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Bedevil: In the same boat by Channa Wickramasekera

Sep 24, 2010 9:27:10 PM- transcurrents.com

Bedevil: In the same boat by Channa Wickramasekera
Colombo: Bay Owl Press, 2010

Reviewed by Sivamohan Sumathy

‘We may have all come on different ships, but we are in the same boat now’. - Martin Luther King, Jr.


Why has it been difficult to write of this novel, In the same boat, slight in frame and simple and direct in approach? While I finished the novel in one go, whenever I sat down to write about it, it proved a difficult task.

Of course from the beginning I knew it was not going to be easy writing about the book. Despite the simple and direct approach of Channa’s writing, my feelings about the novel were far from being simple and direct. The writing churned up, like the waters of the story, so many personal and pressing memories of our political landscape of the past and the present, of the globe and of the nation. While the novel is simple and direct, my response itself is necessarily circuitous and non linear.

In 1986, around the time I received a TA position at the University of British Columbia, Canada and my application for a student visa was gently refused by the Canadian Authorities, with a recommendation to apply later, a boatful of people, mainly Sri Lankan Tamils, crossed the several seas separating Sri Lanka from the American continent and reached the shores of Canada. It was both a legal and illegal tour (de force). On hearing of this, a friend, half jokingly (only half) remarked that I should have got on that same boat, instead of applying to the Canadian embassy.

This was my earliest personal encounter with the prospect of crossing borders under desperate situations. For me, ‘higher studies’ was a desperate life saving pursuit. Later, at the height of the war, friends, family and persons we encountered in our daily lives, those who laboured in and around our homes, places of work, jumped into these ships, fleeing terror of many sorts, particularly the slow destitution that was taking hold of the north (east and other parts of the country).

The trend continues and it concerns not just Sri Lankans, but many others. It is a part of the way the world is made up. Why go to Australia and Canada in leaky boats? If we take the story of pure and simple imperialism of the west European kind, crossing borders is an integral part of the colonial mapping of the world; the adventures of Captain Cook, a Columbus or Vasco da Gama are the terrible illegality of the boundary breaking stories of those who got on unseaworthy boats. But that was the story of victors and quickly gained legitimacy. Speaking of illegal waters and unseaworthy boats, between 1990-95 fleeing family crossed the kilali lagoon in the north of Sri Lanka, separating the Jaffna peninsula from the rest of the country, in a string of make shift boats tied together to save on fuel, to enter government controlled areas, illegally. What does one call the routes taken by roughly 80-100, 000 northern Muslims evicted by the LTTE in 1990? Today, resettlement programmes by the government reassert and resituate another sense of legality and illegality. And thousands displaced have become illegal citizens within the contours of one’s own national identification.

Border crossing, illegally arrived at, is another way by which we possess boundaries, draw colonial and postcolonial maps. Channa’s evocative novel raises precisely this question. Very broadly the story narrates the fate of a handful of desperate people leaving their home country. They are led by the human trafficker, enigmatically called Red Cap (because he dons a red cap on his head) and encounter on their way various different personalities that form the political and war infused mosaic of our society; the local commander of the patrolling navy of the country, the rebel leader and his troop of gun toting men, fighting against the state, different characters who give life to the collectivity of the people in the boat, including a girl child with a kitten and a stowaway, and a passing ship that could rescue the people in the leaking boat as it drifts on in the high seas.

The story set in mid sea for the most part, literally, metaphorically and allegorically breaks through the boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, citizenship to create a world that is seemingly beyond nation, states and identities. In a world, bound and contained by borders, the seas without borders hold out a terrible and tragic promise of legality for the illegal migrants. They belong nowhere and everywhere. The boat people are citizens of no country and yet it is precisely the quest for citizenship in a country, a state, that drives the dreams and dreaming of the people trapped inside the fishing trawler, falling apart. But the drama of this paradox is not uplifting like Robinson Crusoe’s ingenuity or enchanting like the flight into the exotic of Lord of the Rings by Tolkien or Narnia by C. S. Lewis. The stories of the fleeing refugees and their incessant waiting for rescue is a counter allegory of the colonial mapping of the world. To quote from the introductory section of the novel:

They knew they were not leaving the beauty above but the tragedy below. War hunger and death. Calamities that had gnawed away at their will to endure. Miseries that haunted their lives and tortured their souls. Everybody had a breaking point and they had reached theirs. They were leaving that misery, like many others before them and many others after them. In a boat, across the ocean, heading for lands they had only heard of. (9)

These words written in the most formal and elegant prose of its kind could be part of a colonial narrative, about impoverished Europeans setting out to the new world in search of warmer, greener pastures, of freedom and free land. At first, I was a bit frustrated by the formal tone of the novel. But as I proceeded, I quickly discovered to my surprise that the narrative demanded a contained and formal prose. I also discovered the way the text bound itself within a narrative linearity of voyage, seeking, dreaming and hoping. The significations of the work are entangled in this paradoxical narrative and counter narrative of the colonial story of migration and the postcolonial tragedy of displacement, asylum hunting, illegal travel, of being called wogs, wetback, kallathoni and boat people. It is in that sense a counter narrative of the conventional colonial theme of voyage, discovery and adventure in general.

The novel could be read as a parable. The name red cap itself has the air of a parable about it. The parable like quality is heightened by the fact that the most moral or ethical person in the story is thrown overboard to lighten the load on the leaking ship. The Jonah like figure cannot but be read allegorically and Biblically. But the moral of the story is neither dichotomous nor simple. The child with the pussy cat , both symbols of innocence, are lost in the sea with the others. It is their vulnerability that underpins their story, not a prelapsarian motif of innocence. The voyage consistently turns away from pathos, romanticism and sentimentality to draw a picture, literally a visual image of the harshness of human survival. It is not a duel between good versus bad, but a story of a people, already rendered bad, illegal and a voyage deemed illegitimate from the very beginning by those controlling land and water. On the other hand, those fleeing the controls of authority too are implicated by those very same boundaries of nationality and citizenship, of what is legal and legitimate and the illegitimate. They too are implicated in the politics of the border control and voyaging. Nobody is innocent here.

What is their struggle then? Is it a struggle for legitimacy? Is it for redemption and if so what exactly is the content of that redemption? What makes the novel poignant resides not so much in its awesome tragic conclusion as in its politics of bearing that endows it with a certain kind of legitimacy— the act of reading about the people who are In the Same Boat.

Postcolonial impasse

When I began on the novel, I wondered about why the writer gave the story an aura, the texture of the universal. Why does he not just go ahead and name the rebel group, why isn’t the stowaway, a Tamil, but just a nameless other shunned by the rest of the people in the boat? In other words, why does he not call the people Sri Lankans? I had read Channa’s first two novels, Walls and Distant Warriors and I automatically expected a realist novel with a clearly spelt out, distinctive, social location. Realizing that I was approaching the entire thing wrong, I resolved to read it as an allegory, a parable and a story about people, boat people anywhere, everywhere. An allegory at one level is universal. It is seemingly free of the shackles of politics, nation, gender and ethnicity. It is (seemingly) free of the shackles of belonging to a country. But continuing to read, I was bedeviled by the narrative’s own urge for roots, again and again. We cannot locate ourselves outside of our own national or transnational roots and routes.

In other words, one cannot read the novel as a disinterested reader of an adventure story. The impossibility of realizing the novel as universal and not about Sri Lanka, resides not just within me, but within the contours of the novel too. It suddenly struck me with remarkable and revealing force, how I, as reader and Channa as writer, are tragically bound together to a poetics of the postcolonial. Its borders and boundaries neither of us can escape, nor can the novel. For all that we may dare, we just cannot, fortunately, assume the neutral tone of the allegorical: duels between good and bad (or Christian and Saracen) ; what we have then is a paradox- a tale woven and textured by the social and the universal, the political and the human and the national and the global.

Postcolonial fancy and the flight of humanity

The novel can be read as a counter narrative of the colonial voyage. But if colonial allegories are a celebration of power, there is nothing to celebrate about.

In the Same Boat. It is not even a postcolonial response to colonial power. This is its ultimate strength. It is unromantic and unsentimental, even in some of its more tender moments, like that of the child seeking the whereabouts of the kitten she had brought on board or in the more horrifying ones , like the spraying of an ‘insubordinate’ passenger by the rebel leader, with bullets. A remarkable feature of its textuality is its refusal to produce a ‘human’ alternative to the political dilemma of nations and nationalities, borders and boundaries.

There are predictable features. The patrolling navy leader can be easily bribed. But unlike the leader of the navy, who is only too real, the leader of the rebels is surreal. No less greedy than the commander of the navy patrol, he is a ruthless killer to boot. I was happy to note that Channa did not indulge in any romanticisation of the violence of the rebels. What makes the leader of the rebels drawn in remarkably statuesque terms so spectacular a figure has to do with ambivalently allegorical reference point for the portrayal.

The astonishing figure of the deformed leader sitting cross legged without legs, Buddha like, cries out for comparison with Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the fraught problematic epic novel about colonial ventures in Africa. Such intertextuality once again bedevils the categories of allegory, politics, personal and the literary. It is not that I make any pronouncement on the writer’s self conscious spin off on Marlow in Heart of Darkness. The significance of the comparison I draw lies in the question: how does one dissolve the colonial adventure story or the character building stories of colonial travel writing into that of a tragic story about the inward looking violence of the postcolonial? How do you portray the border figure of the guerilla leader, who is merciless, does possess authority over territory and yet makes claims of fighting against power and territorial possession? How does one capture the terrible paradox of that admixture of resistance and domination in the allegorical present? For me, the deformed figure of the leader presents to us a moment of flight, and that flight is just momentary, fleeting and intangible. To quote the passage introducing the leader:

At their feet, on the deck, was the man who appeared to be their leader. A man with a large, riotous beard and long, wild hair he first appeared to be sitting cross legged on the deck, the way people sat down to meditate. Then they saw that both his legs were missing below the thighs that ended in fleshy stumps. On closer look they could also see that he even had all the fingers in his left hand missing, making it possible for him to hold his gun only with his right hand.

Seeing the astonishment in the face of the people on the boat, the rebel leader laughed, Don’t look so stunned, he said. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen a cripple! You are not running away for nothing are you? (30)

Let me press the comparison with Heart of Darkness a bit more. Heart of Darkness plunges us into a world of inhumanity that is at the heart of the colonial endeavour; and of course its colonial paradigm locates the heart of inhumanity within the core of what is seen as Africa. Marlow’s passage to Africa and down the Congo is about the illegality of colonialism, in a counter move. But unlike Conrad’s work, In the Same Boat cannot easily posit a named protagonist. This allegory is able to work only with nameless people. In the place of the moral Buddha like figure of Marlow, we have Red Cap. Red Cap is a despicable character, but is less objectionable than Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Definitely the voyage is less illegal than Belgium’s inglorious expeditions in the Congo.

It is not a decisive protagonist like Marlow that we have in this narrative, but a whole lot of nameless people sailing toward a country whose name they do not know. Red cap is not the narrator. But his narrative, his story, is so entwined with that of the others that he suffers the same tragic fate. Their voyage is not down the river, but is on the high seas. They sail up the sea toward light, welcoming shores and civilization that would give them refuge and not down the river toward darkness and the horror of uncivilisation. They do not lose their humanity on the voyage as happens with Kurtz. They had already lost their human status before the journey. They have no country. In the literally astonishing figure of the rebel leader one gets a sense of the prescientic and the prophetic. ‘Madam, I have seen as many heroes as orphans. And they are all dead’ says the leader in response to a passenger’s query about heroes. And it is death that would haunt them till the end of their short and perilous journey.

The allegorical present

If I may be allowed to go back to my preliminary musings on today’s crisis and contradictions of border crossing, I would like to conclude with just one point of departure. Even as I was reading In the same boat, the Australian government was featuring an advertisement demonstrating the evil and deceptive ways of the ‘agent’, the trafficker in human commodity, on Sri Lankan media, including the television. Telecast, as I understand, only on ‘Nethra’, the Tamil channel of the state broadcasting station, the message is simple: We are powerful enough to air this advertisement of disgusting appeal, complete with bad acting and melodramatic setting. The advertisement would make a good example for the study of popular visual media. As Barthes might say, it is a case of sheer semiotic bliss. But I will keep to the point here. Not only was the advertisement disgustingly predatory, like those charity ads about poverty in Ethiopia, but was also demonstrative of the power of the state, both of Australia and Sri Lanka, acting in tandem to protect their borders and their sovereignty.

In the same boat captures this dilemma of state control and paternal authority faced by transgressive postcolonial subjects. We are all caught, refugee and authority alike, in the rhetoric of sovereignty and nationality, man, woman, self and the other. We are all ‘in the same boat’. ‘We may have all come on different boats; but we are in the same boat now’; these words attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. are not really about existing material reality, but are in actuality, an offer of hope. In a generous gesture of solidarity, he offers the hand of friendship to the oppressor. It is that visionary sense that is glaringly lacking in the narratives celebrating sovereignty, territorial control and conquest. When I quoted King’s words to Channa, he quipped, ‘Not yet. We are not in the same boat yet.’ Marlow in Heart of Darkness could stay in the shadows of the Thames at the end of it all. But for those contesting the borders of authority, as minority narrative subjects, there is no protective shade or deceptive silence that could give them hope. Avenging nature sweeps over the terrible calamity of what we know as manhood and humanity.


Sivamohan Sumathy is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of English, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.

Channa Wickramasekera teaches in Australia and has been involved in raising awarenesss toward a non-violent and just solution to the National Question in Sri Lanka. He has published several works of fiction and on history and is currently working on a monogaph on the first phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka ( 1976 - 1987)

A slightly different version of this review was published in the Island of 22 September, 2010.