Diasporic Writing

9 Jun

Book Review

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In this globe scattered Sri Lankan family, we speak of only two kinds of marriage. The first is the Arranged Marriage. The second is the Love Marriage.

Thus begins Vasugi Ganeshananthan’s elaborate novel on a typical Sri Lankan diasporic family that has settled in the United States. Written in the first person by narrator Yalini, a first generation Sri Lankan American, the book examines the issues of growing up as a diaspora member. Issues of being born into a particular culture when one’s own parents and thus the background they bring are from a completely different culture. The added baggage of having an ongoing war ‘back home’ of which her extended family are a part – as both victims as well as perpetrators. A war which her own parents had individually escaped that she, their future progeny might have a safe and secure life – a life which in the late seventies, had seen to them far-fetched as aspiring young Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Yalini’s is thus the voice of many second generation Sri Lankan diaspora members who have an identity crisis. A crisis brought about by two juxtaposed cultures that often don’t mix well. Her parents are ashamed to admit that theirs was a ‘Love Marriage.’ Thus the elaborate tale they have concocted about how it was in fact an ‘Arranged Marriage’; very prim and proper and nothing to be ‘ashamed’ of. This is the marriage that the book seems to draw its title from.

Yalini’s maternal uncle Kumaran, a Tamil militant in Jaffna at the time, had crashed into her paternal uncle’s home demanding an answer, when news of his sister’s impending marriage in America, first broke:

Who is the doctor who wants to marry my sister? Who is this doctor who is in love with my sister?”

‘Love’ Yalini explains, is not a word her family was used to saying. Only upstarts married for love. And yet, of this upstart marriage came a harmonious union which produced one daughter: Yalini.

Meanwhile Kumaran, subsequent to his militant leader’s famous ‘love marriage’ married a fellow militant and had a daughter too; Janani. Someone slightly younger than Yalini but possessed of more self-assurance on precisely who she is and what she wants in life. Born to militant parents, she was a militant herself before her father developed cancer and she had to give it up to accompany him to Canada.

This uncle, Janani’s father, is the main protagonist of the story – if indeed the story can be said to have a protagonist. Ganeshananthan uses him as a pivot to explain the genesis of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka as well as the current situation of the Tamil diaspora.

But the story has different threads running though the narrative, and while Kumaran’s story might be the thread given the most attention, there are others. Some of which make sense in the interwoven narrative and others of which don’t. The author is a ‘creative writer.’ It is not just a book with a story to tell. It is also a book with experimental writing techniques – some of which work and others of which don’t. There are flourishes and repetitions a la Arundhati Roy which seem superfluous at times – but as everything else, the beauty or lack of it is best left to the discernment of the beholder – or in this case, the reader.

In spite of the sometimes distracting literary gimmicks, the story flows well while giving multiple insights. Two of the most interesting psyches are Janani’s and Yalini’s. Two cousins of nearly the same age and who even look alike. Yet one is self-assured of who she is and contemptuous of the other while the more ‘advantaged’ of the two, Yalini has issues of identity crisis as well as the American malaise of ‘political correctness’ – something her cousin is blissfully ignorant of.

The conversations between these two makes for some interesting reading. Janani’s mother was in the ‘movement’ too as she tells Yalini and she died in a bombing. “What kind of bombing?” wonders Yalini. Was she the bomber or the bombed?

Despite the validity of the question and the seriousness of the thought, a reader cannot help being overtaken by mirth at situations like these – a situation all too real, unfortunately.

Yalini is too polite to ask the question though – and the information isn’t volunteered. Janani had accompanied her father to Canada, not only to put him to rest but also to get married herself. She is to have a very proper ‘Arranged Marriage’ to Suthan, a fundraiser for the LTTE in Canada.

She has no qualms about this although Yalini has several. But then Janani came from a small world where everything was spelled out; tradition, hierarchy, order. Even in the midst of chaos that was the civil war, the Tigers were famous for one thing; discipline. Janani knew her place, her duty and what she had to do. It is Yalini, the diaspora Tamil of the much bigger world, the globalized world in its entirety, who does not know her place or what she is to do. All the various rules and regulations of smaller worlds have melted into a cacophony of sounds in Yalini’s world. She does not have the benefit of such cleared-eyed vision.

Is she as a diaspora Tamil to support the war effort back in Sri Lanka or not support it? Fund it or not fund it? Is she an American or a Sri Lankan? Is she as a Sri Lankan American to identify with the Tamils who carry forward their various squabbles and grievances with the Sinhalese – or identify with those who choose more moderate approaches? Who is right?

Like most other diapora youth, she is left to herself to chart these un-navigated waters and the murky swirls often overwhelm her. Her cousin might be sanguine about an arranged marriage but for Yalini, an arranged marriage of another sort has taken precedence. The arranged marriage of girl and country. She is not Sri Lankan. She is an American. Tamil girl wedded to the United States of America and its new way of life. Her parents yearn for the old way of life where everything had a place and order. In that ordered life, they would have found a suitable partner for Yalini themselves. But they had escaped that world for certain reasons, and in doing so provided their daughter with not only a safe life but new ideas.

The book leaves her pondering on what her future is to be, especially as regards to marriage.  Her parents had moved half-way across the world to give her physical safety and security. But in doing so, they uprooted her from one culture and pushed her into another – visiting upon her a maelstrom of emotions as to where she fits in. The exploration of that maelstrom is the book itself – but as the waves die down near the end of the book, the horizon is still no clearer. It is still uncharted territory.

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