Tag Archives: diaspora

Book Review: Song of the Sun God by Shankari Chandran

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: A Litany To The Saint Of Lost Things

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Her ammi kal and arivaal in a corner, sentinels of stone and blade. I am here in the last house my grandmother walked in, the kitchen in which she fell and broke her hip weeks before she died in another October. I am here in the first city of my childhood, first city that I lost. Colombo. We are here, my mother and I, to clean this house so that it is something other than a relic to parallel lives we didn’t get to have, hauntings that river beneath the existences we wear, like hidden veins.

At the church of St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, I tally up the heart’s inventory and ask him to help me lose even more. Everything one loses leaves behind residue, the way the plastic bottle of seawater I filled at Hikkaduwa became bottom-heavy with granules of sand. A litany as I light candles: Let me lose the things I still carry, the weight of what I lost. The grief and the greed, the sorrow and the sin.

A family emergency. The return postponed. And suddenly I have unstructured time, days that will either be too long or inadequate. My friend with two lines of Robert Frost tattooed on his forearm is in the same city now, a coincidence. If we meet, we will break our long history of seeing each other just before one us catches a flight out. That had been the plan. But in mine’s postponement, in the unexpected glut-gift of extra time, it’s another poem of Frost’s that I stumble on. It’s called “Directive”, and contains these darkening lines: “There is a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm /And in a town that is no more a town. / The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you/ Who only has at heart your getting lost…”

My book comes out here before it does anywhere else. At its launch, I say, “I’ve read my writing on three continents, but this is the first time I’m doing it in my motherland.” It is. Do you know what a distance a one-hour flight is, if you calculate that distance in the intangibles of separation? I lived in Sri Lanka as a child, I lost and longed for Sri Lanka while still a child, and then that longing became the ink of my life as an artist. It’s taken until my early 30s to try to build something that isn’t connected to family or nostalgia. An adult’s emotional cartography. To fall in love with, and in. I barely know where to begin.

The first thing I make in my grandmother’s kitchen is her chukku kopi. The blend comes from Batticaloa; its secrets include coriander. I drink it and call on St. Anthony to take away my cynicism, to let me misplace it among all my other lost bearings. To give me back the only story I have told over and over: the fiction that I belong somewhere, to something worth holding, that anyone at all claims me among the elements that compose their definition of home.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 20th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

A New Short Story

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To celebrate its second anniversary, The Hindu Business Line’s BLink magazine has published a fiction special. My short story on Sri Lanka, family and faith, written exclusively for this issue, is in it.

Warakapola

In Warakapola we stop for the first time, at the Bhadrakali-Hanuman kovil by a hill on the A1 highway, the first of many roads on this journey. We climb the few stairs to the temple to see its strangely companionable deities, but our grandfather gets out of the vehicle only for the Pillaiyar at its base. He holds a dried coconut with both hands, and circles it in the air, making his entreaties to the god of beginnings. And then he breaks it open on the ground, using his better arm. On the second try, it cracks open.

We bought the coconuts as we left Wellawatte and divided them into two bags. One is in the backseat, the other lodged between the driver and my grandfather, in the front. They must not be stepped on. We stretch our limbs out and try to sleep.

Nobody tells us — although there are those in the van who know — that it will be 10 hours to Batticaloa, in all.

You can read all of “16 Coconuts To Pillayaradi” here.