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Category Archive for 'Sri Lanka'

Living in an ethnically and religiously mixed neighborhood in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Nihil Herath is one of about a dozen children – Tamil, Sinhalese, Burgher, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Catholic – who take their cultural differences for granted. Nihil’s Sinhalese family is new to the neighborhood, but they fit in immediately with their neighbors, and under the leadership of Nihil’s mother, Savi Herath, they soon become the backbone of their little community. Using the Heraths and their four children – Suren (age 12), Rashmi (age 10), Nihil (age 9), and the energetic and irrepressible Devi (age 7) – as the linchpins of this saga of Sri Lanka, author Ru Freeman creates a lively neighborhood which represents virtually all the forces contesting for influence from 1979 – 1983, as the revolutionary Tamil Tigers decide to forego the legislative process and try to take over the country by force. Keeping the focus firmly on the children, who see and hear rumors of war, and the children’s fearful reactions to the increasingly dire news, Freeman creates a microcosm of the larger world and the devastation that is promised. Her characters, both the children and the adults who influence them, are lively and realistic, especially in their focus on the small, the personal, and the minutiae of everyday life as it begins to change.

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This mind-boggling “quest novel” from Sri Lanka operates under its own rules, defies expectations, twists and turns on its own momentum, and ultimately resolves itself in ways the reader never predicts. Wijedasa Gamini Karunasena, known as Wije, the main character here, is a sportswriter who has covered cricket for years. Winner of Ceylon Sportswriter of the Year, 1969 and 1976, he has always believed Pradeep Mathew, a Tamil who was a star in only four games over his career, to be the best cricket player who ever lived, someone whose feats have been wiped out, somehow, in the records. Though hobbled by drink, and in poor health, Wije buddies up with his friend, Ariyatne Cletus Byrd, to produce a documentary about the best cricket players in Sri Lanka, with one whole episode devoted to Pradeep Mathew. As Wije does his research on Pradeep, however, every lead seems to end, every clue seems to disappear, and Pradeep seems to be on the receiving end of a plan to wipe him off the face of Sri Lankan cricket history. No one even knows if Pradeep is alive or dead. All this time, Sri Lanka is fighting for its political life, with the Tamil Tigers fighting for total control of the north and east and the military trying to maintain control of the rest of the country. Bombings, assassinations, and terrorism accompany the daily news about the latest Sri Lanka cricket team losses and occasional victories, with the characters here more concerned with the cricket results. “Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls and transcend race, the past and all probability,” Wije observes. “Unlike life, sport matters.” The novel, filled with wonderful dialogue and humor, portrays life in Sri Lanka in ways not seen before in literature.

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Setting his latest novel on the Oronsay, a passenger ship going between Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and London in 1954, Michael Ondaatje writes his most accessible, and, in many ways, most enjoyable novel ever. Having grown up in Ceylon, from which he himself was sent to England to be educated as a boy, the author certainly understands what it feels like to be a child on a ship for three weeks, like his main character here, but author Ondaatje says that all the characters in the book are fictional, including the main character. The novel has such a ring of truth and Ondaatje’s depiction of the characters is so true to the perceptions of an eleven-year-old traveling on his own, however, that it is difficult to remember that the boy in the book is imagined and not real. Since the boy grows up and becomes an author like Ondaatje, his adult conclusions as he looks back on the importance of these events and what they have meant in the grand scheme of his life become even more vivid.

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Sri Lankan-born artist-writer Roma Tearne, who fled the civil unrest in her native country when she was ten, revisits the years leading up to the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983 – 2009) and its effects on families in her second novel, Bone China. In this novel, she is more interested in family issues than in politics, focusing on the lives of a Tamil Catholic family as it faces the inevitabilities of violence and warfare on their small island nation. Her previous novel, Mosquito, concerned itself primarily with an artist film-maker of Sinhalese background who recognized that the formerly repressed Tamils would fight to the death for recognition and dominance over the Sinhalese, and these two books taken together, reflect Tearne’s understanding of both sides of the brutally violent conflict which claimed so many lives over such a long period of time.

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Roma Tearne, who grew up in Sri Lanka, crafts a powerful novel, combining the horrifying violence and brutality of brainwashed boy soldiers and opportunistic power seekers with the sometimes lyrical portrayal of nature and the enduring power of love. Now a painter and film-maker in London, as well as a gifted writer, Tearne makes the fraught atmosphere come alive through almost tactile sense impressions, adding depth to this portrait of Sri Lanka, even as she uses the mosquito symbol to show that beauty, when it can be found, always comes with a price.

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