Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai

5 March, 2010

As you might all know, I’m a big fan of Shyam Selvadurai who was present at the 2010 Galle Literary Festival. You could say that I went to the GLF this year mainly to see him and Michelle de Kretser. And what a lovely man he is.

I read both Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens many years ago, and felt they both deserved a re-read in preparation for Selvadurai’s talks. Funny Boy I re-read a few years back, so I opted to re-read Cinnamon Gardens this holiday and took it with me to Galle. And as before, it was a sublime read. Selvadurai’s prose is polished, yet gentle, and slowly seduces you into caring for his struggling characters.

In Cinnamon Gardens, we meet Annalukshmi Kandiah a young progressive woman intent on qualifying as a teacher in a society where a woman’s expectations end with a suitable marriage. However, Annalukshmi is not one to cave in to familial duty and strives to carve out a career amidst opposition and a reluctant interest in the idea of love even though it is not something in which she feels she should be interested. Not far from them, her uncle Balendran is trying hard to be a dutiful son to his tightly controlling father the Mudaliyar Navaratnam. Married to a beautiful and caring wife and with a son who has gone abroad to university, Balendran is unable to forget his lover Richard whom he left behind in London 20 years ago. Set in Cinnamon Gardens, the affluent area in Colombo inhabited mainly by wealthy Burgher and Tamil families, it is the end of the 1920s in pre-Independance Ceylon and times are changing. In Selvadurai’s novel we catch a glimpse of the Cinnamon Gardens set in a long vanished world.

As both Annalukshmi and Balendran navigate through their struggles with their families who try to bind them to their rules, we hope that they will eventually find the freedom which they so long for. In addition to the two protagonists’ tale, we also see the effect of rebellion against the Mudaliyar Navaratnam’s iron rule. His eldest son, Balendran’s brother, is thrown out of his house following his elopement with a maid and is living in poverty in India. To utter his name is forbidden in the house. When news arrives of his illness, Balendran goes to India to bring back his brother’s ashes as instructed by his father. How Balendran deals with his father’s control extending even after his brother’s death, and the subsequent revelations which unfold following his return to Ceylon will change Balendran’s view of his father, and his life, forever.

This is a subtle book about the shifting values and obligations within a family and Selvaduri shows how nothing is ever as it first appears.

I’m submitting this book for both the Flashback Challenge and the South Asian Author Challenge.

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10 Responses to “Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai”

  1. Aarti Says:

    Wow, this sounds really interesting. I think I’ve heard of the book, but never knew what it was about. The cover is beautiful and it sounds like the books touches on a lot of cultural and societal aspects of being South Asian.


  2. I absolutely loved Funny Boy and I’ve admired the cover of Cinnamon Gardens many times: I should really open it up and enjoy it. Have you read his YA novel yet?

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hello! No, I haven’t his YA novel. Have you? I do have Story-Wallah edited by Selvadurai which is a collection of short stories by various South Asian authors which I’m hoping to dip into.

  3. Ana Says:

    I really, really enjoyed “Funny Boy” and recently finished his YA novel -this is the one I chose to review for the South Asian Challenge. I was warned however- by the same person who lent me “Funny Boy” in a way I could not say no to him-that I may not like Cinnamon Gardens. But your review made me curious –I wonder how does it compare (regarding Sri Lanka) with Ondaatje’s running in the family which also has a lot of stories set in the 1920s.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I found Cinnamon Gardens to be a quietly rebellious novel. Selvadurai’s prose in this novel is measured and light but with deep waters, reflecting his character Balendran’s personality. Ondaatje’s Running in the Family (which I really enjoyed as well) is light, funny and doesn’t really touch too much on the dark and difficult aspects of family life (from what I recall) and is definitely more nostalgic compared to Cinnamon Gardens.

      I haven’t read Selvadura’s YA novel, but from your review I feel that it is probably rawer and more emotional maybe because the language is simpler? It’s probably much faster paced than Cinnamon Gardens. I’ll have to read it now!

      • Ana Says:

        Yes, you do 🙂
        I think “raw” is a good choice, and more fluid than “Funny Boy” where he really weights linguistic and stylistic choices. Also raw because it looks at the world from the perspective of a teenager – an age when emotions are raw.

        Ondaatje’s “Running in the Family” is full of nostalgia…and he builds the image of a Sri Lanka that is greater than life. I recall the image of a ship captain having his crew unfold many loads of cinnamon on the main bridge in order to get his passengers used with the tang of Sri Lanka. His family is also less conventional as his mother grew up without a father and his father is the “black sheep” of his own family. Also he left Sri Lanka quite young, as his mother divorced his father which, from what I understand, is very unusual…

        I assume that “Cinnamon Gardens” builds a more realistic image of Sri Lanka. You made me feel quite interested…I appreciate though that my friend recommended “Running in the Family” before I read “Funny Boy” . The later is a more realistic account, but the first made me fall in love with the country…

        • chasing bawa Says:

          Cinnamon Gardens is still a nostalgic piece because it is about a social strata that excludes a large percentage of the population. In a way, you may find it familiar because you have read Running in the Family. I loved Funny Boy when I read it a few years back, I though Selvadurai’s style was beautiful. He’s now working on a retelling of the Buddhist Jataka tales which I’m really looking forward to as I don’t know much about it.


  4. […] “This is a subtle book about the shifting values and obligations within a family and Selvadurai shows how nothing is ever as it first appears.” Chasing Bawa […]

  5. Rhoda Baxter Says:

    I loved Funny Boy and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea. I really must read this one too. I love the clarity of his writing.


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