A yellow Volkswagen ‘beetle’, a 17th century Dutch cannon, a cigarette butt and a bottle of ‘Mendis Special’, two lovers on a park bench, a young woman at a piano, and a ‘mod’ young man in the get-up of a ‘Bambalapitiya boy’ of the 1950s: these colourful images decorate the cover of Asgar Hussein’s second published book, a volume of short stories that is described on its back-cover as ‘a satire on human nature’.
Each of these images is a part of the post-war Sri Lanka that has become our 21st century reality, each signifies a tale, and it is part of the pleasure afforded by Hussein’s entertaining and insightful book that each tale is well worth the telling.
The Mirror of Paradise reflects customs, manners and ways of thinking that are immediately recognizable as our own, in a language that rings the changes on expressions which could have been developed in no other society.
First, a word about that term ‘Paradise’. The beauty of Sri Lanka’s outward aspect has been celebrated times without number, by writers from Samuel Purchas to the present-day rhapsodists of the Tourist Board, as a paradise of plenty and peace. Asgar Hussein’s new volume, however, reveals much about the island’s inner life that is far from paradisal.
Rapidly shifting focus from boardroom to beach hut, from wedding hall to village, from a university campus to a quiet suburban street, Hussein’s ‘mirror’ gives back images of Sri Lanka that are at once authentic and ironic, its thirteen stories reflecting facets of local life which constantly seem to bemuse the narrator while being perfectly recognizable to the reader.
“A Tale of two Artists”, a story that explores the pretensions of the local art world, is related by just such a bewildered innocent. “Grease Yaka”, similarly framed, bestows a new superstition on a fishing village. “The Wedding” brings together members of two minority communities in a celebration that ends in a free-for-all, “A Good Medical Boy” (one of the funniest tales in the book) shows snobbery and selfishness interacting in the marriage-market, while in “Wadakaha Sudiya” female vanity, linked to superstition and ignorance, leads to disaster.
His stories show that Hussein is well aware of the wealth of comic potential offered by his homeland. The situations in which his characters find themselves embroiled seem occasionally over the top, but it does not really matter because their creator’s principal aim is to entertain, and in this he succeeds very well.
Sri Lankans love to laugh, and most of us would agree that the life around us provides no lack of entertaining subjects. Entertainment, however, is not satire, and although The Mirror of Paradise is a very amusing book, in which Hussein brilliantly caricatures human eccentricities, holding up ‘as ‘twere, a mirror up to nature’, his mirror is more like a distorting mirror at a fun-fair than the ‘satire on human nature’ that the back-cover claims it to be.
Satire requires a great deal more than humorous entertainment, however lively that entertainment might be; and in assessing writing of this high quality, it’s worth taking the time and trouble to distinguish one from the other.
Adapting itself to Sri Lankan usage, satire has afforded our journalists and playwrights a dazzling range in the past, going all the way from, let us say, the mild satiric comedy of “Take it Easy” and “Well, Mudaliyar!” to the excoriating political censure of E.M.W. Joseph’s “The Financial Expert” and Tarzie Vittachi’s “Snowballs in the Sun”. In certain circumstances - in the face of fragrant misdemeanour, for instance – ‘it is difficult not to write satire,’ as the poet Juvenal observed, surveying the Rome of his times. In our own country today, as in the ancient world, personalities and events attract the satirist’s eye on every side. Why then, does Hussein, with his undoubted talent for comedy, fail to go the extra mile?
Why, indeed! In one of the stories here (“The Gold Enterprise”), comedy edges very close to satire…but doesn’t quite reach it. Some wealthy business executives become the willing victims of swindlers who claim to have invented a mechanism which will extract gold from the sea. Unbelievable? Over the top? Not really, when one considers the astonishing gullibility with which depositors so recently fell for the wiles of Bernie Madoff in the USA and Golden Key in our own island paradise. Avarice, as one of the Seven Deadly Sins (the other six being pride, sloth, wrath, envy, lust and gluttony), is a very suitable target for satire: comedy that exposes avarice in society with the hope of reform certainly deserves to be called ‘satire’.
But “The Gold Enterprise” does not go all the way. It is only of their own superfluous funds that Hussein’s greedy executives are stripped. Like the hapless depositors of Golden Key, they are cheated by crooks but, unlike them, they are not impoverished.
Is it possible that true satire does not - indeed, cannot - function any longer in our particular province of Paradise? This view has been advanced, and has not been denied. If satire has indeed left us for good, it may be some consolation to learn that we are not alone in our loss.
In modern America, according to Calvin Trillin, anyone who writes satire finds himself confounded by the fact that events keep occurring around him which are more fantastic than anything he could possibly concoct. Substitute ‘postwar Sri Lanka’ for ‘modern America’, and Trillin’s remark would bring assent from every thoughtful Sri Lankan reader.
Until satire returns to our shores, we can console ourselves with laughter. And it is one of Hussein’s strengths as a writer of comedy that he exploits our linguistic foibles to the full. ‘Har’ Par’ Six Fellow’. ‘How did that ha-ho happen, darling?’ ‘Problem is not putting ganja’.
‘A good medical boy.’ Where can we read such delightful expressions on the printed page? Nowhere but in Sri Lanka, a land where, enriched by vocabulary and syntax borrowed “Take-to-take” from Sinhala, Tamil and other sources (possibly, these days, even from Bollywood), our very own brand of demotic English is spreading, with the blessing of academic and educational authorities, from everyday speech into the class room… to make its way thence, perhaps, into the language of international communication?
Anything is possible in a land of miracles. George Bernard Shaw wrote (I believe it was in his comedy John Bull’s Other Island), “Ceylon is the cradle of the human race because everybody there looks an original”. Shaw’s statement is particularly relevant to The Mirror of Paradise, because Asgar Hussein has taken the ‘original’ characters around him as his targets.
In choosing to focus on their absurdities (and not on any desire he might have to denounce or reform them) he has fallen short of writing satire, but he has created a most lively and amusing book that cannot fail, with its vitality and comic ingenuity, to appeal to the Sri Lankan love of laughter.
(The reviewer Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne is an internationally-renowned academic and writer. She is Emeritus Professor at Macquarie University of Australia, and was awarded the Order of Australia for services to literature and education. She has also receied the Sahitya Ratna Award, Sri Lanka’s highest literary honour).