Ruins – Rajith Savanadasa
by Sean Mitchell
In 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared a unanimous defeat over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ending a bloody civil war that had started in 1983. War crimes were committed by both sides, and an estimated 100,000 people were killed—including 40,000 civilians.
Rajith Savanadasa was born in Sri Lanka, but moved to Melbourne in 2001 to study engineering. He cultivated a love of literature and writing, and 15 years later, he has published his first novel Ruins. And what a debut it is.
Ruins begins in the final months of the war, and follows the Heraths, a Sri Lankan family living in Colombo. Mano is the patriarch of the family, an alcoholic history buff who runs a local newspaper. His wife, Lakshmi, is a Tamil woman whose parents died in the war. Mano and Lakshmi have two children—Niranjan (Nero for short) and Anoushka—who have mixed feelings about their Tamil-Sinhalese heritage. Nero studied business in Melbourne and returned to Colombo with dreams of tech start-up superstardom. His younger sister, Anoushka, is a lonely teenager obsessed with punk and hardcore music. Finally, Latha is the Herath family’s underappreciated live-in servant, and the novel is framed by chapters from her perspective. Latha struggles to connect with the children she essentially raised—why is Anoushka embarrassed to walk home from school with her? Why does Nero ignore her?
Ruins is, above all else, a character-driven novel. Each chapter is told in first-person by one of these five characters. This constant shift in perspective allows the reader to get to know them intimately, learning about their beliefs, their histories, their prejudices, and their secrets. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that for five people who share a roof, they know very little about one another. Like war-ravaged Sri Lanka, this family is in ruins, and just as the country is attempting to rebuild itself, the Heraths are struggling to put the pieces of their family back together.
Savanadasa confronts some heavy themes. After all, this is a mixed-race family living through a racially divisive civil war. Mano’s parents disowned him when he married Lakshmi because she is Tamil—even though, as he tries to explain to his children, they are of the same caste. Nero is disgusted by his Tamil heritage. He has never learned the language and he does not want to. When an acquaintance tries to speak Tamil to him, he responds with violence. Conversely, Anoushka is more or less oblivious to the complexities of Sri Lanka’s racial and political situations. Mano tries to explain to her that the war is against a militant Tamil group as opposed to the Tamil people, but the distinction is lost on her. When victory is declared she hangs a Sri Lankan flag outside her window to annoy her mother, remaining oblivious to how deeply this hurts Lakshmi. Savanadasa explores political and racial tensions with artistic grace, as the characters’ subjective experiences overlap with and contradict one another.
One of the most impressive features of Savanadasa’s writing is the way in which he interpolates Sri Lanka’s diverse linguistic sphere into an English language novel. Dialogue is peppered with Sri Lankan dialects, and for a reader who doesn’t speak these languages, it is difficult to determine whether the Sri Lankan phrases are Sinhalese, Tamil, or Sri Lankan English slang. But the meaning is never lost on the reader. Like the invented slang (Nadsat) in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Savandasa uses context to convey meaning. Language is often used to exclude certain groups, but in this instance it is an invitation to learn, and to immerse oneself in the Heraths’ world. There is no glossary or footnote translation, but Ruins is all the richer without these, and the reader is rewarded for their efforts to disentangle the nuances in the language.
Perhaps it is the broad treatment of mixed cultures that makes Ruins so effective. The characters are Sri Lankan, the story is set in Colombo, but this is an Australian novel. The reader does not need a strong knowledge of Sri Lanka to enjoy this book—though after reading it they may wish to learn more. Ruins is informative, but it is never didactic. Neither is Sri Lanka idealized or portrayed as overly exotic. The Heraths are a Sri Lankan family, but they could be any family. The specifics of their struggles are cultural, but the themes explored in Ruins are universal.
Header image source: http://www.emergingwritersfestival.org.au/program-launch-artist-rajith-savanadasa/