Sunday, April 18, 2004

Agonising quest to belong
Rashmi Kalia

Turtle Nest
by Chandani Lokuge. Penguin Books. Pages 241. Rs. 275.

Turtle NestWHEN an author models the life of her protagonist on her own life, then questions are inevitably raised about the autobiographical element in the novel. Turtle Nest tells of a young woman’s return from Australia, to the place of her birth, Sri Lanka, to uncover the truth about her real mother, Mala. The author, Chandani Lokuge, a lecturer in English and Director, Center for Postcolonial writing, Monash University at Australia, is herself a Sri Lankan emigrant. The novel is based on true events and is set in that region of Sri Lanka where the author’s mother was born. However, the author has been quick in pointing out that her novel is not autobiographical.

The novel began as a short story that was published in Sri Lanka and in the Penguin Anthology of Short Stories. The short story, which is now a chapter in the book, tells of a young boy named Priya who is sexually assaulted by a tourist. According to the author, "The book evolved out of the other characters in Priya’s family, which kept taking shape in my head."

The protagonist of the novel is, however, not Priya but Priya’s niece Aruni, who comes to Sri Lanka to learn about the life of her mother, Mala. Aruni lives in Australia with her natural father Mohan and his wife Neela. Aruni is born out of wedlock and is the result of a stray sexual encounter between Mala and Mohan. Tired of the silences and whispers that have surrounded her since childhood and the sense of alienation that she has always experienced at home, Aruni craves to belong. She wants to return to her own land and her own people but is oblivious of the fact that the process of belonging would be traumatic. "These my people, she thinks, digging her feet into the sand as far as they will go, her arms closing around herself in embrace-this my land, my home. But the water rushes in. it sucks away the sand around her feet and withdraws, leaving them uprooted, defenceless. She kicks at the sand aimlessly. She looks back".

In Sri Lanka, faced by the unrelenting silence of her Uncle, Priya, Aruni seeks the help of Simon, a man still in love with the memory of Mala. "Her mother belongs, has always belonged, to others. Would she never whisper to her as she did to these people who released their memory of her as if she belonged to them, exclusively?"

As Simon recounts disturbing facts about Mala’s life, Aruni identifies more and more with her mother. Sensuous, flirtatious and wild like her mother, Aruni flirts with not only the much older Australian at her hotel, Paul, but also with the lewd beach boys, Premasiri and his friends. However, unlike Mala who is exploited sexually and discarded by men, Aruni finds comfort in the arms of Paul. But so keen is Aruni’s desire to belong to her mother’s land and its people, that not only does she not resist her brutal gangrape by Premasiri and his friends but rather feels protected by them. "Did she begin to relax? Did she begin to feel protected at last by those to whom she wanted so much to belong?"

Turtle Nest is a disturbing novel of great intensity and piercing pain. The language of the novel is apt for its theme. Instead of having a smooth, linear flow, the narrative moves from episode to episode. The episodes do not follow a chronological pattern but are written in fragments.

Aruni may be very different from Manthri, the protagonist of Chandani Lokuge’s first novel, If the Moon Smiled, but in both the novels it is the female perspective that comes to the fore. The novel deals with the theme of cultural conflict, rootlessness and lost identity but the perspective is, most definitely, feminine. The novel speaks of the woman’s quest to belong, to someone, to some place. Simon voices the author’s perspective when he says, "Why must you always belong to someone or to someplace? Why can’t you find a home right inside yourself? A restfulness so private that no thief may enter it, where you can withdraw when you want to? It is enough for me, if I have that. I am free, to roam the seas if I want to. For this I give blessings."

Perhaps, the novel that talks of the quest for belonging is actually a warning of the dangers that accompany this quest. Is Aruni a fulfilled woman in the end or is she a physically and mentally shattered woman? All in all, a very intense and highly readable novel.