Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Tamilnation > Tamilnation Library> Eelam Section > Literature as Social Text: �Dreamboats: Short Stories from the Sri Lankan Plantations.�


  • Literature as Social Text: �Dreamboats: Short Stories from the Sri Lankan Plantations.�  Edited by M S Annaraj & Fr Paul Caspersz. Satyodaya Centre, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2004

Book Review by Charles Sarvan

This anthology consists of nineteen stories, ranging from two to four pages, translated from Tamil into English; a few from Sinhala into Tamil and then English. Inevitably much of the richness of the original is lost. These �photographs� show us different aspects of plantation life - not only the foregrounded characters and action but the causal significance of the background. There�s a reliance on dialogue; an omission of detail resulting in rapidity. Abrupt shifts in time and place challenge the reader to make coherence.

Arguably, those who have suffered the most and the longest in Sri Lanka (stretching back to the 19th Century) are the people of the plantations. (See Sarvan, �Indian Plantation Experiences Overseas,� Kunapipi, Australia, Vol X11, No 2, 2000.) Various rationalisations were made to gloss over this callous exploitation, commercial at root, inhumane in its means, and tragic in its consequences: �They are used to this life.� �See how content they are!� �They are better off here than back in India,� etc. Translated it meant, �They do not mind exhausting labour, meagre income, slums for habitation, one meal a day, the minimum of health facilities, rudimentary education (if at all), forced sexual acquiescence (if not rape), and the lack of hope.�

The �enterprise� of shifting people from India to other British colonies followed the abolition of slavery: particularly in its early decades, it was another form of slavery. Understandably, the Sinhalese were uncomfortable at the influx of thousands, and indignant at land expropriation, but this resentment fell upon the hapless victims, and not on British imperialism and the rapacious plantation companies whose only goal was the maximisation of profit: The plantation folk, even those who were born in Sri Lanka, were seen as foreigners. Imperialism and its commercial activities were beyond the reach of native retaliation and revenge. Upcountry Tamils did the most arduous and menial work and this attracted contempt and reinforced their negative image.

Finally, there was an unacknowledged admiration for �white� people. I recall that one of the highest compliments one could pay a man was to say that he was like a �Sudha.� I don�t know if the expression persists, but I still hear Sinhalese parents abroad addressing their little children as �Sudhu,� even when the child is gifted with a lovely brown complexion. For decades tea was the chief foreign-exchange earner, and the manure that fertilised the estates was the sweat and suffering of the plantation folk (Paul Caspersz), but those who created the Island�s wealth received only a pittance.

�Ponnie�s Happiness� (.24-27) brings together the strands of housing and sexual exploitation. Where men have had power � be it in the home, field, factory or office � they have tended to exploit women sexually. One of the worst features of plantation life was housing. The exhausted workers returned to squalid and overcrowded �lines,� often holding three generations within one room, bereft of privacy, encouraging sexual molestation, even incest. This last was convenient: �See what sort of people they are? Squalor, physical and moral, is their natural element.� Ponnie (from �Pon� meaning �gold�), forced to live separate from her husband, longs for a little room of their own. One falls vacant, �Ponnie� gets it, and is gloriously happy, not realizing the �payment� that will be demanded; not knowing the violent and tragic consequences soon to follow.

A heavily pregnant woman taps rubber, happy to have work, even though it�s arduous and poorly paid. Caught alone in a sudden storm, she collapses and lies unconscious. �The milk which, from the sides of the rubber trees, had flowed into the shells, mixed with the rain water, and finally became nothing� (73). Figuratively, the milk of the rubber tree is linked to mother�s milk, and to the new life and happiness it symbolises. If there is much suffering, there is also much courage, love and self-sacrifice - the last usually by women, with neither reward nor recognition: �The New Year wasn�t new� (41-47).

Visitors to the hill-country tend to assume that the workers are incapable of aesthetic, deeply-felt, response. Unarticulated love is, nevertheless, love: a calmness like moonlight on the valleys and mountains; the hills, fresh and clean after the rains; the lights twinkling amidst the cold and darkness of the hillside; the hunched hills covered with smoke-like mist; bottle-lamps from the line-rooms shining stretched like a train that had stopped on the rail-track. �Can you remember [�] the love we had for the mist-covered mountains?� (63).

What was labelled �repatriation� was a cruel expatriation visited upon a poor, hard-working, bewildered people. �Here we suffered from starvation but there [in Sri Lanka] we suffered from slavery. We were frightened to speak in our mother tongue� We were humiliated� looked down as Indian Tamils� (p. 17). Rejected, neither Indian nor Sri Lankan, the speaker ends a nowhere man, desperately asking existential questions: �Who really am I? Which is my country? Tell me, Sir� (�My Motherland,� 15-18).
In times of violent conflict, innocent, peace-loving individuals cannot remain immune. A peaceful old woman ends by throwing a bomb at soldiers dragging girls away. Violence becomes her last, desperate, recourse: �0 God! Finally, you had to put a bomb in my hand too� (p. 52). It�s not easy to explain such hatred and ready violence: �You and I� (63-4), leaves it to the reader to explain the ugliness of human behaviour in a context of great natural beauty.

Injustice and violence arise not only from ethnic differences. At a lavish Upcountry wedding, a poor woman is beaten because she picked up a balloon for her son, the love of the poor for their children being no less deep than that of the rich (�Is It Fate?� pp. 8-10). �Manickam is a Breadwinner� (pp. 11-14), draws attention both to ethnic and class injustice. The caf�-owner pays little and, when business isn�t doing well, not at all. Manickam is severely beaten for picking up a fallen Rs 5 note. The story asks: the employee is severely punished, but what of the Mudalali? It was very difficult for those on the estates to break free, and start a different life: victimisation, whether within or outside the estate, is their �fate�. The workers contribute towards the education of an academically promising young man but, after graduation, he finds himself a job in Colombo and escapes, abandoning those who had sacrificed, helped and hoped (19-23). A father attempts to better the family by sending his daughter, aged thirteen, to work as a servant in Colombo. The story�s last line is powerful in its reticence: �Silently his wife and mother-in-law began preparing a herbal mixture for the abortion� (p. 37).

Suffering comes quickest to the �weakest�. The stories are clear-eyed and devoid of sentimentality. If there is love, courage and self-sacrifice, there can also be selfishness and cruelty within the family. An old woman (pp. 53-57), is neglected, but financially exploited, by her children. When she dies, her alcoholic son remembering her wish to have a new sari, takes the last of her money - but doesn�t forget to take the empty arrack bottles also. The workers are deceived and exploited by their political and trade-union leaders (pp. 60-2) who do not lead but deliberately keep the plantation folk ignorant, vulnerable and, therefore, dependant. Theirs, surely, is the worst of betrayals.

In �Her decision� (4-7) a widow, as attractive as a harvest (p 5) is made pregnant by a lame beggar: she had sacrificed herself to �a human soul,� to a man who being poor and lame, had never slept with a woman. Hers is a morality higher than that of the sexual. She was neither seduced nor raped: he begged and she decided (title), consulting her own feeling of how she should react.

�The Punishment,� (58-9) is a political fable. The hut of a poor man is destroyed by thunder, and the people indignantly ask the God of Thunder why he had chosen a poor man who had neither misappropriated public funds, taken bribes, attained high office through unscrupulous means, twisted the law, misused his position for selfish gain nor �mortgaged his country to foreigners� (p. 59). By listing all that the man had not done, we are reminded of what is being done by the powerful and the rich. The God retorts that the poor man had been silent and inactive when all these wrongs were happening. It�s insufficient to be good: one must be involved and take action, however modest. In a democracy, the people are ultimately responsible. It is too easy to blame the politicians and wash one�s hands of responsibility. The inactive innocent are ultimately guilty. The people are not angry enough; not angry at the real �criminals,� and not angry in constructive ways.

Dreamboats should be read widely, particularly in Sri Lanka and in its schools. It creates awareness, and may rouse people to concern and action. Perhaps, the �dreamboat� will reach and rescue those who, with rare courage, have endured too much, and for far too long.



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