No man’s island
Reviewed by Shalini Rawat

By Gopal Gandhi.
Penguin Books. Pages 203. Rs 250.

RefugeANYONE who begins to write a story has a choice—to depict the violence inside his mind or that which exists outside of it. Gopal Gandhi, with exquisite art, caricatures the agents and the systems which perpetrate the violence outside, and with great finesse, sketches the upheavals taking place within the characters as well.

The narrative is deceptively peaceful in the beginning. Set in the "vast undulating billiard top" tea estates of Sri Lanka, the story unfolds, paradoxically, with a deaf conch-blower rousing the workers in their lines (dwellings) in the morning. Tales of the lives of the tea estate workers seem to suddenly find resonance in the reader’s mind. One begins to wear out with Valli, a Tamil plantation worker and the only character with some semblance of a heroine, because of her monotonous and laborious routine. One searches for her eyes, very much like Soma, the Sinhala fish-vendor’s son, who falls in love with her across racial barriers. One burns with revenge with Kandan, Valli’s father, who loses his pregnant wife because of apathetic employers.

Dr and Mrs Baptist, the Italian missionary and the Buddhist monk are the rare characters who constitute islands of sanity in a place run like a conveyor belt by supervisors such as Nimal Rupasinghe. The poignancy is heightened in the end when rioting forces Valli to emigrate leaving behind her love child. No one escapes unscathed — Nimal too suffers a breakdown and commits suicide. The "refuge" one seeks — inside and out—is denied, ironically, to one and all.

Moments of epiphany are scattered along the pages like the proverbial gems on Lankan shores. Velu the deaf conch-blower’s condition is poetically described thus: "After years of sounding silence from silence, a tranquillity had settled on Velu." Words seem to be hitched, each one to the other, in a display of rare craftsmanship, causing the metaphors and similes to acquire lives of their own. For example, "the workers returned to the lines in the evening `85 not unlike the return of limp figures to their allotted boxes after the puppet show is over".

The phrases, like, "Kandan brought his banana-comb palms together in salutation" and the three supervisors of the estate in a club referred to as "`85bats that congregate in a tree, crevasse or similar retreat. Like bats again, they wrangled for places in the perch and snapped at each other", make for a delightful reading experience.

The novel concerns the forced mass repatriation of Indian-origin Tamil labourers many of whom had known no other home since the time their forefathers had been indentured in Sri Lanka. The large-scale exodus of populations due to man-made reasons (such as Partition) or natural ones has always aroused writers’ imaginations. Is it possible that this writer’s impulse was even stronger to take up this social issue since he happens to be Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson (from the paternal side) or the Tamil issue as he is P. Rajagopalachari’s grandson (from the maternal side)? Or, was it during heading the country’s diplomatic mission in Sri Lanka at the time of the exodus and interaction with those affected made him delve deeper into the issue?

Gopal Gandhi, the scholar, shines through the meticulous research into the backdrop. The urge to etymologically explore words comes from Gopal Gandhi, the civil servant, as do the "insider’s view" parallels drawn with supervisors and clerks of the estates. But it is Gopal Gandhi, the man and writer, who makes the words palpitate by deftly painting the violence — both inside and out.