Nayomi Munaweera is the author of two books. The first, Island Of A Thousand Mirrors, won the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region in 2013.
In this book, the story builds around the lives of a Sinhala and a Tamil girl in Sri Lanka, growing up in the shadow of simmering societal strife that soon turns to a bloody civil war. I was a school girl when news of the war in Sri Lanka used to be on newspaper front pages in India, but it was still always a far away matter, at least in our circles. Today, among most people I know Sri Lanka is a cool, more-affordable-than-other exotic location for a holiday. But apart from the holiday pictures of friends and family, and very cursory reading of some fiction and non-fiction about our neighbour, I was pretty much tuned out of any realistic contemporary story about the place and its people. After reading this book, I can never think of Sri Lanka just as a tourist paradise or a shopping destination. As I reader I relish Nayomi’s exquisite descriptions of Sri Lanka- the verdant beauty, the rich sights and smells of a Sri Lankan home, the delightful ocean. But now I can see it as much more than a stunning backdrop for holiday pictures. I can see it as a real place with people whose lives I can imagine – to the extent one can imagine reality from fiction.
Reading about the politics of war, even politics sans overt war tires me and enrages me, and I avoid books with such themes. But Nayomi’s book is not like that. There are no big heroes and no very specific villains in her telling of the story and no complex plot lines to tie up. She leaves the politicians and the war lords and their specific machinations mostly at the periphery of the telling of her tale. We meet the foot soldiers, the mobs, the ordinary man turned hero, the ordinary village girl turned suicide bomber, and we see them as humans in search of meaning, driven by love at times, and hate and revenge at others. Stark in-your-face brutal violence never leaves the reader for long in this book, and neither does a sense of beauty. We see the play of old prejudice, stereotypes and we see how they can be overcome or fed, even in the same people.
I am no longer the school girl who didn’t look beyond the headlines, and now I relate to the horrors of war anywhere as if it could be happening to us, to me and to my loved ones. I read about Yashodhara and Saraswathi and Shiva in the book, but I imagine many others… in Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nagaland, Manipur, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, on all sides of the conflict, in every such conflict. I read about a family leaving their war-torn homeland, and settling into new lives abroad, and I think of the displaced everywhere, and their stories. In so many big and small ways, at so many levels, this book speaks of our times and our world, and about the universal nature of human pain and human redemption.
I would count this as one of the most necessary books on our times in my fiction collection.