08 August 2007

Cinnamon Gardens

Author: Shyam Selvadurai
Peguin: Peguin
Price: Rs 325
Pages: 389
Genre: Fiction

 Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy remains my most favourite book, and it naturally stoked an interest in me to read his second book, Cinnamon Gardens. Which I did recently. It did not disappoint me, but it lacks the spontaneous and emotional appeal of Funny Boy.

But I love the period that Selvadurai chooses for his second. The book is set in a rich suburb of Sri Lanka in the 1920s. The country is still under British rule, but stirrings for independence have begun. The author captures a lot of the politics of the period, but he is essentially interested in creating a novel of manners.  So greatly influenced is Selvadurai by Jane Austen, that he not only borrows  the central theme of Pride And Prejudice but also makes the novel resemble an 18th century British family drama.

Selvadurai has done his research on this Sri Lankan period and specifically about families who stayed in Cinnamon Gardens (a locality that actually existed) to 'get a sense of what went on beneath the polished veneer'

The novel has two parallel threads, one is about Annalukshmi, a 20 something feisty, independent girl who resists the idea of conventional marriage. 
Her sisters (Kumudini and Manohari) don’t share her ‘odd’ ideas. There's a high-strung, critical aunt by the name of Phelomena who constantly adds fuel to fire. Her mother Louisa, herself a victim of a tumultuous marriage tries hard to protect the interests of her daughters even as she has to constantly worry about getting them the ‘right’ husbands.

 A Victorian propriety runs through the proceedings.  Here reputation is a fragile commodity and even mild gossip can harm matrimonial prospects.

The other parallel story is about Balendran (Bala), the son of a wealthy patriarch, Mudaliar. The latter is a self-important, hypocritical sort of man, who believes in exerting his power and having his way each time. His elder son Arul rebels against his double standards and marries a low cast girl, resulting in him being banished by the father. Mudaliar’s second son, Balendran is much more plaint and remains loyal and abiding, much to chagrin of his wife Sonia.
In his days as a student in London, Bala carried on a relationship which his partner Richard. When it was discovered, all hell broke loose and Mudaliar made sure the 'filth' ended.

Both stories move in an alternating fashion and it's interesting to read about the Sri Lankan politics of the time. The elite Cylonese claimed right of self-rule from the British, even though they were opposed to universal franchise, that would allow women and low castes the right to vote. Similarly, the Tamil Cylonese among the elite were worried that they had a disadvantage with numbers and if they went for public voting, their powers would be largely reduced. Naturally, men like Mudaliar wanted the Britishers to rule, giving Tamils like him all the patronage they needed.

The two stories are not naturally connected and the gay love story doesn’t fit in at all. Also, it’s not quite clear what the novel is trying to say. I mean, with Funny Boy, every character held an important thread to tie the novel thematically. Here you're not so sure.

Yet, the novel stays engaging enough and Selvadurai's greatest quality is the ease and elegance of his prose.



Qalandar said...

I had not heard of this book, thanks for reviewing!

Qalandar said...

Re: "In many ways, Cinnamon Gardens is a novel of manners set in Sri Lanka’s wealthy suburb in the 1920s. And the fact that Selvadurai is so greatly influenced by Jane Austen, borrowing not just the central theme of Pride And Prejudice but also trying to recreate the same period aura, makes one feel as if one were reading an eighteen century British family drama..."

Interesting juxtaposition for sure!

Anonymous said...

Q: this is a good read but I strongly recommend(for the nth time) Funny Boy first, written by the same author.

Anonymous said...

Qalandar- I second Sandy's recco. Funny Boy is easily one of the most delightful and easy reads I've experienced in a while, while a bit uneven at times. There are moments of sheer brilliance here, the kind that reflects an innocence and insight not seen since Ruskin Bond. It is when Selvadurai aspires to pull off a Rohinton Mistry that he falls flat.

I haven't read Cinnamon Gardens yet, but know for a fact that the author believes it to be his better, if less personal, work.

Qalandar said...

Yeah, it's been on my list for a while now, waqt ki kamee hai...

I like Mistry's novels-- until one gets to the end. I feel he forces awful outcomes onto the story in an attempt to create tragedy. But the "manufacture" lacks the impact of tragedy...