The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 28, 2002

Waiting for the moon to shine, but in wane
R.P. Chaddah

If the Moon Smiled
by Chandani Lokuge
Penguin, Price: Rs 200.

IN the present times, Indian diaspora writing is of immense interest to students of post-colonial studies. Now it is so widely spread that it has generated interesting cultural reactions. In the past few years, Sri Lankan diaspora has also been taking shape. The writers from Sri Lanka till date are Michael Ondaatje settled in Canada; Indran Amirthanyagam in India and Chandani Lokuge, the writer of the novel under review who lives in Australia. These writers have been on the literary scene for quite some time.

Lokuge, the teacher-writer, started as a short-story writer way back in 1993 and her short fiction has been widely anthologised. The novel under review If the Moon Smiled is her debut novel. It is a poignant tale of the powerful bonds that shape or mis-shape a woman’s life. The bare-bones of the story concern a young woman in Sri Lanka who finds herself entrapped in a loveless marriage. The husband to be wants to make his fortune in Australia, the land of opportunity. They do migrate to Australia and they become parents of a boy and a girl. Their growing up in the open atmosphere brings in its wake problems and more problems, because they want to live a life of their own, free of the conservative and superstitious father and a weak-kneed mother. Manthri, the mother, sees all this happen before her very eyes and she is unable to stem the tide of the breaking relationships. The writer has unnecessarily made his heroine in the mould of a 1950s character.


The story revolves around the thoughts, feelings, emotions and aspirations of a young girl coupled with hopes, desires and longing, like any other young girl to get an understanding husband, when the time comes. All those growing up years and pangs of adolescence are given the go-by when she is married off at a very young age and that too to a man with a suspicious nature. For no rhyme or reason, he plans to go to Australia to make some sort of happy life for his children. Once there in Australia he loses all interest in their upbringing. The son becomes a drug-addict and the daughter, self-witted and courageous enough to reject the marriage offer by parents, to live life on her own terms. The Sri Lanka connection is talked of only as a part of nostalgia or when the news of insurgency in Sri Lanka catches their eye in the newspapers.

Insurgency in Sri Lanka fiction is almost a character now. Mahendra, the nincompoop-like husband, suffers from all the Sri Lanka-Indian maladies. He believes in superstitions, horoscopes, Karma and blood stains on the bedsheet on bridal night. He also believes that if you meet a phantom ‘spit three times on the earth, so his words will have no malefic effect. Manthri cannot stand or understand her husbands daily insinuations. This is what disturbs her quotidian existence. She goes back to her parents in Sri Lanka so as restore faith in herself.

To keep oneself engrossed in this tale of a woman’s life, the writer gets ample help from short, pithy and poetic sentences which dot almost every page of the book. The first few pages give us a peep into the flora and fauna of Sri Lanka in stark detail, but the writer is not very aware of the sights and scenes of Australia. She is torn between an idyllic past in Sri Lanka, to her parents and childhood memories, to which she cannot return due to her mental illness, and a present that she cannot fathom. But her strength is that she never loses touch with those dreams, nor gives up her passionate attachment or enchantment.

Some poetic one-liners from the book leave an indelible impact on the reviewer’s mind. A few samplers: "With lidless eyes, she seduces sleep." "Pigments of men’s dreams are we, nothing but dreams." "They were nothing more than a social obligation to people who had been their friends." "Marriages started off dressed up in pearly white sequins and ended up stripped to bone."

"If the moon smiled" at her predicament or had it smiled then the world of the heroine would have been different, a bit happy and also a bit unpredictable. She was asking for the moon, but she did not get even moonshine in her short-long life. Life is a eerie saga of grief, sadness, loneliness given by bonds of blood.

"The house sleeps. But I sense movement. Restless spirits visit by night and reluctantly take leave with dawn. I am the silence of those who never sleep."