Modern novelist with a political consciousness is a self-conscious beast. While Kannan Arunasalam laments in his poignant essay ‘The Inconvenient Truth’ that neutrality is not allowed him, many works of fiction unconsciously opt for neutrality in the name of objectivity when faced with personal tragedy. Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel ‘Island of a Thousand Mirrors’ more or less manages to stay neutral by allocating proportionate blame; her narrative focuses more on the lives of her characters as they absorb the blows of the conflict.
The Tamil-Sinhala conflict is not an easy thing to write about. Is it an ethnic conflict? A religious conflict? Where do its roots lie? The novel touches on the last British ships as they sailed away with their loot in 1948, it doesn’t go beyond to unravel how the colonial rule had sowed the seeds for the civil war devastating countless Sri Lankan lives.
Munaweera focuses her lens on the natives. The reader is introduced to two sets of Sinhala families, each run by a matriarch. The focus shifts to Sylvia Sunethra, who ends up renting the top portion of her house to a Tamil family. Our protagonist Yasodhara, Sylvia Sunethra’s granddaughter, and Shiva, the Tamil grandson upstairs, are born at the same time. As they grow up, they fall in love with each other but only to be pulled apart when the ethnic conflict flares up. A family tragedy compels the protagonist’s parents to immigrate to the US. The author shows what it’s like to survive when cultural differences can be disorienting.
It explores how most Tamils in the north are faring during the civil war, how the Tamils have taken up arms, and the entire zone is under military rule. The government can kidnap anyone, especially men, even young girls and women. Rape is a common punishment. The Tamil Tigers too employ manipulation in order to recruit for the war of liberation; suicide bombing is one of the tactics of their guerilla warfare. A family has lost three sons. Now the Tigers want one of their daughters as well. They can’t say no, but the Sinhala soldiers beat them to it and kidnap the daughter. She survives, later joins the Tigers.
Turn of events take Yasodhara, going through a bad marriage, back to Sri Lanka where she is united with her childhood love but she can’t have him. This is lot of melodrama to pack in 227 pages. It certainly takes skill to pull it off, but at a price. While the novel has many enjoyable and intense moments, it suffers from internal coherence, even if intentional.
The novel roughly falls into four parts. Two matriarchs are introduced in the first part. This could work except the author alternates between the strict first-person and the third-person points of view, thus introducing the second part. The first-person narrative is embedded intermittently.
In the third part a Tamil protagonist, speaking in first-person, is introduced. The fourth part contains short sections which alternate under the headings of Yasodhara and Saraswathi. Each section has its strengths and weaknesses. For my personal taste, the first and second parts are too besotted with lush or purple prose and often flirt with what may appear to many as food erotica/exotica, a tendency that pops its head even in the following sections. But the two sections reveal Munaweera’s skill at fleshing out intricacies of ordinary lives while paying attention to their eccentricities.
Given the tension that underlies the entire narrative, the third section is the strongest, with curt, crisp tone simmering with pain and frustration. When the Sinhala soldiers abduct the family’s third son, I had tears in my eyes precisely because the author used minimum words for maximum effect, banishing purple prose. Here’s a sample: “After Krishna and Balaram were killed, Amma kept Kumar close to her all the time. She couldn’t bear to lose her last son she said . . . The soldiers came for him then . . . the old market woman saw it, the white van swerving to a stop in a cloud of red dust, the nose of a gun glinting through the open doors. We have not seen Kumar in two years. He would be eighteen now …”
Excessive love affair with food and smell burdens the narrative. Sentences such as “Yashodhara and her sister wander through the hot, dusty marketplace where squatting women offer us small red onions, fat green chilies, heads of garlic and ginger, twists of newspaper holding curry powder and turmeric . . . [as they] walk through alleyways, head reeling from the odor of bleeding fish twisting in their death throes in the sunlight . . . we choose seer fish and red plump shrimp . . ,” work as distractions.
Pointless descriptions like “battered Bata slippers” and “onion-skin thin blue aerogrammes” act as layers of dollop of lard atop an otherwise muscular narrative. Expressions such as “sharp eyed Muslim” though rare are an irritant. My criticism above, however, should not take away from Munaweera’s bigger achievement to have written a thoroughly engaging first novel. She has a good ear and a good eye. If only she can resist the urge to explain an entire country and stick to a more focused subject-matter, Munaweera’s command of prose and her observation of human frailty promises good writing to come.