Reviews / March 2012 (Issue 16)

Shirani Rajapakse's Breaking News

by Harshana Rambukwella

Shirani Rajapakse, Breaking News, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2011. 80 pgs.

Sri Lanka is officially a post-conflict society. But while the military conflict is over, the country is still desperately looking for a unified identity that can accommodate its diverse ethno-religious composition. Shirani Rajapakse's debut short story collection revisits the conflict. The vignettes of shattered lives and dreams that run as a common thread through these stories invite the reader to take stock of the detritus of conflict—physical, emotional and cultural.

The suggestive title of the collection invokes a time when people awaited "breaking news"—most of it bad—with nervous anticipation. It was a time when reports of the numbers of wounded and dead were as familiar as a cricket score. To the sensitive reader, however, Rajapakse's stories present something of a dilemma. How do we look back at this dark period in Sri Lanka's history? In revisiting the pain and destruction, how do we navigate the complex ethno-cultural divisions and prejudices that have shaped the nation's post-independence history? Breaking News offers more questions than answers.

A number of the stories in the collection such as "Missing Pieces," "The Boarder," "Photographs in her Mind" and "Sepalika" deal with the violence perpetrated by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam), a powerful terror group that fought for a separate state for the Tamil minority in the north of the island. The LTTE was known for its brutal tactics and victimised the very community it claimed to represent along with other minorities such as Muslims. However, the LTTE's emergence needs to be understood against a series of political manoeuvres in post-independence Sri Lanka which saw the Tamil community systematically marginalised while the institutional status of the Sinhalese was strengthened. While the country regularly held democratic elections, the sheer numbers of the Sinhalese majority ensured that they had an overwhelming voice in legislative matters. It is against this background of limited political alternatives that Tamil youth militancy arose, and as the conflict escalated, prejudices, stereotypes and mutual suspicion increased within both Sinhala and Tamil communities.

It is in this context that the general perspective of Breaking News towards Tamil militancy becomes problematic. For instance, in "The Boarder," readers are presented with a young Tamil girl from the north abusing the trust of a southern Sinhala family. Selvi, a young girl whose father is murdered by the LTTE for failing to pay protection money, seeks board and lodging with a Sinhala family in the capital Colombo—ostensibly because she has been offered a job. Though initially reluctant, Mr. and Mrs. Kaluarachi, who operate a boarding house, agree to accommodate Selvi. But they later discover to their horror that their reticent Tamil boarder is a suicide bomber who explodes herself in a crowded bus. While the story implies that Selvi might have been forcibly conscripted into becoming a suicide cadre, the predominant focus is on the innocent hospitality and naïve trust of the Sinhalese. This unfortunately, though possibly unintentionally, reinforces stereotypes of the ethnic other.

In another story narrated from the perspective of a young Sinhala woman from a "border village"—a village that straddled the frontline in the battle between the LTTE and the predominantly Sinhala government forces—is scarred for life after witnessing the brutal massacre of her infant sister. In "Photographs in her Mind," an old Tamil woman is haunted by the memory of how the LTTE abducted her two sons and shot her husband. These stories are narrated with a visceral intensity with one gory image piled upon another. Collectively they present a one-dimensional and highly Sinhala-centred perspective of Tamil militancy. Perhaps in a post-war context it is easy and tempting to demonise a once feared enemy. But in the absence of some reflection on the conditions that led to ethnic militancy, such depictions feed into common stereotypes and prejudices.

The opening story of Breaking News, "Missing Pieces," disturbs the complacent and widely held belief in patriotism, a belief which military recruitment and officially-sanctioned publicity campaigns promoted with great enthusiasm. But the young Sinhala soldier who loses a limb to a landmine in "Missing Pieces" is no hero. He is drawn to the military by economic hardship as were many rural Sinhala youth. Returning home as an invalid, he is callously disregarded by his family as a valueless burden. But as in the case of Tamil militancy, Breaking News does not provide the reader with insight into the economic imperatives that fed the conflict. On both Tamil and Sinhala sides it was poor rural youth who died on the frontlines—wealth and status largely shielded others. While offering a poignant account of a young life rendered useless by conflict, the story offers little social insight. The blame for the soldier's plight rests squarely on the one-dimensionally portrayed Tamil Tigers.

The title story, "Breaking News," is somewhat different in content and tone. It revisits another violent period in Sri Lankan history. The story centres on the death of Rohana Wijeweera—a Sinhala youth leader who led a failed Maoist coup against the government in the late 1980s. The Wijeweera-led JVP, or Peoples Liberation Front, was a spectre of fear capable of bringing civil life and administration to a halt. "Breaking News" uses the occasion of his death to satirise an elite minority of socialites who, though living in Sri Lanka, are immune to its socio-political realities. The light-hearted tone of the story suggests that time has enabled Sri Lankans to view at least some of the country's troubled post-independence history with levity and dispassion—which, depending on one's political convictions, can be a good thing.

In terms of craft, Breaking News is uneven. In some of the stories, there is innovative use of language through quirky and unconventional use of analogy and metaphor. In others, however, it resorts to cliché and overkill in trying to communicate the immediacy of violence. Breaking News represents a bold attempt by a new writer. While I am critical of some of the ideological lapses of this collection, it is a reminder that nation-building remains very much an unrealised and contested project in Sri Lanka.

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