MISPLACED hopes, broken dreams—over the last year reams and reams of paper have been expended by the milestone industry on the subcontinent's tumultuous half-century of independence. The balance sheet has been updated, leaders berated, successes trumpeted, blame apportioned, goals reevaluated; so that we common folk can go back to the business of living with a clear conscience, with the heady aftertaste of responsible inquiry.
This is a cop-out A. Sivanandan scrupulously eschews as he seeks the genesis of Sri Lanka's sorrows, its ethnic divisions, uprooted histories, invented narratives, clouded memories. His protagonists, three generations of a clan forever struggling to make ends meet, are ordinary people, really, made extraordinary by their relentless quest for the fundamental truths, by their uncompromising responses to that still small voice, as they grapple with and bear the imprint of their nation's travails.
The novel is divided into three parts, each predictably given over to one generation and each inevitably ending in tragedy. There's Sahadevan, a Tamil who journeys from arid Jaffna to '20s Colombo in pursuit of modern education and comes under the influence of a disillusioned Sinhalese trade union leader. Torn between duty to his country and to his family, he witnesses the first betrayals by the political leadership as it forsakes the end (socialism) for the means (freedom). In the process, he learns to dispense his responsibilities as a father while retaining his dignity as a man.
There's his schoolmaster son Rajan, the narrator, more sensitive and less sure-footed, who despairs over the emerging communal faultlines implicit in democratic arithmetic and finally flees to an English exile after the '58 race riots. (Fleeting similarities with the author here, who too emigrated to Britain that year.) And lastly, there's his Sinhalese stepson Vijay, a reluctant militant hard pressed to make peace with his mother's violent death and his country's senseless descent into crude nationalism. Holding them together is Saha's under-privileged half-brother Para, a charming custodian of ancient wisdom always at hand with gentle guidance.
Through it all, Sivanandan achieves the near-impossible by weaving the stories within the stories—an intricate web of universal moral and political dilemmas—into the fractured history of his lost country. As too Sri Lanka's geography and history, the changing Jaffna landscape is vividly depicted and allusions to key political leaders are thinly veiled. Indeed, in this lyrically textured tale of love, loss and loyalty, there are no entertaining diversions, no convenient cushioning. More disturbingly, there are no easy answers, no ready glimmers of hope.
Except, that is, in the last four sentences. Yes, after remaining true to his characters, to his story, to his dark depiction of the human condition, in the end Sivanandan falters and grasps at straws. As Vijay is mercilessly felled by his cousin Ravi, the writer offers what the blurb terms "the possibility of another future". Perhaps, it would be petty to join issue on the very human act of giving in to the romantic voice that resonates in each one of us. But maybe he should have heeded Uncle Para's caution to Vijay: romanticism is a prelude to tyranny.
Having said that, be warned. The reading of this book is guaranteed to put you out of step with your world, a world which values bottomlines not bona-fides. For it doesn't just compel you to "comprehend truths other than (your) own", it ever so craftily holds a mirror to your convictions, your ever-so-innocuous capitulations.
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT