Romesh Gunesekera: “Roadkill” from TNY, 12/2/13

TNY Art by Leslie Herman

TNY Art by Leslie Herman

But that night, in the inky blackness in Kilinochchi, all these other things began to merge together: politics, history, even sex, in the form of Miss Saraswati, where it was bound up with mutilation and death. We all have a private past, a store of thoughts, feelings, sensations, disappointments that nobody else will ever unearth. That’s just life. But in Miss Saraswati’s case, it seemed to me, there was something more deliberately hidden. Areas cordoned off. I suppose it was only natural. So much is kept off limits these days. There are things we don’t speak of, things we not only don’t remember but carefully forget, places we do not stray into, memories we bury or reshape.

What do we hide, what do we show? What do we remember, talk about, bring into the public debate – and what do we pretend never happened? When is it time to stop and examine, when is it time to move on? All of these issues might be considered as part of the larger question raised in this story: How does a nation recover from a twenty-six-year long civil war?

This story (available online; it’s shorter than most TNY stories; go read it) covers some of this territory; Gunesekera’s Page Turner interview indicates it’s one of a series of stories featuring Vasantha, all of which examine the larger question from a variety of contexts.

Vasantha is a cab driver, in this story driving a wealthy couple to look at property they’re buying in territory that was, only two years ago, part of the long and bloody conflict. He meets Miss Saraswati, the assistant manager of the hotel; she’s interested in cultivating future business, but their conversation must skirt around delicate matters. It’s fascinating how they both negotiate the territory of wanting, yet fearing, to know.

My familiarity with the issues is scanty at best; your best bet (after reading the story) is to head over to The Mookse and the Gripes where avataram has written a spectacular series of comments – particularly this one, outlining some of the very specific symbolism embedded the story. I’m grateful his comments are available. My background does not permit such depth, so I’m limited to a more surface reading; even so, there’s plenty here to keep me interested. That’s artful writing: to allow readers to appreciate a story at whatever level it finds them. It’s also a great way to stimulate interest in further exploration.

The primary theme that emerged for me as I read was overall one of what is hidden, and what is exposed. In the crucial scene between Vasantha and Miss Saraswati, he notices a scar on her neck, briefly exposed by her collar; the next time he sees her, the collar is buttoned tight. Given the supreme competence she displays throughout, the momentary exposure can’t be an accident. Concealment is only powerful when one knows something is being concealed.

I ended up with a couple of pages of notes on second read; I’ll present them, only slightly edited. You may decide if I am revealing what is usually concealed, or if I have taken the lazy way out:

clint eastwood right off the bat – fictional image of violence in a setting of real horror.

“lingering spoor of the vanished big cats” – all the perfume and disinfectant can’t completely erase what went down here. Tamil Tigers.

Mrs. A is pregnant – the future, no memory of the past.

“I am already around the bleeding bend.” – two meanings to “bleeding”, intensifier and literal slang

You’ll be able to rest very quietly here.” – where people have died, rest in peace, rest with the history unspoken.

“even rice would turn to rubble.” – !

“People who have made more informed choices in their lives than I have always impress me.” – he’s referring to her hotel training, which at this point he assumes was a routine educational choice, but it’s more than that; she’s made decisions that go far deeper, as has he. Decisions to fight, to hide, to move on, to reconsider old decisions.

“E.T.s are pouring into the south” – Not sure if this abbreviation for “European tourists” has the “extraterrestrial/alien” connotation in Sri Lanka.

Something like that.” evasive about her training. we begin here to understand it had nothing to do with hospitality college, education of a different sort.

“You learn to do that at Jaffna hotel school?” killing the rat – he begins to get it, who this woman, his hospitalier, is.

discussion about rats –He had dog, it was roadkill by the govt, but a different govt –
he thinks: “This happened a long time ago—it was not the fault of the current government” – more moving on. What is gained, lost when he moves on?

she says: “You have to bury the dead and move on.” and “What matters is what you carry inside” – you never move on, really; she will always remember, carry it inside, but it will stay hidden. But now, through this story, he is telling us about her. or, the author is. Because in order to hide something, you must reveal what you have, so others know it is hidden, otherwise it is lost & this is abt capturing that loss.

“Some want to know about our history and our culture and what makes us live the way we do. So do I.” – because how can you know your own history in such a muddled, confused place; can you know your history when you are living it? When memory = pain? Maybe it takes time before you can look?

“After a war, it is best not to ask about the past.” she says. Oh, but that’s exactly when we need to talk about the past; we need to look at what happened, how ridiculous it was, or how unjust, or how it came to be the necessary option, so it doesn’t happen again. But that’s my pov; I’ve never been in a war zone; I’ve never lost anyone close to me to war. I would imagine I could feel differently in her shoes.

He gets it too: “That is not true, I thought. After such a calamity, surely one should? How else will we know what really happened? And if we don’t know, will it not be repeated? At any rate, we should not let war or half-baked political decrees pervert our native habits of curiosity and easy engagement. But I didn’t say any of this” He keeps this thought hidden.

even he sank into the darkness, into crime movies as escape – sex wasn’t available and politics was a nightmare, he escaped from reality in his way. Back to Clint Eastwood, fictional violence easier to take than the history of the land.

“You knew something was wrong, but you didn’t know how to make it right.” the answer is hidden as well, but we must keep looking, mustn’t we?

note language as he observes her looking over the grounds at night: guardian, revolver, shot, did a sweep, caught, held, military.

recommending sound-blocking headphones to his cab customers for snoring; he knows a thing or two about blocking out unwanted noise pollution.

closing: “I wished for a moment that I knew what she was thinking, and then I was glad that I didn’t. There comes a point when you don’t want to know.” he chooses to let what is hidden remain hidden.

Moving on as forgiveness, or as the seeds of the next bloody chapter? What of this “moving on” in other contexts – South Africa, our own Civil War, and more presently, the current US administration’s refusal to prosecute the war crimes of the past administration, coupled with the decision to continue programs of dubious morality and legality? Just who gets to decide what is to be forgiven, when it’s time to move on?

It’s an overwhelming story, both because of the subject matter, and because of the background I wish I had to comprehend more of it. It makes me want to read the rest of the stories in the collection. It makes me want to learn more. What higher recommendation for a story?

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