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A Fragrant Tragedy

June 10, 2013

From the opening of Ru Freeman’s ambitious and moving new novel, On Sal Mal Lane, set in her native Sri Lanka, we know that tragedy looms. The Prologue, in italics, sketches the background of the conflicts between Sinhalese and Tamils that erupted into war, and the first chapter of regular text begins in this way:

“God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.”

Lest we forget the context, this narrative voice from on high returns from time to time to update national political developments and remind us of the doom hanging over the characters.

Yet the novel’s basic action scarcely ventures beyond the tiny, flower-bedecked, semirural lane of the title, on the outskirts of the capital city, Colombo. The people there form a microcosm of Sri Lankan ethnicities and religions—Sinhalese, Tamils, mixed-race Burghers; Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics—all in the space of nine households. Most of the plot centers on the children of Sal Mal Lane, especially the four Herath kids, who are sensitive, talented and a bit more upscale than their neighbors.

Perhaps the novel’s greatest achievement lies in the way it locates significance in the tiniest domestic actions. A wayward teenager, Sonna, quarreling with his father, is denied a birthday party. As a make-do, Sonna’s mother invites the Herath children over for an elaborate dinner without stating that it’s for the boy’s birthday. Later, discovering the truth, the Heraths feel bad that they didn’t take a present. They count out coins from their allowance to buy a chocolate for Sonna, put it in a shiny bag and try to deliver it. He isn’t home, though, so they stash it in their refrigerator to keep it from melting. The next day, Mr. Herath, rummaging for a sweet after lunch, finds the candy and eats it. The children are too abashed to stop him, afraid their mother will find out they’ve been associating with Sonna. Having no money to buy another treat, they reconcile themselves to feeling ashamed, and they let the matter drop.

Ending a chapter, this little tale hovers as a portent. How will the mistakenly consumed chocolate contribute to the slowly unfolding tragedy? This technique encourages the reader to focus on causes rather than on what comes next. For me, though, the weighty foreshadowing has its downside because it discourages page-turning; I was none too eager to arrive at the moment of implosion.

Another potential difficulty is that the profusion of characters makes it hard to become deeply invested in any one of them. Eventually the reader comes to care for several of these people, but it takes a while. Among the Heraths, there are four children of various ages, plus the father and mother. Five other children play significant roles, as do ten or more adults. The interplay is complex, and even the troublemakers and bigots have some redeeming features. The upside is that we get a rich, complex view of a neighborhood, both its uniqueness and its inability to escape the sociopolitical trends that are drawing the larger society into turmoil.

The language is often as fragrant as the blossoming sal mal trees that surround the lane and the spicy curries prepared by the women. In these lyrical passages Freeman’s affection for her homeland shines through. Here’s a paragraph plucked almost at random:

“The gusty wind that dominated a short respite from the monsoons was beginning to tease the children of Sal Mal Lane. It tugged at their school uniforms, inverted umbrellas held against the sun, and combed and recombed their hair, first this way then the other. It whispered stay! stay! to them as they stood waiting for their school buses, shivering in the cool morning hours, a request they tried not to hear. They giggled as their skirts and shirts lifted this way and that, their books fell out of their careless hands, and the ribbons tied into their braids and ponytails, blue and white for the Herath girls, green and white for the Bolling twins, refused to stay in their knots. But each evening the children acquiesced. They put down their books, put on their home clothes, and went outside. They went to fly kites.”

Another treat is the occasional profound remark that could be framed and mounted on the wall. At one point the younger Herath boy, Nihil, seeks reassurance about the rumors of civil war and the announced intention of other boys on the lane to join the army. He questions his friend, old Mr. Niles, who answers: “People do not go to war, Nihil, they carry war inside them.” At times such philosophizing can become a bit heavy-handed, but it serves to reinforce the themes of the novel.

When the long-awaited tragedy arrives, it occurs on two levels. On one level we witness a political event as the quiet street is overcome by the conflict raging around it. But the greater tragedy is rooted in the personal stresses we have seen developing: father vs. son, neighbor vs. neighbor, social outsiders trying to gain a place among those they admire and envy. No one on Sal Mal Lane is entirely innocent. As the second-oldest Herath child, Rashmi, reflects near the end, “Everybody was responsible for what had happened to their street.”

Even as calamity intrudes, however, the people of the lane bond together, across ethnic boundaries. The victims are cared for by their neighbors. The dénouement rekindles a sense of hope, and the novel ends with a young person reading from Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, “a tale of striving for high ideals amid human frailty, turmoil, and change.”

On Sal Mal Lane is not a quick read but one to savor, one whose images and ideas will linger in the reader’s mind.

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