A Review of Su Dharmapala’s Saree
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in the Sunday Island on June 8 2014
Saree is, first of all, an entertainment, and a very entertaining one at that. I can visualise it as an engrossing television miniseries. Most of the characters are memorable and vividly drawn. There are many of them. One could amuse oneself by trying to decide which actors would be best suited to the different roles. There is much opportunity here for thespian employment.
Like one of the great 19th century novels, the plot travels over a number of locations, from rural Sri Lanka in the early 1980s, to contemporary Melbourne. There are a number of coincidences and chance meetings, such as one might find in Dickens or Fielding. The plot is complex and, like the eponymous garment, expertly woven. There are six, almost discrete, stories, linked by the saree of the title, and by a number of the characters, over a number of years. Ms Dharmapala’s technical virtuosity is such that in Saree the portmanteau structuring device does not irritate and one soon forgets about the scaffolding as the lives of the characters speed one from page to page.
Different characters tell us what is special about this particular saree. “It is a bride’s saree. But it is neither gold nor white. The silk is so pure I have never seen anything like it. See those are real sapphires along the hem, and gold thread makes up the peacock’s feathers!” “The valuer counted over three hundred sapphires alone in the peacock..and the rubies used for the eyes are worth five thousand dollars. The thread used to embroider the bottom edge is dipped in gold..there’s about a kilogram of twenty-four carat gold in the saree.” Although it was heavy, the weight was so evenly distributed that it flowed like a silk ribbon in the air.
The garment sometimes seems to have magical powers. A Muslim trader says: “Just before I bought it, there had been terrible trouble between the Hindus and the Muslims here in Lucknow. Lootings. Riots….Ever since I put her saree in my shop window, not a single thug has darkened my doorstep”. Sarojini looked at the saree: “It was fluidity and beauty married into one. And it was delicately finished too. There wasn’t a single thread out of place and every stitch of embroidery was perfect.” She thought of a favourite poem describing how the Ganges brought grace and knowledge to all of humanity through her life-giving force. When Sarojini draped the saree on herself, “She knew she had control over her life. Unlike the many thousands of women who had no control of their sarees or their lives, Sarojini had control”.
Sarojini’s invocation of the great river is apt. The prologue of the novel is named for the river goddess Saraswatee (somewhat similar to Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake). Saraswatee is the patroness of knowledge, arts and science, and culture. “Come now, let us follow just a few of her threads as she weaves her endless saree of life, for we all start at one end and finish at another. We are all connected in this garment, threads on her celestial loom of humanity”.
There are elements of Mills and Boon when characters, whose plainness is strongly depicted, manage to win the hearts of individuals who are more conventionally attractive than they are. Most dismiss Nila “for her dumpy figure, unfashionably dark skin and the odd-shaped eyes that sat on her face at angles to each other”. Her ne-er-do-well brother Manoj says: “No matter how you dress a pig… A pig is still a pig”. Couples, who are determinedly antagonistic, see the error of their ways and fall madly in love. Cynics may carp at these features but tears crept unbidden to my misanthropic old eyes. One could argue that odder matches occur in real life.
I am anxious not to spoil the plot for readers but here is what the official publicity for the book says: “Nila wasn’t born beautiful and is destined to go through life unnoticed until she becomes a saree maker. As she works, Nila weaves into the silk a pattern of love, hope and devotion, which will prove to be invaluable to more lives than her own. From the lush beauty of Sri Lanka, ravaged by bloody civil war, to India and its eventual resting place in Australia, this is the story of a precious saree and the lives it changes forever.”
Some have accused the author of racism. There are, indeed, many derogatory comments about Sri Lankan Tamils in the book. Manoj excuses his own unemployment: “Every time I apply for a job it gets given to some Tamil bugger. Someday someone is going to have to tell the blady bastards that this is our country!” “’Some lads in Negombo doused the Hindu pusari with petrol and set him on fire.’ ‘They should give those lads a medal, Mervan laughed”.
Perceptive readers will notice that it is the characters, not the author, who make these racist remarks. The author puts these remarks into the mouths of characters of whom she clearly disapproves. She has said: “I will not stand back and gloss over inconsistencies or hypocrisies within those communities. That would not be writing authentically or honestly and I would not do that to myself or to the people who read my work.”
The author is not afraid to cover some of the serious issues that have plagued Sri Lanka and continue to contribute to current disharmony. She is aware of the contribution of the Jaffna caste system to the dissatisfactions of Sri Lankan Tamil youth. The Tamil, Vannan, starts off as an opponent of the Tamil Tigers and Tamil separatism: “How are they going to unite the Tamil nation when the various castes aren’t allowed to use each other’s toilets? I can see it now. The great revolution brought to its knees by the fact soldiers can’t crap in the same toilet?” Vannan tells his Sinhalese friend Mahinda: “My parents will never consent to a marriage with a Karawe. The fisherman’s caste! My mother would die!” His girl friend’s father opposes the relationship too: “We don’t grub about with sod-busting Vellalars. Stupid, that is what they are. Dirt for brains”.
Even today, colonisation is an issue. A Tamil grievance still current is that there is there is allegedly a deliberate plan to alter the country’s demographics by settling Sinhalese in Tamil-dominated areas. “She and her husband had come up to the inhospitable north in the 1960s, answering the call of the socialist government then in power. They had truly believed like many others, that it was only by supporting the drought-stricken north that a unified Ceylon could be built”.
As I said at the outset, this is an entertainment but one with a serious purpose. There is some sense of resolution at the end of this complex narrative, hinting at some optimism about a resolution to the tensions in Sri Lanka itself today. Raju, a Tamil, is the victim of a horrific attack by Sinhalese. Nevertheless, he says: “It was Sinhalese people who saved me…If it had not been for the monks from the Paramananda Vihara, I would have died…Do not hate all Sinhalese. Stupidity and cruelty is characteristic of all humanity and does not belong to any one race alone”.
In an interview, the author has asked: “How was a once cohesive community ripped apart? How did lovers, friends and families deal with the brutal truth of being one or either side of the fence? More importantly in Saree—I tried to explore what healing from brutality could look like…Is there redemption in a person’s intent rather than the outcome of their actions? And even if someone did something so reprehensible—who are we to make judgment when we only know a part of that person?..Even the most hardened soul will have felt some sort of affection or craved touch at some time in their lives. And inherent in love is hope. Hope that that which we love will lead us to a better place. Hope that loneliness and sadness is at an end.”
Saree by Su Dharmapala is published by Simon and Schuster (Australia) and is available from Amazon: