Rajith Savanadasa’s debut novel Ruins is an insightful exploration into the human consequences of war and political unrest. Set in Sri Lanka at the savage tail end of the civil war, the Herath family find that their privileged, middle-class existence is insufficient to insulate them from the surrounding devastation of bloodshed and cultural divide. As the suffering of the outside world gradually brings some perspective to the characters’ own trifling daily concerns, they are each forced to confront deeper questions of culture, tradition, family and identity. Accordingly, the author’s central messages elevate his novel beyond the confines of its time and place, affording it relevance to an Australian readership.
Written in the first person, Savanadasa devotes each chapter to a different family member’s narration, beginning and ending the novel with the lower-cast Tamil servant, Latha. The Herath family members: Lakshmi the mother, Mano the father, Niranjan the son and Anoushka the daughter then each provide their own perspective on the events that unfold. In the author’s note, Savanadasa reveals that the novel’s structure is based on the “moonstone”, an ancient Sri Lankan architectural artifact, into which are carved a sequence of animals circulating a lotus flower. The moonstone represents the Buddhist concept of the unending cycle of birth and death and search for eternal truth, or “Nirvana”. This is very much a central theme of the novel, as we witness each character’s battle to understand and accept their life’s purpose. Ironically it is Latha, the household’s least respected member, who ultimately finds her “Nirvana”, and is finally liberated from the shackles of tradition and cultural inequality.
The majority of the novel takes place within the Heraths’ home. Scenes of solemn dinners of bland takeaway in front of the television highlight the disconnect felt between family members. The cold war that is their domestic life is starkly juxtaposed with the conflict taking place outside their doors, and for a time we forget of the horror that Colombo must have been, as each character sits in silence agonising over their own personal struggles. Savanadasa artfully portrays the innate preoccupation that we have with our own lives, no matter how great the suffering of those around us may happen to be. Descriptions of the decrepitude and devastation of war-torn Colombo at times become a symbol for the decay of familial love and trust.
None of the characters are particularly noble, with each rather selfish and small-minded at times. However the narrative style of Ruins draws the reader in, engendering empathy and emotional investment in their stories. We become caught up in in their little lives and their personal struggles, in such a way that the changes each character undergoes by the end of the novel are ultimately inspiring and even touching.
Mano, the head of the house and a weak-willed but well-intentioned womaniser, longs to rekindle the intimacy he once shared with his wife, Lakshmi. However, he fails to realise the changes she has undergone, driven by her increased yearning to make reparations for the rejection of the community to which she once belonged. She risks the safety of herself and her family to track down those from her hometown since displaced by the war. Her husband repeatedly refuses to assist – despite his numerous connections – and this becomes a further rift in the already rocky marriage. Mano loves his wife, but does not know how to embrace her true identity. Her Tamil origins are an unspoken shame that neither acknowledges, the silence forcing them further apart.
Lakshmi isolates herself completely and speaks only to criticise or express her discontent with everyone around her. Rife with suspicion towards her husband, she grapples with her deep-seated insecurities regarding her Tamil background. Slowly, however, Lakshmi comes to recognise that in denying her heritage, she has denied an integral pert of her identity. Eaten up by guilt and superstition, her quest to find and save a young Tamil boy becomes a journey of self-discovery and forgiveness.
The pernicious influence of western culture on the younger generation is an obvious accelerant of the Heraths’ familial discord. The youngest family member, Anoushka, blocks out the world and people around her with her blaring punk rock music, while Niranjan is rarely home, instead frequenting bars and clubs into the early hours of the morning. It is only Niranjan’s near-death experience that finally teaches him to embrace traditional cultural and family values, taking up lessons in his mother’s native Tamil language and securing a stable job to support his parents and sister. While Anoushka’s story sees no such return to traditional values, her suicide attempt brings her a new found respect and patience for Latha, who she had previously shunned and scorned.
Against a backdrop of bloodshed, corruption and political unrest, Savanadasa paints a powerful picture of the complexity of family relations, and the struggle to find one’s true self amidst the inevitable pressure that comes from the expectations of those who we love the most.