Island of strife

Island of strife

Island of strife

Nayomi Munaweera’s‘Island of a Thousand Mirrors’ shows an island community as a microcosm of the world where there is a losing battle with one’s own shadows, writes revathi Siva Kumar.

As the name suggests, Island of a Thousand Mirrors looks at myriad reflections of people and communities in the tiny, teardrop country of Sri Lanka. Everything in the world is a mirror image of something else, the author, Nayomi Munaweera, seems to be saying. Hence, strife is futile, as it is like fighting with your own shadow or alter ego.

Longlisted for the Asian Man Booker Literary Prize in 2012, the book traces four generations of Sinhalese and Tamils. The story begins in 1948, when the last of the British left, “labouring and groaning under purloined treasure”. With the departure of the outside ‘enemy’, the stage is now set for internal conflict between the two major races: the Tamils and the Sinhalese.

A number of characters weave in and out of the book, and exemplify the island’s early residents — simple, happy citizens, living in harmony and pursuing the usual professions of a newly-independent country, such as fishing, farming, doctoring or business. The reader is taken inside the heads of a few, and learns to care for their hopes and aspirations.

The themes are of course universal — living, loving and longing. Racial grouses are mostly either subterranean or absent due to the peculiar Asian habit of co-existence without intermingling. Every community is an island in itself, and only when members cross boundaries and interfere with each others’ lives — which they must, in free societies — do they generate differences.

The author portrays growth and disintegration in the country through the various characters. Hence, while the Shivalingams are tenants of the Rajasinghes, both communities abhor each other’s lifestyles and customs, yet learn to live in an amicable, if uneasy, truce. When the children of the two families fall in love, though, they are unable to marry, as the unwritten line of non-interference is not allowed to be breached.

Finally, as in all heterogeneous yet intertwined communities, unequal growth and development leads to violence and bloodshed: “A rifle-toting tiger. A sword-gripping lion. This is a war that will be waged between related beasts.”

The process is personified by Yashodhara and Shiva, who are finally locked, not only in marriage to each other, but also to the memory of Shiva’s earlier love, the innocent, spontaneous sister, Lanka, who obviously represents the pristine, early era of the island.

Over and again, Munaweera shows common patterns among the characters as well as generations. She traces not only reflections, but also refractions through the prism of the natural as well as the human world. She does not analyse the cause of the civil war or place the ‘blame’ on any section, although the story is seen mostly through the eyes of a Sinhalese girl. She merely shows, as if in a repetitive movement, the various characters interacting, loving and hating each other.

The book aims at a fairly large cast of characters, but most of them are just half-explored and then suddenly discarded. That makes for some dissatisfaction and uncertainty in the narrative. The unsolved trajectories are left with gaping wounds.

Just when you are coming to grips with the stories of one particular set of characters, they are suddenly set aside for another from the next generation. Once the characters cross youth, the author seems to lose interest in them. Thus, while the narrative is nuanced and empathetic, the structure is flawed.

For a reader who is trying to come to terms with the Lankan issue, the book gives only half-solutions.

The other important and polemical character in the narrative is Saraswathi, a Tamil girl from a small fishing village, who is suddenly picked up after almost half the book is over. This part of the book is the most horrific and moving in its description of stark poverty, brutal oppression and the making of a terrorist.

The story of Saraswathi, her simple ambition of becoming a teacher, and the slow transformation into a violent Tiger of the dreaded Black Guard suicide bomber squad, is a searing, horrific tale, which overshadows everything else.

However, while this is the most harrowing part of the book, the narrative here is almost like a documentary, where Saraswathi transforms into a ‘type’, rather than a character. It is easy to see that the author is comfortable with describing the nuances of Sinhalese characters, but scrabbles a bit with Tamils, perhaps because she is more interested in their political role here. The treatment seems a bit hasty and forced.

The backdrop of the pristine and beautiful island throws into sharp contrast the terrible violence and blood-shedding. The descriptions of the warm country, the ocean, which is almost a restless character in the book, the fishing village and the beautiful flora and fauna seem almost paradisical. “In the months before the thunderous monsoon, the ocean tugs at his toes, wraps sinuous limbs about his own and pulls him into his embrace…When the sea breeze blows, a snowy flurry of flowers sweeps into the house…”

Finally, the protagonists flee the country and inhabit it only in their memories. Their daughter is like an emblem of what the country has become: “She is a child of the peace, the many disparate parts of her experience knit together in jumbled but peacable unity.” Ironically, the most integrated viewpoint of the island is now given from outside!

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a horrific account of Lankan politics, yet it also goes beyond local issues to capture universal themes of human drives, motivations and relationships. Ultimately, the book is an experience.

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