Sunday, May 3, 2009

Impressions on "Bleeding Heart": A Novel by Balamanoharan

There is a scene in “Bleeding Hearts” where the protagonists, grandfather and grandson embark on what they see as an ingenious scheme to trap the mighty bull they are on a hunt for. While the plan looks foolproof during their discussion, their quarry proves too clever for their plot and escapes. If there is an episode in the story that is more reflective of the theme that pervades the book – that dreams rarely become reality – I am unaware of it. Different people who read the story will find that they see different themes; to me it was about the unreliability of dreams.

The book is not political; it is not a preachy morality tale that shoves a message down the throats of the readers. The messages are subtle, drawn through a creation of life in an earlier era. Readers who have never experienced the village life in Ceylon will be fascinated with the world created by Mr Balamanoharan. The characters are content with the simplicity of their lives, yet in that tiny sphere they have problems that are as daunting as can be. As a matter of fact, most of the best passages in the book are the ones that give us a taste of what it is like to inhabit their world. The iguana hunting and prawn catching sequences in particular were absolutely delightful. I read them with a smile, knowing I was mesmerized.

Vinasiyar, the main protagonist of the tale and its most interesting character, lives in a remote hamlet with his wife. He is larger-than-life, the unofficial leader of the tiny village and the man everybody seems to look up to. The character’s seemingly flawless strength and courage often run the risk of making him stereotypical, but the author does a good job of moving the story in ways that make us overlook that. I found his wife, Sinamma, much less interesting, her unquestioning obedience to her husband made it clear very soon that she was not going to be a big part of the story. It is mentioned more than once that she secretly pines to live with her daughter; it could have been an interesting subplot to explore. On the other hand, perhaps Vinasiyar and his obsessions were interesting enough for both of them.

The other protagonist is their grandson Sena. Not on the same league of Vinasiyar as an exciting character, but a decent one nonetheless. The story’s parallel plot is his romance with a young Sinhalese girl called Nantha, his pretty and innocent neighbour. The romance was handled well in some scenes, though for the most part I thought the excessive metaphors and descriptions robbed some of the realism away. Yet, their love is indispensable for the story and one cannot deny that in the bigger scheme of things, lends a lot of punch to the book’s overall impact.

Sena is a strong character, a younger version of his grandfather but not as acquainted with nature and softened by a more comfortable life in the village his parents live in. He sees his grandparents only on weekends. Little is mentioned about his relationship with his parents, it is obvious that Vinasiyar’s hamlet is where his thoughts lie. Nantha on the other hand, is typical and naïve, what Sinamma would probably have been like in her younger days. It is her world that seems to have faced the most devastation when the story comes to a close. Here again the author displays his skill by taking a character who can easily plunge into stereotype and successfully making her sympathetic and likeable. The theme of the book that I expressed earlier, the shattering of dreams, is expressed through her despair magnificently.

There are other characters filling the story. The fiery young Tamil frustrated with the lack of success peaceful protests have met with; the humanist teacher who tries to persuade people that non-violence should not be abandoned but knows within himself that it soon will be; Nantha’s father who loves the Tamil community but is forced to make a painful decision in the end; these secondary characters play a vital role in elevating the book into something bigger than the sum of its parts.

Finally, there is the bull, the mighty Kaladiyan. Being a bull, it obviously has no dialogue but none is necessary. The less said about this unique character the better, save that the main plot of the book is its clash with Vinasiyar. One is on a quest for survival and the other on a vow to hunt the adversary down.

I will not reveal the story, for it is the interplay between these characters that provides the joy of reading Bleeding Hearts. All that can be said is that by the time the book ends, all their dreams are lost. Politics and ethnic conflicts on other parts of the island come to haunt these people who have had no part to play in them. Some readers may feel the ending was rushed and indeed it is. But it also lends the closing passages of the story an urgency that makes the drama more powerful. The unmistakeable message is that a man’s life is not necessarily the result of his character; that often the world around him can plunge into insanity and destroy his ambitions too. The author never states this explicitly, but any astute reader can appreciate the subtlety with which the message is driven home.

Anything else that I mention will spoil the experience of actually reading this book. The one thing that any potential reader might like to remember is that “Bleeding Hearts” is a superbly appropriate title for this moving tale.

By: Nilan

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