Romesh Gunesekera at the Lahore Literary Festival | White Star/Syed Murtaza Ali
Romesh Gunesekera at the Lahore Literary Festival | White Star/Syed Murtaza Ali

Romesh Gunesekera, the celebrated Anglophone writer of Sri Lankan origin, is the recipient of several awards including the Primo Mondello Award of Italy, the BBC Asia Award for Achievement in Writing and Literature and Sri Lanka’s Ranjana prize. He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, a Commonwealth Writers Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Gunesekera was born in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) in 1954 and moved to the Philippines in his mid-teens, where his father helped establish the Asian Development Bank. He went on to university in England and now lives in London with his wife and their two daughters. His novels include The Prisoner of Paradise (2012), which is set in 19th century Mauritania and The Match (2006), which celebrates Sri Lankan cricket.

Many of Gunesekera’s books, however, are informed by the need to address and understand Sri Lanka’s political violence and its reverberations; these include his short story collections Monkfish Moon (1992) and Noontide Toll (2014) and his novels Reef (1994), The Sandglass (1998) and the dystopian Heaven’s Edge (2002). His latest novel, Suncatcher, which captures the 1960s’ more “innocent”, nationalistic, post-independence era, was launched in Pakistan at the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) in February.

Gunesekera is witty, well-travelled and easygoing, and this was his second LLF. He says, “I really like Lahore. Coming here for the first time was a revelation. I didn’t expect to feel as at home as I felt.” He hopes to come for longer and see more of Pakistan — his parents used to frequent Islamabad to visit Pakistani friends in international organisations.

Suncatcher has many resonances with Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, including political debates over national identity, language, class, faith and ethnicity. I asked the author how the story evolved.

“The story, the idea of a disrupted friendship, has been there all my life, virtually,” he says. “All my writing life, anyway, because I lost a friend the same sort of age as these boys.” His best friend had died of cancer and he had “tried writing poems to deal with that trauma, the loss”, but “couldn’t think of a way of putting it into a larger story.” Finally, when he started writing Suncatcher, he departed from the original idea and “came to exploring much more the nature of friendship.” The focus shifted from being Jay’s story, to Kairo’s.

In order to recreate that period of the 1960s Colombo, Gunesekera drew on his memory of places — roads, houses and that lush expanse of “wasteland” with trees and birds located near Gunesekera’s own home — which the fictitious Jay and Kairo explore. He revisited it recently and found “a big condominium was being built there.” Colombo has changed from a big town to a metropolitan city and “that atmosphere has gone.”

The novel links Jay and Kairo growing up with Sri Lanka’s changing politics and ecology. “The early draft was about friendship,” says Gunesekera. “The idea of a political culture moving from its adolescence to adulthood developed later, with a sense of what seemed like a watershed in Sri Lankan society and politics. The old order was changing to a new one and no one was quite sure what was going to come of it. It may not be better, it may not be worse, but it was, in a way, more grown up — and that was happening with the boys, too.” He adds that, in ecological terms, houses with those gardens abundant with natural life are very rare now, as are birds that were very common once. However, in Sri Lanka today, “there is a consciousness that one of its assets is its biodiversity and wildlife and it is much better managed than it was.”

The name ‘Jay’ is deeply symbolic. “I wanted a name easy to say,” says the author of Suncatcher, “and I had read up the mythology of the jay. It is often a magician’s bird. A lot of Native American tribes have the jay as an iconic bird. It also steals things. It is magical, but also ruthless. It has quite a dark side. It’s behind the mythology of shape-shifters and sorcerers, too. It all fitted into this charismatic figure, Jay.”

Gunesekera decided to settle on the name Kairo — or rather, invented it — since he wanted people to remember it because it was unusual. This had been his experience with Triton, the boy-narrator of Reef. Also, he gave Kairo and Jay unconventional names because in Sri Lanka, “a name can tell a person’s ethnicity, likely religions, class. That’s why I name characters so that they don’t bring too much baggage. Through all the books, it needs a bit of effort to work out their ethnicity.”

Suncatcher recaptures the political debates that Gunesekera heard in his childhood. His parents were “a very glamorous couple” and had a wide range of friends with differing opinions. His family included left- and right-wing leaders, including an uncle, Vernon Gunesekera, who was the founder of the communist Lanka Sama Samaja Party. Meanwhile, Vernon’s uncle (and Gunesekera’s great-uncle) Sir Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke negotiated independence with the British and became the first non-British governor-general of independent Ceylon (it became the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972). Furthermore, his parents, particularly his mother, owned some lands, “though not huge amounts”, but their friends included major landowners and the impending land reforms were a serious issue for them. “I suppose the reason for this book’s concern for these different worlds — Kairo’s and Jay’s — was because I was able to cross those worlds myself,” says Gunesekera.

The novel Suncatcher makes a telling comment on class and privilege through Jay and his family’s carelessness towards their employees. This portrayal draws on the author’s own childhood; whereas his parents treated their servants very well and had strong bonds with them, he noticed at an early age that many of his friends and their families didn’t.

Gunesekera’s father loved books. He read everything from thrillers to Charles Dickens, quoted William Shakespeare, John Milton and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and joined The Left Book Club, “though we didn’t talk much about books,” says Gunesekera. He started to read the classics after moving to England, but as a child he read “mostly trash.”

Gunesekera’s parents were English-speaking but, in the 1960s, the Ceylonese/Sri Lankan government abolished English as a medium of instruction; children had to be taught in the language of their ethnic origins. This “streaming” meant Gunesekera’s education was in the Sinhala language. He knew “only Sinhalese, not Tamil boys” at school. He was conscious that whenever there was a dominant group, “there was bullying going on between Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims.” At home, he had diverse friends, Sinhala or “mixed”, but they spoke English.

During these years, Gunesekera did very badly at school because his Sinhala “was appalling.” He was ragged for it, too. This changed after he moved to the Philippines. There he was taught in English and suddenly began to come first in class. He discovered contemporary American writers, too, and decided he would also start writing.

Meanwhile, his parents divorced and his mother settled in England, where he did his A-Levels and joined the University of Liverpool. Soon, he “reconnected” with friends from Sri Lanka: they, too, had come abroad for higher studies and, in the 1980s, when he started writing, he began to write about Sri Lankan characters.

Gunesekera is also very active in British literary circles, serves on juries, organises writing workshops worldwide and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2004. —MS

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 29th, 2020