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.