Sodden Downstream is the story of a day in the life of Sita. She lives in Naenae, with her husband, Thiru, and her son, Satish. At night she cleans offices in high-rise buildings in central Wellington. Thiru is out of work and although they receive some government assistance the family is dependent on her income.
The cleaning contract manager is less than sympathetic. Actually, that’s a bit of a whitewash. He’s racist. He never bothers to learn her name. He calls her Paddy after her predecessor.
Simple things like a decent raincoat, enough food, a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay are out of reach for Sita.
She could feel the rain drift underneath her jacket. The jacket was another remnant of gifts from Kiwis when she moved to New Zealand. She once had to walk from Naenae to Upper Hutt to retrieve the jacket, after she left it at a friend’s place. She would keep wearing it until it was few rags of plastic. (p48)
Sita has survived war and starvation in Sri Lanka. Her body is ravaged from the effects of a difficult childbirth. Her son Satish was born while the hospital was shelled, and there was little time for the care and medical attention she needed. That Sita and her son survived and made it to New Zealand to join her husband is a miracle, of sorts. There is peace here. But there is also penury. And racism. A lot of it.
What makes Sita’s life bearable, and what makes reading the book bearable, is the help Sita receives from strangers as she struggles to get to work during the worst rainstorm in a century. Some give her a lift, going miles out of their way, others give her food or a hot drink, a homeless man lends her his cell phone.
Desperate to earn money for her family, terrified that a no-show, despite the conditions, will cost her her job, and hounded by demanding phone calls from her boss Sita persists in her attempts to get to work long past what seems reasonable. Terrified that this very persistence would be her undoing, that she’d be carried away by the flood waters, that one of those helpful strangers might turn against her, that the impossibly arduous task of simply getting to work would drive her mad, I wanted Sita to go home. Yes, this was a book I read with my heart in my mouth.
Sodden Downstream reminded me of my own good fortune. And it reminded me how vulnerable we all are—it’s chance, the randomness of life that accounts for so much.
Sita is a character who has guts, determination, pride, and that difficult to describe characteristic, moral fibre, by the bucket load. Ever since war broke out in Sri Lanka Sita has had to fight to take each and every step forward.
It’s her street sense, her life skills that keep her going, that kept her and her son alive in Sri Lanka, that show her up for the strong woman she is. When she’s offered a lift by a well-to-do Sri Lankan woman—a woman she recognises from the temple, who with each kind offer only shames Sita further, such is the chasm between the two women’s experience of life in this country—it’s Sita who knows what to do when they get a puncture. It’s Sita who, despite her weak arm (a war wound), must help them lift the spare from the trunk, who must attempt to dislodge the wheel nuts while the teenage son looks on, uselessly, and his mother talks on her cell-phone.
She found the wheel wrench, which looked like it hadn’t been handled before. She also found the jack. It was still polished. She connected it to the car and started inching the body of the car upwards. She realised she should loosen the bolts a bit, before going any further.
Branavan looked even more impressed than she thought possible. Even Vasuda was looking as if Sita was some sort of superhuman. That was until Sita couldn’t loosen the bolts with the wheel wrench. They were so tight that she felt like her brain was going to explode. She realised that she’d have to ask Branavan to help, but that she might have to explain the principles of leverage to him. (p105)
Before picking up Sodden Downstream I’d been moaning to John, again, about how my reading, despite my best efforts, was too heavily weighted to stories told through the eyes of men. Even those novels written by women that I’ve read so far this year have usually had male protagonists. And then along comes Sodden Downstream. Sita is a humble woman. She’s a woman making the best of things, looking out for her family, and providing for them all while adjusting to life in a new country. Her dogged determination is impressive. At the end I didn’t know whether to despair or hope for Sita. I still don’t.
As for Sita, she’ll be out there, carrying on. Hoping and praying that just for once things might go her way. Frankly, I love her for that.
Here’s Brannavan Gnanalingam discussing Sodden Downstream, his fifth novel, in an interview on Radio New Zealand.
And here’s a review from The Pantograph Punch. If you read it, you’ll see that the reviewer argues that the book presents a stereotypical view where bosses and rich people are bad, poor people are good. Although I found this a very satisfying read I agree that a more nuanced approach may have strengthened the novel further.
Sodden Downstream comes with a trigger warning. I had begun to think it was unnecessary, until near the end of the journey when Sita struggles with memories and flashbacks to war-torn Sri Lanka.
First Sentence: Sita flushed the toilet.
Sodden Downstream (2017) by Brannavan Gnanalingam. Lawrence and Gibson
Categories: On Books