Friday, April 18, 2008

End of Serendipity

By Sunil K Poolani

Serendip. Ceylon. Sri Lanka. A lush green island blessed with and famous for its spices, coconut groves, rice… An amalgamation of ethnicities (primarily Sinhalese and Tamil), influenced by Indian, Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese and English (to name a few) cultures, and practicing religions as varied as Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim... An emerald. A virtual coral isle. An ideal abode for blissful existence.

Then all went awry. The once idyllic isle got soaked in blood. The green hue turned red. Ethnicities clashed, heads blew up, bombs ripped apart the facades of its rich heritage.

The mayhem continues unabated. What are prevailing now are restlessness, hopelessness, unemployment and basic amenities that are denied to the hapless citizenry who have, long ago, lost their gleam in their eyes.

What went wrong? Instead of pouring over truckloads of newspaper clippings collected over the decades and trying to make sense in political commentary books penned by half-baked experts, read Mosquito (a fiction, nevertheless) by Roma Tearne, whose writing leaves a dent in your heart, unless you are one of those assassins who periodically bring chaos and confusion to the war-torn country.

Mosquito, an allegory of a skewed polity, comes as a whiff of fresh air in a literary arena (if you can really call that) that is infected by bad prose but brazenly supported by hype, hoopla, nepotism and sex appeal. Tearne tells us the story of Nulani, a hapless victim of an internecine war fought between Sinhalese-Tamil brothers (well?). Nulani is a talented painter, who befriends Theo Samarajeeva, a famous writer who, after the death of his Italian wife Anna, had left Britain to embrace the warmth of his land of origin.

Friendship takes turns and blossoms into love, despite a huge age difference between the protagonists. Into their delightful saga of infatuation, and then love, creep in characters who not only add misery into the duo’s lives, but to the country as well. The Tamilian Vikram, masquerading as a Sinhalese, is one among them. Then there are two of his mentors; one of the characters resembles Velupillai Prabhakaran.

There are kind characters, too: Thercy and Sugi (he even gives up his life for Nulani) who take care of the duo when in dire need; Rohan, a celebrated painter, and his Italian (again) wife Giulia who not only give solace and sanctuary to Nulani when Theo was believed to be slain, but help Nulani flee Sri Lanka and later try their level best to track her down in the labyrinthine lanes of London.

Theo, as the story moves on, was held hostage — first by the Sinhalese and later by the Tamils — then manages to escape to his seaside villa, a literal mosquito coast, from where he writes a novel based on his life and his kith and kin, present and past. In the meantime, Rohan and Giulia manage to locate Nulani, who has by then become an established painter, and that lead helps them to connect Theo and Nulani, lovers who were once separated due to cruelty in the name of ethnicity.

So whose story is this? It is fiction, that’s right, and penned by Tearne. It is also a novel penned by the protagonist Theo. But a brief profile on Tearne says she “fled Sri Lanka at the age of ten, traveling to Britain where she spent most of her life.” And in the acknowledgments section, Tearne comes up with this line: “…to my long-suffering family…” Tearne apparently is Nulani, and like Nulani, Tearne, too, is an accomplished artist (she has a Masters degree from Oxford in Drawing and Fine Art and was awarded coveted fellowships).

And do not assume that the novel is totally flawless: a) all the main characters in the book are not only world famous (or are going to be one), but exceptionally talented, rich and, despite living in a morbid country, have the company of a guardian angel who has a twenty-four hour duty; b) about the second-rung characters: well, the author manages to kill them at a time when they are becoming strong and when the story starts revolving around them; c) the language is at times a bit shaky and a tad disoriented — this is especially true when, despite being a Sinhalese by origin, Tearne tries to bring into the realm the ultimate truth that there is no serendipity in Serendip.

If you ignore these flaws the novel reads like a dream, shattering some, creating some. What more can you ask for?

(Author picture courtesy: John Lawrence, The Independent, London, UK


Roma Tearne

Harper Perennial

Pages: 296; Price: Rs 295

— Deccan Herald

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