8 April, 2016
Winner of the 2015 Palme d’Or in Cannes, Dheepan tells the story of Sivadhasan, a former soldier fighting for the Tamil Tigers, who assumes the name of Dheepan along with a fake family, 26-year old wife Yalini and 9-year old daughter Illayaal, in order to escape the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka and start a new life in France. All three have lost family, are alone and need each other in order to apply for asylum in France. Yalini dreams of crossing over to England where her relatives live in peace but Dheepan is eager to settle down and needs his constructed family in order to secure a living. That they are relocated to a housing project in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, a northeastern suburb of Paris, swapping one conflict zone for another doesn’t faze him as he goes about his job as a caretaker for the block of flats. But both Yalini and Illayaal struggle in their new job and school. As well as pretending to show they are a family, they also struggle to communicate in French, a language in which only Illayaal is becoming fluent, depending on her translation to get by. As they slowly adjust to their new life, a grim reality far removed from their expectations, the gang violence which has been simmering under the surface of the housing project explodes, threatening to break their hard-won, fragile peace.
I was expecting a dark and depressing film about the horrors of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict transposed to the violent and terrifying banlieues of suburban Paris. But what I got was a beautiful, still film exploring the core values of family and belonging, strengthened by the extreme horrors faced and overcome by people. The Sinhala-Tamil conflict provides the backdrop from which Dheepan and his makeshift family spring into the contemporary and relevant refugee crisis facing Europe today; they are but one of many fleeing conflict to come to Europe believing it would provide a safe haven in which to start new lives. The desperation which drives them to undergo such a dangerous journey, the difficulties that arise once they reach their new country, the language barrier, the hostility and disinterest, make you re-assess your views on asylum seekers. That they dream of going back knowing there is nothing left of their old lives, the pain of having lost loved ones, their determination to carry on, all of this is shown beautifully in Jacques Audiard’s stark, spartan film. Nothing is over-emphasised or over-sentimentalised, nothing heavily pushed onto the viewer.
Surprisingly, and probably what makes the film work, is that it chooses to steer clear of the complex politics of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict instead focussing on the personal and Dheepan’s relentless need to escape, to find normality in a world that has gone crazy.
I loved how the makeshift family slowly coalesces and becomes a real one. Yalini’s cry that she isn’t Illayaal’s mother and her reluctance to look after her. Illayaal’s need for comfort in a cold, unfamiliar world of strangers. And Dheepan’s awakening interest in Yalini. You wouldn’t expect such a family to work, not with the anxiety accompanying the situation. But it slowly does and you feel for all of them. But while their ties grow stronger, the world outside grows ever more violent, once again putting their lives at risk.
What was particularly striking was the grim urban reality in which Dheepan and his family land in suburban Paris. It is nothing like what they were expecting, where the poor, mainly immigrant communities, noticeably absent from the centre of Paris, are trying to eke out a living. Although the Sri Lankan parts of the film didn’t seem as stereotyped perhaps because the scenes were shorter, those set in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais did feel a little reminiscent of films like Banlieue 13 and Le Haine with perhaps a slight romanticisation of gang life. But Dheepan, once a child soldier, is unafraid and eventually manages to wrestle a bit of autonomy in the housing project but this too seems a little unrealistic. With exceptional performances by Sri Lankan novelist turned actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan in the titular role, whose past mirrors that of Dheepan, South Indian stage actor Kalieswari Srinivasan as Yalini, French-born Claudine Vinasithamby as Illayaal and Vincent Rottiers as gang leader Brahim, these are but minor points in what is almost a perfect film.
I was kindly invited to a screening of Dheepan which is out in cinemas today. I strongly urge you to watch it.
29 May, 2012
rolls around again. Check out some crab action in Colombo at Umamimart:Slightly Peckish!
In bookish news, the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger shortlist has been announced so do go and have a gander. You know how we have a lot of love for historical crime at chasing bawa. I haven’t read any of the shortlisted titles although I love Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy and do have S.J. Parris’ Heresy on my shelves (it does feature Giordano Bruno!) Have you read them? And what do you think of the list?
Do also check out Savidge Reads’ post on the Fiction Uncovered 2012 list for books that may have slipped below the radar. I haven’t heard of any of the titles but am curious about This is Life by Dan Rhodes (I have yet to read any of his novels although he’s been knocking in my mind) and When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones.
So it’s the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this weekend and I’m off to Scotland to celebrate some milestone birthdays in a cottage somewhere in Gleneagles. I’ll be happy as long as it doesn’t rain! Since it’s a long journey, I’m going to take a couple of books with me (although I’m not sure I’ll get any reading done as I ain’t travelling solo) and have been thinking hard about what books to take while my friends have been worrying about what food provisions we’ll need. Priorities, I say. Don’t you find that as soon as you think holiday, you want to cast aside your daily list of books and go for something a little special?
14 May, 2012
You all know how much I admire Romesh Gunesekera’s work, right? Especially The Match which is about cricket and growing up in the Philippines and Sri Lanka in the 70s. So I was really happy when Bloomsbury kindly sent me a copy of his latest, The Prisoner of Paradise, to review. I didn’t really know much about the story and didn’t want to read other reviews to spoil my reading except that it was set in Mauritius sometime in the 1800s. I don’t think Gunesekera has tackled historical fiction before but this was beautifully rendered and was, in fact, rather more romantic than I anticipated.
It is 1825 and Lucy Gladwell is on her way to Mauritius with her aunt, Mrs. Betty Huyton, after the sad demise of her parents. Never having travelled out of England, Lucy is excited as to what exotic delights she would encounter in the tropical island. What she finds is an outwardly genteel British society transitioning from French rule. And when she meets the dark and brooding Don Lambodar, companion to an exiled Ceylonese prince, Lucy is exposed to the dark undercurrents of the island in which master and slave, colonisers and locals all strive to hold on to their identities and belief in freedom and duty.
I was expecting a standard romance and yet knowing that it was Gunesekera writing the book, I knew there would be something more. Rather than just focussing on the forbidden romance which felt as though it was more a secondary plot, Gunesekera vividly brings to life Mauritius’ complex and often brutal colonial history with its hierarchical society, mixing of peoples, cultures and race. Lucy is naive enough for every moment and experience to be new and devastating that she wants to make a change. And yet, she finds herself held back by her Englishness and entitled status. Her modesty often made me sigh out loud and was rather Austenesque and yet it provided a sharp clash against the earthiness and human-ness she discovers in Mauritius. In many ways, she reminded me more of virginal Alice Munro in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans rather than Austen’s or even Georgette Heyer’s heroines.
Although the story falls short of epicness in terms of romance, the historical and social aspects were eye-opening. There is a vitality to Gunesekera’s story-telling which leaves a colourful impression long after you’ve finished the book. The Prisoner of Paradise wasn’t what I expected, but I enjoyed reading Gunesekera’s playful and beautiful prose all the same.
A big thank you to Bloomsbury for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review. And do also check out Stu’s review.
20 March, 2012
has rolled by again. Head over to Umamimart: Slightly Peckish to check out some som tum. You know, that Thai green papaya salad that we’re all crazy about!
In bookish news, I recently finished reading two books by Tan Twan Eng. Suffice it to say I’m totally enthralled by Tan’s work and as a consequence have started reading The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. Deeply disturbing but an episode in history that should not be forgotten.
I’m also still halfway through Steven Erikson’s The Crippled God which I haven’t touched in days. I blame the birth of my baby niece. Only one as cute as her can keep me away from one of my favourite writers and turn me into a baby-stalking paparazzi. I have so far avoided buying her anything pink but I may eventually succumb.
And I have also started Romesh Gunesekera’s latest novel The Prisoner of Paradise set in early 19th century Mauritius about forbidden passions and the search for freedom.
And finally, I caught up with Channel 4’s documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, a follow up to last year’s scathing commentary on the brutal end to Sri Lanka’s internal conflict that lasted for 26 years. It’s disturbing and heartbreaking and ultimately makes me wonder who are the real winners of wars. Certainly not the common people. Although I agree the Sri Lankan government, as a legitimate governing body, needs to address and take responsibility for their brutal methods, executions, rapes, discrimination and censorship, ultimately Channel 4’s documentary fails to address the complex nature of the conflict, its beginnings and Sri Lanka’s mixed society and leaves me with more questions. Breaking down a war into simplistic sound bites doesn’t do anyone justice. And what about the LTTE, who hardly get a mention, and the Western countries that were supporting and running weapons for what is an officially recognised terrorist group? Check out what Vindi has to say about the doc.
15 March, 2012
OK, so a lot of people are crazy about cricket. My parents are glued to the telly everytime it’s cricket season which is most of the time in Sri Lanka. Although I know the rules and occasionally watch the world cup and 20/20 series, I have to admit I’m not such a fan. In fact, I’m just not into watching any form of sport on telly just because I can find 101 things I’d prefer doing instead (including actually playing sports, which I rather enjoy, or sticking pins in my eyeball). So shoot me now.
I had heard lots of superb things about Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman last year at the Galle Literary Festival and it was also one of the Waterstone’s 11 in 2011, but a part of me wanted to say no to reading about cricket. However, I did read a short story by Karunatilaka in Blue: Stories for Adults which is beautifully written, so I lugged a copy of Chinaman all the way with me to Sri Lanka because I like reading geographically when I’m on holiday.
And it is superb. The writing is flawless, clever and funny. There are lots of in-jokes which worked because he didn’t overexplain or be coy. There was just something so smooth about the delivery that I wouldn’t be surprised if he won lots of prizes. And yes, the book is about cricket and the cricket enhanced the story. But only because Karunatilaka cleverly uses the structure and nuances of cricket to tell the story of Sri Lanka and its people without turning it into some sort of a lecture.
And why Chinaman? I first thought it had something to do with China in my profound ignorance. Those of you who are avid cricket fans will know immediately that it is the left-arm unorthodox spin, a type of bowling delivery. And this novel neatly encapsulates this concept.
In Chinaman, we meet WG Karunasena, a dipso-journalist trying to write his last story before his liver gives up. He is on the hunt for Pradeep Matthew, a legendary cricketer who has all but disappeared from the official anals of Sri Lankan cricket and from the face of the earth itself. As WG interviews people, tries to keep his finances afloat, his family together and his friendships intact, he comes up again and again upon obstacles which prevent him from rooting out Matthew. Will he manage to uncover the mystery behind the famous bowler? Why will no one speak of him? And who exactly is Pradeep Matthew?
Chinaman is a vast, sprawling novel that looks into Sri Lankan society from its obsession with cricket, status, ethnicity and religion. You won’t find the paradise island blurb in travel magazines here. It’s gritty, dirty and yet Karunatilaka leaves you a warm picture painted with deft strokes. I don’t think I’ve read another novel about Sri Lanka quite like this one. It’s a modern, clever novel that pulls some swift punches. And I liked that old soak, WG, with his strong friendships and inept handling of government officials.
My one criticism would be some of the stereotypes that seem to crop up in the novel. The leggy ‘modern’ woman, the diplomat who likes boys, the tuk tuk driver… I don’t know, they’re good vehicles for highlighting problematic issues but they’re very common tropes in Sri Lankan diasporic literature. And the novel does tend to deal with city (Colombo) folk as opposed to the rural majority of Sri Lanka which will naturally give a skewed perspective of the country, but then some people live in this kind of bubble their whole life.
However, I’m not surprised Chinaman won the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It’s a brilliant book, doesn’t drip with nostalgia and through humour and unflinching self examination looks deep into the complex, cultural quagmire that is Sri Lankan society. This is more than just a novel about cricket.
Chinaman was kindly sent to me by the lovely people at Jonathan Cape.
5 March, 2012
So, once again I hauled myself to sunnier climes just so I could get a taste of sun, sand and curries. And literature, of course!
This time round, the 6th Galle Literary Festival was held a week earlier than usual and was, to my mind, a little smaller and leaner. The clash with the Jaipur Literary Festival meant that some authors were unable to travel the extra mile to Sri lanka. Boo.
So although I missed the likes of Katie Kitamura, who I was dying to meet, there were still some golden nuggets waiting to be discovered.
For me, one of the highlights of the festival this year was having the privilege of listening to John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, who was a charming speaker and extremely witty. He apparently wrote the first draft of the novel in 2 weeks (and then spent the next 8 months rewriting like a normal human being). What was interesting was that he said the story just came to him and he knew that if he didn’t write it down, he would lose it. Split second decisions, eh? Although I haven’t read the book yet, I watched the film last year and was utterly awed and heartbroken by the tale. When questioned about the film, Boyne said that although there were some minor changes when translating the tale onto screen, he was very happy with the way the film was made. It’s a beautiful film and made me want to read the book. He talked about the reception of the book and the criticisms which naturally came due to the subject matter. The most vociferous critics were not the actual Holocaust survivors, who embraced his work, but third parties just like himself who had no connection to the Holocaust. In one event in New York, someone in the audience actually came up and punched him! But Boyne related all this with humour and I think everyone in the audience in Galle fell in love with him then. But did you know that he has also written seven other books? Neither did I, but I’m planning to check them out. It’s interesting that after finishing a book, Boyne prefers to write something completely different and in a completely different voice.
If you visit Sri Lanka and like browsing in bookshops, you will often come across reference to Robert Knox, castaway, survivor and friend of Daniel Defoe. Knox spent 19 years from 1660 in Sri Lanka as a prisoner/guest of the last Kandyan King, Rajasinghe II. Katherine Frank spoke about her new book Crusoe, laying arguments to support her case that Robinson Crusoe was based on Knox and that Daniel Defoe mercilessly plagiarised Knox’s own account of his imprisonment, An Historical Relation of the island Ceylon, which recounts his 19 years in minute detail. What an extraordinary man and an extraordinary story. I’d been meaning to read Knox’s memoir for ages and Frank’s talk has finally made me go out and buy the two volumes. Alas, they were too heavy to carry back so I left them at home to read when I next visit. Although there are some that dispute Frank’s theory, her talk was compelling enough for me to want to read her book and make up my own mind.
I also went to see a talk given by Juliet Nicolson at the beautiful Amangalla Hotel about Sissinghurst, the home in which she grew up which was owned by her grandparents, Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. Vita Sackville-West is, of course, notorious for her affair with Virginia Woolf and Violet Trefusis (I think I first read about her in a compilation of wicked women!) Nicolson’s descriptions of her beloved childhood home and her colourful family was entertaining and lovely and I have a mind to visit the beautiful garden at Sissinghurst now.
I was also lucky enough to meet and participate in a workshop with Roshi Fernando, a Sri Lankan British author who is passionate and witty and gave useful tips about the architecture of the novel. I got a copy of her book Homesick , about the British Sri Lankan experience, signed and ready to read. And I was tickled to learn she has read my blog:)
Roshi Fernando also participated in a talk with Randy Boyagoda whose new book, Beggar’s Feast, about a self-made Sri Lankan man who lived until 100 and had 3 wives, 2 of whom he killed, has just been published too. Curated by Manju Kapoor, the two authors discussed identity and literature and the expatriate experience which also led to a heated discussion about accents and acceptance. Very thought-provoking indeed.
And finally, I did have a ticket to see Richard Dawkins who had apparently packed out the hall, but I gave it to my dad who misplaced his ticket as he’s become interested in religion (even though he is an atheist). Apparently the talk was brilliant, but hey, I can always catch him on tv here.
So although I felt this year wasn’t as flashy and razzmatazzy as last year, I had a fun-filled 4 days in Galle, eating, reading and discovering new sights. Since last year, there’s been an awful amount of work being done on restoring the historic fort, all the roads have been repaved, buildings restored, new cafes and restaurants and LOTS and LOTS of tourists. It was packed and although it’s harder to get rooms, it made me happy to see the place so bustling. Apparently next year’s GLF will be moved to March to avoid overcrowding and give people a chance to book rooms (we booked ours a year in advance).
With the new highway from Colombo just opened, it now takes only an hour to drive to Galle and many of our friends have apparently been down just for dinner. Usually it takes about 3 hours and you wouldn’t think of visiting Galle without staying overnight. Apart from one unlucky, flat, kabaragoya, we didn’t see many animals on the highway either.
9 January, 2012
Hello there. How are you?
I seem to have missed chatting with you all as the end of 2011 gathered speed and bulldozed all my me-time in a swirl of get-togethers, cocktails and lots and lots of comestibles. I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t say no.
I’ll soon be off on my yearly trip to Sri Lanka and will be checking out the Galle Literary Festival again. This time, I have done NO preparation for the festival and will be going with the flow. I think this may be how 2012 will be for me. More chillin’, less frettin’.
I am, however, looking forward to seeing Katie Kitamura talk about her novel The Longshot. I got a copy for my brother-in-law who has given it a big thumbs up as an avid fan and practitioner of MMA himself. I will, of course, be borrowing the book from him once he’s finished, hehe. Juliet Nicholson will also be there to talk about The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War – a favourite historical period of mine. Richard Dawkins, John Boyne and D.J. Taylor will also be there. And I’m excited to seek more new Sri Lankan authors such as Randy Boyagoda and Roshi Fernando who will be talking about Sri Lankan writing in the diaspora. And this time, I’ll hopefully find out more about Sri Lankans writing in Sri Lanka. As usual, there will be panel discussions on literature, politics and war (as Sri Lanka recovers from its 30 year internal conflict) and documentaries about life in the north and the history of Dutch burghers. Lots of interesting stuff to look forward to.
I’ve got myself a brand new spanking phone and hopefully will be able to twitter about the GLF if I can find free wi-fi.
And that’s not all. I’ll be taking a short trip to Bangkok where I’ll be stuffing my face with all sorts of Thai delights! That’s what my family do, you see. We travel to eat. Sticky rice and mango, here I come! And of course, pop into Kinokuniya to stock up on some Japanese books.
So I will leave you with a tentative list of books I’m planning to bung into my suitcase:
Dust of Dreams (Malazan 8) by Steven Erikson
Clash of Kings (Song of Ice and Fire 2) by George R.R. Martin
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – as I doubt I’ll finish it before I go
Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka – What? I still haven’t read this?
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – if it doesn’t push my suitcase over the weight limit
And a couple of mysteries I haven’t decided upon yet.
So what are you all up to? Any plans for the new year? Or is there a book I absolutely must take with me on holiday? Come on, spill!