Review: Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai

From the blurb: …Cinnamon Gardens is a residential enclave of wealthy Ceylonese. Among them is Annalukshmi, an independent and high-spirited young teacher intent on thwarting her parents’ plans to arrange her marriage. In a parallel narrative, her uncle, Balendran Navaratnam, respectably married but secretly homosexual, has his life disrupted by the arrival in Ceylon of Richard, a lover from long ago.

Review by Erastes

I found this a fascinating read, partly because I had only just finished Burmese Days” by George Orwell and the parallels are easy to see, even though it was obvious that they come from completely different directions. Both books deal with the English Raj – one in Burma, one in Ceylon – but one is written from the point of view of the priviledged and ruling whites, whilst Cinnamon Gardens is written from the point of the view of the privileged native population of Ceylon.

I knew next to nothing about Ceylon (this is set in the late 1920’s) and the insight that Selvadurai gives is like looking through a plate glass window into a world that none of us will ever know – like Mitchell’s land of knights and ladies, this is a another culture that is gone with the wind. However, although the blurb went on to say that it was a world where no-one can breathe freely, I didn’t really get an overwhelming sense of that, I was never really convinced that any of the characters (save for Belandran whose “face” is tremendous against the weight of love, responsibility, duty and family) were crushed and overwhelmed by position, caste or race. Not even the orthodox wives.

It seems from what I learned along the journey that the wealthy Ceylon of this time (for you don’t see the poverty in this book, the POV is purely from two rich people) were more racially integrated than I had seen in books dealing with other Asian countries; they intermarried with whites, and set themselves up as English, becoming Christian in many cases and changing their names to English names. In some instances the characters are related – and are seemingly accepted by- English aristocracy. Belandran’s wife visits a titled relative in England at one point.

After having read Burmese Days where the middle class whites consider the Burmans to be nothing but “niggers” this came as a surprise. I don’t doubt the author’s research – the afterword stated that he’d spent a year in Sri Lanka researching the book, and he was a native of the country, only leaving when he was 19. It was just a little surprising, that’s all.

What struck me was the complete LACK of the perception of colour and the barriers that it must, surely have made, in the book itself. Annalukshimi is a a school mistress under a headmistress called Miss Lawton, but you can’t assume that Miss Lawton is white – you only find that out later on, when Annalukshimi realises that her ambition to teach will be limited to the colour of her skin, no matter that Miss Lawton is helping to raise the education of girls in the Country. There’s Miss Lawton’s ward – Nancy – who I assume was white but turned out not to be. Because of the English names of a lot of the Ceylonese, it continued to be difficult to tell who was white and who was not. I was simply surprised that it did not seem to matter as much as it did in Burmese Days and other colonial books such as Passage to India and Jewel in the Crown

I was determined not to like Balendran because he had left behind his lover in England and “done the right thing”, followed his father’s dictates and had come back to Ceylon and married. But somehow he softened my resistance, and I couldn’t help, by the time the inevitable bitter sweet ending rolled around, to love him deeply for he had managed to make some kind of peace with himself in spite of all the obstacles he faced. His relationship with Richard was infinitely touching and there’s a moment in the hearing scene where I completely melted.

However, there was a niggling feeling that the characters held a little too much modern sensibility. One of the messages in the book (if I’m reading it right) was to show how Ceylon was taking its first steps to self rule and how the generational shift and education of its young people was helping that along, but it was slightly blurred for me that the young people did as they liked anyway and no-one seemed to care all that much.

The writing is fine – not (in my opinion, obviously) a masterpiece, but deftly done. There was, at times, a little TOO much description of saris and furniture and rooms and I had a Dan Brown flashback and felt that the author was so very intent on painting this world for the reader that he went a little too far.

The politics behind the whole regime change is interesting and detailed, although, again, there were a few times where I felt the the author was info dumping and it was refreshing when several of the characters were showing no interest in the politics, which felt very real to me. One of them even criticises Ghandi!

However, that being said – I do recommend it. It’s absorbing and I don’t think you’ll be able to put it down once started. The characters stayed with me, and more than anything I’d like to sit down with the author and talk to him about it, and I haven’t wanted to do that for a while. Perhaps it’s a bit too short, or perhaps it’s the niggling modernism of the characters but I came away having enjoyed being in Cinnamon Gardens but ultimately a little unsatisfied.

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