“I had no reputation to preserve, no status to maintain. I began to enjoy the familiarity of males, their easy banter and witty remarks though at times crude. It was a facet of social life that I had never tasted, open and devoid of double standards and remarkably fresh. Never had I experienced anything like that in the middle class society I grew in, almost frigid in the sphere of sex and eroticism.”
Glancing through a slim novel at a book sale, I decided to buy the book after reading the above passage. It’s not the kind of thing you come across every day in Sri Lankan creative writing.
“Widows world in the East” is a novel by Padma Edirisinghe published in 2002. The blurb says that she’s a former director of Teacher Education, and pioneer of the Children’s Creative Writing Project at state level, besides being author of 13 books and six translations. As far as this book goes, however, my initial enthusiasm didn’t last as I read through it. However, it gives a voice to a subject usually neglected by Sri Lankan writers – sex, or erotic love, and how it affects minds and relationships. For that reason alone, it’s worth reading.
There is no sex in ‘Widows World in The East.’ Rather, the author gives an analysis of sexual mores and relationships as they exist today in the country, through her own first person narrative voice. Then there is the character of Xavier Wanigasekara, who says that there is a clear division of sexual mores on a geographical basis. As he puts it: “Because you were born and bred within 25 miles of the coastline of Sri Lanka that got shrouded by Puritanism during the reign of Queen Victoria. England herself has spurned Victorian morals long ago but Lanka’s coastline faithfully holds on to it.”
‘The highlanders of the interior are happily free of the notion that sex is a sin, he added.’
This was generally true several decades ago. The story is set at an earlier time. As it starts, a family is fleeing Colombo due to Japanese bombing and invasion threats. The narrator, a little, dark-skinned girl at the beginning, goes on to assume another identity and personality as an adult. A writer, she assumes the personae of Palingu Nona, a woman from a mountaneous village in the Ma Oya valley (the Land of the gods or ‘deiyange rata’). She has a complicated history, having been raped by her father, but the narrator welcomes the phsychological change brought about by her transformation.
For one thing, Palingu Nona is physically more attractive than the narrator, who carries the onus of being dark-skinned like a beast of burden. As she puts it: “Palingu was a robust healthy woman with big breasts and big buttocks. Sex appeal just screamed out of her. This naked sexuality of hers plus a pleasing face made her a very attractive woman.”
One plus point of this ‘transmigration of souls’ is that the narrator has access to Palingu’s lover. “But the ingraining of the traditional Eastern culture within me was so strong that even after my voice was restored I would not have dreamt of asking her whether she had a lover after her husband died. But if I was keen to do a research on an average village widow’s life, now I had a golden chance. Palingu’s lover would come to me now.
“And he did come very direct and no-fumbling unlike city Romeos, who lost in the urban wilderness that includes hundreds of the other gender (with or without war paint), try to experiment with every new female they meet and end up sad novices.”
Both women are widows. A widow is under greater social constraints. But the narrator’s exploration of sexual hypocrisy and related pressures aren’t limited to the state of being widowed. As she writes with impish humour: “ ‘My grandmother’ writes a feminine Lankan author, ‘is the mother of eleven offsprings, but she is so averse towards sex that I often wonder how she begot them. Maybe King Sakra placed his big toe on her navel or some proximate place.’ “
“And here is a male writer again from my own dear ‘Taprobane...’, My parents never touch each other in public that when I hear from a classmate how close they get to each other at night I recoiled at the adult hypocrisy.”
“So it is not the sex act which hurt him, but the hypocrisy....sex is a taboo topic in female conversation, especially in the circles I move. Almost a stony silence is maintained on the subject except when the more garrulous, when provoked would declare.
“The sex act! Ugh! I just hate it. It is so brutal. Just like an animal assault.”
“Evidently the females who enjoy sex keep mum about it. Never do you hear expressions as ‘I love sex’ ‘I just enjoy sex.’ And no typical Lankan woman would go around asking another, ‘How is your sex life?’ ‘What are you doing for sex?’ ‘Have you lovers?’ “
This author should be commended for her moral courage. It is nothing short of brave to write the above. This is no feminist tract since she is frank about female sexual hypocrisy. She has gone where Lankan writers of either sex rarely venture. As for the men, even if they dare (which is rarely the case) a male writer who writes the above will get pilloried for being sexist.
The book has major flaws. The plot line is ambitious, but its development is haphazard, and the author’s rather verbose prose style doesn’t help, either. Its strength lies in the narrator’s gradual exposure of her own sexual hypocrisy due to her higher social status and associated constraints and stigmas.
Dingi, Palingu’s lover to whom the lady in her transformed state has access, is a universal type who occurs often in literature – “Dingi was a likeable man. Very honest looking he just had no secret to hide. Handsome, muscular, hairy and smelling of cow dung that both repelled and fascinated me by the earthy odours.”
In other words, an attraction (fatal or otherwise) to the noble savage. This may sound like a cliché, but I recall an incident narrated by Maxim Gorky. An aristocratic lady from St. Petersburg goes for a vacation in the countryside and fancies a handsome young peasant. They choose an anchored boat by the river as their secret hideout. However, the lovemaking is cut short when the lady is attacked by mosquitoes.
Dingi is the deiyange rate re-incarnation of D. H. Lawrence’s gamekeeper Mellors, in the Lady Chatterley’s lover. But things don’t go that far here. The narrator mentions that the manuscript (which her intellectual friend Xavier dismisses sarcastically) is part of something longer. Despite all the book’s flaws, I wish she had put the rest of it into print along with this. The narrator presents a dissenting point of view raising its stubborn head from the depths of sexual suppression. She describes how sexual energy is channelled into chats and banter between men and women when she describes her friendship with Xavier:
“The only male I associated regularly was impractical Xavier, whose cynicism just awed me. I would not dream of attaching myself in a romantic way with him, that may or may not culminate in a physical bond. But he was a very good companion, garrulous and full of strange new theories. And I knew he liked me or maybe I flattered myself imagining he liked me. Perhaps he only wanted an audience to air off his views.
“But I knew he was selective, and the fact that he opted to spend a good part of his time with me, meant that he liked me. If in my loneliness now and then, a desire rose within me to reach out to him physically, that it was instantly driven underground, could only be explained by the earlier mentioned factors!”
Though the writer’s somewhat disjointed prose style often gets in the way, this is a very honestly written novella.