28 February 2015

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea

Author: Shyam Selvadurai
Penguin Books
Year of Publishing: 2005

When a writer is part of two worlds – Sri Lanka and Canada – with a readership in both countries, his instinct often is to combine these worlds so as to help his readers relate better. That seems to be one of the ideas behind his third novel, ‘Swimming In The Monsoon Sea’  - a forgettable title that I’m never able to remember without looking at the cover again. 

Shyam Selvadurai, who is now a citizen of Canada, and has been residing in Toronto for years, is a Sri Lankan by birth. He was among the thousands of refugees who fled his home country during the Tamil-Sinhalese riots in the 80s. His first book, ‘Funny Boy’ was an exceptional one in many ways. Sparkling with compassion, the novel instantly brought Selvadurai in the limelight.  The fact that he is now long settled in Canada has enabled his wonderful work to be appreciated by the western world as well.
 The book’s 14-year-old protagonist, Amrith comes face to face with his Canadian cousin, Niresh after years of not knowing him. This introduction of a foreigner into an affluent Sri Lankan family of affable parents and plucky teenagers turns the story into a cultural exchange of sorts.

Young Amrith who is at the threshold of puberty has much to be content about, but many things to mull over as well. His parents are no more, and he has no blood relatives to call his own. However, he has a solid support system and protective guardians in the form of Aunt Bundle and Uncle Lucky. The couple has two girls, Maya and Selvi, who treat Amrith as one of their own, even if the three are bickering for most part.

As children experience so often when they step into young adulthood, a strange sense of loneliness takes over, a self-consciousness creeps in, and new emotions find home in the heart.  The only interesting aspect of Amrith’s life at this time is a play he’s participating in. Being a boys’ school, the female parts are also essayed by the boys. Instinctively, Amrith is drawn to the female roles. In this case, he sets his mind on playing Desdemona from Othello.  The Shakespearean drama about intense jealousy and injustice serves as a backdrop to Amrith’s story, as he is faced with uncomfortable truths about himself.  His cousin's sudden entry into his life literally throws him into a deluge of discovery about his sexual orientation. Till now, Amrith only has a small idea about what such a thing means. He knows ‘such people’ are made fun of, and he dreads what its consequences could be.

The novel’s pace is languorous, in tandem with Amrith’s own uneventful life.  But Selvadurai has a gift for description and his prose is unfailingly elegant.  Also, the world the author recreates – upper-class Sri Lankan society of the 80s is charming and a precious piece of period history.
Selvadurai also manages to effectively capture the anguish of a young boy, as he comes face to face with his real sexual desires. The discovery saddens him, as he realises that nothing would go back to being the same again. This aspect of homosexual love is autobiographical and expectedly, the author beautifully brings forth the character’s inner struggle.

Yet, the novel is not a patch on ‘Funny Boy’ or even ‘Cinnamon Gardens’.  The earlier novels were far more accomplished in their writing and plot. A reason why this novel feels a bit watered down is also because it borrows many themes from the previous two books. Homosexual love is a recurring theme, so is the period setting and other elements like bickering cousins etc.  Selvadurai also gets bolder and incorporates several homoerotic scenes. This takes the novel precariously close to being an out and out candidate for queer literature. Now, this is a trap Selvadurai might well want to avoid. The universality of the story and emotions in the author's books succeed as long as the visceral aspects of homosexuality don't take over.

Many dialogues and scenes are awkward, even mawkish. With ‘Funny Boy’ every emotion carried a ring of sincerity. That aspect is not consistent in his third novel.
Yet, even when not at his absolute best, Selvadurai is never dismissable. He seems to enjoy the domestic atmospherics around the upper classes - a bit like Edwardian writer Edith Wharton or even Jane Austen, and it’s hard not get sucked into a world he so lovingly creates. Many descriptions are the work of a miniaturist.

But put together, ‘Swimming In The Monsoon Sea’ is only a little above a workaday novel.