Sodden Downstream by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, 2018), 180 pp., $28.99
Brannavan Gnanalingam’s fifth novel Sodden Downstream is an immensely affecting and at times quietly upsetting read. Set over a roughly twenty-hours period in Lower Hutt, it takes place as former tropical cyclone Evelyn hits Wellington and the Kapiti Coast, causing the region to shut down as public transport comes to a grinding halt.
Tamil Sri Lankan refugee Sita lives in the Hutt with her husband Thiru and their young son Satish. Sita supports the family with her zero-hours contract job as a cleaner in Wellington. On the day of the storm, her exploitative boss Mr Poleman (who in his racist way doesn’t even bother to learn Sita’s real name, lazily calling her ‘Paddy’ instead) rings to say in his ‘measured talk-at-you voice’ that despite the torrential storm, despite the fact that Wellington’s two arterial routes are blocked by landslips, and although she wasn’t initially rostered on a shift that night, he expects Sita to show up for work that evening. If she doesn’t, her contract will be terminated. Sita has no choice but to comply, and Sodden Downstream charts her stoic attempt to travel into town against all odds. Is it bizarre for me to say that in some ways the absurdity of Sita’s situation reminded me of Polanski’s 1958 short film Two Men and a Wardrobe?
Along the way, Sita meets a woman about to go into surgery, a plumber, a Samoan finance and economics student, a man just out of prison, a mechanic, a drunk driver, a skinhead (this scene is silly, overwrought and too slapstick) and occasional clusters of youths. Apart from the odd ride from kind strangers, Sita is basically walking to Wellington. And Gnanalingam constantly raises the stakes. There’s a stressful sense of urgency and panic that propels the book along. Will Sita make it to work and keep the lifeline of her job?
It’s about time the stories and voices of different cultures and the marginalised members of our communities are heard. This is a novel of our times and from a strikingly New Zealand perspective and context, and deals with inequality, homelessness and housing, unemployment and jobseeking, the unfairness of zero-hour contracts, the exploitation of workers as they become contractors without annual leave and sick pay, race and racism (both casual and overt), class, community, cultural assimilation and the difficulties of this, and the difference between being a ‘refugee’ and an ‘immigrant’. Pertinently, the novel asks why the middle-class Tamils who managed to escape Sri Lanka earlier and secure jobs as engineers are referred to as immigrants, while Sita and her family are ‘refugees’.
I loved the social realism of this novel. It delineates beautiful but harsh realities of gentle domestic detail and Sita’s inner world, which with all its small and thoughtful nuances are well externalised and feel authentic. Though unpolished, the narrative arc is the strength of this novel, alongside the empathy we feel for Sita. We feel like we are treading water with her. We feel the freight of her emotional labour and the weight of carrying the mental load; we have the sense of her spinning plates as she tries to hold everything together.
Having lived through the horrors of war (‘her CV should simply have said “survivor”’) Sita has a kind of knowingness about her. She reminds herself that ‘nice’ and ‘good’ are two different concepts. She has a huge awareness of herself and her environment and how she fits into and relates to it. As she walks past a group of teenagers, she hears them laugh but knows from the tone of their voices that they aren’t laughing at her. This self-awareness extends to that knowledge of being ‘different’ – ‘she often worried about how she smelled, after a colleague complained about the smell of curry on her clothes. She hadn’t noticed how the food smell would cling. Everything else smelled clean.’ She takes absolutely nothing for granted. When people are kind to her in the smallest of ways, she is flattered. There’s a politeness instilled in her from ‘decades of learning’. She is diligent (she won’t relax unless she has cleaned her microwave until it is ‘factory clean’), compliant and even her sense of desperation in crucial moments is scuppered by pride.
Along the way, Sita makes some dry and amusing observations. When she spots a young man in the wild storm absurdly wearing shorts and jandals, she is ‘amazed at how little footwear New Zealanders wore, including in supermarkets or on hot tarmac’. Of course in Sri Lanka there are snakes, but shoelessness implies less than middle-class comfort.
We feel for Thiru and Satish, too. Unemployed, Thilu knows the difficulties of jobseeking as a refugee and dealing with WINZ. ‘He had heard rumours that they were entitled to an accommodation supplement, but Thiru’s case manager didn’t seem to understand his questions.’ The novel sharply captures the indignities of rejection as a jobseeker ‘caught in the uncertainity of the Global Financial Crisis which everyone pretended had finished’.
Cricket-loving Satish, too, is in the difficult position of being in the middle of two worlds: that of his family life and of wanting to assimilate into New Zealand culture, to have new opportunities.
In a visually evocative and harsh sequence, Sita remembers the white smoke and detritus of her war-torn hometown. Gnanalingam writes of the smell of singe, ‘the constant whirr of flies and bullets and carcasses flying, the lagoon turning crimson and brown and black like a bruise’.
The triggers are everywhere as Sita constantly tries to wipe her mind clean of trauma. ‘The past: like a rotting wardrobe that was strapped to her back’. When she sees road workers working under harsh floodlights, she wonders how anyone could work under that light. ‘They looked like a series of fires, like those immediately after a missile strike at night.’ And in an art gallery, of all places, ‘Sita worried that the lights would bore through her skin to reveal only bones. She had seen faces pecked clean by vultures and dogs before. She didn’t think an art gallery would bring back that feeling.’
It might appear somewhat unbelievable when Sita accepts rides from strangers or when she doesn’t really feel fearful passing groups of kids in the night. Yet her trusting nature is insightfully linked to the experience of war, which perhaps counter-intuitively taught her to place an enormous amount of trust in strangers. Earlier, Sita remembers how as Anzac Day drew close, Mr Poleman had ignorantly and arrogantly demanded that the workers wear poppies and remember the sacrifices of soldiers. Yet this novel of remembering and forgetting, shortlisted for the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize at the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, reveals that the civil war taught Sita that people in power ‘don’t give a fig’ about people like her and their sacrifices. She wonders, ‘What if we don’t want to remember, what if we want to forget …?’
KIRAN DASS is an Auckland-based writer and reviewer who has covered books and music for the NZ Herald, NZ Listener, Sunday Magazine, Sunday Star-Times, Metro, Landfall, The Spinoff, The Pantograph Punch and The Wire (UK), and regularly reviews books on RNZ’s Nine to Noon and Auckland’s 95bFM. Twitter: @SteelyDass