Postcolonial Fictions | Span | Reading Room | What'sNew | CRCC

SPAN
Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 36 (1993)

Postcolonial Fictions

Edited by Michèle Drouart

Three story extracts

Yasmine Gooneratne

'Into Battle', from Relative Merits: A Personal Memoir of the Bandaranaike Family of Sri Lanka

As we made our way back to Colombo through deserted and littered streets with the Hensmans, their two children, and their hurriedly packed suitcases in the car, we learned that Menike, a Sinhalese friend, had warned them that their house was to be attacked that night. The attackers? The Sinhalese neighbours with whom they had been living until the rioting began - in such seeming amity. Ordinarily a man of peace, Dick Hensman had decided to greet any uninvited visitors with petrol bombs rather than abandon his home or see his family hurt and humiliated. It appeared that Daddy - of all people! - had managed to convince him that no good would come of this attitude.

The Hensman family stayed with us at Maha Nuge Gardens for the duration of the riots. Life during that period had its problems for us all. Dick, for instance, had to simplify his political and philosophical ideas so that my parents could follow them, and Daddy had to tone down his communal jokes. But it was, all in all, a remarkable experience, and the only time in my life that I have seen my father get the better of his own readiness to march, all guns blazing, into the thick of the fiercest battle.

"Walk in, gentlemen, pray walk in," cries Charles Surface, opening his picture gallery to the auctioneers in Sheridan's play The School For Scandal; "here they are, the family of the Surfaces, up to the Conquest!" "And, in my opinion, a goodly collection," replies his uncle Sir Oliver Surface, unrecognisable in his disguise; "Ah! we shall never see such figures of men again." To which Charles replies: "I hope not." Reviewing the public faces and the private lives of some of the best-known members of my family in this and the preceding chapter, I wish I had my father's capacity for ancestor-worship. Like Sir Oliver Surface, Daddy had unshakeable faith in the virtue and moral probity of his forebears. While I was growing up and receiving my opinions almost ready-made from my parents, our kinsmen seemed to me to be much larger than life, their intentions more honourable, their achievements more important, their merest condescensions more generous than those of others, mere mortals, of the same generation. For Daddy there would have been something very like sacrilege in the mere idea of drawing aside the heavy curtains of their shrines, and letting the daylight in.

"What parchment have we here?" continues the unrepentant Charles Surface. "Richard heir to Thomas. Oh, our genealogy in full. Here, Careless - you shall have no common bit of mahogany, here's the family tree for you, you rogue, - this shall be your hammer, and now you may knock down my ancestors with their own pedigree." To which the scandalized Sir Oliver responds, aside: "What an unnatural rogue! - an ex post facto parricide!" Daddy would certainly have agreed with Sir Oliver. And how pleasant it would be to have somehow retained, despite one's maturing, those delightfully uncomplicated early attitudes.

But the members of our clan resemble not at all the "stiff and awkward" portraits in the Surface picture gallery, who were, according to Charles, "like nothing in human nature." On the contrary, the Bandaranaikes seem to me to be - as Sir Solomon once wrote affectionately of his wayward sister Amy - strong and extraordinary personalities, always intensely human. One can only regard them in their private and their public lives, in peace or in the midst of bitter controversy, in their virtues, faults, and contradictions of character, in life and in death, as Cox Sproule wrote humorously of Grandpapa in a mock-epitaph:

Here lies the last of genial Reginald Felix
Who has gone aloft to explain his mundane delicts
Let"s hope the High Court Judge will show no bias
When rendering judgment in re Dias.

Whether one agrees with their views or not (and it isn't possible for me to sympathise with Great-Grandpapa James's views on women's education, the prejudices about race and caste into which my lovable father sank in his later years, or my mother's inclination to value wealth and property above personal relationships), they have the courage of their convictions. Some among them, James especially, have the right approach to literature. "O Poets! the victory gained through your own wisdom is much more to be desired than the victory which comes to those who have captured a four-fold army," he wrote, in his "Verses on Criticism." And again, "It is not proper to compare a poetaster with a poet: can a firefly shine in the eye of the sun?" The idea that poetry and virtue always go together, Dr Johnson once wrote, "is an opinion so pleasing that I can forgive him who resolves to think it true." I must hope to be forgiven for "thinking it true" of James D'Alwis, that fiery little man who locked up his daughters to preserve their ignorance, yet thought like a patriot and wrote like an erudite angel.

Lucky James: he died as he had lived, his pen in his hand. I could wish that Death, when it came to my father, had found him as he had been during most of his life, in fighting form. But he was taken by surprise in the end, trapped and ambushed in a way that he could do nothing about.

On the morning after Daddy died, Gwen went to the General Hospital to formally identify his body and take charge of it for burial. She had expected, I think, to find him laid out on a bed in a private ward. But since his fatal heart attack had occurred before he could be admitted to the Intensive Care section, while in fact he was still being wheeled towards it, his body had been kept overnight in the hospital mortuary. She went there, accompanied by an attendant.

When I met my sister later that day, she was still shaking a little. The atmosphere of the non-paying wards in the General Hospitals of Colombo and Kandy is one I know well from the time Brendon was a medical officer walking the corridors. The overpowering odours of disease and disinfectant, and the sensation of helplessness before a grim anonymity that are the ordinary lot of those who enter the non-paying wards for treatment were unfamiliar to Gwen, and were encountered by my father only at his death: and he was by then in no condition to shoot them down or to write letters of complaint in triplicate to the department concerned. The attendant, lounging beside my sister in the off-hand way of hospital workers, had casually twitched a grimy sheet aside, and swung our father into view for her identification. Wrapped in a creased checked sarong that wasn't his own, a torn vest covering part of his chest, his untidy grey hair falling forward over the slack, dead face, Gwen had found Daddy almost impossible to recognize.

"He looked", she told me, her voice trembling in unbelief, "just like an ordinary person."


'Growing Up Like Flowers', from Relative Merits

When Prini Molamure married my uncle Paul Deraniyagala in the early 1930s and the couple made their wedding visits to the homes of his relations, she was treated at Rajagiriya Walauwa to a rendering of "The Ash Grove" by a daughter of the house, my Aunt Amelia Obeyesekere (later Mrs Louis Pieris). In the 1950s, when my sisters and I were taken calling by our parents, the Victorians were still popular, and we heard the son of the house give forth a vigorous delivery of Laurence Hope's "Temple Bells". The singer on this second occasion was Lankasa de Alwis, the son of Auntie Alex and Uncle Leo, and every soulful throb of his tenor voice rocked his mother"s drawing-room at Samudragiri with simulated passion:

The temple bells are ringing,
And the young green corn is springing,
And the marriage month is drawing very near.
I lie hidden in the grass,
And I count the moments pass,
For the month of marriages is very near . . .

No doubt the fact that young Lankasa was himself to be married in a very few months to his cousin Joy Dassenaike lent his performance additional brio. Nothing so explicit had ever sullied the chaste ears of an earlier generation, who hadn't been encouraged to listen to, much less sing, anything that might have damaged the fine, fresh bloom of female ignorance. Though the clan's more gifted sons were sent to British universities, its daughters were kept at home, where they were carefully guarded from intellectual contamination of any kind and were taught, at the merest mention of men or of marriage, to drop their gaze modestly to the floor. Most of my elders, the womenfolk as well as the men, would have agreed quite seriously with Jane Austen's ironic maxim that a woman who has the misfortune of knowing anything at all should conceal it as well as she can.

Marriage within the clan was, of course, the wished-for consummation of every young woman's desire. It was the goal to which all her accomplishments - her music, her embroidery and lace-making, her considerable training in the domestic arts - led in the end, all that was necessary to make her a happy (or, at any rate, a married) woman. And as we grew up we were surrounded by ladies, young matrons, mothers of large families, dowagers by the dozen, who had achieved that goal and were living, to all appearances, comfortably ever after. Not every one achieved it, however: and this through no fault of their own, for most of my mother's contemporaries in the clan were perfectly conventional in outlook. Devoted to the works of Tennyson and Florence Barclay, irreproachably docile by temperament and upbringing, they would have made ideal wives for a Bandaranaike, an Obeyesekere or a Pieris. And yet there were spinsters in plenty in the clan families I encountered after 1946, coveys of unmarried aunts who seemed to be rapidly losing their youthful charm. Some of these aunts were sweet-voiced and gentle. They would reach up at parties to peck us affectionately on the cheek or fondle our chins, and twitter wonderingly, "Goodness, this is Sammy's daughter - my, how this child has grown!" Looking down into their large, soft brown eyes you would never discover the least resentment at having been cheated by fate of a home of their own, of a husband and of children. It seemed that there was enough in their quiet lives, which were spent in the homes of aged parents or married brothers and sisters, to occupy all their time and guarantee their happiness.

But there were others who were not, most definitely not, content. One of my father's cousins brooded, like some dangerous, sharp-beaked hawk, among the dowdy grey doves in those comfortable drawing rooms. She created a restless, angry atmosphere about her that was quite different from the ripples of tranquil ease that seemed to flow from the others. She attended Sunday services at church dramatically draped in a black lace veil through which an angular profile and a pair of flashing dark eyes could be clearly seen, fascinating any small child who had nothing to do during the celebration of Communion but stare cautiously at her across the aisle.

She lived quite alone, in one of Colombo's pleasantest suburbs, waited on by family retainers. Without anyone actually having to tell us, we gathered that it was wise to be on our best behaviour in her presence, an impression assisted by her appearance: for her black veil connected her in my imagination with the Wicked Witch in Disney's Snow White, who used to haunt my childish dreams. As I grew into adolescence, I recognized in my terrifying aunt the presence of a style and self-assurance unusual among the shy, retiring women in our family, as well as the remains of what must once have been considerable and striking beauty.

My Aunt was the only daughter of a very wealthy branch of Daddy's family. Beautiful though she was, and well-educated (to an extent quite unusual in her branch of the clan), she had accepted the idea planted in her mind by her relations that her only attraction lay, and had always lain, in her wealth.

I often watched my aunt in conversation with my mother and with other relations, and I thought she had one of the most delightful smiles I had ever seen, and a lively, self-deprecating sense of humour. That was when the shadow that lay over her life lifted a little. In middle age she adopted as her own, from a village near Colombo, a child of about my own age. The tragedy of my aunt's experience, however, in being conditioned to undervalue her own personality and talents has been repeated more than once since then among the heiresses of my nieces' generation.

In our clan love was a subject about which we were supposed to know and inquire nothing until marriage brought enlightenment to us in the nicest, and indeed the only, possible way. It seems a little strange now, considering that there are only four years between my sister Sonia and myself, that we didn't share our speculations on the subject. For everywhere about us, as children, were the evidences of love. There were, for instance, the family of eight blunt-nosed, blinded puppies that Juno (the happy young pedigree Alsatian that was Sonia's especial pet) produced quite without warning: or so it seemed to me. None of them resembled Juno in the least. There were the eggs Sonia found in a sparrow's nest built in a clay pot that the servants had fixed on the outer wall of the kitchen: we took turns climbing a ladder, to peep in at the small, spotted ovals. There were, too, those other eggs that my father sometimes took me along to see in his laboratory at the Agricultural Department office. He would pull out the drawer of an incubator, and I would look down on a dozen bedraggled little chicks, staggering unsteadily about in a battle-field of broken egg-shells. The process by which eggs came to be laid and puppies born was a closed book to me. No one explained, not even my sisters (if, indeed, they knew). As for human babies, the process of their creation was an impenetrable mystery which even school lessons did nothing to resolve.

I had spent a rather unhappy term boarding at Bishop's at the age of nine, during a short illness of my mother's. Although my sisters were boarders too, they were in the Middle and Senior schools respectively, and their status as monitors and prefects made them seem as remote from me as if we had been on different planets. I was glad to return home when my mother's health improved, and to my great relief I never had to repeat the experience of boarding-school life. Miss Marguerite Cockburn taught Hygiene and Physiology to the Fourth Form at Bishop's College. She was middle-sized, with short-cropped smooth black hair, and very thick lenses to her spectacles through which her eyes gleamed in what we thought was a very sinister way. On my first day in her Physiology class, I found on my desk two pieces of sticking plaster, each three inches long. There were similar pieces of sticking plaster on every other desk in the classroom.

"Take out your Hygiene and Physiology books, girls," said Miss Cockburn from her perch on the high dais, "and turn to Chapter Twenty One."

Our Hygiene and Physiology textbook had very small print. You could see there was a lot of information there. Chapter Twenty One, which was the last in the book, turned out to be very long, with diagrams on nearly every page, and was titled "The Reproductive Organs of the Human Male."

"This chapter will not be part of our syllabus for this year, girls," said Miss Cockburn. "We are therefore not to read or study it. So you will take those strips of sticking plaster you see on your desks, and in two separate places exactly four inches apart you will stick page one of Chapter Twenty One to the end-paper that is just inside the back cover of the book." She stepped off the dais and walked up and down between the rows of desks, looking over our shoulders to make sure that her instructions were being carried out. And so we learned in the Fourth Form to lock the reproductive organs of the human male safely out of sight, where they could not be studied and could therefore do us no harm.

When two of my classmates took me aside during the drink-interval at school one day, and confided amid giggles their discoveries about something men and women did together that caused babies to be born, I didn't believe them. I tried to imagine taking place between my parents, or between my uncles and aunts, the very odd behaviour that had been described to me, but I found it impossible, especially where my mother was concerned. If the subject of sex ever arose in our house (as it occasionally did, brought in usually on the wings of some family scandal), and if our insistence seemed likely to coax an explanation out of Daddy, he was invariably stopped before he'd got very far by a look from the other end of the table. I knew that look well. It was a look of glacial disgust that closely resembled Miss Cockburn's habitual expression when she was teaching us Physiology.

It reflected, as I afterwards realized, an attitude to sex that was common among women of the clan who were very much older than my mother - late Victorians, in fact. When my Aunt Miriam de Saram delighted us all by having twins, we heard from her own lips of her mother's reaction to the news. "Really, Miriam, it's disgraceful. At your age!" stately Lady Hilda Pieris had said. Miriam sat up in bed looking superbly arrogant as she mimicked her straight-backed mamma, then dissolved into peals of laughter over the remark. I admired the tiny babies asleep in their cots, and pretended I wasn't listening. Miriam had just turned forty. I waited for my mother's answering laughter: it came, but it didn't ring true. You could see she thought Auntie Hilda had been quite right. But why was it disgraceful to have babies after one was forty? Did one have any say in the matter at all? No one ever explained.

Where do you come from, Baby dear?
Out of the Everywhere, into the Here!

began one book coyly, that I had found on my parents' bookshelves. Not much help there. Every Woman"s Home Doctor, an immense crimson covered volume to which my mother referred in all medical emergencies, was filled with photographs of Englishwomen with bobbed hair, smiling radiantly as they leaped about in gym slips doing exercises in the sunshine. This book also provided photographs of an ideal sick-room, and of the equipment need for bathing a baby, but about the arrival of the baby itself there was no information that I could find.

Some babies, it seemed, arrived too early. This, too, was Disgraceful. Or so an anonymous letter-writer said, sending to every family in the clan over the signature of "Careful Observer" all relevant details when a recently-married cousin had her first baby some weeks before it would normally have been expected. Others didn't arrive at all: and when this occurred, my mother and my aunts would look meaningfully at one another, and pityingly at the young wife concerned, and ask each other the all-important question, "Whose fault is it?" My own baby brother had arrived early. This wasn't Disgraceful, but Sad, since he had only lived a quarter of an hour after he drew his first breath; and I remember very well the wreath of blue hydrangeas Daddy gave me to place on the coffin, no bigger than a dressing-table drawer, that we followed to the churchyard at Bandarawela.

Most of these arrivals and non-arrivals (my brother's excepted) were, as far as Daddy was concerned, neither Disgraceful nor Sad but Comic. On several occasions he greeted the news with huge delight, and promptly celebrated the event with ribald verses . . .


Diary entry from A Change of Skies

Kanangra Station,
Badagini, Western Australia
26 JANUARY 1887

I have recently discovered that I am not the first person from my part of the world to visit this place, the name of which, when I heard it for the first time, awakened immediately my interest & indeed (I must confess it) my amusement.

"What's the joke, Ed?" asked my fellow stockman on this property, Joe Sammon.

"Badagini means hunger, " said I. "Literally, fire in the belly."

When Joe told me of the circumstances in which such a name had been assigned to the district, that it memorialized a group of Sinhalese workers who had found themselves alone & without food in this dry and desolate place some 30 yrs ago, my amusement was quickly at an end.

The tale Joe told me is a bitter one, and I set it down here more to relieve the burden it placed upon my mind and heart when I heard it than for any pleasure I hope to derive from ever viewing these pages again at some future time.

My poor countrymen who lived here for a while and died (for indeed, only 11 from a party of 32 survived the misery of that time) had been brought to this district from Qld by the rumour of employment on a cattle property here. Some of them had experience of the care of livestock in their homeland, others (no doubt like Davith's father in Bundaberg) had run cattle on their small properties in Qld, & many had added to their store of knowledge through converse with the native stockmen of these parts who have, it is said, an affinity to the land that their tribes roamed freely in times past which is so great as to be beyond ordinary comprehension, & who are said to be especially skilled in the management of horses.

All would have been well had it not been for a very great drought at that time wh. turned the district for hundreds of miles around into something resembling a desert. Water dried up in the creeks, & where there had in good times been lakes of fresh water alive with fish, there was now but cracked earth.

The Sinhalese had no skills wh. cd help them survive in these unnatural conditions. Cattle & men alike, Joe tells me, dropped in their tracks, such was the terrible heat of the sun; & landowners & their stockmen together walked off their holdings. Those among the workers who cd still stand upright struggled, after a time, with difficulty from their camp to the roadside, where they lay down in the dust; & as the pony carts passed by, carrying settlers and their families out of the area into towns where they could at least find water &, if they were fortunate, payment for day labour, these poor folk stretched out their hands to the passing carts and cried out in their own tongue, "Badagini! Badagini! O help us, who will help us?"

I, who have sometimes heard that cry in the poorest quarters of the towns of Matara & Galle, cd not, I fear, hide my tears when I heard this terrible tale.

How did it happen that they were not assisted? I asked Joe, in whose father's time these events had taken place. He shrugged, & lit his pipe. "No-one asked them to come out here in the first place, mate," he replied. "When the bad weather struck, it was a case of each man for himself. Has to be, in country like this. It was a terrible time for the animals in the district, but a sad time for the humans, too, I reckon, when a man or a woman don't stretch out a hand to help a fellow creature fallen in the dust."

All that night, as I lay in the dark, watching the moon rise behind the barns & sheds, it seemed to me I heard that terrible cry rising into a hot wind in an alien & hostile land - Badagini! Badagini!

30 JANUARY 1887

Reflecting on the years I have spent in this country, & in particular on the difference between my poor compatriots' experience & my own, I feel I must revise a statement made some time earlier as to the scarcity here of good company, for I have met with good fortune & great kindness in many places, & especially from my friend Joe. Despite the differences in our background & education (& I should also say in view of the comforts that await me at home, our respective hopes of future prosperity) we have been good companions.

For 2 days past, water from swollen creeks in this region has inundated many properties including this which yields me my present employment. In moving panic-stricken livestock, cattle as well as horses, to high ground where they will, it is to be hoped, be safe from the rising flood waters, I have discovered in myself courage I never knew that I possessed, & skills which I would formerly have sought elsewhere than in my own two hands.

Joe has taught me much, not only concerning the beasts he loves & governs with such skill, but of human nature. It is not possible that we shd correspond, despite which I trust he will think of me often with his customary good-hearted kindness. But I have seen enough, & learned enough of myself too, to understand that a life lived here is not for me.

The crude cooking of raw, unseasoned meat over burning coals (which passes generally for the culinary art in these isolated places) is, for example, something I wd find hard to bear during a longer sojourn than I intend to make. The result is often charred, & where not so, it is generally raw, the blood still running from it. The smell of it, not to put too fine a point on the matter, is vile.

While I was resident on Mr Nott-Herring's sugar cane property in Qld, Davith employed a portion of the curry leaves, spices & pepper he had brought with him in the dray to render my meat palatable. But here, alas, there is no Davith, only poor Joe & his companions, whose habit it is to fall upon their rough victuals with every sign of enjoyment, & to wonder much at my own reluctance to keep them company at table.

Indeed, there are many things about me wh. I perceive perplex my friend Joe. It was but last night that he, guessing my Journal to be a logbook of some kind since I write something in it every night, looked into it over my shoulder out of curiosity. He found what I was writing opaque & incomprehensible, but here & there upon the page he recognized his own name.

"So you're writing about me, eh? J.O.E. Joe. I know. That's me. What have you said about me, eh?"

"That I shall think of you often when I leave this place. That you have been kind to me. A good friend," I said. "A mate. And that I hope you will think of me in the same way."

"What's this other stuff you've got down here? Don't look like English to me."

I looked at the page to which he had turned, open on the kitchen table in our shack.

"That's Greek; & that, over there, is written in English letters, but it's Latin, a language men spoke long ago in Italy."

"Italy, eh? Didn't tell me you was a bloody dago."

"I'm not. But the man who wrote that was."

"What's he say, then?"

I read the passage aloud to Joe.

"No, no, no. What's he say in bloody English?"

" 'He who crosses the ocean may change the skies above him, but not the colour of his soul.' "

Macquarie University


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