on 12 February 2007
This book is both insightful and beautiful. As someone with sri lankan roots, the characters never seemed two dimensional to me, but instead seemed incredibly familiar. Sivanandan portrays their thoughts and feelings with an understated elegance. This fits, as in my experience, tamil culture especially, and sri lankan culture, perhaps, is not overly demonstrative.
Most of all, there is a real evenness of tone - the book lays bare the real tragedy of sri lanka, that at its heart it is a place where both tamils and sinhalese have lived side by side for years, intermarried for centuries, have tried to build a future together, but are being manipulated by forces outside their control. The last part of the book, covering the massacre of JVP activits in the south, and the uprising of tamils in the north, show the real parallels between disaffected members of both communities. Gorgeously written.
This book was published in 1997 and describes the story of members of a Singalese family over three generations. The generations are represented in three books which comprise the novel each centred by a male character whose life is directly affected by the political and social changes that buffet the island.
Sahadevan, Saha, is born in a northern Tamil village of Sandilipay, where drought and crop failure were regular occurrences. This forces him to leave the countryside to get an education and to work for the post office in the last years of British colonial rule. He and his friends are socialists who dream of a fair and just society, but come to realise the gulf between dream and reality.
His son, Rajan, is an idealist like his father, and becomes a schoolteacher. During his life, post-independence dreams wither as the leading politicians seek personal power, become rich and create divisions within society to achieve these ends. When his wife, Lali, herself a Singalese, is raped and killed by Singalese who believe her to be a Tamil, Rajan has a breakdown and is taken to Britain for treatment, leaving his son to live with Lali's parents.
Saha's grandson and Rajan's stepson,Vijay, is lovingly reared by Lali's parents, joins the Tamil rebels as a student, but then follows his father into teaching. He marries a fellow teacher but remains unhappy and unfulfilled, and seeks a way of forestalling the disintegration of his country. The end of the novel is both pessimistic and realistic.
These three characters, and those around them, are positioned within the colonial history of Ceylon, which will probably be familiar to only a minority of readers. In the mid-1800s, the British colonialists employed a divide-and-rule policy to support a Tamil population who they had brought from Southern India as rural workers. As is shown in the first book of this novel, the Sinhalese and Tamil populations at first showed a mutual tolerance and respect, and even intermarried.
The subsequent violent history of the ethnically-divided Sinhalese, rural Tamils and Colombo Tamils, is presented in the second and third books of the novel. With the benefit of hindsight over the increasing ethnic clashes and civil war that occurred since 1997 when this novel was first published, it is clear that the author was right to develop such a melodramatic narrative without, in my opinion, seeking to manipulate the emotions of the reader.
However, as the novel progresses the murders and deaths accelerate on the periphery of the main characters' lives and intrude into their everyday existence. There are a great many facts to bring in and historical characters to present, and the author just about manages to achieve this without turning the novel into an indigestible history of 20th century Ceylon. That he achieves this is, in no small part, due to his ability to reproduce the everyday dialogue which keeps families and friends in contact even when opinions and beliefs become strained to the limit. The author is also very good at describing the native flora and fauna, and the violence of the monsoons that overcome human endeavour and political machinations. It is, of course, the lowest in society that suffer, and lose, the most.
Few, if any, characters reflect on the past in order to escape or attempt to divert social, religious and ethnic hostilities. As a result, the novel's title, "When Memory Dies", expanded within the book to "When memory dies, a people dies", becomes both a critique of 20th century Ceylon and a warning for Sri Lanka's future.
This is a powerful book which should attract a readership beyond those with familial links to the island.
on 10 June 2008
A.Sivanandan is a brilliant writer, who gives the reader an unbiased view of the Tamil vs. Sinhalese struggle. Once you have read this book you begin to see the world, and the history of its people, in a completely different light. All we hear of Sri Lanka's problems is how the Tamils are terrorists. But now I realise that really they are just freedom fighters, who began fighting as a last attempt to save their past and ensure a future. The tragedy is that it's already happened; they have forgotten what they were fighting for.
It is the longest book I have ever read, split into three generations which are cleverly woven together. I found the first generation a little slow in parts but this is needed as background to the next two generations, at which the intensity grew I became completely engrossed. The book can be read at different levels, because every event he writes about has some underlying meaning. I have never been interested in politics but this book really makes you think and broadens your understanding. This book is full of love, compassion, hope, fear, reason, haste, and real characters. It is beautifully written, capturing every moment, yet never growing any moment out of proportion. You really find yourself becoming involved with the characters and find parts of yourself in their personalities. I still have no idea how I would cope with what they have gone through, I have been filled with admiration for them. The scariest part is that the struggle goes on.
on 27 October 2010
Most Europeans have a very limited knowledge of Sri Lanka and its history. Up until now, it's been understandable if not fully acceptable. The news media has tended to report solely on the atrocities related to the 26 year civil war that has plagued the tourism industry, leaving Sri Lanka an inaccessible holiday destination. A. Sivanandan gives us an opportunity to explore Sri Lanka in a way the news media could never do. In "when memory dies" we learn about Sri Lankan history, from the 1920s up until the emerging civil war at the beginning of the 1980s.
The novel is full of vivid depictions on characters you'll only find in Indian and Sri Lankan literature; hard-working, wise and compassionate down-to-earth characters that are not your typical protagonists on a grand quest, but merely ordinary people living in extraordinary times. A. Sivanandan breaks the common pattern and follows three generations within a family, living in different times (naturally) with different specific obstacles to overcome and adapt to.
The funny thing about it is that even though a lot has changed in Sri Lanka in the past hundred years or so, the people appears to have stayed the same. I'm referring to the novel now, not the real world of which I can not say anything about.
A. Sivanandan doesn't linger on the character's deep emotions. The events speak for themselves. While I like this style of direct approach I feel like I have to warn other readers who doesn't like it. If you want an easy-read book that drive tears out of your eyes and don't demand intellectual afterthought and a reread of specific paragraphs and even chapters to grasp the full picture, this grand and thick 400 page novel is not for you. But if you do, enjoy!
on 23 August 2009
This is by far the best book on Sri Lanka I have read. Humane, insightful and respectful of the human spirit that so longs for justice. It reminds us of what Sri Lanka once was and what it could have been had not politicians on both sides taken the nationalist, separatist root post independence in 1948, while not in any way letting colonialism off the hook either; with the colonial mindset also very much at the root of the troubles that have beset Sri Lanka since independence.