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Sri Lankan traumas told through travel


Noontide Toll cover

Noontide Toll cover

Noontide Toll cover

"Maybe you can never really leave the past behind you", says the sharp-eyed narrator of Romesh Gunesekera's haunting road stories. "It is in your head and outside your control".

Loosely connected by the conceit of Vasantha - the retired clerk, now a van driver taking tourists and businessmen through post-civil-war, post tsunami Sri Lanka - the tales and characters of Noontide Toll remain with you long after the last page has been reached.

From the travels Vasantha takes through his devastated country; through that single perspective of a watchful questioning eye, we begin to understand the pressures faced by those left struggling to survive the horrors of a civil war and a natural disaster which killed 30,000 people.

"Maybe only half as many people died [as in the war] or a third, but all in a day rather than in thirty years of human madness".

We meet a Catholic Priest and his naive English acolyte who seek information about war crimes; a trio of Russians who merrily trip their way to a luxury spa; Chinese businessmen looking for post-war 'scrap'; a soldier who mourns the fact that he was responsible for the death of his sweetheart's brother; a general who flippantly dismisses what is surely a war crime and Miss Saraswati, a hotel manager who lived through the epicentre of the war; she has a scar on her neck, a callused trigger finger and an air of frightening, brittle invincibility.

Vasantha disagrees with her when she says darkly; "After a war it is best not to ask about the past", he thinks, "that is not true... how else will we know what really happened". But he does not articulate it aloud.

Not a word is wasted or a sentence extraneous in the tense, simmering scenes of these stories. They give us an entry, a window into a country which has suffered and is now trying to recover from horrors most of us can barely imagine. After 26 years of civil war between the Tamils, who are chiefly Hindus, and the Sinhalese majority, who are chiefly Buddhists, the Sri Lankan state won decisively in 2009.

It's estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 Tamil citizens lost their lives in the final months of fighting in 2009. The Sri Lankan government have been accused of a genocide against the Tamil population. They deny this.

Central to the fourteen stories are the themes of guilt, responsibility and remembrance. And survival. "I suppose we must be resilient", says Vasantha, "given all the things that have happened. Or else, it is a kind of scary collective amnesia".

Throughout the narratives, Vasantha is fascinated by "hands", by shaking them, by their cleanliness - or not; "Why do people shake hands?" he asks.

"Do any of them wash their hands properly? ... hygiene-wise it is always better to keep one's hands to oneself". He even notes that "Pontius Pilate washed his hands" but the "Unilever man did not". Is this a metaphor for "washing one's hands" of the responsibility for death - as Lady Macbeth did? Or a sanitisation of horrors committed or remembered? Or it is just a cautious reaction to the problem of infectious disease?

Many of the stories in Noontide Toll seem to bear more than one fixed meaning - they suggest both recovery and the inability to escape the past. Last year, a UN report detailed how the war still unofficially continues in Sri Lanka.

Like his country, Vasantha feels he is always moving, but "every road seems to lead to a hospital." Despite all the distance he has travelled, he feels he is "spinning in sand".

Sunday Indo Living