Sandali said that ‘Rao’s Guide to Lime-Pickling’ was a difficult story to write, but it was the one she felt most strongly about

Interview with budding writer Sandali Ash whose novella ‘Rao’s Guide to Lime-Pickling’ has been shortlisted for the big award

The youngest among the 2014 Gratiaen Prize shortlisted writers Sandali Ash believes that literature is a representation of life; hopes, dreams, sorrows, trials and politics of our times. “It is all-encompassing and limitless. Whether it is fantasy, fiction, poetry or biography, what we can say with a pen can perhaps eclipse many things we accomplish in reality. To me, it is inspiration, art and beauty all in one,” Sandali said in an interview with The Nation. Her manuscript ‘Rao’s Guide to Lime-Pickling’ was lauded for its clear, engaging narrative, its credible characters, its imaginative plot with its clever twists and for its creative use of language at the shortlist announcement.

She is 23 years old. Born and raised in Colombo, she chose science and mathematics as her field of education. In 2013, she graduated from University of South Florida with a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. She currently works on a startup project while reading for a Masters in Financial Economics.  She is also currently writing her first full-length novel.

Her childhood was influenced by many creative individuals, one of them being her father. “I owe my creativity to him,” she said adding that the foundation for enthusiasm in literature was laid at home. She started university hoping to become a chemical engineer, but quickly grew tired of the motions. She wanted to switch to something that offered her a choice after graduating. “I had no creative outlet at the time and it became frustrating. I was starting to lose my handle on things when I began my thesis,” she recalled how she started writing the story. “In a way, it saved me. I had many stories in my head and it just made sense to at least attempt to write them down,” Sandali said adding that Rao’s Guide was a difficult story to write, but it was the one she felt most strongly about.

If we were all satisfied with the current state of things, we would not think it necessary to improve and there is always room for improvement

She started reading English books when she was about ten years. She was soon reading classics and quickly moved on to the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Paulo Coelho, Orhan Pamuk and Albert Camus. The addiction she developed towards reading also inspired her to try her hand at creating stories. “I never thought these stories were worth anything so they rarely left my notebooks or my computer. My High School English teacher told me I was not a good writer and this discouraged me for a few years,” she said. With a little bit of maturity she understood that her teacher was right and realized her mistakes.

“She was right. I was writing as if I were translating Sinhala phrases directly into English. I also had trouble with precision; there was a lot of rambling. I refrained from writing prose and poetry. But I was a student, so I had to write a lot of reports, essays and the like,” she said. Over a period of time, with a lot of practice, she got better at being concise. She also believes that this can be an obstacle all writers face when they are writing in a language which is not their mother tongue. “There are habits that are difficult to shake off. There is also that element of fear; of our work not being good enough,” she pointed out.

Our country has a very small community of English language writers and a small community that shows interest in reading their work. Yet, the number of exceptional publications coming out of Sri Lanka is on the rise which is exciting for any reader or writer. “I hope this continues. A good book or collection of poetry is a rare and precious thing. We have a lot of talent in Sri Lanka and I’m always excited to read what comes out,” Sandali iterated. When she was asked whether she is satisfied with contemporary English literature in the country, Sandali said that she sees satisfaction as a highly subjective matter. “If we were all satisfied with the current state of things, we would not think it necessary to improve and there is always room for improvement.”

She also mentioned that she has observed that there is a big effort to promote literary appreciation in the country. “I’ve often seen the same faces at the Literary Festivals in the past few years. Organizers and a passionate few will always be in attendance. There is also that feeling of ‘elitism’ when we think of the English-speaking community in Sri Lanka that needs to change,” she emphasized. “This is why awards like the Gratiaen are very important. They offer an opportunity for writers to submit work, anonymously if they choose to, and have the work read by a comprehensive panel.” She believes that this creates healthy competition. “There were 25 odd entries this year and I see that as a positive thing,” she said in a tone which had a lot of hope.

She also said that it is a great honor to be shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize. “It is the most prestigious award for English writing in the country. There is controversy surrounding the politics of the award, but that is expected with any award given to the arts; there is never a clear winner because all works of art are different and deserve merit for varied reasons,” she said.

She further said that there is a danger of people writing with the sole intention of winning competitions. “This is true for any discipline. Awards and competitions must be lauded for what they are: ways to encourage and appreciate. They should not be treated as forms of validation,” she stressed that greatness of a work cannot be measured solely by the number of awards it has won.

People are hesitant to publish their work, let alone apply for an award. She said that she too is one of those hesitant people. I was perfectly happy with letting the manuscript sit on a shelf at home forever while I wrote other things,” she said. But she set her fears aside and decided to let a few close friends read it. With the positive feedback received, she felt encouraged and with some help the manuscript ended up with one of her favorite Sri Lankan authors. More positive feedback and she had enough courage to submit it. “I submitted it under a pen name. I was pleasantly shocked when my name was announced at the short listing ceremony,” she said.

When asked what made her name her manuscript as Rao’s Guide to Lime Pickling she said that it was named out of her obsession towards mystery. “This title makes me wonder, and that is why I chose it,” she said.  As she explained the novella is a work of fiction so the plot is also her creation. “I didn’t conjure it in a vacuum,” she said.

The first draft was written with an academic purpose. She spent a year thoroughly researching the conflict in Sri Lanka which included reading already published work, news articles and delving into archives. She had to study maps to know where she could take certain liberties with the geography of Northern Sri Lanka. She also visited the North following the war. As she sees what helped her most were the interviews. She compiled of a few people who grew up in Jaffna and other areas during the war. One person in particular was kind enough to describe his childhood in Jaffna, his experiences with displacement before eventually coming to Colombo. “I didn’t use any of his experiences because I thought he may want to write them down himself one day, but his inspiring story gave me a starting point,” she further said.

Rao’s guide to Lime Pickling is woven around war, violence and politics create the framework for the narrative, it is a story of life and is fiction set against real events. She doesn’t think that she is qualified enough to be writing about war. “I refrained from writing anything about the conflict for a long time because I did not feel that anything coming from me would sound authentic. After all, I am Sinhalese and grew up in Colombo,” she said. “Then I heard JK Rowling say, ‘Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared’,” she added.

She further spoke about her war-related experiences. “I am neither an expert on war nor have I personally experienced the horrific plights of the innocent Sri Lankan civilians suffered. My closest brush with violence came in 1996, when my father was in the Ceylinco building on the day the LTTE attacked the Central Bank,” she recalled.

No human life is inferior to another. No person is dispensable or insignificant whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or otherwise. “Therefore, what I can write about is the value of life. What I can write about are the ways in which ‘life’ tries, time and time again, to be beautiful, in spite of everything that works against it. As a fellow human, I know of our resilience, the strength of hope and the power of imagination,” she reiterated.

“I may lack credentials or experience, but I believe that we all have a right to live, and live peacefully. As flawed as it may be, I love my country and its people. I hope my novella reads as a caution against the repetition of such dark times,” she expressed her patriotism.