2020 Aug 7
“I could feel the power of her will bending my will, breaking my strength like the giraya cutting the arecanut into pieces.”
An intriguing tale of symbolic significance that boldly seeps into the fabric of the Sri Lankan society and its many folds of firmly rooted ideologies and social structures, Punyakante Wijenaike’s Giraya is an explorative read with gothic elements largely contributing to the narrative of the story.
Wijenaike weaves an enigmatic string of characters, struggling in a disintegrating upper middle class feudal family into her exploration of the personal and the political. Addressing lesser discussed themes during the time, such as, sexual oppression intertwined with assimilation, acceptance and social hierarchies, the story holds contemporary social relevance even after twenty three years of its first publication in 1997.
Giraya unravels its enigma through the diary entries of its protagonist, Kamini, a middle class woman of rural village descent, married into a man of a high class feudal family. The diary entries are prominently marked with the Sinhalese calendar, reflecting the stagnant, or rather decaying aristocratic feudal mansion and its members in the middle of a society facing gradual transformation, set in the backdrop of Land Reforms of Sri Lanka during the 1970’s.
A prominent symbol of power and dominion throughout the narrative, an areca nut slicer, called giraya in Sinhalese is a common object in traditional Sinhalese households. Kamini’s mother-in-law Adelaine and Lucia Hamy as a longstanding loyal servant of the household are in control of the areca nut slicer and it acts as an agent of psychological oppression in the novel, although the novel ends in Kamini’s desire to acquire the object, suggesting a subsequent change of the household’s power dynamic. Shaped in the form of a woman, giraya also takes on a binary role of the victim and victimizer, signifying the narrative’s female dominance, in stark contrast to Adelaine’s masterful, yet futile attempt at fighting for her son and grandson’s future in the manor.
While the reader may come across Wijenaike’s descriptions of possible queer identities in the novel to be unnatural or grotesque, restricted within the hegemonic narrative of sexuality, she succeeds in portraying the struggle of queer identities and relationships.
A secretive life of a tormented mother and servant, a son who is forced to hide his sexuality in a failed marriage, a frustrated sister and a daughter-in-law in the middle of the twisted mysteries that surround her family, Giraya is certainly a dark and gripping tale worth your investment.