Reviewed by Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan 

The Boat People

 

Title: The Boat People
Author: Sharon Bala
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 332
Buy

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.

Advertisements

Mrs. Prakash opened her eyes and began to sit up in bed, picturing her aging joints as rusty bolts creaking with every movement. She looked out of the window where the tender rays of the sun reached the corner of her garden. There was the young mango tree, robust and flowering, ready to bear its first fruit that summer. The jasmine, its small white flowers scenting the fresh morning air, was right next to it, leaning on the compound wall for support.

This image had also been part of a dream that had floated away just as she woke up. Avin was there. The young man, sitting on one of the lower branches of the tree was looking down at her.

‘Idlis’, he said.

Having prepared the batter the night before, she planned to steam them that morning.

‘Don’t eat all of them!’ He told her in the dream.

Mrs. Prakash got up, thinking of all the packing she had to do. In a week, she would be moving in with her brother’s family. She was going to miss her home as well as the neighbourhood, which had become an extension of herself, like limbs fused to the body.

*

Mrs. Prakash first met Avin soon after moving into her house, back when he was a chubby 10-year-old. His mother probed Mrs. Prakash on how many children she had, her eyes lingering on the streaks of grey that had begun to show in Mrs. Prakash’s hair.

‘None,’ Mrs. Prakash replied in an even voice, trying not to show the disappointment that had lessened but never disappeared over the years.

Then she changed the subject before Avin’s mother had a chance to make sympathetic noises about her being widowed and childless.

‘I’ve often seen your son playing outside. Aren’t we lucky to have at least some space around our houses in this crowded neighborhood?’

Soon Mrs. Prakash had transformed the bare and scruffy-looking area around her house into a blooming garden. Working outside on her plants, she would call out to Avin’s talkative mother. Both women would stand on either side of the low compound wall and chat while Avin flitted around them like a hummingbird.

On Saturday mornings, she would make him steaming hot idlis for breakfast. He passed freely in and out of her house, dipping his hand into a box of sweets here and savouries there. He helped bring books to her from the library and began to take an interest in reading. She began to involve him in the upkeep of her garden. They planted a mango sapling and he would get excited about it growing into a large tree.

‘What can we do to make it grow faster?’ He kept badgering her.

‘We do the best we can with water and manure. Protect it from pests, remove dead leaves and give it all the love we have.’

‘Love?’

‘Yes, my dear. All living things need it. And love can be between anyone, even this tree and you.’

‘Well then, here is some of it,’ he said, throwing his arms around its frail stem as she looked on with amusement. He began to come over to water it and unfailingly embraced it every single time.