Book Review: MAHAWELI MEADOW by Valentine Perera|
A Celebration of Student Days and First Love
By Shelagh Goonewardene
March 15, 2008
The title of this book refers to Ganga Langa Uyana which is the ancestral property of Devika Amarasekera, the daughter of a wealthy Colombo family who is a student at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in the late 1950s. Devika meets Tony Fonseca, another student, who comes from a modest home in Colombo 6 and is therefore not her social equal. After an initial antagonism that generates sparks between them, they fall deeply and irreversibly in love.
In a country where the social conventions surrounding marriage favour arranged marriages after a consultation of horoscopes which must match each other and an examination of the assets and connections of the families of the prospective partners, a marriage based purely on love would be regarded with suspicion and trepidation by the parents of the young people involved. To add further complications, Tony and Devika both possess strong wills and definite convictions of their own as to the paths they wish to follow in life. The unexpected entry of passionate love into their lives is virtually an unwanted intrusion, having no place in the plans they had made for their respective futures.
This constitutes the trajectory that the novel pursues. What course do these two people follow? Do they conform to convention and suppress their own desires or assert their feelings for each other and throw convention to the winds? How do the other characters, concerned parents and friends among them, hamper or aid their decisions? As this process slowly unfolds the two young people grow into emotional maturity as they learn the lessons of life.
The story is set in Peradeniya fifty years ago when it was the first residential campus of the fledgling University of Ceylon which housed men and women in the various halls built for this purpose. In the strikingly beautiful surroundings thoughtfully provided by the authorities for them, it was inevitable that with the close proximity of the sexes, falling in love, usually for the first time, was a major preoccupation. A delightful consequence of this was that the love poetry of the great poets studied in the English Literature classes became the obvious vehicle to describe states of mind and the exploration of feelings generated by mutual attraction.
One of the author's achievements is the penning of love scenes which convey the idealism of youth. Instead of explicit description of physical acts, he uses the lyricism of the poetry which the lovers recite tenderly to each other, creating a subtle eroticism which is more effective than any graphic prose.
Where characterization is concerned, of the two chief protagonists, Tony is a maverick who masks his real feelings and intentions with a facade of jokes, witty remarks and a constant stream of anecdotes.
Devika, on the other hand comes across as a forthright person who is very much a modern, liberated woman. With her, the writer draws a remarkably sympathetic portrait of this phenomenon that will instantly strike a responsive chord in most women.
The novel does not claim to discuss any aspects of the university experience which are weightier than the lighter side of campus life, chiefly the extra-curricular activities of the students. This focus evokes the different strands of undergraduate life which weave their attractions outside the austere corridors of learning. There are references to the national politics of the time, rather than student politics, but the former concern the reader because Gladstone Amarasekera, Devika's father, has a stake in them.
This is a first novel and Valentine Perera experiments with the writing technique of using dialogue as in normal conversation as his chief modus operandi. The characters and the action are viewed mainly through the conversations they engage in. This incessant talking may weary some readers or not suite individual tastes. Others will be drawn to reflect on how much or how little can be gathered through this method of communication and its inherent possibilities.
Mahaweli Meadow is a light and entertaining book but it has its serious aspects as well which will attract the discerning reader. One theme is the importance of a sound system of values which balances the needs of the individual with the collective wisdom of tradition as expressed in the culture of any society. The development of Tony's character is illustrative of the significance of this.
Another theme points to the acute need in civil society for individuals to recognize the wider perspective, that of their common humanity, rather than the narrowness of ethnicity. In an era when the world-wide tendency is for people to stress their separate ethnicities, the firm friendship between Tony, Aru and Larry is more than exemplary. They come from three different ethnic communities, but their friendship transcends divisiveness and remains enduring despite events born of racial violence which are erupting in the background of the novel.
These thought-provoking themes give substance to the novel and make it worth reading.
Brief Note on the Writer
These days, as the leaves begin to fall, Valentine flies from London, like a migratory snipe, and spends a few weeks in Colombo before chasing the sun to Melbourne. In early spring he reverses the process returning to London via Colombo.