Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Pretty Girl Murdered

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Pretty Girl Murdered

Article excerpt

The scenery of Ceylon is glorious beyond words; and the women of Ceylon are as often as beautiful as their land. It was on the return voyage from Colombo to South Hampton that I had to study and enjoy one typical Singhalese beauty. . . . Mrs. De Mel was educated in the English mission school, and speaks not only her Singhalese tongue, as taught her by the native instructors, the "Pundits, " but English and French fluently. . . . Mother of six children, this Singhalese lady takes charge of their education, and looks after their clothing, health and pleasures while she dispenses large hospitalities to the innumerable relatives. . . . Mrs. De Mel, despite her English education and associations, has wisely kept to her native fashions in dress. On board ship she appeared in a bewildering array of exquisite costumes of delicate and dainty fabrics and classic lines.-Ella Wheeler Wilcox, "The Women of Beautiful Ceylon"

I'm waiting in Auntie's sitting room for lunch to be served. A heat wave is roiling through the Colombo streets, and since I've arrived in Sri Lanka only a few days ago, every greeting and good-bye is punctuated by a condolence, "Annay, darling, you must be having so much trouble getting used to this weather." Suddenly, the color bleeds from the sky and the rain showers arrive. It's early July, the start of monsoon season. My aunt mentions how welcome the rain is but for me, a visitor on a long holiday, the humidity only intensifies the stink of the city-diesel, human sweat, and rotting fruit. My skin feels as if it is dissolving in the wet air.

I nurse a glass of passion fruit cordial so syrupy my teeth ache with every sip; Auntie hands me the newspaper. She has carefully folded the front page to highlight the article, a detailed account of the week's local scandal, the murder of a nineteen-year-old, club-hopping socialite. A large color photograph of the victim taken only a few weeks before her death accompanies the piece; she is attractive, fresh faced, of indeterminate ethnicity. "Pretty Girl Murdered," reads the headline. "What if she was ugly?" I ask. My aunt has turned away to arrange the fall of her sari. She smiles coyly: maybe they wouldn't have bothered with the story at all. My aunt is joking, and the victim's attractiveness aside, there are enough sensational aspects to make the story newsworthy. The murder-as sad and brutal as it is-also offers a distraction from the other front-page news items: the refusal of the prime minister to call elections and the government's failure to respond to the destruction caused by the Boxing Day tsunami. The headline with its qualifier is a declamation, a wistful acknowledgment, of a loss-in the midst of corruption-of something pure, innocent, refined.

I didn't grow up in Sri Lanka. My parents left when I was young and immigrated, eventually, to Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Sometimes I worry that my reactions to Sri Lankan culture are too deeply colored by my upbringing in the United States. But my reaction to the headline "Pretty Girl Murdered" is not mere political correctness or exasperation with Sinhalese journalism-though perhaps both play a part. To spend time in Sri Lankan middle- or upper-class society is to hear the idealized feminine often described as pretty, sweet, lovely, or hurrie shake, a Sinhala expression roughly translated as "very cute or pleasing" (the term can also describe a pretty object or a tasty cup of tea). It's not unusual to see in Colombo's social pages headlines referring to the accomplishments and travails of "Pretty Girls." A quick perusal of personal ads seeking marriage partners finds demand for an "educated pretty girl," a plea from one mother to another for a "pretty daughter" for her son, and one ad for an "assertive pretty girl." Perhaps I'm surprised to see the colloquialism isolated in this context-the front page of a respected daily. Or maybe I simply realize that, while I've long accepted pretty girl without question, I don't know what it means. …

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