by Rajith Savanadasa
“This family is good. That’s why I work for them. Aiya doesn’t know because Aiya hasn’t seen.” The mysterious thoughts of a worried servant in a Sri Lankan household open Rajith Savanadasa’s cogently written, cleverly conceived debut novel, Ruins.
Latha is the first of five narrators who tell the story of a family, and a country, picking up the pieces in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s bloody 26-year civil war. The book begins before the end of the conflict, just after the fall of the Tamil Tigers’ stronghold, Kilinochchi,to the Sri Lankan army, in early 2009.
Not that Savanadasa makes more than a passing mention of the war at the start of the novel. Understated at every turn, this ambitious, vibrant work takes its cues from the intensely personal narratives of five individuals from one Colombo household. Secret, unspoken perspectives are presented in cyclical form and gradually build into a haunting snapshot of the Herath family as it comes to grips with the push and pull of daily life.
Initially, the conflict seems so distant as to be a kind of rude, occasional intrusion on the periphery of family routine. Yet by the novel’s end, the conflict’s shadow looms as large and as potent as the divisions of race, class and gender that helped it fester.
Latha is disturbed by a visit from her long-lost elder brother, Aiya. As her worries tumble onto the page, the rest of the household comes sharply into view, along with its vibrant Colombo milieu. Aiya wants her to leave the family she has cooked, cleaned and cared for since she was little more than a child in order to go back to her home village and look after his family while he goes to work in Dubai.
“They look after me better than you village people,” she tells her brother over the telephone one day when he calls to press her again. “Who would do the cooking here,” she worries. “Who would look after Anoushka Baby and fetch her from school? Who would wash Niranjan Baby’s shirts?”
It is only when Niranjan, the now adult son of the household, rudely accuses her of neglecting her duties that it becomes apparent how long Latha has been caring for the offspring of Lakshmi and Mano. She frets constantly over the family’s welfare and confides in her elder brother her concerns that her employers are not happy; that “Anoushka Baby gets upset about the smallest things”, and that she no longer knows Niranjan Baby, who has been a different person since he returned from Australia.
By the time others take up the narrative, we almost know more about this unhappy family than they do themselves. Mano, a newspaper editor, is drinking and spending heavily, and habitually returns home late at night. Lakshmi is worried about her only son, Niranjan, who has founded a start-up company but stays out until dawn, drinks, smokes and acts against his mother’s wishes at every turn.
Full of big talk, big dreams and sloppy habits, Niranjan wants money and soon embarrasses his parents. Anoushka emerges initially like any self-obsessed teenager, but with a brand of “teen speak” that carries the vibrant slang and rhythms of wealthy contemporary Colombo.
Well into the novel, it emerges that Mano has been cut off by most of his family for marrying Laks
hmi, a Tamil. He makes secret nocturnal visits to a Buller’s Road mansion to spy on Ramana, a woman he once tried to impress but is now married to one of Sri Lanka’s wealthiest businessmen. He sits in his car pondering his rift with Lakshmi and worrying about the newspaper, which is in sharp decline.
Lakshmi worries about her family, but also broods over a letter she has received about a missing beggar boy from her home city of Batticaloa. Countless people have written over the years, seeking her help in finding missing persons because her husband “is the prominent journalist Manoratne Herath”. But unlike the other requests, she finds herself unable to ignore this appeal and enlists Mano’s help. For Mano, her request is a bombshell. It sends him scurrying back to Buller’s Road to find solace in his habitual vigil. He’s still there when he receives a phone call from the office to say the war is about to end.
The ensuing celebrations fail to cheer Lakshmi, and the family embarks on a road trip north, to the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, where they visit a stone artefact known as the Sandakada Pahana, or “moonstone”. It features concentric bands of carvings, including a procession of animals, each representing a stage of life, around a central lotus, representing nirvana. It is the key motif of the novel and, as Savanadasa writes in his afterword, the inspiration for its cyclical structure.
The journey marks a key turning point in the narrative and tensions mount.
Savanadasa’s ear for dialogue is second to none and he mixes Tamil and Sinhala words into the narrative fearlessly. Nothing is obvious in this memorable tale. It rolls along effortlessly, pulling together centuries of history, tradition and the residual traumas of war, poverty and loneliness. It is only as the story races towards a surprising denouement that its full power becomes apparent.