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“Plumeria” –a story of ‘alternatives’ and ‘alterity’.

By Dilshan Boange
The piece of short fiction titled “The Plumeria Tree” by Parvathi Solomons Arsanayagam which
appeared in the Montage edition of 5th December 2010 resonated well in its theme with part of
the “Cultural Scene” editorial by Indeewara Tilakaratne that week, which opened a discussion on
‘post-conflict literature’ being the more appropriate terming for literature that deals with the
armed conflicts that Sri Lanka as a nation has gone through in its Post-colonial era of
Independence. The story of “The Plumeria Tree” brings out strong overtones of the impact of
conflict on society at large which the reader is made to view through the vantages of the Shan
family during a night of heightened security in Colombo.

The craft of language

One of the striking features of the text (of the short story) is that it was a narrative of captivating
imagery that the reader encounters at the outset, written in a manner that brings a richness in its
language form. The detail with which the author paints the picture of the garden of the
guesthouse which is the significant setting for the story to unfold, has a style of the 19th century
realist approach in narrative form more than the postmodern manner of a very basic description
that keeps it minimal (at times) to leave the reader with space to ‘imagine’ and create a picture of
his own in his mind as the story progresses. The sense of dreaminess seeps in along the
descriptions of the garden which captures a poetic element playing on the beauty of imagery.
And a notable feature in the language technique of the narrative is that there is a shift from the
form of the ‘tense’ as the story progresses to its end. The story is told mainly in the past tense as
is the usual choice with majority of fiction writers, but a shift to the simple present and present
progressive verb tense occurs notably from the point where the Shans return to the guesthouse
after attending the poetry reading, amidst fears of an insurgency that jeopardizes the well being
of civilians, and sits down to relax over tea.

The shift to the simple present and progressive verb tense displays a craft of lyrical writer’s such
as Michael Ondaatje whose works carry a notable trait of this verb tense which is termed ‘lyric
tense’ by certain academic classifications. This use of elements that textures a lyrical quality to
the story provides a quality of clam and sedated tonalities that pervade through the text. Though
the story thematically brings out foci on the harshness of armed conflicts –from the leftist
insurgencies to the separatist conflict that raged on here for thirty years, one gets the distinct
feeling that it is very much a scenario that does not hold a great immediacy as events or incidents
of great violence. It is very much a glimpse into the past and a reference point with a snapshot
discursive through a series of images that are very much part of the tonal canvas founded on the
serenity of the garden setting.
Alterity

The sense of ‘otherness’ brought out rather pronouncedly through the author’s choice of ethnic
classifications. The Shans aren’t a part of Sri Lanka’s major ethno-religious segment. They
would therefore have certain perspectives shaped by socio-political affectations which the text
may provide windows to. While there may be such ‘cultural otherness’ by virtue of the Shan
family’s ethnicity, their fears and apprehensions in the wake of social unrest that spirals to armed
insurgencies speaks very much of the common human emotions that affect persons regardless of
ethno-religious grounds. However it may be telling from a point of ‘class’ of how the Shan
family and the milieu they represent could be read. It must be borne in mind the armed leftist
insurgencies of ’71 and ’89 were on grounds of fighting a ‘class struggle’. And to both these
events the text makes direct references. And therefore one may raise the question of whether the
text provides a ground to view the matter of the leftist insurgencies from a perspective of class as
well as ‘cultural otherness’? Another figure of alterity may be found in the foreign ‘visitor’ who
joins the Shans for tea at the guesthouse. She is very much the ‘alien’ in the Sri Lankan context
and fits the space of the cultural ‘other’ more prominently than the protagonist family. And on
top of the cultural otherness she is posited with, the foreign woman’s past occupation as a
dishwasher in a hotel in Canada (presumably), which explicitly makes her one of the
economically exploited, probably makes her the ‘other’ in respect of class basis as well when in
the presence of the Shans who very much seem belong to middle class citizenry in Sri Lanka.

‘Alternatives’

In conjunction with the theme of alterity what runs complimentary to it is the idea of
‘alternatives’ that is embodied in the ‘plumeria tree’ concept. What seems to be an arbitrary
naming of the frangipani or ‘araliya’ as plumeria by the foreign woman (who is later revealed as
Canadian in nationality) builds on the Shakespearean idea –‘a rose by any other name’. It is
interesting to note that the armed conflicts referred to in the text were perpetrated by movements
that envisioned an ‘alternative’ to the existing status quo. The multiplicity of an object’s identity
from altering vantages woven around the ‘plumeria tree’ illustration that the story latterly
develops seems very much a statement about how to accept ‘difference’.

As a story in the era of post-conflict Sri Lanka Parvathi S. Arsanayagam’s short story seems to
reflect on the harshness of violence on the civilian psyche from a viewpoint that may not be
living in the very midst of fiery violence itself but very much affected by it. And this undeniable
impact shows that memories formed on such experiences, regardless of how time lapses leaves
questions that linger unanswered.

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