Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sam's Story

What is the nature of war? How does it affect your life even if it rages on and kills people hundreds of miles away from where you live? Can war’s futility be overemphasised?

Complex questions like these underpin the seemingly simple narrative of Elmo Jayawardena’s debut novel, Sam’s Story.

The novel’s comic façade and the charming simplicity of the text hide the dual core of anti-war and anti-racial prejudice messages that form the only turbulence in this smooth flight of imagination.

The novel is a first person account of a young, unlettered village boy, who is arbitrarily named Sam by Madam Martell of Colombo whom he served briefly as a houseboy. The story is set in the twilight years of the last century.

From a Sri Lankan village steeped in utter poverty, Sam comes to work in the River House, and comes to love both the house and its inhabitants.

He likes his friendly master, the Big Boss, who pilots an aerobblane, admires the lady of the house who is generous with food, and loves their two children, especially the boy, who come for vacations from their school in a far away place.

In the river house he is put to do what most poor people do in rich people’s houses: sweep the garden, water the flowerbeds and the lawn, wash the cars, open and close the gate when the cars come and go, feed the dogs and switch on and switch off the house and garden lights. This makes Sam an errand boy and gardener because there are others who do the other, more important jobs: Leandro, the cook, who is the ‘other kind’ and has a big room to himself and Janet, the housemaid, who is also from the ‘other kind’.

Who is this other kind? “The kind that made war, and killed soldiers and threw bombs at our leaders,” defines Sam.

“I didn’t like them,” says Sam upfront about Leandro and Janet. The boy, narrator of this tale, is generally naïve but he clearly knows what moves him and what irks him. “If I knew I had to work with their kind, I would not have come to the river house. But I was here; I couldn’t go back, nothing to go back to in the village.”

In an otherwise likeable set up, Sam has to put up with these two from the ‘other kind,’ his bete noir. They constantly remind him of the racial war their ‘kind’ was raging in the villages and killing the state’s soldiers. Their presence makes him a virtual pawn in the war and he feels to be under enemy fire all the time between Leandro, the vocal enemy, and Janet, the silent type enemy.

Sam didn’t like Leandro’s stupid war talk—“this Elam and tiger business”:

“It was about the war where his people were fighting my people and about cutting the country into two and such things. I didn’t know enough to talk back to him. Leandro knew everything. He knew who died and where the bombs exploded. He knew how many died and who shot whom and why? He even knew who was going to die. I mean which one among our leaders was going to be killed.”

As if that wasn’t chilling enough knowledge for Sam, he had to contend with more of Leandro’s patent exultation in violence against Sam’s people: “He would listen to the radio carefully and the come running to taunt me…Leandro would strut about his kitchen like a peacock and relate the news stories with pride, as if he himself had killed the hundred…Then he would run and tell Janet. It always ended with Leandro giving his chicken laugh.”

Despite his naivety, Sam understands the crux of the problem, the politics behind Leandro’s hatred for his ilk: “I think this war had split way beyond the leaders who were planning and the soldiers who were fighting. It had even made stupid cooks like Leandro hate stupid gardeners like me. It was a matter of what kind you belonged to—you always hated the other kind.”

Elmo has shown, through this kind of hatred among the man on the street, the level of rottenness in the country’s society.

Sam’s best friends in the river house are not humans. They are the two pet dogs of the family, Bhurus (actually Brutus) and Lena. And why are they his best friends? “Bhurus and Lena were my best friends. They didn’t throw bombs. They didn’t kill any people.”

Once Sam’s story is on the roll, the plot gets stalled in a way until the end, and the narrative in between becomes a collage, a mosaic of character studies seen through the eyes of Sammy boy.

Nevertheless, it is interesting, especially its myriad light moments held together by Sam’s bucolic humour. Otherwise, the narrative’s jet engines slow down. Those looking for a racy war novel here are in for a disappointment.

The cadence of the story is rhythmic and repetitive, echoing the rural storytelling tradition of the country. One wouldn’t expect an unlettered narrator to wax eloquent like the narrator of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, also a novel on divide in society (casteism in this case) and loss.

War is futile. Sam and Leandro realise this when the images of war’s violence cease to become mere images on the television screen. They get completely disillusioned with the hoopla of war. Leandro changes for good: “I don’t think Leandro wants to join the fighting any more. He was very sad. I don’t think he wants to have anything to do with the war after what happened to the river house.”

That is one of the most humanising moments in the novel—Sam and Leandro sharing the same pain, forgetting the divide of race and politics. Their loss becomes common now. It circumvents their divide, makes it pointless.

Sam’s Story also demonstrates the helplessness of the poor, and even the rich, who don’t choose to be party to conflicts and yet suffer its consequences.

Sam’s boss, who wanted no part of the war, pays the price for being at the wrong place in the wrong time. His innocence, his non-partisan attitude does no good to him. He used to say: “That war is purely political, to fulfil the empty ambitions of our leaders…It is a war for the rich to get more rich and for the poor to die.”

This cannot be truer than in the present time, and it holds water not just for the war in Sri Lanka but for all the wars that are ravaging our world today. And who would know it more intimately than an aeroplane pilot after 911 and the recent Heathrow bomb plot? That pilot is none other than Captain Elmo, the creator of Sam and his heart-touching story.

If you get a chance to pick up Sam’s Story, then please do. A smooth flight is assured. So, ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seatbelts and enjoy your flight.

Sam’s Story, published by Vijitha Yapa Publications in Sri Lanka (1991) and Marshall Cavendish in Singapore, was awarded the prestigious Graetian Award in 2001 for the best literary work in English in Sri Lanka.

Captain Elmo Jayawardena writes novels when he is not flying jets for Singapore Airlines or working for his charitable foundation, AFLAC. For a detailed biography of Capt Elmo, please see this post by MediaCorp journalist Deepika Shetty.