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Retreat from chaos in Sri Lanka

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on March 13, 2020 Published on March 13, 2020

Life’s a beach The novel fills up with characters as guests arrive at the villa   -  scaliger

With an idyllic beach resort as the centrepiece, Amanthi Harris’s new novel is about the pursuit of happiness in a country as beautiful — and messy — as Sri Lanka

Where is home? Does a place of birth exert an unknowable pull on us? Can home be found far away, among people removed from our life? Amanthi Harris’s Beautiful Place, set in modern-day Sri Lanka, delves into these thoughts and more.

Harris, who was born in Sri Lanka and brought up in London, won the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize in 2016 for the novella Lantern Evening.

In Beautiful Place, she depicts a Sri Lanka that is indeed beautiful. In fact, the physical beauty of the land is almost a character in its own right — the lushness of its greenery, the azure of its waters, the darkness of the nights, the brilliance of the flowers... all inhabit the book and speak to the reader. Yet, lurking among them are human lives — messy, complicated, and often cruel.

Beautiful Place Amanthi Harris Pan Macmillan India Fiction ₹599

 

Padma is a young and enthusiastic owner of a guest house near a beach in southern Sri Lanka. The house was designed and built by Gerhadt, an Austrian expat and Padma’s adoptive father. When Padma was still a child, her biological father, Sunny, had tried to sell her to Gerhadt. She was adopted, instead, and her life moved away from the abuse and poverty of the circumstances of her birth. She grew into a woman surrounded by love. But can upbringing erase the pain of early childhood? Harris returns to this question again and again in the book.

While Padma seems to have everything she could need, there is an emptiness within her that she can’t shake off, and which seems to take over her life once she returns from Colombo to start the guest house business.

The novel fills up with characters as guests arrive at the villa. Their stories unfold and we watch as these gradually enmesh with Padma’s life. The people bring in the larger world with them, so too their own complicated histories and heartaches. Through them the stories of a Sri Lanka outside the walls of the villa seep in. But outside the boundaries of the villa also lies the world of Sunny. A constant and dangerous presence, he claims to still have rights over his child Padma, threatening to bring back chaos in his wake.

Harris juxtaposes these two worlds — life at the villa with its routine of hospitality and friendships, and the looming outside world with its complications of politics, economics, race and cultural barriers.

The villa almost seems a place of refuge — one where people can move on from the sadness that gripped them elsewhere and find solace in its simple food, the beauty of its garden, the friendly presence of Gustav the dog.

Yet it’s clear that the world cannot be wished away. While all of this would have remained fairly innocuous, it is with the growing discontent over a book that the action seems to explode.

Jarryd, an expat and a yoga practitioner, has written a history of the country that lays bare the fissures in its society. Sections from Jarryd’s book appear within the novel, giving a perspective on Sri Lankan history and culture. But Jarryd’s writing also ruffles the feathers of powerful politicians and they start circling in, bringing with them violence and torture.

Then there is the village where Padma’s biological family lives — one with whom she has nothing in common any more and, yet, with whom she has a visceral connection. It exerts an irresistible pull on her, taking her there against the cautious judgement of Gerhadt.

Harris carefully builds a world, piling lives together, weaving in threads and networks. She shows how the past lives in the present — whether in an individual’s life, or in the life of a nation. That nothing ever really goes away unless the people involved are ready to let it recede. Where she succeeds is in creating the multiple characters and the setting. The people are alive in the pages, grappling with their faults and virtues. Padma is an interesting person — brave, generous, yet confused. As are Gerhadt and Jarryd.

Where the novel falters is in its pacing, which is almost sluggish in places, and the sundry cardboard situations and people who appear throughout.

In dramatic moments there are people throwing punches, or tortured and left to die, but none of it rings true, reading more like trite scenes from a movie. Fluffed-up over too many pages, the confusion of characters and their motivations begins to try one’s patience.

Harris seems to be saying that happiness cannot be found in this messy, beautiful country unless you move into a cocoon.

Perhaps that is true, but one wishes that the realisation had come about through more nuanced circumstances.

Finally, Beautiful Place is engaging and angry, but it is weighted down by its size.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

 

Published on March 13, 2020
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