A gentle caress and a slap in the face, Veronica Maughan

Sodden Downstream
Brannavan Gnanalingam
Lawrence and Gibson, $29.00,
ISBN 9780473410292

She walked in the hope that the tracks would lift her up, like the travelator that she marvelled at the airport, and carry her to Wellington. But there was no magic around. The bushes next to the tracks looked as if they would eat Sita up. The overhead wires looked as if they were glued on to rusty pylons. She saw smashed green beer bottles and junk mail strewn on the grass. She decided to walk on the other side of the road. If a train went past, at least she could wait half an hour for the next one. The longer she took, the less money she’d earn, but she was going to get there unless a wall of water was in the way.

In Brannavan Gnanalingam’s Sodden Downstream, anything and everything feels possible. The novel allows us to peek into a day in the life of Sita, a Tamil Sri Lankan refugee. A storm of biblical proportions is bearing down on the greater Wellington region and roads and public transport in and out of town have been shut down. Sita lives in the Hutt and is hurled into a surreal turbulence when her boss tells her she will lose her contract if she doesn’t somehow make it to her job – in central Wellington. The hook of the plot is clever: will Sita pull through against the odds or meet an insurmountable obstacle?

Throughout the novel are beautiful, fantastical descriptions of surroundings and characters. Told with a kind of awed disgust, these descriptions can’t help but feel linked to how Sita perceives her world. Gnanalingam weaves occasional humour, brief and punchy, throughout the novel. The deadpan jokes mirror Sita’s own frequent feeling of being “so guileless in New Zealand”. Like her, the jokes are observational and honest, bordering on unintentional rudeness. Haunting Sita’s thoughts and actions is her post-traumatic stress disorder as a refugee of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Intrusive thoughts jump into the narrative like a darting snake, in and then out. This mirrors the intense and somewhat surreal descriptions of setting and character. And, yet, all of the characters feel like people we’ve met before, and Gnanalingam sets the novel in places all Wellingtonians have been to.

We are posited clearly as voyeurs in this narrative, but this actually connects us closer to Sita. She is involved, yet so separate from, the events of the day – just as we are with her story. Her interactions with the strangers she meets are so familiar we can predict their endings. One such scene takes place when a young man approaches a walking Sita and asks if he can walk alongside her. The two walk in relative silence until a police car pulls up alongside them and a white policeman gets out. He simply greets the two, and the young man refuses to acknowledge him and whispers “fuck”. Instantly, the reader understands that this scene is either going to end in, or allude to, police brutality. A rightly current topic, Gnanalingam includes this episode to comment on the reality of a colonised country. The irony is that New Zealand is supposed to be a safe haven for Sita. During some of the more vivid descriptions of war, I felt shockingly immobilised, held to my seat with horror. And, yet, I felt heartened by the anecdotal scenes of humour and Sita’s strong devotion to her son Satish.

The familiar setting and very sympathetic characters combine with shocking war flashbacks to create a book at once comforting and discomforting. Gnanalingam leads us to a space hovering between a gentle caress and a slap in the face. The immediate question posed to us, the readers, is: why should we be comforted? If Sita does not have this easy comfort, why and how do we?

At once beautiful and haunting, Gnanalingam tells a story as well put together as a reconstructed fossilised skeleton. The heroine is surely one we all know deep in our bones. Sita embodies great female stoicism in the face of desperation. Bullied, patronised and ignored, her presence as a refugee and a woman of colour in this narrative is often a target of hatred. Her continued and seemingly endless drive to achieve her goal is awe-inspiring. Sita may admit to feeling guileless, but her wisdom is fervent: “She had seen some of the best behaved people back home do some of the worst things imaginable. As she thought earlier, ‘nice’ and ‘good’ were two different concepts.” Where many would give up, Sita keeps going. Whatever threatening people or dangerous weather Wellington throws at Sita, she responds with a simple gritting of her teeth, and a rolling up of her sleeves. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that Sita is so stubborn because she wants to be. She simply has to be. She is the sole breadwinner of her house and learned early on in the civil war that in order for her to survive she had to uncover in herself a remarkable will. As Gnanalingam notes early on in the novel, “Struggling people weren’t allowed to make mistakes.”

Veronica Maughan is a first-year student at Victoria University of Wellington, studying English.

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