A sentimental saga
By Ashish Joshi
Build a Bridge-Five Short Stories, by Gnana Moonesinghe, Konark Publishers 2005; Rs 300
Like a jagged crack in a windshield, the unifying element in these five stories is man'sinhumanity to man during the violent sectarian conflicts between the minority Tamils and the Sinhalese majority, that have blighted Sri Lankan lives in the past two decades. The growth of a more assertive Sinhala nationalism after independence fanned the flames of ethnic division until civil war erupted in the 1980s between Tamils pressing for self-rule and the Sri Lankan government. More than 60,000 people lost their lives in the fighting, although a truce since 2002 has raised hopes of a rapprochement between the two warring factions.
Gnana Moonesinghe, a graduate in political science from the University of Peradineya, Sri Lanka, has witnessed first-hand the suffering, privations and the perceived sense of injustices of young, unemployed youths that prompted them to take-up arms against the government. This, her first work of fiction, is an attempt to make sense of the madness, and give voice to those ?lost generations? who often end up sacrificing their lives for a greater cause, leaving their families to grapple with the consequences.
The protagonist in ?Maya my daughter, Maya the heroine?, an almost Kafkaesque parable for instance, is an 18-year old college girl who is drawn into the underground resistance movement, in the mistaken belief that she is aiding a just cause. But in fact, she'sno more than a mere pawn in the vicious struggle for political survival, and ends up being gunned down in a hotel corridor. In ?Private Mohan?, the young married conscript throws in his lot with the militants to fight a faceless enemy. He is later reported ?missing in combat?, leaving behind his young bride and old mother to get on with their shattered lives as best as they can.
Like other war literature, the book stands as a testament to the utter futility of battle, which saps the nation of its best and brightest, and lays waste the dreams and aspirations of its young.
The stories are prefaced by a prologue, in which the author has analyzed the political history of Sri Lanka during the preceding 50 years, which acts as a backdrop for the stories that follow. ?The initial steps?, the author writes, ?towards the violation of people'srights occurred with the Citizenship Act of 1948. The political elite felt that some Indian Tamils, who had been brought into the country by the British as indentured labour in the second half of the 19th and 20th century, did not qualify for citizenship. Legislation was passed ?defining? the eligibility of citizenship. With one stroke, the status of several thousands of Indian Tamils changed and they became persons without a country to call their own. This, perhaps, is the point at which the shift from positions of fairness to arbitrary action in pursuit of narrow advantage begins. This was the beginning of discriminatory politics whereby solutions were sought by manipulation of accepted legal systems.?
The widening gap between the rich and the poor, absence of opportunities for the youth, and widespread nepotism and corruption led the young to take up arms against the government. The author contends that the Sinhala-educated youth suffered the worst due to poverty and lack of education, while the English-educated persons garnered positions of national importance. These factors, in the main, led to the armed uprising of 1971, which was brutally crushed by government troops, but served as a blueprint for others to follow.
Moonesinghe'sprose is sharp and clear-cut as it dissects the lives of ordinary citizens caught up in the horrors of war, and grappling with the deaths of loved ones. An undercurrent of stoicism pervades the whole book, as the drama of life and often brutal death is played out against serene backdrops of villages and crimson sunsets.
Like other war literature, the book stands as a testament to the utter futility of battle, which saps the nation of its best and brightest, and lays waste the dreams and aspirations of its young. Perhaps it'snot too late, the author seems to be saying. There is still time for us to put an end to this senseless slaughter and bloodshed, and sow the seeds of peace. There is still space for us to live together as civilized human beings, without being sundered by narrow dogmas and partisan politics.
In the last reckoning, the book, like its last uplifting story, is a clarion call for peace and unity that will enable the Emerald Isle to take its rightful place among the modern, progressive nations and cast off its unsavoury past into the dustbin of history.