Reviews / May 2010 (Issue 11)

The Power of Children: A Review of Prashani Rambukwella's Mythil's Secret

by Michael Tsang


Prashani Rambukwella, Mythil's Secret, Perera Hussein Publishing House, 2009. 166 pgs.

Mythil's Secret [read an excerpt here] is that rare thing in children's fiction—a work that discusses both adult and children's issues equally well. Written by Sri Lankan author Prashani Rambukwella, the novel was awarded the 2009 Gratiaen prize, the country's most prestigious English language literary award. That Rambukwella's work was the only children's book among the nominees speaks not only to its universal appeal, but also its serious exploration of both adult and children's worlds.

Mythil's Secret is the fast-paced adventure of a Sri Lankan boy named Mythil, who becomes the target of yakas, demons said to live in the forest. Through his fight against the yakas, he learns the value of friendship and family bonds.

This synopsis may suggest an exotic adventure in an unknown world involving deep, magical powers. However, despite its fantastic elements, Mythil's Secret is firmly grounded in a realistic backdrop. Much of the first half of the book deals honestly and directly with the marital problems of Mythil's parents and his struggle to come to grips with this unhappy situation. Yet at the same time that Mythil tries to understand the realities of his home life, he is also faced by supernatural challenges, as he encounters malevolent demons. Much of the enjoyment of the book comes from how effectively Rambukwella sews these two threads together, setting the supposedly rational world of adults against Mythil's fantastic adventures. When heated family arguments coincide with the boy's claims to have seen yakas, the adults within the book label it naturally enough as response to his stressful domestic life. For example, Aunt Nilmini, who seems versed in child psychology, is convinced that his yaka-seeing shows that the boy is disturbed by his parents' arguments, and she kindly lectures the boy that running away from his fears and seeking refuge in fantastic stories will not solve his problems. This is just the kind of rational explanation that one would expect from a psychiatrist or parent; however, within the book, such adult rationalizations are undermined by the facts—not only do yakas exist, but Mythil has been granted the ancestral gift of being able to see them.

In the book, yaka-seeing can be read metaphorically not only in terms of the trauma that Mythil faces, but also in the way in which adults, while trying to talk "sense" into the boy, fail to understand his situation. In this conflict, Mythil's Secret asks the question: how much do we really know about the children to whom we dole out easy advice? Clearly Mythil is bothered by his family quarrels, and it is the source of much of his behavior. When Mythil is naughty, his family situation is still in his mind: "The last thing he wants is to have his parents angry at him as well as each other." Yet Mythil is more than simply a traumatized kid; he is also a perceptive and mature boy trying to understand the contradictions of the adult world. At one point, Mythil wonders, "[W]hy did they [his parents] have to fight about something trivial like apple juice?" Here he shows sensitivity to what is happening around him, even while he is not entirely able to grasp it in adult terms. The scene also reveals the failure of his parents, who quarrel when they think he is not listening, to notice that Mythil is naturally upset by the situation.

Fortunately, in contrast to Mythil's parents, there are other adults in the book who better appreciate the power and insights of children. The bahirawaya (a wise spirit) is a good example. At first he too struggles to communicate effectively with Mythil, especially due to his use of difficult words such as sagacious, unassailable, sapient and digressed, which irritates Mythil. Yet the boy only needs to ask him once to talk in "normal language," and from then on the bahirawaya is consciously aware of avoiding big words, sometimes even overdoing it comically. The key here is that the bahirawaya is willing to listen to Mythil, respect and trust him. With Mythil's parents as the best counterexamples, this is not as easy and commonsensical as it seems to be. The implication of the bahirawaya's trust is that adults should collaborate with children—and it is this call for collaboration that makes Mythil's Secret stand out from other children's fiction.

In much children's fiction, the young protagonists undergo a journey on their own, overcoming challenges without the help of adults, and thus the story stresses values such as individualism, friendship and bravery. Mythil's adventure in some ways is no different in this respect and the plot naturally focuses on his journeys and triumphs. Yet what takes Mythil's Secret beyond much children's literature, and where it really succeeds, is in its willingness to address the strengths, weaknesses and responsibilities of grown-ups, too, especially in relation to kids. Adults have as much to gain and learn from children, as children do from them, and thus a safe, happy life with strong friendships and family bonds can never be attained without collaboration. For example, although it is the bahirawaya who actually brings triumph against the yakas in the end, he is only able to do this once Mythil and his friends have helped restore his powers. This type of collaboration is exactly what Mythil's parents fail to do: they exclude him from solving their relationship problems, and reject his natural gift, his ability to see yakas, by dismissing it as a psychological trauma. In contrast, the bahirawaya has absolute confidence in Mythil, and this is key to their success in the end.

Children's fiction rightly takes pride in the fascinating potential and abilities of children; Mythil's Secret is no exception. However, it does it a bit differently. Through its straightforward bluntness, the book exposes the arrogance of adults, as well as offering the power of children as a complementary force. Mythil indeed has a secret; his parents should listen to it.

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