Many bitter ironies

Refuge, Gopal Gandhi, Penguin, 2010, pp 203, Rs 250

Many bitter ironies

Each narrative is a comment on the pathetic plight of lakhs of Indian Tamil labourers who are rendered stateless owing to the Indo-Ceylon Agreement of 1964 and are forced to repatriate to their motherland they know little about.

The story, revolving around Valliamma, a motherless estate labourer forced to don the role of a homemaker at a tender age, is a candid representation of the lives of hapless estate labourers who are mere pawns in the game of power and politics. Caught in the quagmire of everyday existence, little do Valli and her ilk realise that their lives depend on agreements that powers-that-be ink for their convenience.

Valli cooks and cares for her old grandparents, a father who is guilt-ridden over his young wife’s death, and a little sister who turns to her for love and affection. She also toils in the estate. Though saddling innumerable responsibilities on her frail shoulders, she is an embodiment of hope, a normal teenager nursing a secret love for Soma, a Sinhala fish vendor. Her joy knows no bounds when her love is reciprocated by Soma and the two love birds meet regularly in deaf and dumb Velu’s house. Life goes on thus.

At this juncture, the author juxtaposes two different worlds. While the estate labourers toil away from dawn to dusk in rubber and tea plantations, wealthy planters gossip and worry about their perquisites over endless glasses of whisky. Yet another group comprising estate clerks teams up with opportunists to cash in on any and every situation that affords an opportunity to make some money clandestinely.

Caught in one such situation are the kind-hearted Dr Paul Baptist and his wife
Constance, whose hearts beat for estate labourers but are shunted out of the government hospital Dr Paul is working in, when he complains about the unholy nexus between the clerks of the hospital and the estates at a time when the entire region is suffering an outbreak of Cholera.

Then there’s Father Gio, an Italian Jesuit, who is brutally attacked by ‘unknown’ people for trying to get the village festival postponed till after the region has recovered from the deadly cholera. There is also the sensitive management vs labourers issue at play when the latter strike work to get themselves heard.

Coming back to Valli, the author cannot help but throw light on the avaricious ways of estate supervisors who sexually exploit women labourers to no end. A pregnant Valli falls victim to one such supervisor’s amorous ways, forcing Soma to murder him and land in jail. A distraught Valli has more tragedies in store for her: her father is sucked in by the very pit he illegally fished gems in and her grandmother soon follows her son in his final journey of life.

Even as Valli tries hard to come to terms with the challenges life throws up at her, Sannasi, a 46-year-old widower with five children, comes as a saviour with his proposal for marriage and Valli accepts it with the determination to give birth to Soma’s illegitimate child.

The birth of Soma’s child is closely followed by mayhem in Sri Lanka as Indian Tamils are denied citizenship in the country they have spent their whole life in and are asked to return to the country of their origin, India.

Even as they ready themselves to repatriate comes the final blow in the form of communal violence between Sinhalas and Indian Tamils. So, off Valli heads with her family to India, leaving her Tamil-Sinhala son behind with her sister, in search of refuge…It has all the trappings of an interesting tale — romance, action, drama and politics. Add to it the uncanny ability to tell a story well.

Little wonder then that Refuge tugs at our heart strings with its underlying irony, the irony that a man’s journey to find refuge is almost never ending.

The dramatic possibilities of surviving in a strife-torn region are captured well in the depiction of various characters in the book, and especially that of Nimal Rupasinghe, who is consumed by the very dilemmas he seeks to resolve. In short, an appealing and thought-provoking book that leaves a lasting impact.

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