The novel Raja saha Ghatakaya (445 pages) by Visakesa Chandrasekaram has an interesting genesis of its own – the author, wrote the English version (The King and the Assassin) first and published it in October 2014, and the Sinhala version in December 2014. This review is limited to the Sinhala novel as I am yet to read the English version. I feel compelled to write this as in my humble opinion this is a unique work at so many levels – a reflection of its multi-talented author’s (novelist, playwright, film maker, composer, dancer, lawyer and public servant etc.) extraordinary vision, imagination and knowledge that spans so many facets of life. A short review of this length is unlikely to do justice to a work of this complexity and nature. A postgraduate thesis is more in order to tackle its vast timeframe, the complexity of its plot, the huge number of characters that people its futuristic landscape and above all the depth and breadth of its central theme and the myriad interlinked sub-themes.
Having said that, this is far from being a perfect novel in the conventional sense nor is it an easy read – like an exotic cake with too many ingredients and layers, it is at times both too opulent and heavy. However, at a time the world is flooded by light, fluffy works of fiction like junk food that can easily be consumed while on a crowded train or waiting for a laundry cycle to finish with its contents evaporating from your mind like dew on a warm morning, this multifaceted novel needs to be read with a good deal of mindfulness. Don’t let the author’s name create any misconceptions – the Sinhala in this novel is sublime, an elegantly polished calibre of prose not often encountered these days – either a beloved mother-tongue, a lovingly nurtured second language or a bit of both. As with all good things, the prose too can be a bit too rich at times like a sumptuous watalappan. Not that I am complaining.
It is difficult to pigeonhole this work neatly into a particular genre of fiction as it straddles quite a few. Superficially it is a futuristic novel with a strong element of fantasy, magic realism and even science fiction with a powerful Orwellian overtone. The author displays a vivid imagination and an amazingly wide range of interests and knowledge in creating a futuristic world set in Sri Lanka where technology has advanced immensely – used as usual for good too but mainly for appalling ends. Chandrasekaram’s obvious infatuation with architecture surfaces in the detailed descriptions of Parakum’s (the central character) increasingly elaborate and splendid creations – magnificent buildings, theatres, sports arenas and Buddhist temples. Even as Parakum’s humanity leaches away through his insatiable hunger for limitless power, wealth and control for both himself and his progeny, the resplendence of his prodigious creative output increases. However, underneath the façade of the fantasy/futuristic novel lies a deep layer of incisive social commentary and analysis of Sri Lanka’s most deep-rooted socio-political problems and neuroses. It is also a psychological study of the corrosiveness of limitless ambition and power that transforms a creative and highly talented young man, well-meaning at the start into a monstrously paranoid megalomaniac who sucks dry a whole nation for decades, but who nevertheless retains traces of humanity to the end in his love for his family and even his country, which too is warped and poisoned by his gargantuan ego and greed. In terms of its length and breadth, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy comes to mind.
Apart from the central theme of the abuse of power and its destructive nature in the context of Sri Lanka, the novel also examines the nature of progress and development, the exponentially increasing power of technology and its role in a globalized society, the environmental crisis, human rights, the plight of indigenous people, spirituality in general, toxic nationalism, the notion of racial purity and our Sri Lankan take on Buddhism as opposed to Buddhism at its pristine core. There is also explorations of the nature of sexuality and gender, prostitution, women’s and LGBT rights and the complicit relationship between institutionalized religions, business and politics, and the nation’s alarming reliance on astrology and soothsayers of all sorts.
The title Raja saha Ghatakaya is also the title of a work that one of the characters, Danush, who learns/invents a system for predicting the future accurately, especially with regard to the ruler of Lanka, creates. Thus, there is a story within a story, and it spans nearly 40 years (2019 to 2058) in Sri Lanka, but very much based on the political situation and realities before this year’s surprising election result that saw the defeat of the Rajapaksa regime, and the then envisaged future with the Rajapaksa dynasty and their mates looming menacingly like timelessly indestructible monoliths in the political landscape. Thus, considering that this novel was written and published in December 2014 while living at least partly in Sri Lanka the author deserves a medal for bravery – many have had their bones pulverized or simply ‘disappeared’ for lesser crimes under regimes of all hues in Sri Lanka.
Another unusual feature of this novel is that the main female character, Sandya, is Parakum’s wife as well as a nationally beloved singer with an enchanting voice. She is Parakum’s rock in so many ways – apart from her love and commitment to him, her humanity and popularity help to shroud his ruthlessness and the many wrong doings of his government from the masses. She is the compassion and conscience he lacks, and oddly enough expresses the pain and qualms of the whole country in some ways in her songs despite ‘standing by her man’ to the last. But she too, as well as the ‘rock star’ monk, Mahanama, are deeply complicit in Parakum’s rule no matter how indirectly as they help him to hoodwink the masses, gain and maintain control of the country at various stages and through simply turning a blind eye to the horrors all around them. The novel contains the lyrics of 12 songs – 10 sung by her.
Over the decades many Sinhala novels have been produced from the Sinhala diaspora in countries like Australia. The main theme often tends, as with much of diasporic works, to be the dilemma of the migrant caught between two worlds, imbued with a highly nostalgic perception of the past and life in the country of birth – seen as simple, pure and moral as opposed to the corrupt, empty and superficial life in the adopted country. Chandrasekaram in contrast follows an entirely different path, setting his story firmly in Sri Lanka although not at all ignoring the impact of a highly globalized connected society in the coming decades in terms of the economy, societal changes, the media, lightning communication, Internet security issues as well as terrorism. The focus is squarely on every facet of Sri Lanka – our complex socio-cultural fabric woven with a diversity of ethnic, linguistic, religious and political threads, our strengths and weaknesses. The issues are almost forensically and impartially examined – particularly the toxic ethnocentricity that pollutes and deforms our greatest of treasures – Buddhism.
Not many of today’s writers dissect with such clinical precision and diagnose the sickness that we have bred into OUR version of Buddhism – we have firmly sewn the Sinha and Buddhist flags together focusing on ritual and constructing ever more ornate temples – ignoring with magnificent disdain the first Precept, Anatta (Non-self) the core concept at the heart of Buddhism not to mention the recommended loving kindness towards all sentient beings – a term I believe Buddha meant to encompass mosquitoes and even pesky minorities as well, no matter how demanding or militant. Chandrasekaram lets the events themselves expose the horrifyingly malignant tumours of the whole political and societal systems with little heat overtly displayed in his polished prose. What is commendable is that he does not spare nor handle with kid gloves a single segment of society or community – all observed with the same sort of piercing and objective lens. The extraordinary achievements and innovations of Parakum and his regime are acknowledged too and described in minute detail conceding that a resourceful dictator could achieve certain things almost impossible in a robust democracy. Thus, Chandrasekaram avoids the temptation to create black and white characters or serving ‘just desserts’ to the flawed to satisfy reader expectations.
However, it is in the lyrics of the songs that Chandrasekaram powerfully conveys his raw emotions with regard to the most intimate of relationships, the injustices, absurdities, incongruities and the tragic failures of humanity with heart-breaking pathos and passion. The songs play a significant role in the novel as they embody the most crucial themes of this work – luminously beautiful lyrics that nevertheless has the sharpness of a surgical knife.
The first song is a powerful indictment of Lanka’s rulers, a society that warps Buddhism, and the astounding hypocrisy of those who wear the yellow robes, and those in white garb of the pure-hearted who rob billions and give a few rupees for charity while propagating viciousness. The second song is a withering attack on our blithe indifference to the environmental disaster we are creating with a vivid description of the damage done to the natural beauty and health of the country with a plaintive lament that expresses our betrayal of generations to come. The third tells the story of lovers long separated and fearing for the survival of their relationship – a situation becoming so common in our globalized world. The fourth is a devastatingly contemptuous look at politicians in Lanka who come to show all 32 of their teeth in an effort to wheedle votes so that they can continue to rob the people blind and suck the country dry for another six years while enjoying obscenely luxurious life styles.
The 5th song is full of pathos – a mother’s sadness and confusion at how her son is growing up to be an exact replica of the father – he is dazzled by his father’s ruthlessly acquired power, ignoring the unconditional, gentle love and nurturing that she provided and her simplicity. The 6th is a sombre description of the utter sense of isolation and futility that characterizes the ironically ‘24/7 connected’ futuristic society, which is already becoming a concrete reality at an alarming rate. The 7th song is a lively ditty, seemingly simple, that goes to the heart of the sheer idiocy of believing in racial purity in the face of scientific evidence, and the historical realities of Lanka in particular – pointing out that we are all, genetically speaking, ‘mongrels’ descended from apes, cutting neatly through our grandiose delusion of being the chosen Aryan people. The 8th song is a poignant, beautifully crafted love song – a woman’s love for another woman, forced to be hidden, gossiped about and frowned upon in a society still dominated by tradition. The line, Why are there laws for love when there is none for hatred? encapsulates the spirit of the song – sorrowful yet defiant. In the 9th Sandya expresses her deep sadness at how far her husband has drifted away from her and the yawning gulf that has opened up between them, her weariness and grief at his increasing indifference.
The 10th is the most heartrending of all with its searing description of the brutal massacres of countless civilians during the Civil War questioning the Buddha with fathomless despair and puzzlement as to why this was done in his name, but in the last line offering the perpetrators metta as there is nothing more to be done. The 11th song is a pregnant woman’s immense sense of foreboding in bringing a child into this world – so full of cruelty and injustice but patches of beauty too. She envisions her child’s life with countless vicissitudes as he grows into manhood – yet knowing that she would give him the freedom to forge his own path and follow his dreams. The last song is sung by the blind woman, Nethra, towards the end in support of the Rainbow Circle, which one hopes would bring true freedom to the country. It should be mentioned that a CD with 10 of these songs has been produced; the songs sung hauntingly in her enchanting voice by Sewwandi Abewickrama mainly, and Shehan Thenuwara, who is also the music director with the author providing the melodies. All in all it is an excellent collection doing justice to the marvellous lyrics as well as the fabled voice of Sandya of the novel.
In conclusion, this is not a perfectly crafted novel – the sheer complexity and length of the story, numerous intertwined themes as well as a huge array of characters make it a difficult read at times. In addition, most of us ordinary folk wouldn’t read anything written in ‘legalese’ to save our souls – this fact may have escaped the author. Thus, it was a really bad idea to ram nearly 12 pages of the stuff (p. 354-366) in the middle of a work of fiction, which detracts from the smooth flow of the narrative leaving the reader lost or annoyed, though the underlying point is valid. In addition, L and N is used instead of l and n throughout the novel. Despite these few flaws, however, it is an extremely thought provoking, wonderfully imaginative, extraordinary and courageous work that hopefully will be read by many in Sri Lanka and in the Sinhala diaspora everywhere.