Shirani Rajapakse has produced a series of short pieces in “Breaking News,” and taken together they give us a memorable and highly affecting cross-section of Sri Lanka cringing in the grip of terror. Various viewpoints center the stories, from the man who loses his leg to a land mine (only to go home to misunderstanding and callous disregard), to the woman who loses her husband and two grade-school sons to marauding soldiers in one moment – her husband is killed on the spot and she never sees her sons, aged five and seven, again.
Loss pervades these pieces, some of which are little more than snippets. Atrocities, most of which are attributed to the Tamil Tigers, rip families apart, result in the murder of innocents, and destroy lives. The language is simple and unadorned, marked by a starkness exactly appropriate to the subject matter. The stories contain oblique descriptions of people and places, but pain and loss form the major chord in these related arias. “Emerald Silk” portrays a woman removing herself from a marriage and a concrete high-rise in which she feels herself cut off from the milieu in which she feels most comfortable, the earth. This story, and “Sepalika,” display the collection’s most effective descriptions of natural surroundings. “The Boy from Wellawatte” depicts a young Muslim man who completely changes what he’s comfortable in, and it isn’t home and hearth. Bodies bob to the surface by the score and run aground in a mournful piece called “Like Driftwood on the Kelani.” As the body count grows and the local population tries to cope, a young woman finally gives up hope of ever seeing her lover again. In this piece, the river is anthropomorphized as an unwilling partner in the terror and war. It is a fine touch.
Whether warfare, poverty, displacement, or terror is the immediate cause, the stories in “Breaking News” lay bare the suffering so widespread in war-torn Sri Lanka. As I said, I found it a highly affecting collection, and apparently I was not alone. It was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2010. The Gratiean Prize honors creative writing in English in Sri Lanka. I congratulate Ms. Rajapakse and thank her for the privilege she bestowed on me by providing a manuscript copy.