Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Uma Varatharajan-Sri Lanka-"The Advent of the King"

"The Advent of the King" by Uma Varatharajan (2002, 2 pages)

A Parable of the Sri Lankan Civil War

Uma Varatharajan is one of leading contemporary authors of Sri Lanka.   His work is very concerned with the human costs of the Sri Lankan civil war.   The war (1983 to 2009) cost the lives of 1000s of innocent citizens and displaced millions.    It caused a diaspora of much of the more elite elements of the population.   (There is an informative article HERE which provides a good explanation of  the history, causes and terrible effects of the conflict.)

"The Avent of the King" is set in the far distant past of Sri Lanka.   It has two central figures.   One is Uumayan, a simple man whose strongest concern in life is to take care of his elderly mother.   The second is a king who has just triumphed in putting down a revolt on part of the island.   The story is said to be a parable of the last 18 months of the life of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, killed in  a suicide attack.   (The war was partially over what languages should be dominant.)

It is a big day in Uumayan's home town.   The king is coming to announce he is going to have a temple that was destroyed in the war rebuilt.   This is to show his great love for his people.   The war has been over for a while but the memories do not fade.

"The city stood on the banks of the Red River, lined by groves of bamboo, quick to catch fire from the smallest spark borne by the slightest breeze. Though the war had ended three years ago, the sound of trumpeting elephants, neighing horses, the clash of steel and the piteous cries of people could be heard even to this day. The stench of burning bodies still hung suspended in the air. Vultures had abandoned their eyries in the jungles nearby and flocked to the city in the wake of the army and roosted among the giant trees, anticipating another conflict. Blackened walls and houses with their roofs caved in revealed how this once beautiful city was ravaged by war. The silence of the night was disturbed by the constant hooting of birds of evil omen and the howling of dogs. "

As you can see, Varatharajan has a very powerful visually oriented narrative style.

Uumayan can barely speak.   He was beaten by soldiers for the weakest of reasons (he owned a razor which was a crime) and lost his voice in this episode.   All he really cares about in life is taking care of his mother.     He has lost hope of one day having his own family as no potential father in law would permit his daughter to marry a man with little money who can barely speak.   

One day troops come in and take many of the men of the town to jail.   They are to be kept there so they can be released to be an audience for the king's dedication of the new temple.   

As the king speaks, a much needed rain begins to fall.   The king says he has brought the rain for his people.   He asks them what else they would like him to do for them.   The crowd, watched over by the soldiers, sang a song in praise of the king just as they had for other kings.   

The ending of this story is very powerful (somehow it takes on more power with the events of yesterday).

"“I am honoured and flattered to see you here in your thousands to welcome me in spite of the heavy rains. What do you need from me? Speak up!” said the King.
Uumayan once again raised his eyes heavenwards. There was no sign of the rain abating. Rather, forks of lightning flashed and snaked across the sky, followed by loud thunderclaps. The waters swirled and eddied and surged along the earth, creating new watercourses.
“I’ll build you mansions. I’ll order the immediate repair of roads, the restoration of tanks… Do you need stadiums, grain, silk? Ask, I am prepared to give you all these and more, but never…”
Before the King could complete his sentence, a blinding flash of lightning linked earth and sky. Uumayan closed his eyes in fear. When he opened them again and looked at the stage, the king was not there any more, he had vanished mysteriously."

You can read this story in The Little Magazine.   It is in translation from Tamil.

This is my first posting on a work by a Sri Lankan author.    There is a  great tradition in the literature of Sri Lanka (Leonard Woolf was a colonial administrator back in the time when it was part of the British Empire and was known as "Ceylon"-unlike most, he made a deep study of the culture of the country) for short stories.   

I hope those with direct experiences of the matters mentioned in this post will leave a comment.   

I am but in the opening stages of The Reading Life South Asia Short Story Project.   The history of this region is delightfully rich and complicated and is opening up a giant new world of learning and reading for me.   I expect to pursue it as a permanent interest.   I already have links to 100s of short stories by an incredibly diverse range of authors.     As one goes further back in history, there are fewer female authors and the authors  come mainly  affluent families.    Most of the authors whose works I have so far read, are highly educated both formally and through a life long pursuit of the reading life.    

Mel u


Mystica said...

The author as well as this piece of writing is new to me. As it is written in Tamil originally I would not have even heard of it so I am glad it has since been translated.

The war which the author is speaking of went on for 3 decades and the conflict was very bitter. The war is now over but memories of the conflict remain to this day and the two communities are unlikely to completely trust each other ever. Everyone at present gets along on the surface and life seems to have a sense of normalcy but I feel still that things are not quite right yet. It will take a long time.

Mel u said...

Mystica-thanks so much-it means a lot that you would share your personal experience with us