The story of one boy’s struggle to survive.
Sam Kandy was born in a Ceylon village in 1899. Named Ranjith at birth, he is abandoned on his tenth birthday because his father is worried that Ranjith’s stars will affect the family’s fortune. This ends up shaping the boy’s destiny, as he is determined to outwit his stars and prove his horoscope wrong.
The monks in the temple in Kandy town name the boy Samanera, but one abusive monk nicknames him squirrel. Stuck with the monks and a pet name he detests, the boy runs away to Colombo and renames himself as Sam Kandy and works under Badula who “had a finger in anything he could pry open or plug.” Under Badula, Sam learns street survival techniques but, cheated of his earnings, leaves for Australia.
In the 10 years that he is away from Ceylon, Sam lives in Sydney harbour — a “skyward puzzle of endless brick and squinting white faces brimmed in black hats” — with a group of Indian boys who resort to tricks to earn a livelihood. Australia changes Sam’s fortunes. He learns the shipping trade, goes through unrequited love and returns to his village in 1928 in the first motor car the dusty village has seen.
In Colombo he forms a successful shipping partnership and becomes wealthy. He gets married, though his relationship with his first wife is a calculated transaction to further his status in society. The birth of his twins and the violent death of his first wife leave him unfazed. He changes after his second marriage. He lives with his second wife in the Grand Oriental Hotel for several years; a place where “hooked-nose couples dance in the ballroom. The only time Sam Kandy shows any emotion is at the age of 65 when he gets married for the third time to a girl as old as his daughter. With 12 children, the proud father shows fleeting glimpses of how the man he would have been be if his parents had chosen to ignore the astrologer’s warnings and brought him up with love and warmth.
The book is divided into four parts and has long paragraphs that extend to entire pages. The extra long sentences tend to slow the reader down. At several places the narration is a bit abrupt, leaving one with a feeling that more information would have come in handy.
At its heart, Beggar’s Feast is the story of one boy’s struggle to survive against the odds. In the course of Sam’s journey straddling a hundred years, Ceylon hurtles towards independence and becomes Sri Lanka. Even though Sam Kandy comes across as indifferent, aloof and even cold, his personality is still larger-than-life.