“People could slash and seethe over who owned what chunk of land all they wanted but I understood it wasn’t theirs to begin with”
Seek the Singing Fish, by Roma Wells, tells the story of Artemila De Zilwa, a young Sri Lankan woman who grew up during the years of her country’s civil war. Told from her perspective, the experiences recounted are not for the faint-hearted. She addresses herself to Shi, ‘breath of life’, and describes the traumas she suffered as her ‘twisted voyage’. What we have here is an odyssey shadowed by the appalling cruelties man inflicts, even on his own kind – the commodification and destruction of lives by those seeking control.
Mila has a deep appreciation for and curiosity about the natural world. It is this that sustains through the many and varied aspects of situations inflicted on her. She compartmentalises memories, closing doors on some and opening others for comfort. The knowledge of creatures abilities and habits shared are fascinating – a highlight amidst the disturbing accounts of abuse and tragedy.
A prologue sets the scene for what is to come. Shi is told that Mila has a mangled face, disfigured by shrapnel – ‘I am beauty spoiled; Lanka corrupted.’ The first of the three parts into which the story is divided then covers her childhood.
Mila came from an intelligent and caring family. Her parents married for love, a choice that estranged them from their wider clans. She was closer to her father, an English professor who instilled in his young daughter a love of books and learning. He listened carefully to her and encouraged her interest in wildlife. Her mother favoured Mila’s little brother, Ravi. Both children appreciated the delicious food their mother could conjure from whatever ingredients were available.
The early pages explain the reasons why war raged all around. None were spared from the violence – the tit for tat torture and destruction. Mila’s father would talk to her in metaphors, trying to offer explanations for the madness of the conflict. Both he and his daughter understood that, despite the propaganda, more connected those fighting each other than divided.
“we look for differences in the Vedas, the Quram, the Bible and the Sutras when their ink runs with the same intent. After all, the very word religion means to bind in its Latin origin.”
As with so many in this time and place, grief soon fractures the family, each survivor dealing with the aftermath without support. They are then challenged by the devastation wreaked by a tsunami. The coming together of warring sides to cope and rebuild is short lived. Mila’s eyes are opened to the dark side of nature as well as its beauty.
Mila finds solace with an older friend made at a local market, and in caring for a stray dog. She meets Kai, a young fisherman orphaned and placed in the care of an alcoholic uncle.
“He reminded me of the elephants who’d undergone phajan, the training regimen used to beat and starve them into submission for the tourist industries.”
Their burgeoning love story is schismed by the war.
The second part of the book is set in London and offers yet another seriously disturbing aspect of human behaviour. Mila knows to keep her head down if she is to survive this life but is once again scarred by what she sees happening around her. For a time she works as a cleaner in a wealthy family’s home – invisible to them amidst their sterile surrounds.
“it was all for show; lifeless items to be admired but not touched. A gallery disguised as a house masquerading as a home.”
The third and final part of Mila’s story offers closure of sorts. There are elements of luck – timely coincidence – to achieve this. Nothing is sugar coated but this is, perhaps, the least satisfying of what is a desperately hard hitting account of man’s inhumanity.
Woven throughout the horrific descriptions of abuse are stunningly beautiful evocations of the natural world. Sitting alongside such challenges as living with PTSD, the Sri Lankan lagoons, even the parks of London, become oasis.
The language used to tell this tale is impressively rich but never cloying. Mila never asks for sympathy but rather seeks understanding. While not always easy to consider man’s behaviour, there is much beauty to be found elsewhere when looked for. This story offers a metaphor for the lives we all must live – a way of coping.
A thought-provoking but always engaging tale interlaced with stunning imagery. For those able and willing to consider the myriad traumas of conflict, this is a recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, époque press.