of student days and first love
Mahaweli Meadow by Valentine Perera.
Reviewed by Shelagh Goonewardene
The title of this book refers to Ganga
Langa Uyana which is the ancestral property of Devika
Amarasekera, a student at the University of Ceylon,
Peradeniya in the late 1950s and the daughter of a wealthy
Colombo family. Devika meets Tony Fonseca, another student,
from a modest home in Colombo 6 who is therefore not
her social equal.
After an initial antagonism that generates
sparks between them, they fall deeply and irreversibly
in love. In a country where social conventions surrounding
marriage favour arranged marriages, after a consultation
of horoscopes which must match each other and an examination
of the assets and connections of the families of the
prospective partners, a marriage based purely on love
would be regarded with suspicion and trepidation by
the parents of the young people involved.
To further complicate the issue, Tony
and Devika both possess strong wills and definite convictions
of their own as to the paths they wish to follow in
life. The unexpected entry of passionate love into their
lives is an unwanted intrusion, having no place in the
plans they had made for their respective futures.
This constitutes the trajectory that
the novel pursues. What course do these two people follow?
Do they conform to convention and suppress their own
desires or assert their feelings for each other and
throw convention to the winds? How do the other characters,
concerned parents and friends among them, hamper or
aid their decisions? As this process slowly unfolds
the two young people grow into emotional maturity as
they learn the lessons of life.
The story is set in the university
campus fifty years ago when it had newly opened. Peradeniya
was the first residential university of the fledgling
University of Ceylon which housed men and women in the
various halls built for this purpose. In the strikingly
beautiful surroundings thoughtfully provided by the
authorities for them, it was inevitable that with the
close proximity of the sexes, falling in love, usually
for the first time, was a major preoccupation.
A delightful consequence of this was
that the love poetry of the great poets studied in the
English Literature classes became the obvious vehicle
to describe states of mind and the exploration of feelings
generated by mutual attraction.
One of the author’s achievements
is the penning of love scenes which convey the idealism
of youth, for, instead of explicit description of physical
acts, he uses the lyricism of the poetry which the lovers
recite tenderly to each other, creating a subtle eroticism
which is more effective than any graphic prose.
Where characterization is concerned,
of the two chief protagonists, Tony is a maverick who
masks his real feelings and intentions with a facade
of jokes, witty remarks and a constant stream of anecdotes.
Devika, on the other hand comes across as a forthright
person who is very much a modern, liberated woman. With
her, the writer draws a remarkably sympathetic portrait
of this phenomenon that will instantly strike a responsive
chord in most women.
The novel does not claim to discuss
any aspects of the university experience which are weightier
than the lighter side of campus life, chiefly the extra-curricular
activities of the students. This focus evokes the different
strands of undergraduate life which weave their attractions
outside the austere corridors of learning. There are
references to the national politics of the time, rather
than student politics, but the former concern the reader
because Gladstone Amarasekera, Devika’s father,
has a stake in them.
This is a first novel and Valentine
Perera experiments with the writing technique of using
dialogue as in normal conversation as his chief modus
operandi. The characters and the action are viewed mainly
through the conversations they engage in. This incessant
talking may weary some readers or not suit individual
Others will be drawn to reflect on
how much or how little can be gathered through this
method of communication and its inherent possibilities.
Mahaweli Meadow is a light and entertaining
book but it has its serious aspects as well which will
attract the discerning reader. One theme is the importance
of a sound system of values which balances the needs
of the individual with the collective wisdom of tradition
as expressed in the culture of any society. The development
of Tony’s character is illustrative of the significance
Another theme points to the acute
need in civil society for individuals to recognize the
wider perspective, that of their common humanity, rather
than the narrowness of ethnicity.
In an era when the world-wide tendency
is for people to stress their separate ethnicities,
the firm friendship between Tony, Aru and Larry is more
than exemplary. They come from three different ethnic
communities, but their friendship transcends divisiveness
and remains enduring despite events born of racial violence
which are erupting in the background of the novel.
These thought-provoking themes give
substance to the novel and make it worth reading.