Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review of Nanda Pethiyagoda's 'Emerged'

Link up to published version

Let’s first drop all pretences: very few of us had any taste for History at school. It was all a memorizing of names and dates that meant nothing to us. So when one hears the title of Nanda Pethiyagoda’s research-narrative Emerged: Noteworthy Women from Kandy, the read doesn’t seem too welcome. But the term “don’t judge a book by its cover” (or title rather, in this case) is a good piece of advice to remember here. What the insides hold will really surprise you.

The book is an enjoyable and engrossing read! True, the cover is beautiful but rather dull, the title sounds prosaic and the first few words of the front flap “this researched study” really put one off. But the introduction as well as the first ‘half’ of the book are obviously the result of much thought and personal engagement, and therefore make a really captivating read. Nanda Pethiyagoda talks of serious social (and to a large extent feminist) theory in her informal style, making the whole discussion much easier to digest and something of a light conversation over cups of tea! With what ease she seems to manage the flow is quite amazing, and has the potential to provide an education on the issues she addresses to those not usually inclined to reading such material.

Emerged: Noteworthy Women from Kandy portrays the lives of eight women, “middle class Kandyans of means”, who lived and “emerged” in the time period between 1900 and 1950. In and through these portrayals the author explores the issues of conservatism and patriarchy, attempting to discern “whether the social milieu these emerged women came from was patriarchal” and “to what extent the emerged women were influenced and guided to emerge by their mothers who were conservative and within a patriarchal system”. These academic goals are combined with a genuine interest in telling the stories of these remarkable women, providing the author with a unique style and flow.

Nanda Pethiyagoda is obviously personally very interested in the issues she discusses. Even the introduction to the author on the back flap highlights her interest in “the situation of women” and “particularly those from her place of birth and upbringing – Kandy”. Maybe because of this strongly personal nature of the inquiry, or because of the strength of her interest in the study, the research questions she asks as a point of departure to her narrative, tend either to be biased or to be based on broad assumptions. Though from an academic point of view this may seem a negative, it is this bias and assumption that hold the narrative together and makes it interesting.

The need to qualify the first statement as “the first ‘half’” arises out of the fact that the second ‘half’ doesn’t seem to flow as well. While part I consists of Pethiyagoda’s own thoughts and therefore provides better-organized material for writing, part II is built mainly of quotations from biographees and relatives of biographees, complemented by Pethiyagoda’s comments on these quotations. The juxtaposition of comments against quotes (i.e.: theorisations against stories) is not an easy feat to achieve, and the flow of the writing seems to suffer because of this.

The work Nanda Pethiyagoda sets out to achieve nevertheless, is monumental. It takes rare amounts of bravery to nose-dive into the kind of discussion the author engages in, and much more skill to take the reader along as well, without demanding much or losing him/her along the way. The author’s experience as an academic and prolific writer help her overcome these minor setbacks and make the end result a well-balanced portrayal of the amazing yet un-sung women of Kandy that Nanda Pethiyagoda knows and admires.

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