Travels from a lockdown Sri Lankan storyteller | Daily News

Travels from a lockdown Sri Lankan storyteller

Mandari Perera, currently studying her A’levels in Colombo, is not following the island’s usual career path of law, medicine or even engineering. She wants to break away from the stereotypical career pathways and become a writer, poet and island story teller, which is far from easy when locked down like all her fellow students, while doing everything online for the last 18 months.

She explains with the biggest twinkle in her eyes, “My father is a Marine Engineer, so, because of the nature of his work, he spends most of his time away at sea, going to various different parts of the world and exploring different cultures. Some of my earliest memories are the stories (some made up and some true) that he would tell me whenever we ate together: stories of pirate ships, native legends and folktales, stories from religious scriptures, true crime stories of wars and drug cartels and more.” As a toddler, Mandari was so green with envy because of his escapades around the globe while she was stuck in Negombo. So, to curb her childish fits of anger, he would bring back children’s story books from the respective country he visited that year (whether it be China, Brazil, or Kenya) and those story books ended up being his daughter’s first introduction to the canon of literature, and not just english literature but world literature.

With this fascination for travel and wanting to speak out about the importance of story telling, something all ancestors did for thousands of years, she decided to do a Ted Talk on the subject at the age of 15, in front of a live audience and film camera. She says, “The real reason behind my speech was honestly very simple: I wanted to write but no one was taking me seriously. At the time, I remember feeling so stressed because it was the year before my GCSEs and all my teachers were talking about was subject selection and A levels, and how it was very important to pick subjects that put us on a path to a “good and respectable life.” At the time, I didn’t know anyone that looked like me who wanted to do an artistic degree at university, or pursue an artistic career of professional writing. It was always seen as something I could do on the “side” because being someone other than a lawyer or doctor was too bohemian a concept in my small town. There is a lot of stigma around the notion of pursuing writing because of the fear that since english wasn’t my mother tongue, I wouldn’t be taken seriously by my peers as a brown woman writing in a white man’s language. But luckily I was blessed with a mother who never imposed those standards or ideas on me.”

Home for Mandari was always a very creative, magical, and safe place, with her dad coming and going with incredible stories from around the world, and so, inspired by the response she got from the Ted Talk, Mandari chose to study History, English Literature and Economics at A Level, which she thinks are very complimentary subjects, because of the ways they explore human behaviour and relationships over the centuries. Her aim, from talking to her in her bedroom via Zoom, is to publish writing works for the entire world to consume, as she thinks, “In a society that believes in capitalism above all else, where money is the be all and end all, it’s hard for the average person to convince others about the true purpose art plays in modern human society. Mandari wants to travel, and her favourite place, when things finally open up, is the old city of Galle Fort, “I do love poetry, and especially the process of writing it. My poems are probably partly confessional, being about my experiences growing up as a young woman in a very unique coastal town, in a very unique island, and around my personal relationships; especially my experiences post Covid-19, and having to deal with the loss of a very important part of my youth, in a way.”

She laments, “Unfortunately I think because of the crippling financial situations in most countries, and by extension the added pressure that comes with wanting to “survive” in today’s world, it’s only fair to assume that a lot of my peers would choose a more traditionally “safe” path for their futures.” But she is also hopeful, “However, I also believe that some of the best pieces of art come in reaction to unsatisfactory social or economical situations, like the Beat Generation in America or the Romantic Poets for example. So, maybe the recent tragedies that have come with the pandemic will inspire people to actually share their stories and art with the world and create a resurgence in the appreciation for post-modern art, writing and storytelling.”

She feels that a lot of South Asian literature gets hidden under the covers of the Western canon, “The West is seen for their great art and literature, and especially known for the great power and influence they hold over the world. Southeast Asia is unfortunately known as a relatively poor part of the world, and Sri Lanka is also seen by most as a relatively poor “exotic third world” country. So, I think that it’s hard for most people in places like the UK and US to see past this and understand our brilliant engineering knowledge and wisdom, in so many different areas. Likewise, they think we are unable to produce great art and literature, which is just not the case.

However, Mandari’s love of writing and travelling won’t be discouraged however long and endless the lockdowns are. For her, literature-wise, her favourite writer is a close tie between Haruki Murakami and Franz Kafka. “I adore the way Murakami is able to create literary puzzles through his writing and elements like magical realism, and his really profound exploration of human relationships and growth. As a teenager, it’s comforting to read and relate to the (often young) protagonists in his stories and the highs and lows they experience. My love for Franz Kafka endures for a very different reason. I am personally very interested in existentialist texts and literature that explore the darkest and most unstrained parts of human nature, often seen as something to be ignored or suppressed. To me, Kafka’s extremely bleak, yet unbelievably realistic, take on the very nature of human society is something that really influences me as a student of English, and the way I approach certain aspects of life in regards to things like solitude, authoritarian figures, morality, and love, amongst other subjects. And, obviously, he has the most romantic writing, especially in his published Diary entries and Letters to Milena, which are interestingly juxtaposed with his nightmarish vision of the world.”

Despite all the western labels, Mandari feels blessed to have been born on a paradise island like Sri Lanka, which has such a unique history, which influences generations of great writers and storytellers. She explains, “Having endured colonisation by three European countries, you can still see their individual influences carved into the architecture of beautiful old buildings in Colombo and Galle, to stories from the civil war, which plagued our country for 26 years, and folk legends and art from both Buddhist and Hindu scriptures on the lives of Gods and Kings. Sri Lanka is truly a melting pot of different attitudes towards life and what it means to live, influenced by the turbulent, almost dystopian past histories of the nation that live on through the lips of Sri Lankan women and men and continue to be passed down to children like myself. I think this is what makes the island’s storytelling bewitch everyone who comes here.”

Bewitched when allowed out to travel by the aesthetic story telling nature of Galle Fort is one of the many reasons, she loves the old Dutch and British buildings hidden here in Colombo and Galle. Every one of these architectural gems tells a story for example in Galle Fort, she says “everywhere you turn there’s always a new color, new aesthetic, and new life, it’s in a way a time capsule, because it looks very different to the rest of Sri Lanka and I love studying history so that’s probably why I’m so drawn to the town, as are most people.” Mandara in particular is fascinated by the story of All Saints Church on Church Street, which is interesting because on one hand it is a building of such beauty, that at the same time covers up a dark secret, the gallows that was once positioned, where the alter now is. In a way the ruins of such a deathly machine like the gallows is almost poetic, it plays an instrumental role in the process of forgetting such horrible histories existed, it’s also ironically appropriate with the aura expected from colonial architecture of the time: a timelessness, spooky or eerie aura emanates from it.”

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