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Manikkuwadumestri (Tissa) Chandrasoma: Out Out Brief Candle

The title comes from Macbeth Act V and, as in Shakespeare, is meant to indicate the impermanence of life. While the story is not autobiographical, there are clearly autobiographical elements in it. The novel is divided into four chapters, named after the narrator of that chapter. The first two are called Sidath. We start with his birth, just after the end of World War I, which was very inauspicious. Not only was there a thunderstorm but a tree was brought down, both signs of bad luck. He was named Sidath (the Sinhalese for Siddartha). His Great-Aunt Sarah, who will continue to have an influence throughout the novel, had prayed to Lord Kataragama after the inauspicious birth and claims that it was her prayers that saved his life. Sarah is unmarried and accepts that she never will be married, so helps various relatives. She takes the young Sidath to the shrine of Lord Kataragama, so that he can give thanks to him. It is Sarah who organises a special religious ceremony for Uncle Francis, who suddenly gets a high fever. He recovers the next day. However, she is unable to help Francis’ wife. Soon after his wife dies, Aunt Alice (much younger than Francis) moves in with Francis to look after him but there is a lot of gossip about this relationship. It is partially as a result of this gossip that Francis does not win his first attempt at standing as an M.P.

In 1938 Sidath passes his exams and becomes a clerk in the Chief Secretary’s office, a great honour. He goes to live with the family of Ian de Hoedt, a schoolfriend, while in Colombo. It is there that he has his first sexual encounter, with Norma, Ian’s sister. The pair are going to announce their engagement, when Sidath learns of the death of his father. He hurries home, leaving a letter for Norma to post, addressed to his superiors, explaining the situation. However, while he is away, Colombo is heavily bombed by the Japanese. On his return, his superior has received no letter and maintains that there was no letter and he is summarily fired. When he goes to the de Hoedt’s house, he learns that Norma has had a nervous breakdown, as a pilot she had been engaged to for three months and was pregnant by, had been shot down and killed by the Japanese. Sidath immediately returns home to manage his late father’s smallholdings.

Much of the rest of the two sections on Sidath has the narrator telling both of the various events in the fairly complicated family and the changes in the political situation in Sri Lanka, starting with independence. Uncle Francis finally wins an election and Sidath becomes his political secretary. When Bandaranaike makes Sinhalese the official language, this unleashes a lot of opposition and a lot of violence. Sidath will eventually become an M.P. and Uncle Francis a minister but, by then, Sri Lanka had been subject to mass upheaval, as we learn in the next chapter.

The next chapter is called Bandu. Bandu (short for Bandula) is the son of Uncle Francis and Aunt Alice who, by now, have married. Bandu has been trouble from an early age. He was expelled from school for stealing school books and selling them. He smokes marijuana. He is sent to London to study and there he meets a member of a Sri Lankan opposition group. He returns to Sri Lanka to join this group. Initially they support the opposition but when the opposition is elected and then turns on them, they, in their turn, respond, leading to a state of emergency. The rest of the book describes the actions of this group, which also includes Sidarth’s children and Great-Aunt Sarah, now in her eighties. The final chapter is a short one, narrated by Sarah. Naturally, things do not go well for the family.

While somewhat bitty – we lose track of Sidarth in the later part, except as regards his children – Chandrasoma tells a good story of a family caught up in the turmoil of Sri Lanka and seems to hark back to the good old days of British rule, even while criticising it. But the final piece of wisdom is left to the now venerable Sarah, who tends to see things more clearly than the others.

Publishing history

First published in English 1981 by Caxton Printing Works, Colombo