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.