FICTION: COMING OF AGE IN CEYLON

29 Mar 2020

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The sutikka, or sunbird, is a species native to Sri Lanka. Jay, one of the two main characters in Gunsekera’s book, captures one and names it Sunbeam
The sutikka, or sunbird, is a species native to Sri Lanka. Jay, one of the two main characters in Gunsekera’s book, captures one and names it Sunbeam

Romesh Gunesekera was born in Colombo, lives in London and is the author of several award-winning works of fiction. His haunting and poetic new novel, Suncatcher, set in 1964, captures the spectacular landscapes and natural life of the newly independent Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) to tell of two teenagers in Colombo — Kairo the narrator, and his newly found friend Jay — both rather solitary boys with no siblings, few friends and born into dysfunctional, albeit very different, families.

Their transition from adolescence to adulthood coincides with the changing ecology of their city, amid urban expansion and political ferment and debates which shape their country’s quest for new direction and a new identity to define its future. At this point in time, the Sinhala language has been introduced as a medium of instruction in schools and there are growing tensions of ethnicity and faith.

Kairo’s narrative highlights the once peaceful co-existence of different communities in Ceylon with his opening sentences, which describe his very first encounter with Jay, in “a church car park [...] mid-way as the crow flies between the mosque and the temple.” The flamboyant Jay suddenly appears “hands on hips, freewheeling on the dusty tarmac using only his weight to steer his bike as he [leaned] from side to side.” He challenges Kairo to a bicycle race down a steep, dangerous slope. Kairo, impelled by rivalry, admiration, and the fear of betraying his insecurities, accepts, but he can’t keep up. To his surprise, Jay does not mock him. Instead, he gives Kairo expert technical advice on how to upgrade his bicycle.

The tall, gangly Jay is a couple of years older than Kairo. He has an innate understanding of gadgets and their mechanics, a passion for birds, fish and wildlife and he loves to speed on his bike and in the cars owned by his Uncle Elvin.

Kairo’s friendship with the strong, independent and fearless Jay opens a world of discovery and adventure, which includes Jay’s wonder and excitement at watching bats fly in formation, or discovering a rare bird in the jungle, or a nearby laburnum tree. The title of the book is suggested through Kairo’s conversation with Mahela, owner of the ice cream parlour which becomes Jay and Kairo’s rendezvous spot and where Jay skilfully manages to capture an exquisite yellow bird — a sutikka, indigenous to Ceylon — and take it home with him. Mahela says, “Clever as a monkey, that boy. He could catch the sun in a thunderstorm, if he wanted to.” Jay names the bird Sunbeam.

The latest novel by the multiple award-winning Romesh Gunesekra is a haunting and poetic foray into a newly independent Sri Lanka and its social fissures

All this serves as a panacea for Kairo’s own sense of inadequacy, unhappiness and low self-esteem. Kairo is a disappointment to his father, Clarence, a government official in the labour department, with strong Trotskyite leanings. Clarence does not approve of the cowboy comics and motorcar magazines that Kairo devours and urges him to read Maxim Gorky and John Steinbeck. Kairo’s mother, Monica, who works at Radio Ceylon, also urges him to spend more time on studies and tuitions since schools are closed because of endless riots — and he must improve his Sinhala, too.

Kairo’s parents quarrel frequently, particularly over financial matters, since Clarence bets heavily on horses. Kairo is embarrassed by his shabby home and resents the fact that his parents neither allow him to have any pocket money nor keep pets.

Kairo lives in a dream world of gunslingers and fast cars. Even so, he is somewhat jolted by Jay’s propensity to use his pellet gun to shoot at red lizards or crows that Jay considers a threat to the more beautiful birds that excite him. Later, Kairo is troubled by Jay’s lack of concern for an employee’s son who is seriously hurt in an accident while playing “gunslinger” games with them.

On the other hand, Jay uses his skills with the catapult to rescue and befriend Channa, a Tamil boy who is being mercilessly bullied and humiliated by a gang of classmates in a Colombo car park. Monica witnesses the incident and is sufficiently impressed by Jay that she permits Kairo to spend an increasing amount of time with him, despite Clarence’s protests. The left-wing Clarence has fierce ideological objections to Jay’s family, the Alavis. He calls them haute bourgeoisie par excellence and believes the government should curtail the commercial enterprises and vast landholdings such as those that Jay’s father, Marty, and Marty’s cousin, Elvin, respectively own.

In Jay’s company, Kairo enters into a magical world where Jay enjoys great independence and is free to pursue his many interests without parental interference.

Clarence’s views echo aspects of a national debate and serve both as a foil and a threat to those expressed by the English-speaking Alavis, for whom wealth and privilege are only normal and natural. In Jay’s home, the ever-talkative Uncle Elvin discovers that Kairo was so named because his father admired the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Elvin bursts out, “He’s not a bloody socialist, is he?” Throughout, Elvin remains a stronger and more influential figure in Jay’s life than Jay’s parents, who blame each other for their unhappy marriage. Jay is disparaging of them both, particularly his alcoholic mother Sonya.

In Jay’s company, Kairo enters into a magical world where Jay enjoys great independence and is free to pursue his many interests without parental interference. Jay’s home, the famous Casa Lihinya [House of Swallows], is a vast mansion guarded by iron gates and with extensive grounds and many trees. Jay spends much of his time in the spacious, covered balcony on the rooftop which is filled with equipment including several large aquariums, each with different species of fish that he tends to with great care. Jay shows them to Kairo, imparting a vast amount of knowledge on aquatic life in the process.

Similarly, Jay looks after — and talks about — the many budgerigars in the birdcage nearby, but decides the birds need more space. He proceeds to buy and gather suitable materials to create, with Kairo’s help, a large aviary for them in the leafy garden. His new acquisition, the yellow bird Sunbeam, is housed there, too. Soon Jay acquires a parakeet as well. Jay also introduces Kairo to Uncle Elvin’s many cars, including the very new Austin Healey. But Jay’s relationship with a girl called Niromi throws Kairo into confusion; he sees her as a threat to his friendship with Jay — and is also attracted to her.

Suncatcher is replete with metaphors and spectacular imagery as the novel follows Kairo and Jay’s complex emotional journey, from their early friendship in Colombo to their sojourn at Elvin’s coconut plantation and back, culminating in a shocking denouement.

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

Suncatcher
By Romesh Gunesekera
Bloomsbury, UK
ISBN: 978-1526610416
312pp.

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