7 Jun 2018

Sodden Downstream by Branavan Gnanalingam

REVIEW BY ALYSON BAKER

Sita is on a zero-hours cleaning contract and is the only wage earner in her family. Her husband, Thiru, is currently only able to contribute a Work and Income benefit, and her son, Satish, is still at school. So, when her boss demands she turn up for work in Wellington, despite a cyclone, road closures and no public transport, she leaves Naenae and heads South.

sodden downstream cover

Sita is an Everyman on a journey, talking to those she encounters on the way. Sita is a Sri Lankan refugee who finds the speed and slang of Kiwi English a mystery and she feels herself a “village bumpkin who didn’t know how New Zealand operated”. At one stage in her journey Sita circles back to Naenae; another member of the Sri Lankan community picks her up and drops her back home – Sita is too embarrassed to explain her predicament. Financial and racial snobbery is alive and well within the community as well as outside of it. Sita has dark skin – you wouldn’t see her in the dark unless she smiled quips a co-worker – Sita doesn’t understand. And Sita feels inferior to those Sri Lankans who arrived as immigrants as opposed to refugees and who have made comfortable lives.

Sita is frail and in chronic pain from injuries she sustained in the Sri Lankan civil war: “There was so much that made her feel like she was a dandelion seed floating in the wind, waiting for someone else to rip it apart to make a wish”. But somewhere inside Sita is a tough core, and she is determined to make a good life for Satish, and to make up for his early experiences in Sri Lanka, for which she feels responsible. She is calm in the face of those things she can do nothing to stop, unlike Thiru who is petrified by his helplessness. Sita repeats things to herself to keep herself on track, and to keep her memories at bay. Memories that force their way through sometimes, and when she is alone and walking in the dark they rush over her like a torrent.

The water of the cyclone that soaks Sita as she travels is just one source of cold, wet and fear. The swollen rivers she passes menace her as well, with their threat of bursting their banks and engulfing her – at one stage the water is described as having “paws.” But the people she spends time with on her quest provide warmth, they are also on the periphery of society - those who aren’t don’t register her, or only enough to hurl abuse at her out their car windows. Sita’s fellow travelers know nothing of Sri Lanka apart from cricket, they know nothing of the horrors of the war. But they know what it is to be marginalised and financially powerless: the kid who can’t get a break from the Police, the homeless men, the prostitute, the transgender woman, the man just out of prison, the Māori mechanic who is used to casual racism – they are all in one way or another disenfranchised and poor.

Sita feels she should be grateful that New Zealand allowed her and Satish in to be reunited with Thiru, but she also knows that those in power don’t “give a shit” about her. One homeless man offers her advice: “Don’t ever let them make you feel grateful” – but then he comments he is living on the streets and advises she might not want to take his advice. Sodden downstream is a wonderfully moving portrait of an individual, a great description of what it might be like to be a refugee in a country whose language and rules are a mystery, and a really really good read.