Appadurai Muttulingam’s stories often offer perspective by having characters from wildly different societies and/or ways of living in the same story. A veteran and his parents who have led a far cushier life (The Good Earth). A mother from Sri Lanka visiting her son that has settled down in Canada (After Yesterday). A refugee and a Canadian woman (The Witch’s Sister). This juxtaposition of people, and the clashes that occur due to their differences, offer readers a straightforward and personable way of reading about the “other”. By “other” I mean anyone that is not part of a group that the reader might consider themselves a part of. For example, in the case of the three stories I mentioned, I would be part of the “has a cushy life in a Western country” group of people. The civil war veteran, the mother, and the refugee are “others” to me.
What must be appreciated about Muttulingam in these stories is that there is no arrogance. While individual characters might behave a certain way, the overall tone of his stories is matter-of-fact acceptance. No side is overtly portrayed as correct. Things simply are. Everyone is a product, in a major or minor way, of their society and/or environment with plenty to learn from other people. Like Amanda does from her refugee lover in The Witch’s Sister.
This simple acceptance is what grew my respect for Muttulingam. It’s easy to look at people who do not know the same things that you know, and call them stupid. To take your knowledge, opinions, and world view as the correct one and denigrate anything else as lesser or – if you’re particularly audacious – outright wrong. Muttulingam could have very easily brought an imperious perspective to his stories. As a man that has traveled the world and learned a vast amount of things, he could have his less-traveled characters be simple fools. Or, despite his travels, he could have held onto the belief that his way of living or thinking is the correct one and have a judgemental attitude to outsider thoughts. Instead his stories reflect an acceptance, a celebration, of diversity.
Reading his story Son Of A Chameleon is what cemented my previous thoughts. The story is about a man from Sri Lanka that has traveled around a vast chunk of the world. He makes it to Greece, travels the world as part of his job on a ship, loses his job, joins the Turkish mafia, and, eventually, finds himself back in Greece. This time under the custody of immigration officers. All this occurs in a period of roughly four years, leaving him a man of many stories that are wildly unbelievable. It transforms him into a man without fear for what is to come because of all that he has seen. What could have wrought this transformation if not an exposure to a variety of people? It’s not a simple case of a man becoming jaded after a difficult life. This man, this son of a chameleon, considers the whole world his. If it is of this world, it is not something he can fear. If he does not fear it, then why should we?
Well. There are plenty of reasons to still fear it. A single glance at any news page gives enough reasons. However, the positivity in Muttulingam’s stories is refreshing and, more importantly, necessary. Abject despair and cynicism at the world’s affairs can keep us safe but for any real positive change to occur, there needs to be positivity and hope. At the very least there needs to be perseverance like we see in Mahesh, the main character of Muttulingam’s The Girl On The Train. Mahesh, a refugee, is conned, abandoned, subject to racism, and starved throughout the story to the point of contemplating suicide. Yet he does not. He keeps going, using whatever will power is latent in him, and even has the guts to fall in love at first sight. It was an extremely endearing moment for me in that story. Here’s a man that has been kicked repeatedly into a metaphorical pulp, and still his heart flutters like a butterfly upon seeing a woman. And still he keeps going. Just as we must.
Not all of Muttulingam’s stories end happily like Mahesh’s. Seelan’s story, The Good Earth, ends in his death. He is a veteran suffering from trauma whose parents find him again after decades of separation. They bring him to Canada, where they’ve created a luxurious life for themselves, and their son cannot adjust. Seelan’s problems that result from culture shock are compounded by his experiences in the war. He goes from starving with a gun forever at his side to defenseless and full of food at a moment’s whim. Who Seelan has become is incompatible with who his parents have become and both sides lack the knowledge on how to bridge that gap. It’s a reality faced by thousands and thousands of families around the world: One’s own flesh and blood, heart of hearts, has become the other.
They try, of course. To understand. To help. They try. But, for whatever reason, they fail. What’s the solution here? The answer, as abstract as it may seem, is in Muttulingam’s stories. Travel. Educating oneself. Experiencing things outside of what we already know. All of that will help us put ourselves in the other’s shoes. At the very least it’ll open our minds and hearts to listening to them. I’m not so naive as to think that knowledge and wisdom guarantee the survival of the million ‘Seelan’s in the world. Or, to extrapolate to other problems we face, that knowledge and wisdom is enough to bring positive change. I do think it would help. I believe the positivity, perseverance, and perspective in Muttulingam’s stories are what we need. If we can’t have those three, then we must, at the bare minimum, emulate Muttulingam’s respect for humanity.
It’s the through line that I see twining twixt the threads of his stories. Respect. Whether or not the reader can find it between the characters of Muttulingam’s stories, between the ‘Mahesh’s and the lying white men, they can see it in the author himself. He respects humanity and the world we’ve made.
And with it he gives us stories.
(A review of A. Muttulingam’s Stories by R.S. Saha, one of the essays got published in the book ‘Aaraam Thinaiyin Kathavugal’. This book was released to honor A. Muttulingam , an awardee of Ki. Ra. Viruthu 2022)