When A, B and C get together

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I read C+ several times with growing interest. Surath has based his narration on three young undergraduate girls at Colombo University. They represent three different layers of Sri Lanka’s middle class. Manasi or ‘C’ is the central character and through her the author sheds a bright light on the other two girls or rather the other two layers. Significantly, that light reflects on C too.

This strong beam of light exposes all the hypocrisies, inferiority and superiority complexes, pretentions, volatilities, jealousies and so on of the middle class. The first chapter, which would have been the preface of any other novel, summarises the contradictory nature that runs throughout the narration.

“Secrets of our saga are stuck within these pages; gone astray and unable to see an end within chapters, invisible in corners of phrases, gone upside down among sentence structures, being alone in empty space of words.”

As he has done in his previous work, Thee Ha Thaa, here also Surath uses situations to interpret the reality of human nature.

“At times people would not like to realise the truth as it is. Because that would take them out of their fictitious or imaginative dream world. In this story the reader is to draw the line between reality and fiction.”

The narration starts from the second chapter and it is not something arresting but a casual dialogue between two young girls. Nevertheless, there begins the conflict between the two friends and reveals the friction between these two layers.

Dil, the girl who came from suburban Down South represents the lowest among the three layers and is a leading figure in the university’s student politics. She is ambitious and aims to sneak into the next layer. She uses whatever available sources and resources she possesses to fulfil her desires. Once she says:

“….all males are the same. They might be thinking that they can exploit me, but it is I that exploit them. I drain their essence though they think that they drain my essence. I think that I would never be able to love a male.”

All the ambitions and desires of Dil and her determination to achieve those aims end in tragedy. It is not only her own tragedy but that of her two friends, Manasi and Muthu.

Is Dil a la Lady Macbeth?  Let us see one of the important themes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

=The destruction wrought when ambition goes unchecked by moral constraints.

=How their (the Macbeth couple’s) ambition makes them cross moral lines and leads to their downfall.

Although the context and content are totally different, Surath’s Dil behaves just like Lady Macbeth in realising her ambition.

Imagination and creating bases to support that imagination is the hardest task faced by an artist. Surath has created three strong characters as pillars to support in building up his imaginations. The challenge of using the female point of view by a male has been taken and it is breathtakingly successful. In Sinhala literature Karunasena Jayalath used this genre in several of his novels but has never tried the hard part of viewing males from a female point of view.  The second part of his novel Muted Heart too was in that form yet never shed a critical light on males. Surath, on the other hand daringly dissects and analyses male traits through two of his pillars; Manasi and Dil. 

He ridicules male traits in such a way I could not avoid thinking about Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Odour of Chrysanthemums.

People sharpen their instincts while going through difficulties and it is no wonder that Dil is the shrewdest of the three. She is the least privileged of the three. Her whole life has been a pretention but skilled enough to deceive not only the thug in her village but also media personnel in Colombo. Nevertheless, Dil is no match for forces in the middle class, corrupted environment in Colombo and she has to pay the price with her life. The style and rhythm of the narration to the point of winning the Star trophy has been sharply changed in line with the anti-climax.

The narrator, Manasi is the middle of the other two characters in every shade; social, cultural and economic. She once comparing herself with Dil states out her plus points; living in Colombo, ability to speak English, writing poems, higher social status and so on. Nevertheless, only at the final chapters is it revealed that Dil has deceived her too.

“C, I loved you more than my parents. I felt like you were a part of me. Long ago I told you as a joke that I like girls too. I know that feeling was the base for most of the things you had done for me… let you believe that lie… you had the security I needed. You gave me that security whether I appealed for it or not… I know how strongly you opposed my participation in Super Star” [Dil]

Manasi does not make any objection to Dil’s chattering and it implies a lot. Surath has developed Manasi’s character as a bunch of contradictions. She has no idea about her gender. Here I use the term ‘gender’ in a wider meaning; male, female, neutral, male in female body and female in male body. The university has been portrayed as a place with people of all sexual orientations and it is justifiable. There are heterosexuals as well LGBTQ+s.  

Sexual orientation is accepted as a natural phenomenon in advanced cultures and is placed on an axis. The axis starts with total heterosexuality and ends at total homosexuality. Normally people are placed on this axis according to their genetically developed orientations. Manasi, Dil and Muthu are placed at different coordinates but unlike on a linear axis, in the three dimensional world they cannot live separately but have to interact. Then arises the conflict.  

Surath has realised this situation and exposes all the dirt of that social strata without mercy and I love it!

I do not dare call Manasi a tragic heroine but her life is a tragedy albeit she pretends otherwise. She has no sympathy from her family except from her father who does not care about her behaviour. Surath justifies his mild behaviour due to being a Military Officer, making him the media man of the Army. Manasi loves Dil but no trace of sexuality can be seen other than pecking on cheeks. After kissing Muthu at a night club, remembering kissing Dil amidst the rag season to show off her disrespect for seniors, Manasi contemplates:

“Although I accuse Dil for every gossip about us, people who saw this incident might have given backing for those gossips. In that case saying ‘no smoke without a fire’ is true. Then am I the fire?”[Manasi]

She used to blame Dil for her bad mouth for spreading the gossip at university that Dil and Manasi were lesbians. Later on she realises the true situation gradually.

When a male batchmate tells them about the spreading of gossip about them being lesbians, Dil explodes:

“‘You tell those bastard eunuchs we are doing what we want. Say that no man here is competent enough for us to go to bed with. Are the men slandering us? Aren’t they the same men who behave like women? Bugger it’s a shame on even women’

‘We had to face those vagrant tales because of your wild mouth. You are also like them” says Manasi.

Duplicity! She loves Dil and her grudge against Muthu is nothing more or less than her jealousy of losing Dil’s love.

She aims a light beam to expose the traits of Dil, of middle class thinking and behaviour. Nevertheless, that beam reflects back to expose all the dubious traits of the middle class life and thinking of Manasi.

I would like to place Muthu as upper middle class not capitalist. Her father has earned his wealth during the construction craze that swept through the country from the late seventies with the accelerated Mahaweli Project, importing steel from South Africa. This is a lucrative business but they are not as developed as capitalists. Surath implies these facts letting us decide:

“In this story the reader is to draw the line between reality and fiction.”

In the Sri Lankan context there is no proper development of capitalism. The Europeans made some arrangements to change feudalism.  Nevertheless, they let survive the feudalist relations that were advantageous to them, intact. They created a fifth column to rule villages instead of introducing progressive social measures. When Independence was granted the feudalist leaders grabbed power and reintroduced most aspects of the feudalist system. Actually, industrialists such as the Wellawatta Mill owners too behaved like semi-feudalists. So, Muthu’s father is not in the capitalist class but is a new rich person without an industrial base who has earned a lot of money through the service sector. Their fantasy is to enjoy all the luxuries available and the provision of every need of their children.

If Muthu had been a medical or engineering student she might not have had this wide knowledge or civilised thinking. She is in a position to study for knowledge not to find a job and has made use of that opportunity to the full. Her behavioural patterns and traits reveal her sexual orientation. She loves Manasi although she came looking for Dil. She might have felt the sexual vibrations of Manasi, but Manasi living in confusion about her orientation and thinking Dil loves her sexually, takes Muthu as a challenge imposed between her and Dil. Without wasting many words Surath exposes Manasi’s mentality with her thinking.

When she tried to set Muthu as Dils’s best friend in a propaganda video it ended a disaster. Surath has created that incident very craftily to show the mentalities of most of the participants of his saga. Several other incidents lead to this situation; Manasi’s not so warm love affair has been broken. Warm or not, breaking a love affair is painful and Manasi expected some sympathy from Dil but she does not care that much and true to her nature she tries to push in Muthu to take the role of the best friend. Yet, Dil takes the opportunity to show Manasi her real place, in front of Muthu, and Manasi has realised it:

“‘You really are a radical poet, aren’t you? For you speaking to cheap TV programmes like Super Star, is something not done, ha? Is that why you wanted to send somebody else as a follower? Are you happy, now?’

I am sure Dil was always aware of my nature. During earlier times she would not talk to me like this. Super Star has made her a Star and I am just the friend of the star. If I would not accept that status I am nobody.”

Amidst all these Surath would not miss the chance to attack post modernists. Dil receives a Doberman puppy from Ashen as a gift. She has named it Zigzag.

“Ashen has been philosophically displaced. Perhaps he might have decided another name for the puppy already. Yet, Dil had no patience to look for the fiancé’s opinion. She wanted to create an inter connectivity among my favourite Slovenian philosopher, the puppy and me.”[Manasi]

Dil tries to reach the top of the world using everything she possesses including her talent and beauty as well as her cunning. She has a dark history. She is unstable. She has been sexually abused. That trauma has always been there but she tries to push it under the carpet. At the critical moment of her life she capitulates because those problems were not solved.

Sri Lanka has no proper counselling system to cater to young children. So Dil has to tell the story to Manasi, but that is under the influence of liquor!

At a campus trip when the girls want to have a drink Manasi used her home experience and prepared a Vodka Cocktail. As the daughter of a Brigadier General she has been exposed to an advanced layer of society than that of the other girls. As usual Surath uses situations to uncover secret nooks and corners of society. He depicts in detail the lives of Manasi’s father’s friends.

“My father had a friend called Sandun. When he was doped at our home parties he cried a lot. Then he would talk about his wife and her adventures of infidelity. He vows in Dutch courage to kill her whenever he catches her red handed. Yet, next day when he is sober he visits our home with his wife like a newly wedded couple… trying to pretend they are the most happily married couple in the world.”  

The aimless and clueless politics of student leaders and their readiness to exploit the popularity of Dil to win elections but reluctance to give proper place for females is vividly portrayed.

“There is a secret that isn’t revealed by student leaders. This student movement is just a penis movement. Never has a girl been a leader there and never would there be in the future as well. They need girls to slave for the leading revolutionaries… All the girls in the student movement too are like porn stars. Their job is to satisfy boys.”  

The childhood abuse Muthu faced is in a different form. All rich families keep domestic aides and they taking advantage of small kids is nothing new. Fortunately for Muthu she got the protection needed albeit from outside sources. She only has a vague memory of the incident.

Her upbringing in a wealthy atmosphere has shaped her ideology. She has attended one of the most posh girls’ schools in the City and then at university she is in the English Department where more opportunities avail for gaining knowledge. She probably must have attended elocution classes to gain the ability of Received Pronunciation. With all the drawbacks of lacking sufficient staff for the English Department these students are exposed to the world through literature. She is so beautiful even the inflexible Manasi could not resist loving her, secretly.

Muthu has understood Manasi well with sexual vibrations released from her. Manasi’s problem with Muthu is her jealousy for getting more attention from Dil. When asked Muthu says she has no idea whether she loves girls or not. That is true to the word. People take time to realise their own sexual orientation. Manasi too has no idea about her orientation.

Finally, the two friends have to get together after the tragic death of Dil. The realisation of Muthu’s real personality and charisma makes Manasi recognise her as a true friend.

“Muthu replied with confidence. I love the tough determination of intellectual decencies in the huge figure hidden inside that beautifully delicate frame and babyish passion. It is she who makes us a part of her life despite having everything to free from all these and spent a playful life. Now she won’t let go. I grasped her hand tightly.”

Suggesting settling down in England hints about their future expectations, because once before there have been ideas about lesbian marriages in England. 

Nevertheless, Surath stops the narration there allowing us to make our own decisions about the Pandora box he has gleefully opened.

By Kalyana Amaranayake