Photo Courtesy of Srianthi Perera
In “A Maiden’s Prayer,” teenager Tamara de Silva reflects with wit and warmth the predicament of her bachelor uncle who is reluctant to marry in the face of family pressure.
Berty Uncle, an engineer with a lucrative job in the Middle East, has plenty of girlfriends, but a laidback approach to matrimony. Despite the family’s wild machinations — including employing crafty matchmakers and organizing drawing room meetings — Berty proceeds recklessly according to his own fancy. His rejection of tradition brings startling and unexpected results.
Consequently, both he and Tamara learn that one ignores the ancient ways at one’s own peril.
Every day at the twilight hour, with the regularity of vespers, Anoma, the young woman in the house opposite ours, would tenderly play A Maiden’s Prayer at the piano. Through the white lace curtains, her long tresses and shapely form could be seen bent over the instrument, while the notes of the melody would waft out of the window and wrap the neighborhood with its sweet melancholy.
Precisely at that same point in time, Quaver, Anoma’s maiden aunt of questionable sanity, could be seen led out of the house by the dogs. Her real name was Norah Dias, but hardly anyone referred to her by this appellation; the middle-aged music teacher was either “Quaver” or “Old Maid” behind her back and “Miss Norah” to her face.
It was a debatable matter whether Quaver was taking the dogs for a walk or the dogs were airing Quaver after her long day teaching at the piano. Viewed from a distance and seeing how eager the canines were to sniff at the lampposts, the latter description more accurately fit the bill. After a certain time, both parties had hit upon a mutual degree of equilibrium. Quaver had perfected a dogtrot to keep up behind the leash. At its most harmonious, poised at a 45-degree angle to the land, her only view of the scenery was of the dogs’ exposed derrières and curled tails. The curly tails formed perfect “O”s, denoting that they were pariahs and not of noble pedigree, but they were considerate of her circumstances and well-mannered enough to never cause her to fall.
Quaver was always dressed in the same long white twill dress, which had acquired a brown border of mud after many moons of these travels. She had long hair too, which, let down at the twilight hour, was not conducive to aesthetic pleasure. But no one had made any pointed remarks, as almost everyone in the neighborhood had had a son or daughter learn music from her. The neighbors simply surmised that “Quaver had lost her comb again,” because the music teacher was in the peculiar habit of borrowing a comb from her neighbors, after which she would neatly plait her thinning hair by her side of the fence and return the comb.
Along with A Maiden’s Prayer and the emergence of Quaver and the canines, another group of rather unwelcome members materialized. The murmur of mosquitoes also started precisely at this hour, as they rose out of the water-clogged drains, thrown away coconut shells and shrubbery; a ravenous army in search of dinner. Therefore, instead of being charmed and soothed by the drifting overture, when they saw and heard the spectacle just described, the neighbors were in a momentary frenzy, irritably swatting themselves while hastily closing the windows.“A Maiden’s Prayer” by Srianthi Perera
Set in tropical 1970s Sri Lanka, the coming-of-age literary novel was written by Chandler resident Srianthi Perera. Having enjoyed a successful career in journalism in Sri Lanka, the Sultanate of Oman, Canada and the US, Perera uses her travels to gather information for her writing.
Images Arizona recently caught up with Perera to ask the author a few questions about “A Maiden’s Prayer,” — the latest selection in its summer book club.
From where did you receive your inspiration for this book?
Living in the US, I thought back to my growing up in Sri Lanka and realized that the setting, culture and historical events were unfamiliar to a Western reader and would make good fodder for a book. My haunch was further substantiated when I participated first in a fiction writing class and then in a writing group, where I read chapters of my work. The response was heartening and helped me to finished the work.
Aside from that initial inspiration, were there any other experiences from your life that played a part in the setting, characters or trajectory of the plot?
The 1970s socio-political setting in Sri Lanka provides a backdrop to the story. It was a turbulent period in the country’s history, with a political party establishing socialist principles that resulted in food shortages, rationing and a soaring cost of living. The political environment of the day shaped the day-to-day life of this family.
Even though I was a girl at the time, the situation in the country affected me as well. Essential items such as food and clothing were rationed. I couldn’t choose my clothing. If I asked my mother to make a cake, she couldn’t because there was only an allotted amount of sugar for the household and it wasn’t sufficient. My brother had to stand in line at the bakery each morning to buy that day’s loaves of bread.
What themes did you aspire to tackle with this particular work? Did any other themes reveal themselves to you during the writing process?
Sri Lankan culture: The story opens a window on a hitherto unknown culture. Each chapter is a vignette with social, political or cultural context woven together by the thread of Berty Uncle’s life. It is also immensely nostalgic to other Sri Lankans who lived during that time.
Astrology: It examines Sri Lankan beliefs in the power of Vedic Astrology and the role an individual’s character plays in precipitating his karma. Astrology is the basis of many arranged marriages of the day.
Buddhism: The story is framed by Buddhist thought. More than 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, and follow ahimsa, the non-violent principles taught in the philosophy.
Coming-of-age: The story narrator is a 12-year-old girl who has just come of age in the beginning of the book and is rebelling against the enforced traditions.
The piano piece, “A Maiden’s Prayer”: I used the song as an external marker to indicate the characters’ moods. This theme was inserted later, but added a good component to the whole.
What or how are you hoping your book makes readers feel? What other takeaways do you hope they have?
“A Maiden’s Prayer” illustrates the universality of the human experience. This tiny island in the Indian Ocean, with its tumultuous history, is an unusual, exotic world. However, through the story, readers may reflect on just how similar we all are as human beings.
Another takeaway is the concept of family: In the Western world, where independence is valued, and children are trained to think — and fend — for themselves relatively from a young age and solitary lives are all too common, familial bonds are perhaps looser than in Asia. In the East, family is therapy. Loyalty and togetherness beget advice, gossip and a panacea to all ills. In the West, we are individuals, while in the East, we are a part of a whole.
What are some of your own takeaways? Specifically, did your characters teach you anything?
It may not always be possible to map your life path; uncertainty and helplessness may be karma or destiny that we have to face. My character, Berty Uncle, especially taught me that forging an undefined path in life may lead to unwanted consequences.
“A Maiden’s Prayer” was published in 2020 and is currently available on Amazon.