Smriti Daniel

Radhika Philip: Saved by the Book

In The Hindu, Writers on July 10, 2014 at 7:13 am

Radhika Philip was crying when she wrote the first page of Reyna’s Prophecy, and she cried again when she wrote the last. “And it’s a happy book!” she says now laughing. We are sitting down to Radhika’s very first interview about her debut novel. Published by Harper Collins, Reyna’s Prophecy is a work of fantasy set in modern Sri Lanka; among the very first the island has produced, it has already inspired great reviews. Our heroine, Reyna – impossibly strong willed yet wildly gifted – is born to fulfil a prophecy and her destiny is to save the Kingdom. However, well before Reyna could complete her quest, she had already saved her author.

Radhika wrote the book at a time when she felt her life had fallen apart. She was on the losing side of a battle with her personal demons when she remembers watching her young daughter begin a conversation with a crow (unlikely as it sounds, she has witnesses to back her up.) She remembers thinking, “‘What if I’m too focused on the physical? What if I’m missing something?’ There was so much beauty in that tiny interaction.” It’s a moment that she went on to immortalise in her book and it’s also an explanation for why someone who isn’t a fan of fantasy became the author of a fantasy novel. Radhika doesn’t shy away from confessing to her ignorance of the genre and it soon becomes clear that this unapologetic frankness is very much her style.

In fact the author’s business-like approach to writing this novel is as startling as it was successful. She began simply by Googling ‘how to write a novel’ and then determinedly set about surpassing the daily recommended writing quota of 5,000 words. A successful business woman, she is better known as the one time Director of Business Development & Legal at Investor Access Asia and now the creative director at LT PRO, a media production company for whom she also edits the Sri Lanka based Life Times magazine. It’s revealing that when she talks about her plots for the next two books, she refers to them as “business plans.” However, Harper Collins isn’t quibbling with whatever Radhika chooses to call her synopsis – they’ve already optioned the next two books in the series.

Radhika Philips.

As with many other first time authors, Radhika has poured herself into this book. In Reyna’s housebound mother Karina, Radhika sees herself as she was when she began writing the book – a woman trapped by her own fears. She certainly has more than one thing in common with her bright eyed heroine. For starters they were both quite a handful as children, clever with finely honed rebellious instincts.

Radhika grew up in Colombo, the daughter of Tamil father and Sinhalese mother. During the tumult of the 1983 riots, her parents decided to send her into boarding abroad. Some of those experiences are going to find their way into the second book in the planned trilogy. The tale itself will only grow “darker” as our protagonists become older and consequently more aware of a world fraught with perils.

Still while we wait for the next instalment, Reyna’s Prophecy makes for cheerful company. Our heroine is born into a happy, if eccentric, family and spends her childhood surrounded by a coterie of animals that she can talk to. From the barbed wisdom of Magenta the crow to the strength she finds in the company of the elephant Maxi, Reyna is allowed to mature into her powers while the world is kept at bay. But when Reyna grows up, the circle of protection develops cracks and the book is suddenly at its most interesting. Fantasy and fact collide, as Radhika yanks her heroine out of the safety of wealth and privilege and into a Sri Lanka still rent apart by conflict. On the streets of Colombo, an LTTE bomb explodes too close for comfort and later Reyna is challenged to fight for those she loves best. Like so many Sri Lankan authors before her, Radhika also finds herself unable to leave the tsunami out of fiction. When it comes crashing into the coastline of the island, it robs Reyna not just of her friends but becomes, in a sense, the harbinger of childhood’s end.

Reyna isn’t the only player on the board. There’s her brother Raj (who they’re about to discover has his own part to play in the prophecy) and the possibility of romance between Reyna and her childhood friend Jacob has already set a few hearts a flutter but Radhika advises her readers to not hold their breath – “I can’t imagine writing romantic fiction. I would likely vomit. Besides, Reyna can’t afford to lose focus if she is to save the world!”

It’s appropriate then that the animals may just outnumber the human protagonists. In a scene set in Yala, one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful national parks, Reyna encounters Sri Maximus, the ruler of the Kingdom. Their conversations confront some of the challenges that wildlife conservationists have been struggling with for decades. Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity has long been under siege; as tourism booms, animals in national parks are on the run from buses overflowing with rowdy visitors; poaching remains an issue while roads and poor infrastructure have threatened the integrity of protected lands. But its Radhika’s decision to imbue her animal characters with intelligence and wisdom that has most resonated with one man.

Rukshan Jayewardene wears many hats including Chairman of the Wilderness & Protected Areas Foundation and Vice President of the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society – he also fact checked the book for Radhika. “Today few would doubt that many birds and mammals in particular are intelligent, are able to make decisions, and have individual personalities and emotions,” he said at the press conference that launched the book, adding, “One has to be brave or prescient or both, to write a novel such as this, because unlike in the popular genre of magical fantasy fiction, much of what Radhika writes about is becoming the real life experience of several people who work closely with animals.”

Certainly, it has been Radhika’s own experience. A single parent, she and her daughter have many pets and among them is an Alsation named Richard Parker with a gift for rescuing birds. If you recognize the name, the chances are you’re familiar with Life of Pi – the one ‘fantasy’ book Radhika has read and loved. She’d like to think that Reyna’s Prophecy and Life of Pi have something in common.

In Yann Martell’s extraordinary book, a young survivor of a shipwreck claims to survive his ordeal aboard a life raft in the company of a tiger named Richard Parker. In the end, whether the tiger really existed or not is uncertain – the reader is allowed to choose what to believe. “That book helped me heal,” says Radhika now, explaining that she feels her novel has the same message. “I understood that Richard Parker is the triumph of the human spirit. I wanted people to understand that not all is as you think it is. There’s actually something much bigger, much more beautiful than you are and you can easily belong to it.”

Published in The Hindu on 5 July, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Radhika Philip. 




Conor Nixon and Tilak Hewagama: A Day At Goddard

In Researchers, Scientists on July 10, 2014 at 7:08 am

I never anticipated being quite so enthralled by the sight of a man vacuuming a spotless floor. It’s not just what he’s wearing – a white coverall with a hood – but the whole room around him. There’s nothing here in the way of interior décor – the world’s largest clean room is all function. Nestled inside the NASA Goddard Space Centre, High Bay is 1.3 million cubic feet of impeccably pristine space.

9,000 square feet of HEPA filters make up an entire wall, through which some one million cubic feet of air is circulated every minute. All this so no dust will settle on the enormous golden hexagons parked on a two storey platform mere feet away from the window of the observation room. To many astronomy buffs, the chance to see the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) being built would be deeply thrilling stuff. For astrophysicist Dr.Tilak Hewagama, this is simply where he goes to work.

Named after the father of modern rocket propulsion in the United States, the NASA Goddard Space Centre in Maryland isn’t the easiest place to get to, but Tilak makes the trip every other day from his home in Silver Springs. Even the most determined visitors seldom make it past the visitor centre and into the buildings beyond. To do so, I’ve had to apply for security clearance weeks in advance as well as complete courses on IT security and undergo GSFC-Hazard Communication Training online. However, I’m now a designated science collaborator and ridiculously pleased about it. Not least because of this opportunity to get up close and personal with JWST, hailed as the scientific successor to the venerable, much beloved Hubble Space Telescope.

With 72-foot long sunshield the size of a tennis court and a 21-foot mirror, JWST is due to launch in 2018, says Tilak, pointing to the models of the telescope displayed in the waiting area. He notes that JWST’s mirrors get their distinctive look from a thin covering of gold, which is itself protected by another layer of glass, optimising the instrument for infrared light. Seven times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, this instrument will allow us to look back 13 billion years to see the ‘first light’ of the universe. Stationed 1.5 million kilometres away from our planet, poised at one of the five Lagrangian points, it will be a giant; the largest space telescope ever launched. It’s a pity, we won’t be there to see it deploy.

Delivered all folded up like an origami artwork in a payload capsule of an Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket, JWST will unfurl gracefully out of its metal cocoon. (It’s why NASA hiring the voice of Optimus Prime to narrate one of their promotional videos was an inspired choice.) Its fuel storage capacity is expected to allow it to function for only a decade but it might be even less considering its many, unique operational challenges. For instance the side which faces the sun will reach temperatures of 85°C while the section which houses the mirrors and scientific instruments will be a freezing-233°C. Needless to say, lots of things could go wrong.

In recent months, NASA has created teams that are dreaming about how best to use the time they have with the telescope. Scientist Conor Nixon is the head of the group that’s making the case for a moon. He’s an old hand here at Goddard where’s he’s worked for over 14 years on the flagship Cassini-Huygens programme. The spacecraft, whose spectacular images of Saturn have shown us the planet in all its incredible beauty, has also allowed us to explore not just the gas giant itself but the extraordinary system of rings and moons that circle it. For his part, Conor has long been interested in one moon in particular.

Titan is absolutely fascinating for more than one reason – for one, liquid lakes exist on its surface, except these are made of methane. The methane even evaporates and forms clouds, plummeting back to the surface as rain. Second only to Jupiter’s Ganymede in size, Titan is bigger than all of Saturn’s 61 other moons combined. My very favourite fact is that a specific combination of thick atmosphere,

low gravity and just the right surface pressure mean that if someone strapped a pair of well-constructed wings onto you, you could, in theory at least, fly. Conor seems much more intrigued by the possibility that they could find the precursors of life while digging around there. “Some people think Titan is similar to the prebiotic Earth long ago, when the molecules were forming the basis of life,” he says. What would we find if we sent back even more sophisticated spacecraft?

Though it may not be able to do much more, Cassini can at least beat the Webb on some fronts. It can get much closer to Titan for starters, says Conor. When it comes to the Webb, “monitoring weather will probably be the most likely application,” he says, “it will be difficult to predict what happens until the telescope is actually launched. The telescope is a general purpose tool, and so it will be used for many, many things.”

Now, with anticipation rising for the Webb’s launch, Cassini is scheduled to meet a grisly, if magnificent end sometime in 2017.One can’t help but feel a pang for the faithful spacecraft which sent us those images of lightning storms on Jupiter, the plumes of liquid water erupting out of the surface of the moon Enceladus, and that awe-inspiring image of Earth as seen from Saturn. It has shown us such unimaginable beauty. But Cassini still has more to offer.

“The end of the mission is that we’re actually going to impact into Saturn,” says Conor. Using his board and a marker, he traces an orbit that will take Cassini closer than it’s ever been before, right inside the rings of Saturn, eventually ending in a suicide run into the heart of the gas giant, where crushing pressure awaits. “As you can imagine, this is going to be a very interesting part of the mission. We’re going to be so close to the rings, the pictures will be spectacular and also we’re going to be able to directly sample this region to find out what’s in there, actually sniff the gas, and measure the magnetic field. It’s going to be amazing.”

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 22 June, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. 

Jean Arasanayagam: A Wanderer Through the Landscapes of Time

In Academics, Poets, Writers on July 10, 2014 at 7:04 am

To anyone who knows her, it is clear Jean Arasanayagam is her own most penetrating, most persistent interrogator. In a dance that her readers are familiar with, Jean asks the questions and then finds the answers in her poetry and prose, in fact and fiction. This is nowhere more evident than in latest collection of verse. Intended to be part of a trilogy, ‘Genesis 1: The Legacy’ brings us over 20 poems from one of the island’s most beloved voices. In them the poet confronts the ghosts of her ancestors, seeing in the mirror the face of colonizer and colonized, she asks, ‘What do I call myself, what do I cling on to,/ why do I, centuries later search for the roots of this mixed identity the blood from the melting/ pot of the nations, poured into my veins flowing/ through my arteries, tinting my complexion?’

In an intimate introduction, Jean describes this collection as an extension of her “never ending search for identity…a self-questioning and self-investigation that is continuous…” Jean’s gaze is determinedly unflinching, her resistance to “exoticizing” or “valorising” her ancestors set in cement. She begins as she means to go on when early in her introduction she notes with ironic amusement that “there is a cut-off point where a relationship that has yielded progeny does not reveal the name or race (mixed, native or otherwise) of the mother – that all important but unknown secret cipher which generated all those future bloodlines.”

In records and letters, wives and mothers were variously described as “a Burgher lady who died in childbirth” or “most probably a lady of European descent….” Jean tells the Sunday Times over an email from her home in Kandy. Still, in one of the most moving poems in the collection Jean finds room to honour her own mother whom she describes as “a mix, delightfully formed, of several cultures.” She remembers the work of her mother’s hands, her “be-ringed fingers” kneading the dough for breudhers, preparing transparently thin pannekojes and a hundred other exquisite treats. “With her alive, there were no days of penury/her generous heart gave us all she had…” Again and again, Jean is compelled to return to her mother’s deathbed in verse, drawn there by “a burning need” for forgiveness, by the remnants of an old dream.

As she strays between the boundaries of the real and the illusory, Jean acknowledges freely that her quest demands more than a strict adherence to historical record. “I found that I am history and have become my own witness, recorder, documenter and even self-creator of a distinctive identity—I can use not only factual knowledge but also create my own fictions and I rove, a wanderer and traveller through the landscapes of the centuries.”

At the beginning of ‘An Invasive Inheritance’, she asks “What’s this inheritance I am always talking of?” Her answers are necessarily part fiction, but they are engagingly and gamely fleshed out nevertheless, full of empathy for those long gone. ‘What do those people to whom I am allied/ however tenuously in my diluted bloodstream, /spend their guilders or rix dollars and stuivers on…’ Jean imagines state banquets, decanters of wine poured into glasses monogrammed with the insignia of the VOC but also the lives of common soldiers, ‘who would never return, never see their kith and kin again,’ or those who met their ends on ‘long tedious voyages, sick with scurvy/ or starvation, ill-paid, without predictable/ futures, flotsam and jetsam washed up on the/shores of colonialism.’

But one man survives to makes his presence felt in the collection. When she first began her “historical sleuthing,” Jean was able to find interesting details about the French part of her ancestry – Jean Francoise Grenier left behind a son Francois Grenier, who was named a ‘ward of the state’ after the death of his mother and the departure of his father on a military mission. As in the poem about her mother, Jean uses food as beautiful illustration of life; a metaphor for change, resilience and intermingling. ‘What did Francois eat here?’ she asks, imagining not brioche and croissants but food flavoured with the coveted local spices and salt bartered from the Kandyan king’s territory. To Jean food is politics, history and community and so she imagines it being to Francoise Grenier.

“I was able to come upon many facts about his entry into the VOC during the latter part of the eighteenth century,” Jean says now. “My maternal grandmother was the great granddaughter of Jean Francois, Charlotte Camilla was one of eight siblings. All this information is not only documented in the DBU (Dutch Burgher Union) journals but there are also accounts from the Grenier’s Family Album, the Wapenheraut(the armorial Herald) as well as Joseph Grenier’s (my grandmother’s first cousin) autobiography ‘Leaves from my Life’.”

The last is among Jean’s treasured possessions. It is counted among the tangible and visible artefacts inherited from her family, the most important of which she considers her family home. “Within the house, hard fought for and eventually establishing the family name there (it is named Jansz house) do remain valuable artefacts,” says Jean. “There have been tremendous losses with time.Irretrievable losses, which can never ever be replaced.” Artefacts have migrated with family members but Jean has saved letters and books, some porcelain, furniture and china as well as the Solomons family Bible with genealogies. “I wish I had preserved my mother’s Singer sewing machine which dated from the 1920s perhaps,” she says, “but I just gave it away, a Kodak camera, a gramophone, HMV wireless, jewellery, furniture, porcelain – even a wedding dress of a precious friend bought in England, the marriage was in 1940.” Jean sees all these artefacts as having played an important part in “contextualizing” her identity.

Though she initially struggled to wrestle the complicated narratives that emerged from a lifetime of such investigations into the structure of a trilogy she found it taking shape over time. “For me the entire project was taking a fascinating turn and I was going deeper and deeper into what would become my own Testament—contemporaneous with its witnessing, recording and documentation,” she writes. For part 2, she is considering publishing ‘Waiting for the Call’ a play that she ‘resurrected,’ and‘re-edited’; so that it could become a bridge between the segments of Genesis.

“As for the final part of the Trilogy “Tryptich” I have constructed a vast architectural literary edifice which will embody Genesis One and Genesis Two – an epic finale… it will be detailed, comprehensive and has emerged from my own life, experiences, mindset, imagination,” promises Jean. Like the letters and books that fuel her self-examination, she imagines her own work will become an artefact, her family inheriting her questions and answers after she is gone. “It is not just self-knowledge alone I am seeking but its widening, widespread extensions that will reach those who want to know.”

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 15 June, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Jean Arasanayam. 


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