Yasmine Gooneratne’s portrayal of the immigrant experience is as funny and poignantly ironic as Jhumpa Lahiri’s work on a similar topic is earnest. That is not necessarily a criticism of Lahiri’s work, but it demonstrates that not everything about the meeting and clashing of cultures need be deadly serious. A Change of Skies is the Sri Lankan-Australian academic and author’s first novel. Bharat and Navaranjini Mangala-Davasinha move to Australia from Sri Lanka in the late 1960s/early 1970s, initially temporarily, for Bharat to take up a lecturing position at Southern Cross University in Sydney. Friends and family warn them that Australia is a complete backwater, the ends of the earth, a cultural wasteland, and that soon they will be pining to return to the centre of civilisation, Sri Lanka. What was a five year stint becomes a permanent move. Bharat and Navaranjini even change their names to Barry and Jean Mundy, to fit in in Australia.
What makes Gooneratne’s style so appealing to me in this novel is that it is clear that her tongue is firmly in her cheek as she writes from both perspectives: she both mocks and praises aspects of both her adopted country and her homeland. I read A Change of Skies while leaving Australia, my own adopted home, and travelling to Asia, first Malayasia and afterwards India. It held so many parallels, perhaps inverted parallels, with my experiences of travelling to a place where social and public behaviours are different from those I have internalised. As a westerner (whatever that means, I am somewhat allergic to the term), descriptions in travel accounts of arrival in exotic Asia are all too familiar to me. I am bored of reading the clichés of the assaults on the senses that arrival in India (or China, or wherever) brings about. So Gooneratne’s inversion of this amused me. On arriving in Australia, Bharat observes, rather panicked:
“I became suddenly aware of a series of white lines that divided the road we were on into lanes. With a file of cars before and behind us, with similar files on our left and right, we seemed to speed along at an alarming rate in complete silence, the cars on our left and right now drawing level with us, now leaving us behind, now falling back, so that it seemed to me we were like racehorses all coursing onward together, separated from one another but moving with one consent towards a single goal.” (p. 58)
Just the other day I was complaining with an American woman about the incessant honking in Delhi. It’s enough to give anyone a headache, and frequently does me. But she was saying that Indian friends of hers in the US had expressed that when driving without the horn, they initially felt at risk, like other drivers wouldn’t know they were there…. Makes sense as long as all drivers do the same.
Stories of being horribly conned and ripped off in India are shared like greetings about one’s health, or the weather, between western travelers in India, and the result can often be a horrible over-defensiveness that leads to behaviour that nobody would ever consider acceptable at home, like telling a shop owner to f@#$ off when they invite you into their shop, or simply never trusting anyone and therefore missing out on kindnesses that would never occur at home (I was a couple of thousand rupees short of being able to pay in cash for something I wanted in a Kashmiri shop today, and my credit card declined–instead of me coming back later, the shop keeper told me to take my purchase and come back tomorrow to pay. I am still astonished). Again, Gooneratne’s descriptions of her characters’ return to Sri Lanka seemed to mirror my experiences at the moment. Bharat and Navaranjini are determined not to act like expats: “Expats make scenes, expats complain about the food being ‘off’ in expensive hotels, about faulty air conditioning, about the absence of toothpaste, about the dubious cleanliness of sheets, about the disgusting state of public lavatories. Expats make fools of themselves by losing their tempers. Nationals don’t do any of these things.” (p. 262) Replace “expat” with “tourist”, and you may get my point.
A charming and amusing quirk is Gooneratne’s naming of her Anglo-Australian characters after fish. As well as the main characters changing their names to Jean and Barry Mundy, Bharat/Barry’s workmates include Maude Crabbe, John Dory, Angel Fysshe, Pat Whitynge, and so on. Credit to Gooneratne, I picked up on this rather late. As well as having a comic effect, this is also a postcolonial writing back; Gooneratne explains in the Author’s Note: “For my Western characters I have used an ichthyic code modelled on what appears to have been a colonial tradition of naming natives of a colonised country after animals, vegetables, or articles of food” (p. 327).
I’m not sure how easy A Change of Skies is to get hold of these days; I noticed at least one online bookseller saying it was out of print, though I can’t confirm the accuracy of that. I picked up my copy at the legendary Canberra Lifeline Book Sale, and I strongly recommend others try to do the same.