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Songs of innocence and experience: Romesh Gunesekera’s ‘Suncatcher’ reviewed

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A sweet friendship plays out in a Sri Lanka uneasy in the first throes of turmoil

Fairly early on in Romesh Gunesekera’s bittersweet novel Suncatcher, we are given a haunting premonition of likely tragedies to come. Kairo, the teenaged schoolboy-narrator in Sri Lanka of the early 1960s, is rummaging in a Colombo bookstore for encyclopaedic information on bats — in order to impress Jay, his “hero”, his “guide” and his “illumination” — and is wonderstruck to learn of mammalian ultrasonic characteristics. But a quizzical remark from Mr. Ismail, the laconic bookshop owner, suggesting that the sonar skill is more widely shared in the animal kingdom leaves him puzzled.

“We can all feel ripples, son,” Mr. Ismail says. “When a storm is coming, we can all feel the signs.”

Two worlds

The rise of Sinhala linguistic chauvinism and nationalism, in which enterprise even socialist political forces became indirectly complicit is the backdrop against which is framed the endearing story of an unlikely friendship between Kairo and Jay. The political situation in Sri Lanka is astir; there is ceaseless chatter about a planned land redistribution; strikes and societal disruptions frequently intrude into the protagonists’ lives.

The two friends at the centre hail from vastly different worlds: Kairo’s father, Clarence, is a politically awakened

Songs of innocence and experience: Romesh Gunesekera’s ‘Suncatcher’ reviewed

Trotskyite who, when he is not sneakily betting on English Derby racing, is given to living-room rants about the manners of the “petty bourgeois” universe that Jay belongs to.

Jay is outwardly an admirable ‘buddy’ — a ‘Batman’ to Kairo’s ‘Robin’ — and the casual manner with which he invokes words like “capacious” and “undulation” inspires a sense of awe in Kairo. And although the trappings of familial wealth sit very lightly on his privileged pal, considerations of the class divide that distinguishes them keep creeping into Kairo’s consciousness. They become particularly accentuated during a visit to Jay’s uncle Elvin’s plantation in the suburbs, when the shadow lines that make for a hierarchical society are laid bare in unsubtle terms.

There is a Tom Sawyerish quality in Jay: he is artful, given to easy conviviality, and very ready to impart survival skills to his acolyte and very own Huckleberry Finn.

Building an idyll

“Clever as a monkey, that boy,” a peripheral character says of Jay. “He could catch the sun in a thunderstorm, if he wanted to.” And given their shared fascination with birds — “no life without wildlife” becomes their anthem of sorts — the two schoolboys find themselves collaborating on a project to build an aviary in the sprawling estate on which Jay lives.

At one level, the aviary is a metaphor for an idyllic world in which different ethnicities may live together, which Sri Lankan dream was beginning to become frayed right about that time. Mapping the design of the aviary, Jay explains to Kairo that if the birds “feel trapped and crowded and there’s not enough food, then there’ll be trouble. But if there is enough space, and they have their basic needs met, then they can co-exist.” Hanging to his every word, Kairo is struck by the realisation that this is much the same language that his own father speaks.

Fears in solitude

The passages where the two friends go bicycling around a rain-swept Colombo, frequent their familiar haunts, stop for chocolate drinks at their preferred milk bar, and, in general, just hang out with each other are achingly evocative of the age of innocence that has cruelly passed Sri Lanka by. The pangs of separation anxiety that Kairo experiences when he reckons that Jay has given admittance — to a girl! — into their circle of friendship will readily resonate with anyone who has been in intense but ‘unequal’ friendships.

That anxiety is compounded in Kairo when Sunbeam, one of Jay’s prized birds, keels over and dies one day without any proximate cause. “Guess it happens,” says Jay. “Maybe God takes those he loves sooner.” But it strikes Kairo as a very ungodly manifestation of love. He muses: “I feared then that soon I would lose my friend too. Even at that tender age I had a suspicion of worse to come: unfocussed, unbearable loss.”

That sets the stage for a heart-aching denouement, which Gunesekera says led him to explore the idea of loss. “Everybody has a friend like Jay — or always wanted a friend like Jay,” he has said. “It’s a very strong affection and sometimes a strong hostility. But it’s hugely important, and the loss of it is important too.”

Returning to the land of his roots as the setting for his novel, Gunesekera takes us on an enchanting exploration of an unlikely and, in some ways, unequal friendship, against the backdrop of a society in the first throes of turmoil. Particularly as seen with the power of hindsight given what we know of Sri Lanka’s troubled history, it’s a poignant tale of the loss of innocence, both at a personal and a political level.

For the most part, the Jay-Kairo friendship makes for a joyous narrative of relationships across the fence, so to speak, but even when it tugs at the heartstrings, Gunesekera’s elegaic prose has a curiously healing quality. As Jay says at a defining moment, you bury the dead and you learn to live — with loss and the inexplicable forces that shape a life.

venky.vembu@thehindu.co.in

Suncatcher; Romesh Gunesekera, Bloomsbury Publishing, ₹599

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 11:05:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/songs-of-innocence-and-experience-romesh-gunesekeras-suncatcher-reviewed-by-venky-vembu/article30122351.ece

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