they had no right to govern a region whose culture is much older than theirs. Many of the geographic boundaries that created these countries were created by the British or are consequences of their misrule. Most of the stories I post on in this event will be from India but I have plans now to post on stories by authors from every country in the region with the exception as of now of Tibet for which I can so far locate no short stories translated into English. Some of the writers featured will be internationally famous, such as Salmon Rushdie, Sadat Manto, and R. K. Narayan but most of the writers I post on will be authors on whom there are no prior book blog posts. There are numerous books and academic conferences devoted to exploring the colonial experiences of India and Ireland and I will look these stories partially as post colonial literature. My main purpose here is just to open myself up to a lot more new to me writers and in this case most will be new to anyone outside of serious literary circles in the region. Where I can I will provide links to the stories I post on but this will not always be possible.
"The Street" is, like the first story I posted on for the event, about a very impoverished woman at the mercy of her husband and from the despised bottom of society. In most big Asian cities, I live in one, there are men and women who stand at the edge of the road, or sometimes in the middle, who try to make a living for themselves by selling things to passers by in their cars. Often they will have their children with them, sometimes sleeping beside the road. It is a terribly dangerous and very unhealthy life, one that offers no future for their children. If a woman is lucky she has a husband to help her share the burden but most times in the long run it is the woman who is the main support of the family.
"The Street" is about the wife of a man who used to sell things on the road in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. His customers are in air conditioned cars (just to have a car means you are pretty rich), normally with drivers and with heavily shaded windows to prevent the lower classes from looking in their cars. One day her husband was hit by a car and he decided after that to not work any more. She took up the work. This story lets us see what her life is like. You offer fruit for sale to a passenger in a car worth more than you could make in a 1000 life times and they have their driver offer you half the fair price just to beat you down. She has some kind of friends. She used to work offshore in the middle east and sent all her pay back home to support her family but she cannot do it now as she has no one to take care of her children. One of her friends tells her about a child care place where she can put her kids for a price she can afford. She is assured that they will be taken care of and this would allow her to work as a live in maid, a much better work for her. Her friend from the streets arranges everything for her. At the appointed time a big car picks up the children and they are dropped off at the home. Then the woman is herself dropped off at a brothel and told she must work there to pay for the care of her children, who are now the captive of the brothel owners. I wondered how much her friend was paid for doing this to her.
"The Street" takes us deeply into its milieu. When the woman told her friend how her husband abused her she was told that he probably could not even stand up to a Tamil. Looking a bit deeper we see how sectarian divides are used to control societies and keep people from seeing who their real enemies are.
"The Street " is a very good, very much worth reading story about purely voiceless people.
I read this story in a collection of short stories from the region, The Lotus Singers: Short Stories from Contemporary South Asia (2011) edited and introduced by Trevor Carolan with various translators.