Reviewed by Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan
Title: The Boat People
Author: Sharon Bala
In the world of the privileged, one is inundated with a plethora of choices – what to eat, what to wear, where to study, where to work, how to go to work, where to travel… each second, we unconsciously make decisions, choosing the best amongst the options available to us. It has become so ingrained in our psyche that we take choice for granted. What if you did not have a choice? Sharon Bala’s debut novel The Boat People examines this haunting question.
The book draws inspiration from an incident in 2010 where a Thai cargo ship named ‘MV Sun Sea’ docked at the coast of British Columbia, carrying on board nearly 500 Sri Lankan refugees. In the land of the free, the refugees aboard the ship found themselves suspected of terrorism, having forged ties with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and detained. Having fled the horrors of the civil war in Sri Lanka, Bala’s protagonist Mahindan finds himself in frosty Vancouver with precisely this fate awaiting him.
While Mahindan is in the detention centre, his six-year-old son is taken away from him, and placed with a foster family. Priya, a law student of Tamil origin, finds herself embroiled in proving Mahindan’s innocence to the law and in the process unearths some dark secrets within her own family. Bala also weaves the internment of Canadian citizens of Japanese origin during the Second World War into her tapestry through Grace Nakamura, a government appointed adjudicator with the Refugee Board. Grace, previously with the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, is inexperienced in refugee law and has a bias against the refugees, partly due to the stand taken by her boss, a government minister. As she struggles with the burden of deciding the fate of Mahindan and others like him, her own mother who is battling early rounds of Alzheimer’s’, reminds her of the injustice meted out to Japanese-Canadian citizens during the war. Cruelly reminded that they were ‘aliens’, with slogans such as, ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the Seas’ openly chanted, the Japanese-Canadians were treated with suspicion and regarded as a threat to the harmony of the state until proven innocent. Kumi, Grace’s mother, slowly witnesses her own mind unravelling, and yet holding on to the strings of the past, she reminds Grace not to inflict upon people a gross injustice that had once been inflicted on her own ancestors.
The narrative flitters among Mahindan, Priya and Grace, and travels from war torn Kilinochchi in Sri Lanka to prosperous Vancouver. Mahidan, in his past Sri Lankan life, had been a successful mechanic with food on the table, a roof over his head, a job that brought home money and the company of his wife Chitra and their son Sellian. Then the Tigers took hold of Kilinochchi town and began their aggressive recruitment tactics through a combination of bullying, blackmail, and hostile threats. Mahindan is spared from joining the Tigers because he is more valuable as a car mechanic than a soldier. As a mechanic, he is forced to fix lorries and buses for the Tiger army, something which would jeopardize his future in Canada a few months later. One of these buses is used by the Tigers in a bomb blast, an act meant to terrorise people. The state prosecutor pounces on this fact; she declares, ‘In repairing the bus, this man was directly responsible for the death of seventeen civilians. He was party to a war crime.’
This is what it feels like to not have a choice. Had Mahindan not helped the Tigers, he would have been killed. How different is this from the secretary to the CEO of a weapons company? She prepares reports, does tasks for her boss, and returns home with money sullied by the blood of several innocent people. Yet, can she be held responsible for those deaths? What if she had no other choice apart from this job? Mahindan thinks of the hard faced Japanese judge in front of him and wonders, ‘Did she now know what it was like to have so little agency? To be faced with such cruel options it was as if there was no choice at all?’M ahindan’s plight forces one to introspect, and ultimately question everything that one has been taught to believe.
As Priya studies Mahindan’s case, Ranga, another refugee, has been exposed as a former LTTE aide and is forced to return to Sri Lanka. A grief-struck Ranga takes his own life in the prison cell, and Mahindan is wrecked with guilt and worry. Having resorted to unscrupulous thieving to keep himself alive, he has a role to play in Ranga’s suicide, and as the tale unravels, we find ourselves thinking about that peculiar thing again – choice. Despicable as Mahindan’s acts may have been, would we have done it differently in his place?
Priya, trying to explore her origins, talks to her uncle Romesh to try to understand the core of the conflict. We are taken back to the very beginning, when the Sri Lankan government began favouring the Sinhalese over the Tamils through government policies, jobs, reservations and incentives. Tamils began to take Sinhala surnames in order to disguise their roots. Priya’s uncle and the rest of the family were caught in the deadly riots of 1983, an event which came to be known as ‘Black Saturday’. Wellawata, a suburb of Colombo known as ‘Little Jaffna’ due to the large numbers of Tamils living there, was hunted down, a mob of Sinhala men calling out Kottiya, Kottiya, accusing them to be anti-nationals, part of the Tiger brigade. In the aftermath of the riots, a large group of Tamils flees to the north, to Jaffna, and the LTTE begins to grow, their demands for a separate state, a Tamil Eelam, becoming more fervent than ever. Romesh joins the Tigers; he is given a kuppie, a little locket of cyanide, which he is instructed to swallow if ever caught by the Lions, the enemy. In this game of Tigers and Lions, the Tigers believed it was more honourable to die a martyr than surrender. Romesh is bitter, furious at the Indian involvement in Sri Lanka; in the guerrilla war fought with the Indians that cost them their Prime Minister, Romesh’s comrade is killed. In a final act of cowardice that he comes to regret later, Romesh flees from his former employers.
While Romesh’s story gives the reader an understanding of why and how the civil war began, Mahindan’s story highlights the desperate circumstances that force people to do the things they do. Bala also brings into the story other important issues. For example, Grace’s appointment to the refugee board is a ‘patronage appointment’. She has no experience or qualifications to decide the case. One fumes with rage, squirming at the idea that someone who does not even know what the UNHCR is, what IDP means, who the Rohingyas are, is given the ultimate power to seal the fate of displaced people. In one of the court room scenes, the government prosecutor accuses a Tamil woman of wearing a ‘Tiger thali’, a marriage necklace which she claims all Tiger women wear. Anyone familiar with Tamil culture will know that all married Tamil women wear a thali, and not just Tiger women! It would be funny, if it was not true – and yet, the world knows no dearth of such ignorance, which is dangerously used in pursuit of one’s own agenda.
Another issue that Bala subtly explores is the idea of cultures slowly fading in order to blend with the larger society, in a desperate bid to ‘fit in’. This is shown through Sellian, Mahindan’s six-year-old son. With Mahindan in the detention centre, a white foster family adopts him. Sellian, who was accustomed to speaking only Tamil and holding a little Ganesha doll which he stroked in moments of anxiety, is quickly transformed into an English-speaking, church-attending child, with little or no connections to his roots.
One qualm I had about Bala’s story is the negative stereotype of the Sinhalese by the Tamil characters. They are portrayed as bloodthirsty, evil, hate mongering people, and yet, as we all know, there are several Sinhala individuals who have played an important role in brokering peace for their homeland, raising their voices against the injustice meted out to their Tamil compatriots. A more nuanced portrayal of the Sinhalese would have elevated this book.
This is a brilliant debut, a story that is apt for the times we live in, when people with nothing but the clothes on their backs leave their homes and lives behind, plunging into dangerous journeys to unknown lands, clutching the only thing left available to them – hope. Nobody willingly leaves the homes they built, each corner decorated with a cherished item, each wall bearing witness to significant occasions, each shelf bursting with hopes and dreams and secrets, until circumstances compel them to do so. When such people are forced to leave behind everything, hoping for brighter futures on safer shores, Mahindan’s story is a plea for kindness and empathy, a clarion call for compassion.
Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan was born in Delhi and raised in the Nilgiris and the Middle East (Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates). Having moved to Singapore for university, she graduated with an honors degree in accounting. She is a chartered accountant by profession and is passionate about books, food, fashion, travel, and celebrating diversities, not in any particular order. She firmly believes that human beings should not strive to ‘fit in’ when they are designed to ‘stand out’. She reads on a variety of subjects and genres and hopes to publish a novel someday.