Sunday, November 30, 2014

The "heroes" of Martin Wickramasinghe III: Anula

Martin Wickramasinghe
This is the third in a series of sketches on certain elusive characters in the novels of Martin Wickramasinghe, aimed at first-time readers. Featured this week is Anula from the Koggala trilogy.

Alan’s search for his roots is what eventually brings him into conflict with his mother. What makes up the transition from Gamperaliya to Kaliyugaya, therefore, is the “uprooting” which happens in the former and the quest to reclaim lost roots in the latter. Alan represents a disillusioned generation, born out of the newly emerging business class (as represented by Piyal). This new class, however, were not fully uprooted. Neither Piyal nor Nanda are “at home” in the city, so to say. They remain unused to this new life, while maintaining a strained relationship with their ancestral home.

The conflict at the heart of Kaliyugaya, therefore, is not really between village and city. It is true that while both Nanda and Piyal adapt themselves to the new social class to which they now belong, the true conflict is to be found in Alan’s search for roots. It is this, more than anything else, which guides the theme of the story.

While Gamperaliya (which literally means “uprooted”) was about the deterioration of feudal aristocracy (as represented by Nanda’s family) and emergence of the business class (as represented by Piyal), the real “uprooting” happens in Kaliyugaya, where nearly every character, except perhaps for Tissa, grapple with their new life. In this, Piyal takes to the path of adapting himself to his new setting, while Nanda tries to but fails in the end. The way I see it, this is what really makes up Alan’s conflict. Neither mother nor father can be a proper guide to him. His search for roots, as he finds out to himself, must be done through another person. This person is Anula, his loku amma.

Anula has been called a “matriarchal figure” by some critics. This is because she is a fierce protector of her family. In Gamperaliya, we see a woman who embraces class hierarchies and divisions in her. She is opposed to Piyal's marrying Nanda, and even after he has risen to the top of the social ladder, she is reserved in her praise of him. This does not make her unsympathetic; on the contrary, Martin Wickramasinghe portrays her as probably the only character with any independent spirit in that story. She asserts what she feels, even if what she says is unpalatable to those around her.

In Kaliyugaya, however, we see a slightly different Anula. Gone is that independence of spirit, that tendency to assert everything she feels and thinks. She is still protective of her family name, and on more than one occasion chides Nanda for having distanced herself from her roots. But she is gentler, more ready to understand the weaknesses of those around her, than before. For Alan, she embodies the kind of sympathy he so desperately needs. It is Anula and not Nanda or Piyal who puts his dilemma very aptly: “He may have been born in the city, but he never was of it.”

It’s not just tradition which is broken apart in the city, of course; family bonds also take their toll under this new life. This is first seen with Piyal’s mother, who, initially pleased with him, begins to resent how she is being made to adapt to urban life (when Nanda tells her not to speak loudly as she does in the village, her colourful reply is “Why do you think we have a mouth to speak with?”), and eventually leaves for Koggala. Anula and Tissa remain; while Tissa hovers between city and village, Anula departs for her ancestral home when she is stricken with tuberculosis.

It is at this point that the conflict in both Nanda’s and Alan’s minds begins to heighten, owing to how they react to her ailment. Family bonds have, by this point, all but completely been torn apart. Nanda’s former love for her sister is taken over by an irrational fear that her son will be afflicted by her illness. While visiting a doctor at one point, she asks him whether this fear is groundless; he laughs and tells her philosophically that while so many improbable things can happen in this world, it would be madness to think too much about them.

Critically but sympathetically, the author depicts Nanda’s unwillingness to send Alan to Koggala, mainly because of his aunt’s illness but also because of another irrational fear: that he would take to playing with rowdies there. Anula criticises her on this count; she tells her quite frankly that whenever Alan was in the village during holidays, he would thoroughly enjoy himself with these same “rowdies”, just as Tissa had in his childhood. It is also Anula who criticises Nanda for having brought Alan up in an English-speaking setting. When told that speaking in Sinhala would have hampered his education, Anula retorts by saying that they understand Alan better than any teacher ever could.

Wickramasinghe’s attitude to human relationships was influenced by Russian authors. His reading of them, in particular of Anton Chekhov, was radically different to how western critics treated some of their stories. This is reflected in Anula as well. Though she isn’t represented as a sentimental being, the way she is treated in the city is different to the way she is in the village. Piyal’s mother, who leaves for Koggala in the first half of the story, dotes on Anula, regardless of whether she has a malignant illness.

This sentimental attitude to human beings, I think, is to be seen in Chekhov’s play Ivanov, where its protagonist, against his better judgment perhaps, decides to keep his tubercular wife at home without admitting her to a hospital. I remember Wickramasinghe writing in an essay that the western critic, with his regard for order and logic, would criticise this aspect of the story, since they would be used to sending such a patient to a sanatorium at once.

We see this same thing in how Anula is treated in Koggala: Piyal’s mother shares lives with and dotes on her, even sharing the cutlery with her. Even Anula, after realising what her illness is, refuses to stay in the city and be treated by a western doctor. Stubbornly, perhaps not unlike Ivanov from Chekov’s play, she decides to wait without treating it, believing instead that staying at home, away from the city and in her ancestral mansion, would cure it eventually.

Quite obviously, this is in stark contrast to the way Nanda looks upon her. Her only fear is that her children will be afflicted by her. She never fully reveals this to Anula, of course, and when she is asked by her why she never sent her son to Koggala, she claims instead that it was because Alan would get used to the “bad ways” of the village. By way of justifying this, she says that this was also why Tissa was unable to continue with his studies. Anula, always the frank and sharp observer she is, laughs at this: Tissa stopped going to school, not because he got too friendly with village rowdies, but because his father couldn’t afford to send him to school after their fortunes began to decline.

Anula, moreover, is a woman who can’t stand the hypocrisies of the new social order. She (together with Alan) acts as the conscience of both Nanda and Piyal. When Nanda begins to develop affection for an anglicised, amoral doctor (Samaraweera) she is the first to come across the affair. Ruthlessly, but at the same time not without sympathy, she criticises her. As you will remember, it is Alan who comes across infidelity on his father’s part, in the letter he finds from a woman asking for 300 rupees from him (Chapter Four).

Together, Alan and Anula become the only characters defiant of urban, sophisticated life, right towards the end. It is significant that both are thwarted in their defiance of the new social order: Alan leaves for England, having married to an Englishwoman, and Anula dies, quietly and gracefully, in the Koggala mansion.