A young Tamil boy in Colombo watches a Buddhist monk immolate himself; it is 1932, fifty years before the world will come to know about Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis. The island is still known as Ceylon and is under British rule, but the monk’s act is not anti-colonial, but anti-Tamil. Even 11-year old Rajan, whose family has come from their village in the north to try to save their sick daughter at a hospital in the capital, knows this. Shankari Chandran’s debut novel, Song of the Sun God, opens on this dramatic incident and follows Rajan’s line through three continents over the eight decades that follow.
Rajan becomes a highly-respected doctor and marries the smart and charming Nala, who in later life proves herself to be even more modern and sensible than her offspring. They have two children, Priya and Nandan. Firmly ensconced in elite Colombo circles, Nala resists migration for decades, one of several dubious choices which impact everyone around her. Only under eventual duress does the couple join Priya’s family in Australia. By the end of the novel, they are great-grandparents.
Dhara, the character closest to and most vividly impacted by the civil war in every sense, is the only one who remains in the country. Nala’s niece, she comes into their lives permanently as an 8 year-old in 1956, when her father is murdered by a mob and her mother is too broken by rape to continue to parent her. Nala and Rajan raise her as theirs, but loyalty and treachery within families are deeply entwined, and with neither malice nor fairness they send Priya to London to study medicine instead of the more gifted Dhara. Dhara goes to Jaffna instead, where the war chews her up – but spits her right back out, shattered and strong. Among the most tender moments in the book is of her adult daughter helping her cross the railway tracks on the beach at Wellawatte, Colombo’s Tamil district. The most brutal moments of the book also belong to her.
Modern Sri Lankan history runs through, without contrivance, the vagaries of this family’s lives – and the fact that upon leaving a homeland, it is relatives and a bricolage known as “community” that become the entirety on which cultural identity or disconnection are hinged. This is the truth of being Sri Lankan Tamil in the last century: no one, no family, has gone unscathed. The episode of Nala being pulled from a car and doused in kerosene during a riot melds into the episode of Rajan insisting that his funeral be held in Tamil, instead of by the Sanskrit-chanting Indian priests of Sydney. Life’s cycles manifest in myriad ways: there’s death by mobs and death by disease. In the sum telling, all of it happens to the same people – “our people” as one character argues furiously in the aftermath of the 2009 massacre, the hierarchies that would have kept apart his kin from the impoverished who died in a strip of beach in Mullaitivu dismantled – even if only deceptively – by genocide and in this case its sibling, linguicide.
Chandran’s command over the sprawling storyline is remarkable, and there is a didactic quality to this novel that is intelligently obscured by the elegance of her lines. One does not feel the weight of the research undertaken, even while admiring peripherally that it had to have been conducted. The author moves as easily, and with great detail, between mid-20th century Kandy and Colombo high society as she does the atrocities and realities of more recent jungle warfare and the camps of the internally displaced. Also instructive are the numerous quotidian exchanges that reveal what privileged diasporic life is like. The author’s etching of emotional lives is keen; still, she adapts the form of the classic generational saga and replaces the usual sentimentality with something very different and insightful.
The novel’s triumph is that it foregrounds the middle-class diaspora’s practical, and in many cases perfectly normal (and even privileged) lives, without using either trauma or nostalgia as a manipulative crescendo. In its own non-confrontational way, light is thrown on some of the uncomfortable nuances of this diaspora – for instance in this gently rendered line: “During the war, Tamils thought they were funding orphanages and later found they were arming children instead”, and more broadly in the numerous conversations between characters that underline how tenuous that homeland connection is. In one memorable one, Smirithi and Prashanth discuss what it means to be Australian Tamils, to have no legitimate claim to oor (village), but to definitely have an almost perfect sense of belonging where they are.
For readers of diasporic writings, whether Sri Lankan or Indian, this will stand out as a highly unusual frankness, subverting the traditional emotive norms of the genre. Particularly among those whose middle-class (or affluent), upper-caste parents and grandparents fled or moved to the West, and who themselves were born or raised there, a complex amalgam of survivor’s guilt, stability and post-colonial malaise makes for a cocktail that can sometimes manifest in entitlement or overcompensation. The author treads here with a compassion that makes these tricky points more easy to discuss. Perhaps it helps that the Rajan-Nala family are relatively well-adjusted, but it is precisely this narrative of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora that is so refreshing to encounter – one that gracefully concedes comfort and even joy.
Song of the Sun God is a magnum opus, luminous with honesty: a book that is at once so familiar in what it describes yet brings a fresh approach to diasporic narratives. Chandran does not dwell on war in the guise of love; it is love itself that is the core of this story.
An edited version appeared in Scroll.