Divided Sri Lanka haunts a man at the wheels (Book Review)

By M.R. Narayan Swamy,

Title: Noon Tide Toll; Author: Romesh Gunesekera; Publisher: Penguin Books: Pages: 237; Price: Rs.299

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How does Sri Lanka fare after the end of a quarter century of ethnic conflict? Vasantha ferries visitors all around the island in a van bought with savings after retiring early. The road journeys are as much an eye opener to the Sri Lankan driver as much to the men and women he transports – mainly foreigners and Sri Lankans now settled abroad. The still bruised north, the Sinhalese south and the now carefree Colombo come alive as Romesh Gunesekera, a gifted writer, uses Vasantha to take readers from one spot to another, from one saga to another.

There are a dozen stories set in different locales from Jaffna to Galle, seemingly unrelated to one another. But they are all linked to a terrible past when a conflict for a Tamil homeland enveloped the entire country, leaving thousands dead and many more wounded and bruised – physically and psychologically. Driver Vasantha sees it all as he overhears his clients talk — among themselves and with people they visit in the country’s north and south.

The bombed out and bullet ridden buildings in Jaffna, the now ruined Jaffna Fort, a soldier’s memory of LTTE women fighters, a lady lodge manager who may have been a Tamil Tiger, a Sri Lankan military commander who is a generous host at the dinner table but who has killed at will, a Tamil who returns to Jaffna after decades in search of the house where he spent his childhood, “cars, vans, lorries, buses, cycles, scooters, every kind of vehicle jumbled up and abandoned in creeks and ditches” in a former war zone, giving an eerie look with their owners nowhere in sight.

The war over, Colombo now dazzles, with new wealth in overt display. The oil barrels that make up makeshift checkpoints in the capital are gone. Streets that once got deserted at night are alive. But guilt feelings abound. A soldier is in love with a young woman whose insurgent brother he killed. Vasantha says: “I carry a big load now, wherever I go, from the yearnings of teenagers to the heartache of soldiers. I carry more than dreams. There is so much in my head I wonder how I will ever get it out.”

Post-war Sri Lanka comes alive in Gunesekera’s “Noon Tide Toll”.

(27.08.2014 – M.R. Narayan Swamy is an Executive Editor in IANS. He can be reached on [email protected])