Books: Unsuitable boys (and girls)

Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai Anchor, pounds 9.99, 389pp: Skeletons are rattling in the patriarchal closet as revolution stirs in old Ceylon... Michael Arditti looks east and appreciates an example of family saga at its finest
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
INDIA HAS become an increasingly familiar setting on the Western fictional map, but other parts of Asia remain comparatively uncharted. Now Sri Lanka has found an expert cartographer in Shyam Selvadurai. His first novel, Funny Boy, contained a beautifully observed portrait of Tamil family life in the Seventies; his second, Cinnamon Gardens, offers an equally accomplished and still wider-ranging portrait of Tamil family life in Twenties Ceylon.

In alternate chapters, Selvadurai focuses on two related families who live in the exclusive Colombo suburb which gives the book its title. The first, largely matriarchal, consists of Louisa who, having abandoned her husband when he renounced Christianity, is bringing up her three daughters, Annulukshmi, Kumudini and Manohari, alone. The second, staunchly patriarchal, consists of their cousin, the rich and influential Mudaliyar Navaratnam, his wife, younger son Balandran, and daughter-in-law Sonia.

Cinnamon Gardens is a repository of hidebound traditions and strict caste divisions - witness the Mudaliyar's description of his own grandson, the child of his elder son Arul and a servant, as having "all the cunning and deceit one expects of that class". The Mudaliyar's commitment to colonial rule is seen in the name of his house, Brighton (given his rigid conservatism, it ought to be Tunbridge Wells).

Elsewhere, the world is changing. A Constitutional Commission sent from London examines various forms of self-government. The Mudaliyar's implacable opposition to this is shared by neither Balandran, who advocates a universal franchise, nor Sonia, who supports a limited form of female suffrage ("only women of property and education would be eligible to vote").

Conflict is everywhere: between Tamils and Sinhalese; Christians and Hindus; between the sexes. Selvadurai's achievement is to reflect these wider conflicts in the dramas of his characters, especially Annulukshmi and Balandran.

Annulukshmi is a sensitive and independent young teacher who finds herself in increasing conflict with a society in which "There was no worse predicament for a girl than to have a `reputation'" and with her family's attempts to find her a suitable boy. Balandran is a conscientious husband and father, and a vastly over- conscientious son, whose life is thrown into turmoil when Richard Howland, the great love of his student days in London, arrives in Colombo with the Commission. As Annulukshmi discovers the racial prejudices of her mentor, an English headmistress, and Balandran uncovers his father's sexual hypocrisy, they both - like the emerging nation - learn the crucial importance of remaining true to oneself.

Cinnamon Gardens is a lovely novel. It is warm, richly characterised, fast-moving in its narrative and convincing in its detail. It is not, however, without fault. At times, the fruits of Selvadurai's researches (the way to wear a sari; Sinhalese burial customs, etc) are too much in evidence. Moreover, the book is very old-fashioned; not only is it set in the 1920s, but it often feels as though it could have been written then (even if the Balandran-Richard strand had remained in a drawer).

Forster is invoked; and the influence of the author of Maurice is present both in the particulars of the Balandran-Richard relationship (their visit to Edward Carpenter mirrors Forster's own, while Balandran's smug sense of superiority as a married man echoes Clive Durham's), and in the reticence of the writing. Yet, with its themes of freedom versus authority, passion versus duty, and its focus on an extended family engaged in old-fashioned rituals at a time of social change, the author it most calls to mind is Galsworthy. Cinnamon Gardens is family saga at its best.