Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reading travels: Swimming in the Monsoon Sea




South Asia: month III, third reading and third travel




During this travel I became acquainted with Amrith, a fourteen-old orphan, his adoptive family and the early 1980's Sri Lankan landscape [1].

After his parents' death in a tragic accident, he was adopted by his mother's best childhood friend and her well-to-do husband, whom raise him as he was their own, together with their natural daughters. Despite his adoptive family affection, Amrith is a lonely child who is often engulfed by black moods which fill him with anger. His only friends among peers are his adoptive sisters, though his unexpected victory in a drama contest the previous year gained him the respect of his schoolmates. He seems to get along better with older people, as his adoptive mother's aunt –an old, rich widow- and Lucien Lindamulgé an older architect and family friend. The reasons beyond his loneliness are his shyness and his own feeling of inadequacy…but also the isolation [he is the subject of] in this rigid Sri Lankan society where teenagers consider themselves lucky if they are allowed to date after they are in their eighteens. He is isolated because his parents' death happened in mysterious circumstances and because his own family disowned him as they did not approve of his parents' marriage.

The boredom of this August vacation, monsoon season in Sri Lanka, does not seem to improve much his mood as the only distractions he can look forward to are typing classes at his adoptive father office and the drama club rehearsal for the current year's competition… The flow of ordinary events is suddenly broken as he crosses paths with his estranged maternal uncle and cousin. His cousin Niresh is two years older and was born in Canada where his uncle and his very beautiful wife have immigrated after his grandfather's death. Niresh seems to be just the opposite of Amrith – he is this cool, naughty teen who feels just great in his own skin  and since he holds also a great influence over his father he convinces him to let him spend his Sri Lankan vacation with the cousin he never knew he had…Obviously, this charming Canadian cousin stirs havoc among Amrith's sisters and their friends. But he also develops a brotherly affection for his younger, shy cousin . And Amrith, who for the first time felt comfortable in the presence of a boy his age, develops a deep affection for Niresh as well. But his affection is not as brotherly as it had first seemed and it is shadowed by moments of jealousy. His jealousy grows into rage as Niresh and Amrith's adoptive sister Mala fell in love with each other and start spending more time together while he loses the chance to win another prize when he fails focusing during the drama club rehearsals of Othello. . .His rage almost killed him as he became engulfed by the Monsoon Sea . But unlike himself , the boy who lets  hurtful, dark moods overwhelm him –he starts fighting and swimming towards the sore. And, fortunately, he does make it back. His return is also a moment of rebirth and rediscovery ….

And thus the end of the story is the beginning of another, a more peaceful one for both cousins…

"Swimming in the Monsoon Sea" is Shyam Selvadurai's [2] third novel, and his first YA novel. Like his first and more praised novel "Funny Boy" it deals with the coming of age of a young boy in the rigid, conservative Sri Lankan society where marriages are still arranged , parents never divorce, but separate and the children pretend that their parents are still married and living together.

There is an interesting note on the role of race is the two societies. Niresh, in spite of his apparent coolness, feels lonely among his Canadian peers as he is often the target of racial slurs because he is dark skinned. In Sri Lanka, the white skin and European features are used to stress a certain superior status by the descendants of the Dutch and Portuguese colonialists who mixed with the locals –and there is a sense of ridicule brought about old Wilhelmina Aunty's habit to wear long sleeved clothes during the warm season in order to preserve the fair complexion of her skin- but there is no social marginalization or exclusion based on race only. However what is widely accepted by the Western World, such as divorce, in Sri Lanka it seems to be a reason beyond the marginalization of parents and children equally.

In "Funny Boy" Selvadurai took his time to develop the language, and showed promising stylistic skills. "Swimming in the Monsoon Sea " is written in a simple, less pretentious language. Which makes it much easier to read - it took me only a few hours to finish it. And Selvadurai is great at incorporating in the flow of the story differences between the western society and Sri Lanka. This is why I would recommend it for any young Western reader who is curious about the world beyond his/her cultural boundaries. And because what made his writings amazing for me is the warmth and compassion with which he draws his characters' differences- warmth and compassion which does capture the reader as well and brings peace…

[1] the Sri Lankan landscape had been , unfortunately, reshaped by a long civil war that started in 1983

[2] Shyam Selvadurai is a gay writer born in a Sri Lankan mixed (Tamil –Sinhalese) family who immigrated to Canada at the beginning of the civil conflict. He is still living in Canada with his partner Andrew. His first novel "Funny Boy" won the Lambda Literary Award in 1994.

4 comments:

sumanam said...

Hi Ana, thanks for stopping by my blog.. you got a very lovely blog here...

sumanam said...

Hi Ana, thanks for stopping by my blog.. you got a very lovely blog here...

mel u said...

I have yet to read a novel by a writer from Sri Lanka-thanks for sharing your review of what seems like a very well done book-great review

Ana said...

@Sumanam
You are much welcomed :)
@mel
Thank you.
Funny Boy is probably a better start point for the grown up reader. Another amazing Sri Lankan author is Ondaatje and he wrote several books about the island ...