Thursday, March 30, 2017

'The Threshold': Patching up our privileged defeats

Review of “The Threshold” by Sasanka Nanayakkara, published by Vijitha Yapa in 2016

The protagonist in Sasanka Nanayakkara’s novel The Threshold leaves Sri Lankan because of an unrequited love and returns 25 years later because of it. He is what one could call a parajithaya, the kind of character who subsisted, thrived, and was nurtured to perfection by our writers, filmmakers, and playwrights in the sixties and seventies. That of course doesn’t mar their relevance or deny them a place today, but it does help us to revisit and reflect on the past. As an untrained, uncultured reader however, I can only try to do justice to Sasanka’s book in this respect. So here goes.

Piyal Senanayake, the protagonist, is not exactly your rags-to-riches Horatia Alger hero. He is able to leave Sri Lanka for the United States so comfortably because he comes from a rather privileged social background: the bilingual, urbanised middle-class. He rises to even more affluence in Silicon Valley, where (back when the sky was the limit there) he cashes in on more profit to retire early to a five-acre residence belonging to the son of a Spanish noble in California. As far as broken-hearted lovers go, this one seems to have no reason for complaint.

Part of Sasanka’s achievement in his depiction of the protagonist is that the story is never that simple. Piyal has achieved, yes, but has he achieved enough to forget? “Haunting” is a frequently used word throughout the book, so my guess is that he has not: material wealth can instil only that much amnesia in you, after all. So he leaves the States, returns to his motherland, calls up on a friend from school, and then calls up on his long lost love Saumya. The problem is that Saumya is married and is a mother, and what’s more, has become as Anglicised (metaphorically) as Piyal (her daughter’s name, for instance, is Natasha).

The first quarter of The Threshold meanders along, keeping us away from a possible reconciliation between these two former lovers. I have been told by Sasanka himself that he is an avid lover of the cinema and music, and that he too has travelled afar. That shows. Amply. From the first sentence therefore, he gives the impression that he has first scripted his story, and then transformed it into a written narrative.

The conversations between Piyal and his friend from school, a lanky, now obese, lawyer called Sajeewa are laced liberally with politically partisan statements (Piyal, probably reflecting Sasanka, takes a more explicitly moderate stance on the ethnic issue, while Sajeewa is the urbanised, sophisticated nationalist who dreams of Utopias). Again, scripted so well that I could see them arguing before my eyes.

However, after a point (which came to me rather quickly) I sensed that the political conversations, taking place in a comfortable setting in Colombo, were as desultory as the exchanges between Scout and Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman: you feel that they are sincerely felt and articulated, but at the same time you realise that the words and the feelings put out are at one level oblivious to the political reality, in other words that there is a disjuncture between the social conditioning of the debate and the reality to which it is alluding. Perhaps Sasanka realises this (though it takes him more than 30 pages to so do), but the end-result is that he reinforces a key theme and motif in his novel: people usually change with ideas.

Which brings me to the author’s depiction of the interlude between Piyal and Saumya. Like I mentioned before, not unlike Dhammi and Sugath and the kind of separated lovers depicted by our artistes in the sixties and seventies, both our former lovers in Sasanka’s book are from a particular, privileged social milieu, in this case the Southern bourgeoisie. The degree to which this background has conditioned him to forget and forgive, the way I see it, shapes the last quarter of the book, where Piyal gets to meet not just Saumya but her husband, the redoubtable Rohan Wijesuriya. Identity is a vital concern for Sasanka, which explains why, despite his own hybridised and elitist existence in Colombo, Rohan says of Piyal, “He has become out and out an American.”

Because he drags identity and the dichotomy between being culturally uprooted and culturally castrated (the former a result of being domiciled abroad, the latter of being socially cut off from one’s roots), I think Sasanka inadvertently ponders on the thin line between memory and forgetting that is a luxury for the social class he depicts. The ultimate litmus test for The Threshold, then, is not how much the author leaves the door open for a sequel (because the final passage in the novel does, in fact, invite such a possibility), but rather how far the interlude between these two believable, everyday characters transcends their privileged, urbanised livelihoods, dominated by a comparatively bourgeois ethic.

Being an uncultured reader and critic, I believe it would be grossly unbecoming on my part to deliver a verdict in this respect on Sasanka’s book. I leave that for a better, more experienced writer. For the time being though, what I can do is attempt to gauge the extent to which the author has succeeded in his (inadvertent) aim with his own text.

We infer from the penultimate chapter that Rohan is either oblivious to the interlude between Saumya and our protagonist or is aware, but has forgotten and is hoping for the best. Like Nikhilesh from Tagore’s Ghare Baire, he may be testing his wife’s fidelity by allowing her to converse liberally with Piyal. We can’t guess, so we can’t tell. In any case, in the subsequent final chapter, we realise that Rohan has not only taken to Piyal, he has also allowed both his wife and daughter to “accompany you to wherever you told him you were going.” Before I get to the point I am trying to make, let me say that those words intrigue me because of their deliberately oblique, ambivalent nature: “wherever YOU told HIM you were going.” What is Sasanka telling us here?

Now to my point. I quote here the final sentence in Sasanka’s book: “Till we meet again in that anonymous Dutchman’s cosy little bungalow supposedly located amidst a lush coconut grove hugging the remote coast of distant Tangalle – my mother’s hometown.” Forget the stream of consciousness here. What interests me is Tangalle.

The reference to his mother’s hometown and to a bungalow where Piyal and Saumya shared an intimate interlude seems to unearth a contradiction in our hero: he has declared his intention to leave the country forever, to Australia perhaps to meet his sister, but in his moment of departure, when he is given a rare and (I daresay) unprecedented opportunity by his own former lover’s husband, he remembers his past and roots, affirms both, and (as the late Professor Ashley Halpe comments in his  foreword to the book) leaves possibility for a sequel.

I am not sure whether he has achieved that test I alluded to before (that the interlude between our two former lovers will transcend their commitments, conditioned by and rooted in their respective careers and social backgrounds), but I am sure that the seasoned critic may find his or her answer to that question if he or she wades through the last few pages. On account of my inexperience in these matters, however, all I can say is that Sasanka’s book is worth a read, despite its sometimes overblown prose and the occasional meandering to political dialectics.

So how can I conclude? By saying that Sasanka’s novel makes us wish that he continues to write. As I pointed out before, he has depicted the conventional, tragic, and pathos-ridden parajithaya. Owing to his social conditioning, this parajithaya has the luxury of catharsis that his counterparts from less privileged backgrounds do not. It is hence an interesting exploration into the bourgeois ethic, dominated as it is by a sustained repression of emotion in the face of cold, calculating reason. For that reason alone, The Threshold delivers not as your clichéd, love-never-dies narrative, but as a work of fiction which does what all good fiction should: make us want more.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, March 30 2010