Read an extract from Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa

We’re delighted that Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa is one of the six books shortlisted for this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Here is a short extract from the novel.

Find more information about this year’s shortlisted books (including the judges' report) here.

It was dark by the time we got to Battaramulla. The lane was full of vehicles. We parked among the brand-new Benzs, BMWs and Pajeros all lined up with drivers waiting. Mano started fussing over his car, rubbing a small dent on the mudguard and wiping some dust from the bonnet.

‘Leave it,’ I said. ‘It’s not going to turn into a Benz.’

It wasn’t just Mano – Anoushka was also taking her time, sitting in the car and playing with her dress. ‘Anoushka, what are you doing?’ I said. She got out slowly. ‘Go in front of us.’

She went a little way but kept turning around, looking back and fidgeting with her sleeves. I knew it was a protest about her music player. It was also because I got her to wear a nice long dress – the maroon one. She had, as usual, put on her old jeans and I told her, ‘You’re not wearing that.’ I didn’t want her looking like a boy. She was too old for it. So now she dragged her feet. When we got to the gate I had to give her a little push to go through.

The garden was all lit up with gaudy Christmas lights wrapped around the trees. People sat on the chairs spread around the lawn or stood and talked. Waiters dressed in black pants and white shirts served drinks and short-eats – things like sausages, prawns fried in batter and crackers piled with various colourful vegetables and pastes. There was a buffet table watched over by a man in a chef’s hat on the front veranda.

It wasn’t difficult to find Sumith. He was standing near the table with the alcohol, surrounded by all the pot-bellied big shots. He had a glass of whisky in one hand while he talked with the other. Sumith was one of those people who didn’t only talk with his mouth. His left hand was moving fast, and when he saw us coming he lifted it and shouted, ‘Ah, brother-in-law! Come, come! Come put a drink with us. Lakshmi! How are you? Haven’t seen you in a long time. And Anoushka Baba! Please, come and have something to eat.’

‘Hullo!’ said Mano. ‘Where’s the birthday boy? We should wish him before we do anything else.’

‘Bugger was here five minutes ago. Where’s he gone?’

Sumith shouted at the top of his voice for his wife – ‘Nelun! Where are you?’ – and then grumbled, ‘Mother and son are both missing in action.’

The words pricked my skin. Missing in action. When did it become such a normal thing to say? I felt uncomfortable but maintained my smile and said, ‘We’ll find him.’ I took Anoushka’s hand and left Mano with the gentlemen. We walked around the garden, Anoushka pointing out politicians and Sinhala movie stars busy drinking strong drinks and chewing cold meats: ‘That’s the minister who punched that priest in parliament,’ or ‘That’s the actor who took off his pants in front of the schoolgirls.’ I told her to keep her voice down but was glad Anoushka was smart enough to laugh at these idiots – and at Sumith and Nelunka for putting on this boru show.

We wandered past the pond, lit up with a spotlight so you could see the fish swimming in between the lotus leaves, and into the house, wiping our feet on the carpet, making sure we didn’t bring any grass onto the marble floor. Sumith and Nelunka had many servants, who were barely seen but managed to do their job beautifully. They kept the place spotless. Pity it was all so goday – all gold fittings and flowery curtains, massive vases and shiny ceramic ornaments crowding that big house. The entry to the living room had paper cuttings hung across it, spelling out the words: HAPPY BIRTHDAY HESH. I wondered if they had run out of letters but soon realised it was their way of being hi-fi, their way of being, as Anoushka would say, ‘cool’.

As we walked in the wives were all talking at the same time. The loudest voice was Nelunka’s and she was spreading rumours, as usual. ‘They’re saying he’s not really dead, that it was his body-double. Prabhakaran had another man, like a bodyguard, who was just like him—’ She saw me and stopped. There was a panicked look on her face, but it wasn’t hard for me to pretend I didn’t hear anything. I was used to it.

‘But they said in the news the army shot him,’ someone else continued. ‘They have the body, no?’

Nelunka, who was seated on the leather sofa, turned her head in a very obvious way, raised her eyebrows and smiled uncomfortably, letting the others know we were there. The room went silent.

We walked closer. It was always like this. They watched us, talked about us, but never said anything out of the ordinary when we were there. ‘Hullo,’ I said.

‘Lakshmi, hullo!’ said Nelunka. ‘How are you? And Anoushka. Kohomada, darling?’

‘Fine, Aunty,’ said Anoushka.

‘We couldn’t find Heshan to wish him,’ I said. ‘Where is he?’

‘Why don’t you come and sit here?’ said Nelunka, making some room on the sofa. ‘Hesh won’t be here for a while. He’s gone for a drive. He got a new car for his birthday and he’s showing it to Ravin and Rajiv … you’ve met Hesh’s friends, Ravin and Rajiv, no?’

‘Yes, I met them last time,’ I said, moving the cushion with gold roses sewn on it out of the way. Anoushka balanced on the armrest because all the other seats were taken, and leaned against me. I put my arm around her to make sure she wouldn’t fall.

‘It’s a beautiful car,’ said Ms Boralessa, Sumith’s unmarried older sister. ‘A small Nissan. A sports car. What is it called, Nelun? X or Y or something, just a letter. Funny name for a car.’ She took a sip from her glass of sherry.

A waiter quickly came along and offered me wine in a crystal glass. I said no thanks and asked for soft drinks for both of us.

‘Z,’ said Nelunka. ‘Nissan Z. It’s as good as a Porsche. That’s what Ravin and Rajiv said. They’re Mr Kulathilaka’s sons. You know, the cabinet minister?’

‘That’s the car all the boys are talking about,’ said Mrs Fernando, a thin lady wearing a heavy gold necklace. ‘My daughter’s boyfriend keeps pestering his father to buy one for him. Wait till he hears that Hesh got one. He’ll be so jealous.’

‘Did Heshan get his licence?’ I asked. ‘He’s not eighteen yet, no? Your driver must be driving.’

Another pause. Everyone looked at me again. The waiter came back with two ginger beers. I took a small sip from mine and hoped they would ignore what I’d said and continue.

‘He’s seventeen today,’ said Nelunka, recovering quickly. ‘And no, the driver’s here. Hesh is a very good driver. And it’s only for a short one. And Rajiv, Mr Kulathilaka’s older son, he’s there, no? He’s very sensible. Did you know he studied law at Harvard?’

‘Really? At Harvard! He must be a very bright boy,’ said Ms Boralessa, her smile gone pink with all the lipstick on her front teeth.

‘Oh, yes. He finished last year. Now he’s come back to help his father. He’s going to work at the Ministry of Education. That’s what good children do, no? They go abroad to study but come straight back.’

‘Sometimes that’s hard to do,’ said a big lady dressed in a massive white kurta and pyjama-like pants. I couldn’t remember her name. ‘My daughter lives in London, with her husband, and she comes every year. She’s settled there and it’s a lovely place—’

‘I’m so sorry, Yasmine – I didn’t mean your daughter! Sometimes there are these fellows who go abroad and forget all about where they come from. They grow their hair and put on earrings and get tattoos – they do all these samayang things – and it looks so bad! They’re the sorts of people I’m talking about. Your daughter is a lovely girl. I know her, no?’

‘I know,’ said Yasmine. ‘That’s fine, I know …’

‘Are you worried about sending Heshan abroad?’ I said, trying to be helpful. I knew it was probably in the back of Nelunka’s mind, and having experienced firsthand the difficulty of sending your only son away, I thought I could share it with her.

‘Hesh? There’s still time for that, no? And anyway, Hesh is … I can trust Hesh,’ said Nelunka, a little bit annoyed. ‘Actually, we’re thinking Princeton or Cambridge. I think Hesh will prefer Princeton. He doesn’t like the weather in the UK. Last time we went there he got a terrible cold.’

It was a ridiculous thing to say. Heshan was anything but an intelligent boy. He had barely passed his O-Levels. ‘Really? Princeton?’ It burst out of me before I could stop myself.

I didn’t mean to put her down, but Nelunka took it badly. She immediately hit back. ‘What’s that good one in Sydney? University of Sydney? Is that the one Niro went to?’ ‘No, Niranjan went somewhere else.’

‘What was it called?’


‘I haven’t heard about that one,’ said Ms Boralessa. ‘Is it recognised?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It’s one of the top universities in Australia.’

‘You know, Niro called earlier,’ said Nelunka. ‘He said he’s coming a little late. Said he has some work to do.’

I looked at her face, at the eyelashes covered in layers upon layers of mascara, at her thin lips made bigger by fuchsia lipstick. I looked for a signal that this was also a Nelunka-way of niggling me. ‘Niranjan called you?’ I asked.

‘Yes. He comes every now and then, to see Heshan and talk to Sumith.’ Nelunka turned towards the other ladies and announced, ‘Lakshmi’s son, the one who studied economics in Sydney, he’s a very nice boy. He comes here all the time. Really loves his uncle and his cousin. You should see.’

‘What does he do?’ asked Mrs Fernando.

‘He has a start-up company,’ I said.

‘I have heard about this,’ said Ms Boralessa. ‘Start-up companies. It’s a new invention.’ Luckily, nobody wanted to admit they knew very little about such things and the topic of conversation changed.

Ruins is available in-store and online.

You can read more about the Prize here.

You can buy a specially-priced pack of all six shortlisted books here for $139.95 (was $170.86).

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