Smriti Daniel

Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Johann Peiris: On top of the world

In Mountaineers on June 17, 2016 at 2:46 pm

It’s been three years since anyone has made it to the summit of the world’s tallest mountain. But in May a young Sri Lankan woman climbed 8,848m up to stand on the roof of the world. Just 300m from the summit, her climbing partner was told he was running out of oxygen and would have to turn around. But just by making their audacious climb, Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Johann Peiris have inspired many. Thousands have followed their journey, funded their climb and rooted for them all the way. To have them back home safe feels like a gift in a month when Sri Lanka has had little else to celebrate.

Just days after their return from Everest, Jayanthi and Johann still bear the mark of the mountain. The Sun has turned them several shades darker. Each has one cheek that testifies to the ferocity of the wind and ice pouring off the north face of Everest – a small, vulnerable patch of skin between their oxygen mask and their goggles was exposed to the elements and is still bruised and scraped. They also look utterly exhausted.

Their triumphant press conference last week went on for hours. They have attained the level of fame where journalists want to share pictures of the two as babies on national television. And yet, they are still healing. Johann’s ‘scissor fingers’, the ones he relies on so much as a stylist, are covered in a thick bandage, and blackened by frostbite. The toes of his feet were mashed together and blood pressure built up, necessitating some terribly painful emergency first aid with a heated needle. Jayanthi, always petite, looks like she’s lost several kilograms too many. But her wide smile still bursts out as she recommends the ‘Everest weight loss diet’ and then cracks up at her own joke.

That sense of humour has to have come in handy in these last gruelling months. Before they could even attempt the summit, they had to make it through several rotations between the various camps that would help them acclimatise and build essential skills. Jayanthi remembers thinking that nothing they had done before prepared them for how demanding this process would be.

There is no starting easy on Everest – one of the first hurdles is the treacherous Khumbu icefall. It can only be traversed at night, when it is protected from the Sun’s heat and is at itsmost stable. Even then, “it’s like clambering over giant ice cubes,” says Jayanthi, explaining that the ice is constantly melting and moving, at a pace of a metre a day. Crossing deep crevasses on rickety ladders is its own challenge. Huddled in their yellow tents, the two could hear the sound of avalanches on the slopes. The sound was like thunder, and always uncomfortably near. Just last year, one avalanche claimed 18 lives at base camp.

“Nothing gets easier,” says Johann now. For him this was a life-changing experience. “It has made me stronger,” he says, then clarifies with a rueful smile, “not physically, as you can see I’m weak right now, but mentally and spiritually I feel completely changed.”

Johann saw people die on this mountain, watched as they plummeted to their deaths. He also saw other climbers in distress and could do nothing to help them. “It shatters you,” he says quietly. Walking past the corpse of a man who had died, he says he tried to look away, but could not. More than once, he and Jayanthi feared for their own lives. Their goggles clouded, their bodies deprived of oxygen and their limbs swaddled in bulbous, thick clothing, it was all they could do to set one foot in front of the other. Both say they could not have done it without the constant support of Ang Karma Sherpa and Ang Passang Sherpa.

But for Jayanthi the view from the summit was all the reward she could ask for. She remembers that after deciding she would no longer let the strain get to her, she began talking to the mountain, calling it by its other name – Chomolungma. “I wanted to stop cursing the cold and the bad weather, and instead I asked the mountain for permission to climb it. For me it wasn’t about conquering it, but having the patience to wait for the right time.” She was overwhelmed by the beauty of the peaks around her, and Everest towering above them all. “It is so huge and there you are, an ant in a sea of ice.”

In early rotations, Jayanthi was slow on one of her climbs and her guides cautioned that unless her timing was up to standard she wouldn’t be allowed to attempt the summit. Anxious to avoid a repeat on summit day she went hard, going for the peak like her life depended on it. She took almost no breaks and pushed on, reaching the top at 5:03 a.m. on May 21,surprising everyone including herself with her great timing.

The Hilary Step has beckoned Jayanthi from her screensaver this whole year, and now she had crossed it to the small, windy space that all these months of hard work had led to. For 15 minutes she took in the view. “There was the moon on one side and on the other hand, I saw the sun rising. The clouds were below me, and I could see the tops of other mountains pushing through them. The summit is small, one step on the other side and I would be in another country. It was unbelievable to just stand there. It’s not everyone who gets to live their dream.”

From where he stood, stuck behind a line of slow climbers, and running short on oxygen, Johann could see the lights at the summit. Turning back was one of the hardest things he has ever had to do. “But I’ve stood on one of the highest places in the world,” he says, and that is some consolation. So many people have written to him, and he says he’s grateful they know what it was really all about.

When asked if they would ever return to the mountain, the two look at each other. Then Johann tells Jayanthi, “Listen, hit me over the head if I ever suggest it, OK?” Laughing, she immediately agrees.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on June 5, 2016. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Jayanthi.

Sunila Galappatti: A quiet voice amid the noise of war

In Scroll.In, Writers on June 17, 2016 at 2:29 pm

In A Long Watch Commodore Ajith Boyagoda of the Sri Lankan Navy reflects on how the story of the Sagarawardene, the ship of which he was captain, was one he had read long before it was one he told. Commodore Boyagoda was the highest ranking prisoner detained by the Tamil Tigers during the civil war. He spent eight years in captivity before his release in 2002.

When Commodore Boyagoda finally decided to speak about his experience in detail, it was to Sunila Galappatti. The memoir they have produced together has been described by Michael Ondaatje as “the best book yet on the war in Sri Lanka.”

One of the things that makes it so is the writer. A Long Watch marks Galappatti’s debut. A former Director of the Galle Literary Festival Galappatti has also had stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Live Theatre.

Written from Commodore Boyagoda’s perspective, A Long Watch is narrated with an honesty that does not fear the complexity of human relationships. It finds a quiet space amid the noise of a country at war with itself. It makes room for the sometimes impossible contradictions Sri Lankans have long lived with. Beautifully observed, elegant without embellishment and deeply felt, this feels like a story that makes many other stories possible. Excerpts from an interview with Galapatti in the run-up to the launch of the book.

I’d like to begin at the end, with a line from your acknowledgements. You write that “it was a book written first for those who knew this war and then for those who did not.” How did this determination shape A Long Watch?
What mattered most to me, and to the Commodore, was how this book would feel to a reader in Sri Lanka, wherever else it might be read. Sometimes I read books about Sri Lanka – good books – and feel alienated. When too much is explained for example, or there is bold summarising of our lives, then I know the book wasn’t written for us. Have you had that experience? I’m sure insiders always feel this way but I think it can be especially painful to those who have lived through conflict (in many very different ways); whose experiences feel not only personal but complicated, contested, unprotected.

When you were approached to write this book, your first, what drew you to Commodore Boyagoda’s story?
The way he told it. This book has all the ingredients of a sensational prisoner of war story – an attack on a ship at night, chains, rumours of collaboration, a hunger strike – but in a way I took it on for the opposite reason. At my first meeting with Commodore Boyagoda, I was struck by the understated way he spoke.

He described his captivity in very normal language – it had of course been his normality for eight years of his life. I felt there was something we might learn from hearing that quiet voice. It reminded me of the way I’ve heard others speak of experiences of loss and disappearance through our many conflicts – experiences that are now intrinsic to their lives and which they have to live with every day.

Throughout the years in which I worked with Commodore Boyagoda on this story, he continued to speak in this voice. Often it would be a throwaway comment that reminded me how extreme the experience was he was describing. He told me how in one camp he used to go to the door of his cell and try and pick out an object far away to focus his eyes on – a tree or the sky. The muscles of his eyes would never otherwise get to relax, he said, as in a 10 x 3 foot cell you’re only ever focusing on objects close at hand.

The Commodore is not a man to go in for elaborate description – it was often the smaller details that I found most moving. He had the fortune to be a declared prisoner, and was sent books to read by the ICRC. He told me that one of these books was A Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s account of his own life and imprisonment.

Commodore Boyagoda said the book served to remind him of greater strength and tenacity – if Mandela had survived a longer, harsher prison sentence, surely he could manage his own. Sometimes, he said, he would read to the end of the book, then turn back to the beginning and start again.

Commodore Boyagoda (front, centre) dedicates his story to this crew of the SLNS Sagawardene, many of whom did not survive the attack on the ship on September 19, 1994, when he was captured. Photograph courtesy: Ajith Boyagoda
Commodore Boyagoda (front, centre) dedicates his story to this crew of the SLNS Sagawardene, many of whom did not survive the attack on the ship on September 19, 1994, when he was captured. Photograph courtesy: Ajith Boyagoda

Walk us through how this book took shape. Did the book settle into its present structure early on? When did you begin to feel like you could narrate this story in his tone, his voice?
You know, I realise that I have now almost forgotten the work and deliberation that went into this book. When I was going through my papers for a photograph to give you, I found old notes, plans, timelines, lists of questions, newspaper cuttings and of course bundles of the ICRC forms on which the Commodore and his family wrote to each other.

I’d packed everything away carefully, terrified that a leaking roof might damage the Commodore’s letters before I could return them to him, and opening that cupboard reminded me that I’d spent five years working on this book.

But the way I wrote the book really followed instinct I’d had at the start – that I had to tell the story in the Commodore’s voice: as a first person narration and with a discipline to tell his story, not to colour it in myself. It wasn’t automatically easy to write in his voice – he being a military man of his generation and experience, my being a civilian woman of my own time and place. I finally felt able to do it after a lot of close listening.

For about three and a half years Commodore Boyagoda and I met, twice a week, for two hours at a time. He would tell his story and I would listen. Then for another year, perhaps, I listened to recordings of those conversations. Eventually, I felt I could catch his tone and meaning with enough nuance to put it in writing.

My training comes from working in classical, contemporary and documentary theatre – I found that the precision and discipline I was taught in that trade was the most useful to me in completing this project.

Commodore Boyagoda draws on his own experience in personal recollections of high ranking LTTE officials and reflections on ways that both the LTTE and the Forces conducted themselves through the war. In doing so he challenges binary narratives of the conflict. What do you hope will come of sharing these stories with a wider audience?
We should be very clear this is not a whistle-blower book; not an exercise in naming or shaming. The Commodore always said, “We’re not here to light more fires.” We set out only to tell one among the hundreds of thousands of stories that exist about this war, knowing too that it is not a typical story.

If I hope for anything, it is that when people read this book they will be moved to speak of their own histories. I think books sometimes work this way – the story in the book sometimes gives shelter and protection to other stories that we tell each other, around it.

As someone pointed out to me last week, it helps that the Commodore tells his story so gently – we don’t feel shocked or distanced from it; rather, it reminds us of gentler ways to talk of what we have experienced and to reflect on our history. I don’t mean that it will be painless, or that it will right the wrongs of the past; only that it is another way to talk.

This letter from Commodore Boyagoda’s youngest son, sent through the ICRC, was written after Mrs Boyagoda was given permission, along with other prisoners’ family members, to visit her husband in captivity, at the time of a hunger strike by the prisoners. It was a the time nearly six years since she had seen her husband and the couple’s seven-year-old son writing here had not seen his father since before he turned two. (Courtesy: Ajith Boyagoda)
This letter from Commodore Boyagoda’s youngest son, sent through the ICRC, was written after Mrs Boyagoda was given permission, along with other prisoners’ family members, to visit her husband in captivity, at the time of a hunger strike by the prisoners. It was a the time nearly six years since she had seen her husband and the couple’s seven-year-old son writing here had not seen his father since before he turned two. (Courtesy: Ajith Boyagoda)

Dearest Appachchi,

One aunty at school told me that you would come home with Ammi. I was waiting for Ammi to come home.

After Ammi came home, she cried and cried. If I had come with her to see you, we would have found a way to bring you back, no? Don’t the LTTE uncles know that we’re here in Colombo?

Appachchi, I came third in the swimming meet but later they said I was fourth. I have left the band. We went on a trip with the band. Ammi also came. I’m in the choir for Poson bakthi-gee, and I play badminton in school. Wednesdays and Fridays, Ammi comes. Tuesdays and Saturdays are Elocution. Ammi and Appachchi are like the Titanic story, no? My Aiyas said so.

From Chuti Putha

— (Translated from Sinhala)

For me this book, despite its specificity and its loyalty to a single perspective, is about more than the man himself. It is about how Sri Lanka has changed as well. Some of the most moving sections come early on, when Commodore Boyagoda remembers for instance the relationship the forces had with civilians before the conflict broke out. What was your response to these glimpses of Sri Lanka’s past?One day the Commodore said in passing that in the old days the crows in Kandy were different from the crows in Colombo. And suddenly I remembered that from my own childhood. We would drive to Colombo from Peradeniya, where we lived at the time, and the air would change and the birds were quicker and more ashen in the city.

But I, born at the very end of the 1970s, don’t really remember the country before the war got going. So it was by talking to the Commodore that I think I began really to appreciate the scale of the change that took place in the fabric of everyday life.

He says himself, had he remained in the world at large throughout that time, he may not have registered it either. But coming back after eight years in captivity the impression was stark. I sometimes think of this book as a sideways look at a history we need not have had – had we anticipated it better – but which is now inside us.

You chose to write Commodore Boyagoda’s story in this book. His is one view and there will be countless others. How did you address that tension in your writing and in your conversations with him?
I admit thought about this a lot at the start. We are schooled to question every story that is told. I asked the Commodore questions, I wondered how I could get the facts all straight. But over time I grew to understand that even after all the material I gathered what was most revealing were in fact the personal reflections of a man making sense of his life and his history.

Neither he nor I would ever suggest this is the only authoritative account. The Commodore has often pointed out that his cellmates would have their own stories to tell and that many others who could add to the story are dead.

One day I went to talk with Mrs Boyagoda. I was meeting her for the first time; a woman whose courage had been very clear to me in the account I’d heard from her husband. The stories she told remain with me still, from the moment she heard the voices of friends at her window one night and realised something must have happened. She told me how she decided to break the news to her sons in stages: their father had been captured and she could give them no satisfactory answers about what would happen next.

The boys were at the time nine, seven, and less than two years old. There is at least another book to be written, even within this one family, about the experiences of this woman and her sons over the subsequent eight years.

This interview was published here in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka  on May 22, 2016 and republished on on May 29, 2016. Interview by Smriti Daniel. Pictures courtesy Sunila Galappatti and Commodore Ajith Boyagoda.  

Shehan Karunatilaka: What to expect from Shehan ‘Chinaman’ Karunatilaka’s new novel (hint: think ghosts)

In Scroll.In, Writers on May 12, 2016 at 7:47 am

What to expect from Shehan ‘Chinaman’ Karunatilaka’s new novel (hint: think ghosts)

The sastra karaya could see a ghost standing behind Shehan Karunatilaka’s shoulder.

He said the spirit was a woman, someone Karunatilaka had known and who was now his guardian. Now, in his airy living room in Colombo, Karunatilaka admits he didn’t sense anything himself, and that he was a little bit disappointed with the experience. “There is the sceptic in me that thinks he [the astrologer] was just doing some cold reading,” he admits, but when advised to do a Bodhi pooja, Karunatilaka lit some lamps and made offerings of flowers under the sacred fig tree anyway.

Karunatilaka never attempted to become better acquainted with his ghost. One of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated contemporary writers, you wouldn’t imagine his wry intellect lends itself to a belief in the paranormal. But while he’s not a man of (any) faith, his thinking on the matter is simple – “I am not a believer in this stuff, but I fear it. If it is out there, you don’t want to be messing with it.”

Yet an astrologer’s office is far from the strangest place he has been in pursuit of material. In the last few years, the author has taken an interest in subjects as diverse as Sri Lankan death squads, Colombo’s haunted houses, the pilgrimage to the sacred city of Kataragama and Buddhist notions of the afterlife and rebirth.

In fact, the last time I met Karunatilaka, he was lurking among the graves in Borella cemetery, scouting for ghosts. Then his sunglasses, pierced nose and sharp beard, threaded with white streaks, gave him the air of an insouciant rock star. It is an air he retains, perhaps because even though his band Powercut Circus no longer exists, Karunatilaka still plays the bass guitar every other morning, treating it as a form of meditation.

While the music remains a constant, Karunatilaka’s other interests shift with each new novel. With Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, it was cricket games and old, alcoholic uncles. Certainly, his friendly ghost brought him good fortune back then – the book he had self-published in Sri Lanka first won the Gratiaen Prize, then gathered up the Commonwealth Book Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature even as it found publishers in India, the US and the UK.

And now, a new novel

That was in 2012, but Karunatilaka is finally ready to unveil his follow-up. In his home office, he has walls covered in post it notes and newspaper cuttings, wireless neon lighting he controls from his smartphone and several writing projects in various stages of progress. His present focus is the unpublished manuscript Devil Dance, which is currently in the running for the Gratiaen Prize. Founded by Michael Ondaatje with his Booker Prize winnings in 1992 and named for Ondaatje’s mother, the Gratiaen is one of Sri Lanka’s best known literary awards. Karunatilaka has won twice before, and will only find out if he has won again on May 12. In any case, Devil Dance should be in bookstores by the end of this year.

Karunatilaka writes for a Sri Lankan audience and is canny enough to know that it’s that very specificity that makes him interesting to the wider world. When we first meet Devil Dance’s protagonist, the intrepid investigative journalist Riyal Ratnam Almeida, he is already dead; tethered to his own corpse, even as it is being inefficiently disposed off in Beira Lake. Born in 1955, dead by 1990, Riyal’s obituaries will describe him as “a brilliant, erratic, homosexual leftist,” and “Sri Lanka’s premiere war photographer.” He has lived through some of the most tumultuous years in Sri Lankan history, and is about to be a spectral spectator to a few more.

But first, some background

Post-independence Sri Lanka has been wracked by violence. The war between the state and the separatist terrorist outfit Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) stretched out over nearly three decades, and was brought to a bloody end under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa only in 2009. Meanwhile, the Indian Peace Keeping Force, which was deployed following the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987, is remembered with little fondness by Sri Lankans.

But lesser known outside these shores are the insurgencies in the south of the island. The party Janathā Vimukthi Peramuṇa led armed uprisings against the ruling governments in 1971 and then again in 1987. Young, poorly armed and barely trained though they may have been, the JVP earned a reputation for pure brutality, one that would only be outdone by the state’s response. Thousands upon thousands died.

“It was the perfect storm,” says Karunatilaka now. “And all this stuff happened between the third A-ha album and the fifth A-ha album.” However, while the novel relies on this context, he did not delve deep into the historical record, but he has his premise: “If a ghost is someone who died unfairly, Sri Lanka is obviously swarming with them.”

In Riyal, Karunatilaka created an angry ghost, hungry for justice. The dead journalist suspects he was put on a hit list thanks to his determined attempts to ferret out the killers of a certain Elsa Loganathan. The young woman’s corpse was found floating in a tank on the roof of the Hotel Rio. Unfortunately, even surviving his own death has left Riyal no wiser about who murdered Elsa.

Was it the LTTE or the India’s intelligence agency RAW or a Sri Lankan state-sanctioned death squad? What role does the suspicious US Fund for Peace play? As Riyal sets out to unravel the mystery, he is also simultaneously working up an ethereal sweat, struggling to master the skills that will allow him to visit pain and havoc on the men responsible.

Yesterday, today, and maybe tomorrow

The story plays out in a world that is completely contemporary in its concerns yet populated by creatures out of folktales, Buddhist philosophy and Sri Lankan legend. Grease Yakas go diving in the wrecks with mermaids and “tsunami drowners”, the Crowman in his office serves up justice on cheating husbands with a little help from the other side, and hordes of the disappeared dead ride the winds as they await their killers in the afterlife.

While this shadow world exerts a powerful influence on our own, the horrors who inhabit it pale in comparison to those which living men make – the torture rooms hidden in the middle of a bustling city, the mass graves packed with the bones of entire villages.

This is undoubtedly grim raw material, but Karunatilaka finds a very Sri Lankan way of approaching it. In his writing, irreverence and humour leaven despair. (The general attitude seems to be, there may be bombs in the street and mass graves in the forest, but life goes on, so why not face it with a glass of arrack in hand?) And if this plot sounds like he has many balls in the air, it’s because Karunatilaka has never juggled so hard before.

Like his famously hard drinking predecessor, the perpetually inebriated 64-year-old WG Karunasena who was the star of Chinaman, Riyal is also a determined journalist with a strong appetite for self-destruction. But where Chinaman appealed in part because of the intimacy of its plot, and the deep familiarity and affection its lead evoked in readers, Karunatilaka is at work on a much larger canvas with Devil’s Dance. He was taken by surprise to have Chinaman hailed as the ‘great Sri Lankan novel,’ and in that success lie the seeds of his present doubt – “perhaps, it is when you try to write the ‘great Sri Lankan novel’ that you are most likely to fail,” he says.

That this career in writing fiction brings with it no surety of success is not a surprise to him. Consequently, he is yet to take fully to it as a profession, still committing some of his time to advertising work. The latter has paid his bills for a long time – arrived at after trialling life working at food courts, in data entry, and perhaps most memorably, digging graves – it is a job that he is decidedly good at and he has the awards to prove it.

But once he has earned his keep, he settles back into Sri Lanka and the house he grew up in. He has made a routine out of discipline – rising at 4am to write a bit every day, and spending his afternoons in charge of his young daughter. He says becoming a father has somehow made him a more prolific: “You become more aware of the scarcity of time and the need to fill pages.”

It helps that being in the land of his birth is also the best antidote to this writer’s doubt. It inspires a kind of certainty – it is the only place he could have produced Devil Dance. His voice, his stories, even his sense of humour, are somehow inextricably of this place. He admits sometimes to struggling with writing in the gloom of London, or in relentless Singapore.

“When I am here, in Sri Lanka, it’s just not an issue. I can’t imagine writing anywhere else,” he says. It is an approach that has served him well. By just staying home, Shehan Karunatilaka has found, again and again, stories the world wants to read.

Published on on May 8, 2016. By Smriti Daniel with picture courtesy Shehan Karunatilaka. 


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