…And I Think We Should Learn More About It
I’m talking about Sri Lanka, of course. It’s a little island nation off the south eastern tip of India, and I knew little of it, aside from its existence, until a book I read recently made me engage with the topic and do some research to better understand what was going on in the story. I am always grateful for authors who put difficult issues out there in their fiction and open my eyes to things I have not considered before. I also enjoy learning about other places and cultures through the writing of people from those places and cultures. Reading about both in one book is like looking through another’s eyes, rather than simply seeing the statistics or hearing the news reports. The book I am talking about is like this, and it is called Island of a Thousand Mirrors, written by Nayomi Munaweera.
The novel begins with Yasodhara, a Sinhala girl, telling about her paternal grandparents, and her father’s upbringing, and how he came to Colombo (the capital) to receive his education. I can understand all of that. She also discusses her father’s sister, who has dark skin, “black-black,” as the women all say when she is born, and how her mother immediately despairs of every marrying her off due to this cultural disadvantage. This set me on my first round of investigations, where I discovered that the caste system was still lingering on in everyday prejudices, and that the Sinhala ethnic group prided itself on being lighter skinned than their Tamil neighbors, and how these kinds of little daily prejudices worked to build animosity between these groups. Directly after that episode, arranged marriages were highlighted in the story. I knew more about that topic, thanks to some pretty amazing English professors, and a World Literature class I took with one of them. I have read some modern (mid-20th c. to present) Indian writers, and the process appears much the same in Sri Lanka. It is close enough for comparison purposes. Parents of eligible brides and grooms scour ads looking for the perfect match for their sons and daughters. They consult astrological signs and consider education and job prospects, family lineage, the whole nine yards, before making a decision. The process is more like a college application or a job interview. Love marriages are frowned upon and viewed as a second rate option. It is said only the low-class and poor should have love marriages.
Then things began to get scary. The riots happen in Colombo. There are rumors of rebels in the northern villages and jungles. This story explores some heavy topics and should be approached with the awareness that war lies at the center of the novel. There is blatant ethnic discrimination, class and gender inequality, and devastating violence. There are depictions of death, terrorism and rape. This is not an easy novel. And why should it be? This story centers on the lives of women from two different parts of Sri Lanka who are deeply affected and changed by the civil war that breaks out in their shared homeland.
I had to do some research about this civil war. It lasted for nearly thirty years. This conflict was the culmination of decades of cultural tension between the Sinhala majority ethnic group and the Tamil ethnic group which makes up a majority of the rest of the population. The Tamils felt the weight of prejudice keenly and the first stirrings of rebellion were felt in the north. An anti-Tamil riot, allowed by the Sinhalese-led government, kicked the fires of war into an inferno. After that, Tamil insurgents and the Sri Lankan military squared off, with hundreds of thousands of citizens falling prey to the violence of this struggle. Both sides commit unspeakable atrocities. The second half of the novel begins with Saraswathi, a Tamil girl in a northern village, bringing a different perspective to the narrative.
This book is difficult, and heartbreaking, and beautiful. Rarely does an author achieve a balance of these aspects and remain relevant, but I think Munaweera succeeded. She kept my attention, I devoured page after page, and I felt for the main characters, no matter which side of the struggle they were on. There was a lot I was unfamiliar with, culturally and historically, that I had to research, but the effort was worth it for understanding the deeper implications of the novel.