Catching a sunbeam, gently

In a world where literary writing is turning darker, Romesh Gunesekera's book provides a gentle counterpoint, while still managing to capture the unease of a country marred by war, says Nandita Bose

Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera

I wish a critic was just a pillar-like entity with one unerring vantage point. She isn’t. She is a crisscross of differing ideologies, unsure of what she seeks in each book and undecided as the many strands of her mind discuss a book’s merits. The shrillest raps out: ‘Are you serious? This is a book about Sri Lanka and its climax is one death. One!’ For a country riven apart for decades by internecine war, this seems a humongous letdown.

A mildly less-shrill one demands to know what this book is about. Honestly, it isn’t easy to tell. In its broadest sense, this is a coming of age story; also a tribute to a fallen comrade, the kind for whom we carry breathless love in our hearts all our lives. In this tale of friendship between two pre-teen boys and the ecosystem around them are subtler, deeper lessons of human interaction and longing. Especially of how loneliness is a given and of how everyone disappoints in their own ways.

Also, this is a book about birds. In fact birds are so plentiful and persistent, they impede the prose. You want to skim over passages that list them all out in detail along with the flora. Yet when you put the book down, they seem to have all settled in branches or perch around you as if by his prose, Romesh Gunesekera has tinkered with your brain settings and one part of you now registers and makes space for the avian kind wherever you may be.

‘Suncatcher’ is no ordinary book. Its author has two profound gifts. He is fundamentally a philosopher. And the most exquisite prose flows out of his pen. Reading him is like being stranded in a tropical garden. The philosopher behind the book ensures he has embedded within a fairly straightforward narrative more questions than answers. This is not a book to read and tick off the list. This is one that will keep you awake at night thinking, reliving its experiences, and actually re-examining your own.

The writing holds the promise of a master storyteller, a species that comes along only in the fewest numbers in each generation. “For days, I had been worried by the idea that the more you savour something, the sooner it might disappear, but I said nothing more. I’d learnt young the uses of silence: others would always fill it with the words they wanted to hear, and you’d be let off.”

In a sense it is a prequel to what would rip the country apart in the decades to come. The unease is captured, not so much in the policies of the Bandaranaike government but in the minds of those who want just a good future but have to contend instead with the politics of majority appeasement.

Scars of colonial rule

Unspoken, the scars of colonial rule and its disruptions thrum in this climate.

Adults appear as juveniles trapped in loveless marriages or chasing daft get-rich-quick schemes all the while inflicting unspeakable damage on their children who are left to rediscover paths to love on their own. Ultimately all humans reflect the same sense of being trapped and doomed as the budgies in Jay’s aviary or the fishes in his multiple aquaria.

One way out is the same route offered to most Asians – migration to the western world. In varied ways, each character is on their way out or prepping for this inevitable. Did Jay resist and opt instead for the unthinkable?

There is a preponderance of bicycles and cars, cowboys and Indians, airguns and skinny dipping among other ingredients of a young boy’s life. Disruptions in the form of no school, tuition masters and even a pederast schoolteacher afford a parallel education.

Perhaps the most powerful teacher of all is Jay whose love for the mechanical has him strip the engines of cars with as much ease as he builds birdcages. Even when he keeps Kairo out from certain aspects of his life, he is still instructing the younger on expectations.

If a flaw must be pointed out – and it is a mere quibble here – it is when the world of a lad and his explorations are couched in such refinement of thought and style, there is a sense of disconnect. It cannot be masked that a tremendously gifted author is the narrator here.

In a world where literary writers are going darker, strident, violent and political to the extreme, this book provides a counterpoint. Its storyline is almost deliberately kept too gentle, too universal to be counted.

The idea is to return the reader to relish the equanimity and sheer joy of reading without explosives marring the flow of words. This is a powerful experiment which succeeds and how.

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