Saturday, October 25, 2014

Two Sri Lankan Writers and their recent Novels … Romesh Gunesekara’s Noontide Toll and The Prisoner of Paradise and Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry’ Ghosts …

I had read Romesh Gunesekera’s first novel Reef sometime back in 1994 or 1995 … I was working for my MPhil at CIEFL then … a fellow student, Krishna Priya (KP), had Reef with her one day during evening tea at the mess and I asked her about the novel … she said she had chosen Reef to work on her diploma dissertation … we were working with the same research supervisor and so there was this common connection … I asked her if she could lend me the novel … I read the novel and was mesmerized … the descriptions, the lyrical prose, the languid pace, the sea, the house fascinated me … and the story itself was narrated so beautifully that a certain kind of wistfulness remained long after you closed the book … it was a slim novel and I could finish it in quick time, but the novel stayed with me and when I could afford to, I bought a copy for myself … and I have read it many times over since …


After that I was on the lookout for novels by Romesh Gunesekera … Reef  had come out in 1994 … he had written a book of short stories called Monkfish Moon earlier … then came Sandglass in 1998 and I read it eagerly … it was good but did not come even close to ReefHeaven’s Edge (2002) was superb and made me read it more than once … the next, The Match (2006) was different, though it dealt with issues which are dear to Gunesekera … and for a long time (6 years), Gunesekera sort of disappeared and then in 2012, I saw that he had come with a novel called The Prisoner of Paradise … for some reason, I postponed my purchase of this novel … and then, some months back I saw that there was another new novel by Gunesekera, Noontide Toll (2013) … now I had two Gunesekera novels to look forward to …

Around the same time that I read Gunesekera’s Reef, I also noticed another Sri Lankan writer, Shyam Selvadurai … the interesting thing was, as it is obvious by their names, while Gunesekera was Sinhala, Selvadurai was of mixed Tamil-Sinhala parentage … Selvadurai had written a novel Funny Boy (1994) which was released around the same time as Reef … again, interestingly, they have followed a similar trajectory in terms of book releases … each had a book releasing in the same year, more or less … though Gunesekara has written two novels more than Selvadurai … Selvadurai went on to write Cinnamon Gardens (1998) and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea (2005) …  in 2013, Selvadurai’s Hungry Ghosts was released … and along with two Gunesekera novels, I had Hungry Ghosts too to look forward to …


Both write about love and longing and of people caught between the ethnic and political tensions in Sri Lanka … while Guesekera’s novels are peopled with Sinhalas, Selvadurai’s novels have more Tamils coming in … Selvadurai has a decidedly gay angle in his novels, but what I found most fascinating was a very high degree of empathy and understanding gay relationships evoked in other people in Selvadurai’s novels … not just tolerance, which is restrictive in many ways …

And so, I have been following their literary trajectories and reading their novels as and when they came out … and now I had three novels to buy and read and being the kind of the person I am, I wanted to buy all three together … Amazon offered me the best bargain and I bought all three in July this year to coincide with my birthday … a sort of self-gift(s) 


I read Gunesekera’s Noontide Toll first … it was the slimmest and I wanted to get into the system first and then tackle the big ones … and I am glad I read Noontide Toll first … the novel offered me a completely different kind of narrative compared to other Gunesekara novels … the novel is a like a strand of different kinds of gems held together by a common string … or rather like a set of short stories held together by a common narrator … interlinked short stories? and ingeniously, the narrator here is Vasantha, a van driver, who ferries people across the land that is Sri Lanka … his passengers are businessmen, families searching for roots, charity workers, and each has a story … as he moves from army camps to beaches, from the north to the south, meeting different kinds of people, we get a picture of Sri Lanka after the end of the ‘conflict’ … the listener and narrator, Vasantha, adds his own wry and witty comments to the stories of his passengers and many comments come across as wise sayings … go read it, you won’t be disappointed …


I wanted to read Selvadurai after reading Gunesekara … Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts moves between Canada and Sri Lanka and it has certain autobiographical elements … you have the parallels in the novel and Selvadurai’s life … boy of mixed Tamil-Sinhala parentage, the move to Canada during the early years of the conflict, coming to terms with his gayness … and then there is the maternal grandmother, a Sinhala, who wants to ‘make’ her half-Tamil grandson into a proper ‘Sinhala’ and her attempts in this direction, her conflicts with her daughter, the life of Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants in Canada, love and loss, and death … and coming to grips with all this is Shivan Rassaiah as he searches for redemption … Selvadurai evocatively brings out the contrasts, colours, life, sights, smells, of life in Sri Lanka and Canada … it took some time for me to finish The Hungry Ghosts, but it was worth it at the end …



After reading these two novels, I went back to Gunesekera and started The Prisoner of Paradise … from reading the early pages I saw that the novel is set in the past, in Mauritius, in 1825, during the ‘glory days’ of colonial British rule in Mauritius … so, the scale of this novel is decidedly different from Gunesekera’s earlier novels and I could also say, has ‘epic’ ambitions … I have read about 25 pages or so … and I think I am going to enjoy reading it, once I restart … 

2 comments:

Vinod Ekbote said...

Jai, nice post, for a change, about books and not fountain pens! When was your birthday, sirji?

winding river said...

Thanks Vinod bhai...yeah, books after a long time...abhi ghadiyaan bhi aarein...arre bhai, idhar boloonga to sob jaan jaayenge...secret mein boltoon...btw, did you manage to read 'The Match' by Gunesekera...don't miss 'Reef' wherever you see it...

Jai