Reviews / December 2015 (Issue 30)


The Unbridgeable Gulf between Childhood and Adulthood: Prashani Rambukwella's Asiri's Quest

by Shiqin Chen

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Prashani Rambukwella, Asiri's Quest, Popsicle Books, 2013. 184 pgs.

 

Prashani Rambukwella's Asiri's Quest is the sequel to her 2009 children's novel Mythil's Secret (read an excerpt here and a review here), which was awarded the Gratiaen Prize, Sri Lanka's preeminent award for English writing. While the first novel centres on a young boy named Mythil and his special gift for seeing yakas (spirits that feature in Sir Lankan mythology), Asiri's Quest is about how he and his yaka friend Asiri search for the spirit's long-lost friend, Sena.

Asiri's quest and the world of the yakas is interwoven with the quotidian life of humans. In the human world, Mythil has to confront the school bullies, Harith and Jehan, while in the spirt realm, Asiri has to fight with stronger, evil yakas time and again. And in each domain, the characters experience the same sense of bafflement, frustration, bitterness and grief. But, what is also shared between the two worlds is the faith that good will defeat evil, that love will triumph and that the heroes' special abilities will see them through moments of crisis. These are among the main messages that the author seeks to deliver to her young readers.

However, Rambukwella carefully instills other values into her work as well. This is exemplified by the novel's insistence on the importance of tolerance, an idea perhaps most clearly stated in a comment a young Sena makes to Asiri, "But with everyone you have to take the good and the bad. And in him and in you I see more good than bad." The author also wants to warn young readers about the corrupting effects of power, if they should ever find themselves in positions of great influence. In a line delivered to Mythil, but also aimed at readers, the adult Sena says, "too many powerful people struggle to be just."

On the other hand, the author is also aware that imposing too much of the adult world onto children can be equally detrimental, especially when it comes at the sake of childhood imagination and sense of wonder. Unlike many of the adults in the book, "he [Mythil] knew that over the centuries yakas had learned to take on human shape and mingle with people in towns and villages. But most humans had no idea that they were speaking to a nature spirit." Mythil's aunty Nilmini is a perfect example of the kind of human who remains oblivious to the magical world around her. Just like the muggles in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and Mr. and Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan, her own lack of imagination leads her to try and control Mythil's.

Rambukwella likely had those Western classics in mind when creating her story for Sri Lankan children. The young boy Mythil and the flying spirit Asiri remind us of Peter Pan and the fairy Tinker Bell. The fierce battle waged by Asiri, Sena and their master against the evil spirits at the portal recalls the brutal battles of Harry Potter and Dumbledore against Voldemort. But what makes Rambukwella's work unique and distinguishes it from those earlier books is her incorporation of local Sri Lanka elements into the narrative. Whether it is the belief in ancient natural spirits or the master's endeavour to blend a desired herb potion, indigenous elements fascinate the reader, including those foreign to Sri Lankan culture. 

Rambukwella also broadens the typical scope of children's books to address difficult social issues, especially those related to migratory labour. For example, the school bully Harith and his sister must live with their grandmother, as they have no father and their mother must work overseas. Such realistic representations of the characters' family situations reflect the author's genuine concerns for real life Sri Lankan children who have been left at home by parents seeking jobs abroad, a major problem facing the country.

Despite the seeming optimism of the book's ending, it is underpinned by a sense of sadness and melancholy. After overcoming numerous challenges to find his long-lost and long-cherished friend Sena, Asiri is broken-hearted to discover that the adult Sena, who has now become a famous writer, has forgotten his yaka friend and their past together. Although Mythil promises never to lose contact with Asiri, the reader senses that as his life progresses, he may not be able to keep his word. Asiri will forever remain the same naughty natural spirit, but all young boys have to grow into adults. Just as in the end the young Sena chooses to stay with his master's family at the expense of his ability to see spirits, Mythil might himself one day also opt out of the world of yakas and abandon his connection with Asiri. Will Mythil become another unfeeling adult Sena? Let's just say I hope Asiri will not need to search for another long-lost friend!

 
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