Speak, Memory

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When half-remembered stories from the past become shadowy foundations of the present

What Lies Between Us | Nayomi Munaweera | Pan Macmillan | Pages 320 | Rs 499

WHAT LIES BETWEEN US is a patchwork of memories. These are dark, distant and ragged impressions of childhood viewed through a twisted adult prism. It is a vision of the ‘before’ where the ‘after’ seeps in to fill the empty spaces like moss in between old cracks. Nayomi Munaweera’s latest book is a deep exploration of the psyche and its deep-rooted fissures that lie seething under an outwardly calm surface. It is powerful in its telling of an unravelling life. It is also the detailed anatomy of a crime—right from the inception to its terrible denouement.

Munaweera’s unnamed narrator is a young woman, both a victim and perpetrator of something unspeakable, and her story is as much a riveting confessional as it is a tortured lament of a lost innocence. In the present, she is imprisoned in a white cell, bereft of a family, a home, and a name. And it is from this vantage point that she enters into her past.

The narrative is divided into her different life stages. We are first introduced to her as Baby Madame, a prepubescent Sri Lankan girl belonging to a fairly wealthy Sinhala Buddhist household in Kandy. This is the name that she has been given by Samson, the family’s man Friday. Her childhood is one of simple pleasures gleaned from their rambling old house with its ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ dominions. The inside is the realm of the women—her old cook Sita and her Amma, with her delicate temperament and tempestuous moods that even a child has learnt to gauge. Her father is a background fixture in his study with his glass of arrack in hand. He is part of the grownup world where Baby is a bystander. The outside is the magical realm of their lush and humid tropical garden. Together with Samson, her days are spent in carefree pleasures like picking frogspawn off their overgrown lotus pond, eating sun-ripened guavas and wandering among the hibiscus flowers. However, even in this ‘childhood brimful of river swimming and schoolgirl friendship’, darkness lurks around the corner. It is just like those perfect days that become harbingers of a dark monsoon with the power to transform an idyllic garden into a place fecund with danger. The same sense of impending doom infuses Baby Madame’s life and the closer she comes to attaining womanhood, there is a wound that waits to be opened.

Unlike her first book, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Munaweera’s Kandy is a universe protected from the trouble brewing in the north and the east. Here, in the world of convent schools, children’s games, gossip and parties where adults eat, drink, and dance the baila, the war is far away, something ‘that happened to other people’. In this narrative, the war is the internal war, the war that is played out within the body. The trauma of abuse and the splinters it leaves behind is no less devastating than the greater war of men, guns and politics.

Even as the plot changes course and the action moves from Kandy to northern California, the asvaha or evil eye that Amma has tried to ward off throughout her life seems to catch up with her. In this new world, home is cast as an imaginary haven. But in the case of Amma and her daughter, home is a thing to be feared. Even as they form a coven of four with Amma’s sister Mallini and her daughter Dharshi, their world is far from safe. They are always held ransom to a male- dominated society, even though the men always inhabit the peripheries. This is a story of mothers and daughters, of their deep bonds and equally deep betrayals.

Munaweera also fits in the loneliness and dissonance in foreign lands as well as the exile’s burden of perpetually fitting in. These tangential issues are part of the pieces that make up the protagonist’s memory maze. These bits of reality flit in and out of her consciousness as she marches through life taking turns as a child, a wife, and a mother

This is a book about fractured identities but it is also about how we identify and name people and things, and in doing so, we bring down the anvil of judgement hard and strong. The final naming is a glimpse of the albatross that she carries around her neck for life.

In the spaces, silences and secret valleys that exist between people there are truths, judgements passed, and vindication received. These unspoken half-remembered stories of the past are shadowy foundations for the present and it is on this unstable ground that the lives of Baby Madame, her daughter, her Amma, her Thatha, and Samson are stacked. One gentle nudge and they all fall down.

This is a book that must be read if only to acknowledge the unspoken secrets and memory burdens that we all carry, sometimes to the very end.