A keen and original analysis of human nature
The Mirror of Paradise by Asgar Hussein
Reviewed by Prof. Siromi Fernando
The Mirror of Paradise is a volume of thirteen short stories by Asgar Hussein. His earlier publication – Termite Castle – was a volume of poetry for which he was acclaimed by critics as “capable of unusual range and variety of subject and possessing an authentic and original voice”. In The Mirror of Paradise, Hussein has turned to a new genre. He focuses on human nature, with his subject matter possessing similar width and variety, dealing both with urban phenomena like the underworld, high-level swindlers, booze sessions, cricket by ‘boys down the lane’, and abstract art; as well as more rural issues like village politics and evil spirits. He uses a comic view to present a keen and original analysis of human nature.
There are two significant characteristics of this new volume. First is his natural and easy style of writing. Secondly, there is the masculinity of his style of writing and perspective of human nature. The opening of the story And All Because of a Fag demonstrates the natural and easy style of writing:
It was a beautiful evening, and Gamini was taking a leisurely stroll along Galle Face when someone shouted his nickname.
Gamini was startled, and turned around to see his old friend Brian. The man was sitting pompously on the pedestal of one of those old Dutch cannons facing the Indian Ocean.
Brian waved a hand, and Gamini walked over to join him. But as he approached he saw something that made him shudder. There beside Brian lay a heap of prawn vadais bought from some wayside food cart.
Words that spring easily into the minds of Sri Lankans are used in the vocabulary items ‘Galle Face’, ‘those old Dutch cannons’, ‘a heap of prawn vadais’, ‘wayside food cart’, giving a vividly authentic description of the situation. The phrases ‘shouted his nickname’, ‘Oi, Gemba’, ‘the man’ puncture the formality of Standard English and introduce the story in a natural style of Sri Lankan English.
The masculinity of style and perspective is evident throughout all the stories, in the number of male characters, the types of situations, the descriptions, and the flavour of language and style. The passage below illustrates this masculinity:
Ranil suddenly found himself numb with fear. The big fellow with the moustache tossed his chair aside and pulled out a knife from his sarong, flashing it menacingly…A bare-bodied man emerged from the kitchen with a thick piece of firewood in his hand, and raucous shouts of “Kill the pariah!” filled the place.
They had him surrounded within seconds, so escape was impossible. Two of them dragged him by the collar towards a barrel-chested man with bloodshot eyes.
“So you are one of Nondi Chamal’s dogs, eh?” the fellow asked, pointing a long and dirty fingernail…
The man thrust his head forward so that his breath smothered Ranil’s face.
“We are Walgama Simon’s people,” he announced.
Ranil was now shivering like a wet chicken.
Walgama Simon’s people. Walgama Simon. The gang leader who had sworn to roast Nondi Chamal alive on hot embers after the man sprayed his house with gunfire, shot his parrot and cut off his sister’s hair!
The masculine handling of these stories is refreshingly different when one places these against the bulk of Sri Lankan English creative writing, which is written by women authors.
Asgar Hussein’s world, or milieu, is essentially the current Sri Lankan multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic setting. He appropriates a comic view to analyze different facets of this milieu. For example, he finds absurdities in the activities of marriage brokers and rich parents looking for prospective suitors for their daughters. So he knits two hungry Arts undergraduates into the story A Good Medical Boy to present a series of hilarious situations. In A Man of Strong Opinions, he highlights the inadequacy of controlling the mosquito menace and the spread of dengue by satirically exploiting the hatred of two characters – a middle-aged bachelor academic and a coarse relative of an important politician. In Trouble down Araliya Lane, Hussein brings to the reader’s attention the ever-present nuisance of boys who have nowhere to play cricket except on the lanes. The issue is discussed by depicting the vigorous boys, the characters Ranjith and his wife and their marital disputes, and the neighbours, building up an extremely humorous story.
In the early period of creative writing in Sri Lankan English, writers were guilty of ‘sentimental ruralism’, ‘contemplating the country side or rural characters’. However, as Sri Lankan English literature has developed, it ‘has come to grips with its own particular milieu, the world of the Westernized, English-speaking class’(Halpe 1990). In the present period with writers like Asgar Hussein, Sri Lankan English creative writing has come to grips very naturally, without conscious attempt or any undue force, with a changed milieu, the world of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual class for whom English is one of their national languages but also their first or co-first language. This is best demonstrated by Hussein in the stories that deal with suburban and rural characters. In the story In the Dead of Night, the reader encounters one main character, Simon, who does odd jobs for Bastian Mudalali. The story opens as follows:
Oi, Simon, open the door!
Those words, followed by several thumps that shook the room, roused Simon from the depths of a dreamless sleep. He sprang from his mat and crouched in a corner, his eyes bulging.
Although narrated in English, the words spoken and the sound that issues from the knocking reflect very naturally the rough Sinhala that is used in the domination of the Mudalali, a very important personage in the village, over Simon, a menial. The response from Simon ‘sprang from his mat and crouched in a corner’ portrays in unselfconscious language Simon’s status as well as a person who sleeps on a mat as opposed to one sleeping on a bed.
Simon’s task was to carry a load of provisions to a caterer in the dead of night. Although obliged to obey the Mudalali’s orders, Simon was also gripped by fear. This is depicted very skillfully by the referential framework. Asgar Hussein uses characteristically Sri Lankan imagery and phenomena. Simon’s fear is given below in the referential framework that is appropriate to Sinhala villagers:
The road ahead was narrow and stretched endlessly, twisting like a snake at certain places…..Simon gripped the bars of the pushcart tighter and increased his pace. Something was gnawing at his mind. Something dark and sinister. And then he realized it! That evening, an hour or so before going to sleep, he had eaten some fried pork at a friend’s place.
He had heard many tales about how fried foods lured demons.
Simon’s psychology is well shown through including a four-line mantra in the story. Other Sri Lankan English writers have included such verses in English stories but their code-switching to another language at great length has resulted in a contrived effect. Hussein’s use of code-switching on the other hand is short and appropriate, building up effectively his referential framework.
Asgar Hussein’s craft in short-story writing is sometimes weak, where the organization of the longer stories could have been tightened and the number of incidents reduced. However, I would commend the story The Wedding as excellently crafted, generating a wonderfully comic view of inter-ethnic relationships. The situation is a wedding between a Muslim groom and a Burgher bride. The ethnic groups are not, with great delicacy, named, but are implied by the names of the characters – bride Sharon Shokman, groom Ahmed Hassan, cousins Hans and his Gang, uncle Hadji Omar and his sisters-in-law, the Women in Black. Inter-ethnic misunderstandings and prejudices are hilariously enacted, as illustrated below:
The lowering of her head also exposed the Gang to her little nephew, who now saw the youth with long hair and earrings. The child began prancing excitedly, pointing and shouting, “Look dada, look at that auntie uncle! Look at that auntie uncle!”
His father began sweating under his suit, and shook him by the shoulders.
“Sshhh, behave yourself, or the baiyas will take you away.”
Just then two of the Women in Black passed by, and the boy fell very silent, an
unspeakable terror filling his eyes.
In summary, I am sure you will enjoy many a laugh when you read The Mirror of Paradise. You will also experience good Sri Lankan English writing which has turned ordinary situations of Sri Lankan society artfully into good Sri Lankan English literature. And on a very significant note, you will encounter a relatively new writer using a new genre to analyse human nature with confidence and great skill.
(The reviewer Prof. Siromi Fernando was formerly the Professor of English, University of Colombo. She is a renowned academic whose current research focuses on Sri Lankan English).