With the publication of the subtle and deeply humane Cinnamon Gardens
, Shyam Selvadurai has established himself firmly as an important chronicler of the complexities of social and cultural difference. His tremendously successful first novel, Funny Boy
(1994), is a coming-of-age story about a homosexual child growing up in Sri Lanka amidst the violent racial tensions of the 1970s and 1980s. Cinnamon Gardens
is a considerably more ambitious book that seeks out the roots of the tensions that dominate Funny Boy
Selvadurai sets his new novel in the Ceylon (Sri Lanka) of the 1920s. The British are making tentative steps toward decolonization and the island's inhabitants are just beginning to face the many problems that will come with self-government. Ceylonese society is deeply divided: longstanding tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils are resurfacing; the introduction of Western political ideology has given birth to new conflicts; labour unions and universal suffrage are becoming prominent issues; and the primarily conservative members of the upper classes are fervently lobbying the British in an attempt to prevent social change.
Selvadurai has chosen to weave the stories of two ordinary citizens, as opposed to a well-known historical figure, into this political situation. Balendran Navaratnam and his niece, Annalukshmi Kandiah, belong to branches of a wealthy and influential Tamil family that lives in Cinnamon Gardens, a prestigious suburb of Colombo. Balendran is the steward of his formidable father's holdings, which include a temple and a prosperous agricultural estate. He is a liberal, and is deeply sympathetic to the new movements brewing on the island. His father, known simply as the Mudaliyar, in contrast, is a fervent conservative and domineering patriarch. They nevertheless manage to maintain a cordial and occasionally loving relationship for as long as Balendran remains unquestioningly obedient and generally well-behaved.
Problems arise when Richard Howland arrives from England. He is a journalist covering the Donoughmore Commission hearings (which is examining issues of suffrage, self-government, and independence). Richard and Balendran had shared a flat when Balendran was attending university in Britain, and had been fiercely devoted lovers until the Mudaliyar was informed of their relationship, and rather violently forced a separation. The Mudaliyar is the first to learn of Richard's impending arrival in Ceylon. Believing him to be a member of the Commission, the Mudaliyar asks Balendran to try to influence Richard's impressions of Ceylonese society. After an awkward reconciliation, Balendran and Richard resume their affair, which leads to all sorts of difficulties as Balendran struggles to balance his familial duties with his love for Richard and his own sense of morality.
Next door is Annalukshmi, the daughter of a much less prominent branch of the family. The eldest of three girls, she is very much the new woman: educated, independent, and occasionally scandalous. She works as a schoolteacher and has no desire to give up her job, which worries her family. As a woman, Annalukshmi cannot legally get married and remain employed. And, since she is the oldest daughter, this puts her family in a difficult situation: Ceylonese society dictates that she must get married before her sisters. Her father, Murugasu, is estranged from the rest of the family and runs a plantation in Malaya. Annalukshmi's troubles begin when Murugasu notifies her mother that he has selected a husband for Annalukshmi and will brook no disagreement.
The two plots are skillfully interwoven. As relations, Balendran and Annalukshmi wander in and out of each other's lives, learning a great deal from one another as time progresses. Balendran's story is the stronger and driving narrative: it bashes against the boundaries of Ceylonese society in a dramatic exploration of both individual and cultural difference. Annalukshmi's story is more episodic and less directed, which is not necessarily a bad thing. A range of supporting characters and subplots rounds out the novel by providing a useful series of alternatives to the main action.
Selvadurai's examination of difference is almost totally free of naiveté. Cinnamon Gardens is a successful novel because the author manages to critique the foolishness behind the prejudices of his characters while acknowledging the great difficulties facing anyone who attempts simply to shrug off the demands of their culture. His characters are constantly being confronted with choices, and none of them is simple. The reader is not permitted to claim any moral highground, to pick out a virtuous hero and a shiftless villain. This is the real value of the book: it acknowledges difficulties and does not shrink from the fact that sometimes cultural repression is, in the immediate vision, insurmountable. Selvadurai almost invisibly links the small, unknown individual with faceless society, and portrays a nation on the verge of a great change without seeming overly political or pedantic.
Cinnamon Gardens is a fine novel that is both delicately written and very, very wise. Selvadurai has definitely delivered on the promise of Funny Boy, and asserted himself as a gifted and sensitive writer.
Jack Illingworth studies literature, writes poetry, and edits and publishes ça met égal.