“Colombo” by Mohan Raj Madawala is an ambitious book, set in the early part of the 20th century with a story line that spans three generations. This is his fifth novel, and he has four previous novels and three short story collections to his credit.
Two of his novels – Maagam Soliya and Rejina (Queen) are set in ancient times, while the other two – Lovina and Adaraniya Victoria are set in Colonial Sri Lanka. Hence, Mohan Raj Madawala is a historical novelist, but his style is a departure from the usual run of historical fiction. It’s a blend of fact, fantasy and fiction.
Madawala says that, where magic realism and fantasy is concerned, his biggest influence is not Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but Rev. Dharmasena, who wrote Saddharma Ratnavaliya during the Dambadeniya period. According to him, Latin American magic realism takes a back seat when compared to what came out of the imagination and spiritual faith of Rev. Dharmasena. He also believes that this author gave a distinctly vernacular shape to stories and imagery which originated in India.
Mohan Raj Madawala
- He belongs to a tradition of modern writers who rail against sexual hypocrisy
- Mohan Raj Madawala’s novels are not as big, and they are not in the same league as literature, but they attack Victorian sexual hypocrisy in Sri Lanka with the same boldness
Nevertheless, it’s clear that whereas Marquez’ magic realism is secular and modern, Rev. Dharmasena’s is full of piety and rooted in a religious tradition of keeping the faithful morally righteous. While Madawala claims to be more influenced by the latter, his style and content certainly is more in line with modern fictional practices.
He belongs to a tradition of modern writers who rail against sexual hypocrisy. It has its origins in the West from the 19th century on. D. H. Lawrence railed against Victorian sexual hypocrisy a century ago in big, bold novels such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Sons and Lovers. Mohan Raj Madawala’s novels are not as big, and they are not in the same league as literature, but they attack Victorian sexual hypocrisy in Sri Lanka with the same boldness.
One critic has called Madawala’s writing pornographic.‘Colombo’ certainly isn’t pornographic. But its descriptions of sex have more in common with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Renaissance novel The Decameron
It’s interesting that one critic has called Madawala’s writing pornographic. A century ago, Lawrence too, was attacked in the same way and Lady Chatterley’s Lover couldn’t be published in the UK till the 1960s. ‘Colombo’ certainly isn’t pornographic. But its descriptions of sex have more in common with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Renaissance novel The Decameron than with Lawrence’s poetic (or flowery, as some critics put it) writing.
Boccaccio’s novel is a series of different stories, narrated by a group of young nobles who escape to the countryside during a time of Bubonic Plague. Some of them are bawdy, even tongue in cheek, though Boccaccio himself had amibivalent attitudes towards women and he put great emphasis on chastity in his writing.
Writers in different periods and cultural contexts have written about sex to state very different things. In Boccaccio, the idea that women should be virtuous is emphasised. While attacking Victorian morality in his novels, Lawrence saw lovemaking as a natural extension of the war between men and women for sexual supremacy. Henry Miller and feminist writers such as Erica Jong chose a clinical approach, reducing sex to near photographic description. Ernest Hemingway, who emphasized romantic feeling over descriptions of sex, saw tragic love as the best possible choice available to man and woman in a violent, unfeeling world. Doris Lessing described sex in a casual, humorous way, with tenderness but not attaching too much importance to it.
Coming to Asian writers, the one who comes to mind at once is Kushwant Singh, dubbed “India’s most prized dirty old man.” But this description can give the wrong idea. Secular at heart, he often explored important socio-political themes such as communal violence. When exploring the feminine condition, he did so with sensitivity, tenderness and humour, such as in ‘Kusum’, a short story about a big-made young woman who hates herself for being ugly; but this notion is overturned when she crashes into an orange seller.
It’s stories such as “The Bottom Pincher” which earned Singh the ‘most prized’ title.
In Mohan Raj Madawala’s novel, there are no bottom pinchers. They don’t need to be that. His characters, both male and female, find personal redemption through sexual activity. They escape their Victorian cocoons by letting themselves go with a willing partner, sometimes more than one. Ebert has two wives who are siblings. He falls in love (and vice versa) with a seven year old girl who becomes his wife when she grows up. Samson marries the full-blooded and lusty Evelyn. Siriwardhane the apothecary has erotic dreams violent enough to damage his bed. Elizabeth, the young woman of humble origins wedded by the super rich Donald coronel ralahamy, discovers that he’s a necrophile who can’t consummate his marriage. Therefore, she finds personal redemption by inviting an African slave of the household to her bed. Much of this lovemaking isn’t for the faint-hearted. Madawala’s characters scream, scratch and bite to their heart’s content while they are at it.
While all this may be entertaining, or objectionable, according to the reader’s world view, the trouble is that Madawala’s characters all become predictable. Orgasms become as common as rain during the monsoon (at least before global warming). This becomes a flaw in characterisation. This singleminded pursuit of pleasure as the means of confronting life’s vagaries, injustices and excesses makes them look rather limited in their outlook to life.
It’s interesting that one critic has called Madawala’s writing pornographic. A century ago, Lawrence too, was attacked in the same way and Lady Chatterley’s Lover couldn’t be published in the UK till the 1960s.
But that doesn’t mean that the book is only about sex. Far from it. Mohan Raj Madawala is a writer with a fantastic imagination, able to blend historical fact and fiction, the commonplace with the bizarre, with consummate ease. You find gossiping dogs and omniscient cats, a baby boy called Lenin who has purple eyes and resembles a marine creature. How Abaran died of the plague demonstrates this writer’s powerful, sometimes riotous, imagination.
But the bottom line is that the characters of ‘Colombo’ are happiest when they discover sexual bliss, either as reality or fantasy, and even that reality has a quality of fantasy. Madawala reserves his greatest contempt for the privileged class, who are sexually repressed and servile to their colonial masters. Donald Coronel Ralahamy goes so far as to admonish the British for abolishing slavery.
Madawala is undoubtedly one of the boldest and most imaginative Lankan writers of fiction we have today, in either Sinhala or English. Is his work of lasting value? That is a question this writer is not able to answer regarding any contemporary writer, for that is something decided by time, public taste and publishers’ whims. Doris Lessing once did an enlightening experiment. Already an established and famous author, she sent several prominent critics a new book under an assumed name. All of them called it an unsatisfactory debut novel.
Different people will react to Madawala’s fiction in various ways, but there is no denying that he’s an entertaining writer, and that’s a quality readers look for in when buying contemporary fiction.