The ‘Star-crossed’ lovers of post-’77 Lanka

Book Review


Title – ‘Rails Run Parallel’ (Short-listed for the Graetiaen Award this year)

Author – Ayathurai Santhan

Publisher – PawPrint Publishing, Colombo

Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz

Ayathurai Santhan, a creative writer of repute from Northern Sri Lanka, who uses English as his medium of expression with notable lucidity, could be described as a ‘Master of Understatement’. He earns this accolade from me chiefly on account of his ability to say the most profound, thought-provoking things through the use of the least amount of words.

Therefore, reading Santhan could be a refreshing challenge for the reader. This is mainly because, besides seeing the basic contours of the story line in Santhan’s novels in his mind’s eye, and entering the consciousness of his characters, the reader is required to intelligently engage with the finely nuanced meanings the writer invests his words with. In other words, economy of style is characteristic of Santhan.

For example, ‘Rails Run Parallel’ is the title of this his latest of novels, but there is more than superficially meets the mind of the reader in these words. It is seemingly a very bland, unexciting title, but on reading the novel the reader realizes the propriety of the title. The ‘Rails’ here refer to the lives lived by the majority of Sinhala and Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka, which are characterized by commonly endured concerns and anxieties. These life pressures usually go unnoticed by the powerful of the land but they bind the ‘silent majorities’ on both sides of the ethnic divide, so to speak, into a united collectivity characterized by common suffering.

What is true of the title is true of the prose in the body of the novel. It is not Santhan’s style to use emotion-charged or convoluted, laboured language. What he needs to say, he says in the simplest ways but the reader dare not be dismissive of his narrative as unexciting and lacking in engaging content, on this score. Since Santhan’s craft is characterized by understatement, almost every word and phrase in ‘Rails Run Parallel’ is packed with meaning which must be carefully gleaned by the reader to comprehend the total content or theme of the novel.

What is true of Santhan’s style is true of his content as well. ‘Rails Run Parallel’ is a simply-told story of ‘Star-crossed’ lovers from the Tamil and Sinhala communities in Sri Lanka. Sivan cannot marry a Sinhala girl he befriended on account of objections from both sets of parents, but this does not constitute the bulk of the novel’s content. Rather, the novel, in the main, is all about the insecurity and anxieties the Tamil community in particular suffers on account of the divisive politics the country becomes heir to in the seventies decade and after.

The first part of the novel focuses on the ethnic riots of 1977, which compelled sections of the Colombo-based Tamil community to flee by train to Jaffna. Sivan and his family do likewise and the initial chapters of the novel read like a toned down adventure story, replete with a degree of suspense and thrill. But we do not have elements of the ‘pot boiler’

novel here. There are no conventional climaxes, for instance, where the train is over-run by marauding hordes wielding machetes and crow bars, as some readers would be prone to expect. On the contrary, we become privy to the thoughts of Sivan, which centre on his life and work in Sri Lanka, and are treated to insightful descriptions of the countryside and its people. We are also introduced to a wide cross-section of the Jaffna Tamil community who think it advisable to escape to Jaffna. It is in one of his retrospective moods that Sivan tells us of his ‘Star-crossed’ affair with the Sinhala girl, long ago, prior to his present marriage to a Tamil girl.

But the majority community, is in no way portrayed in a negative light in the novel. The essential humanity of all communities in Sri Lanka is underscored by the Sinhala taxi driver who drives Sivan, his family and his friends to the Fort railway station at the risk of his life and at the height of ethnic violence.

The second part of the novel is devoted to 1979 and after, when Sivan and his family are back in Colombo. ‘Nothing seems to happen’ in these last chapters but the lives of the communities in these times are provided to us with some evocative detail. One message that these chapters carries is that there is both humanity and unity of purpose among the majority and minority communities. For instance, Sivan and his colleagues work with exemplary togetherness to win trade union rights.

What is to be noted is that ‘Rails Run Parallel’ ends in what may be called a muted but highly effective climax. And here is where a considerable amount of the literary merit of the novel lies. It is not the conventional ending that rouses the emotions of the reader on being confronted with something astoundingly out of the ordinary. The story takes an unexpected turn all right but some quiet reflection is required on the part of the reader to sort things out. Sivan learns that his Sinhala girlfriend’s parents had finally agreed to her marriage with Sivan and this was confided to one of Sivan’s closest friends. But this vital bit of information was not conveyed at the time to Sivan by his friend. We are left to wonder: Is this traceable to jealousy and spite in the friend or is this racial prejudice doing irreparable damage?

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