A depiction of the island’s civil war without ethnic bias or bitterness and with equal sympathy for sufferers on both sides.M.S. Nagarajan
Is Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors war fiction or a non-fiction novel? It tells the story of two families in Sri Lanka caught up in the Sinhala-Tamil conflict during the turbulent days of guerrilla warfare.
The story is narrated alternately by the oldest daughters of the two families: Yasodhara, the Sinhala and Saraswathi, the Tamilian. The intricate plot covers 60 years and three generations in the two families. The aftermath of 1983 riots tapering off to a supposed close in 2009 is the crucial period in the story that exposes the physical horror of mindless war — bloodshed and mayhem — stripping it of any glamour.
Yasodhara’s early years were smooth sailing. Her grandparents were quite affluent; their Wellewette house was a prominent landmark. Her parents Nathan and Vishakha too had nothing to complain of. The turning point in their lives was the murder of their uncle by a group of gangsters while he was trying to save a Tamil youngster. Reassured of a peaceful life by Vishaka’s brother Anand, a medical doctor in California, the family moves to the U.S.
Yasodhara’s marriage breaks up and her younger sister, La, is jilted in her love affair. Disillusioned with life in the U.S., the sisters move back to Sri Lanka for a fresh start.
Saraswathi’s life, on the other hand, was thorny. Having lost three older brothers, she lives with Luxshmi, her younger sister and her parents, planning to teach to eke out a decent living for the family.
She is gang raped and brutally tortured by a bunch of hooligans intent upon rooting out ‘Tamil bastards’. As a result, she enlists in a Tamil militant group that believes in blood for blood. After undergoing gruelling training, she becomes a commander with a licence to kill. While carrying a detonator hidden on her body to attend a public meeting, she is encircled by a gang out to destroy her. She detonats the bomb and La who is on the same bus is among the victims. The desolate Yasodhara finds refuge in Siva, a Tamilian who is a childhood friend. They settle down in the U.S. After all the ravages of war, there is hope for peace and a quiet life for her growing daughter Samudra.
The juxtaposed dual narrations present the two sides of the picture maintaining a delicate balance without ethnic bias, bitterness or resentment and with equal sympathy for the sufferers struggling to come to terms with life, whether they are Sri Lankans or Tamils. What makes Island of a Thousand Mirrors so convincing is the authenticity of the characters and the panorama of picturesque descriptions of places, the vivid imagery in describing nature and gruesome incidents.
Life in exile and a sense of longing, fractured rush of memories, regrets, misfortunes, political issues and their repercussions on individual lives are all conveyed in a narration that instantly achieves the intensity of poetic specificity.
The gradual conversion of Saraswathi from a gullible harmless girl to a trained merciless killer and the violence and the voyeurism of the scene in the train when a school girl thought to be a Tamil is targeted are meticulously depicted with an eye for minute detail.
Beyond doubt Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors signals a new era of Sri Lankan fiction.