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Beyond a Few Pages: Sri Lankan Novels

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If you are reading this article, it is safe to assume you have at least the slightest interest in Sri Lankan culture. The fact that you are reading this also tells me you enjoy a little bit of light reading. For those whose love of the written word extends beyond a mere couple of pages, here is my list of top five Sri Lankan novels rooted in Sri Lankan culture.

  1. Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. By Shehan Karunatilaka.

I love cricket. I love watching it, playing it, talking about it and listening to people talk about it, and this book certainly made me love reading about it. You don’t have to be a cricket fan to enjoy this book. It’s about an alcoholic journalist and his quest to find this extraordinary cricketer. There are subplots to do with his family and Sri Lankan politics where fact and fiction are so interwoven that I found myself on Google both intrigued and appalled trying to get to the bottom of things. At the end of the day though, this is a work of fiction that gives an accurate portrayal of cricket-loving Sri Lanka.

  1. The Amazing Racist. By Chhimi Teduf-La.

I believe every family has or at least knows of an Uncle Tilak; the kind of man that is influential, loves to boss around his kin, has no filter between the mouth and the brain, is downright uncouth, but extremely lovable at the same time. This is a story about one such amazing Sri Lankan racist who is trying to come to grips with his daughter’s marriage to a ‘suddha’, or white person. This book is refreshingly funny and shows the wondrous side of all the irritating ‘flaws’ that make Sri Lanka unique. I am very much looking forward to this author’s next book called ’Panther’ which comes out at the end of this month.

  1. Road to Elephant Pass. By Nihal De Silva.

I was born during the height of Sri Lanka’s civil war. I’ve heard bombs go off and have vivid memories of the remains of a suicide bomber hanging off a tree. I am still afraid to drive behind an army vehicle and unintentionally panic if there is some unclaimed object, let alone even a brick left in the middle of a street. If you lived through a war you would understand. I am Sinhalese and I have Tamil, Muslim and Burgher friends. We all lived in fear of a common threat that could ruin your life at any moment. Anyway, enough about me. This book is a tragic love story between an Army soldier and a terrorist girl set in the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war. This book won the Gratiaen Prize in 2003 and was later made into a movie, It beautifully illustrates inter-ethnic mistrust and the horrors of war. Ironically, the author himself died a few years later as a result of a landmine explosion.

  1. Wave: Life and Memoirs after the Tsunami. By Sonali Deraniyagala.

I didn’t read this book from front to back. Not because I didn’t like it, but because it was too painful. I was curious, touched and deeply moved by Sonali’s memoir of losing everyone she loved in the 2004 tsunami that I kept coming back to this book. I remember 26th December 2004 vividly. We had booked a hotel in Hambantota, which was completely destroyed by the tsunami that Christmas, only to cancel our reservations last minute due to an unexpected visit from my mother’s Uncle from London. The thought that this could have been my story stung me as I read each sentence. It’s a book about loss that is beyond my comprehension, but it is also a love story about keeping the memories alive and moving on.

  1. Funny Boy. By Shyam Selvadurai.

Oscar Wilde once said, ‘the books that the world calls immoral are books that shows the world its own shame’. Growing up in Sri Lanka, when I first wanted to read this book at a young age, I was confronted with hush toned ‘Why?’s and concern that it was ‘inappropriate’ for my age. It is a beautiful coming of age story about a boy who struggles with his sexuality in a country where homosexuality is shunned. Funny Boy, for me, is less of a gay novel but rather a story that explores identities in a war torn country where the culture is such that identity is determined by what others want you to be rather than who you really are. This novel has won the Lambda Literary award for gay male fiction and provides an insightful portrayal of growing up in 80s Sri Lanka.

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