Song of the Sun God by Shankari Chandran – This Needs to be on Your Reading Pile No Matter What
3rd October, 2017
Song of the Sun God begins in Colombo in 1932 and ends in Sydney in 2010 and within its pages is a country’s history and the way it moulded the story of a family.
Rajan and Nala are happily married with two kids, Priya and Nandan. When the riots break out, they adopt Dhara, daughter of Nala’s cousin, Mohan. Both Rajan and Nala love and care for all the three kids, but the civil war shatters the family. Dhara is raped and gives birth to a daughter named Smrithi. She gives up her child to Priya who is now happily married and settled abroad. Shankari Chandran balances the emotional trauma of displacement, the agony of not being accepted by your countrymen, the nostalgia of a language, the choices mothers make for their children and the love between sisters, with ease.
What a fabulous book! Actually I want to write nothing more than this line as a review. If only that did the job.
Sharanya Manivannan, author of The High Priestess never marries (which is another lovely read), recommended this novel to me. That is when I heard of this book and the author for the first time and Sharanya’s praise for the book made me very curious. Naturally I went into it with a doubtful heart wondering if it is a hyped book. Few pages in, I knew this would be a five star read and I am happy to report back that it is a stunner of a book indeed.
Language as a barrier
Language plays a major role in the rise of segregation of different communities in Sri Lanka (Ceylon). The school students were categorised by their swabhasha or ‘native language’. If the Tamils didn’t learn Sinhalese, they would never be able to live as equals in Ceylon. And the rift between the two communities deepens as the years pass by. This divide is beautifully portrayed throughout the book and made me well up. Later, we see the Sri Lankans who have moved to foreign countries being amused by frequent questions such as “Do you know English?” Somehow it is a shock to many foreigners that people from countries colonized by the British for years know English.
Racism and Home
When Rajan and Nala are discussing about relocating to another country, Rajan says Australia won’t take them since they are ‘too brown’. And when they relocate, the family realizes they become the ‘British other’. Through small scenes such as not being welcome in some shops and the annoying question of whether they need a translator, Shankari breathes life into her words. It also makes the reader question the idea of home along with the characters,
“The British took us to Africa in the first place. If Africa didn’t want us anymore and India is no longer our home, where else can we go?”
Caste and Traditions
It was very interesting to note how the importance on caste dimmed as the civil conflicts broke out. “Nala realized she could no longer tell caste or class easily as she once could. Everyone looked degraded by the conflict, no matter which caste or class they had been born into.”
Traditions began to get modified as the immigrant families got adjusted to their new lands. We see Smrithi not interested in the traditional ceremonies that await the girl who attains puberty. Dhara and Nala completely understand her wish. On the other hand, Priya sees Smrithi’s refusal as an act against their culture. When Smrithi decides to live with a man but not get married, Dhara, the distant mother, accepts Smrithi’s decisions while Priya, the mother who brought her up, is unable to comprehend that her daughter is an adult capable of her own decisions. Towards the end of the book we see Rajan’s instructions for his after-death ceremony as follows – “Rajan had insisted that his funeral should be in Tamil. Lately in Sydney, Tamils were using Indian priests – Hindu speaking and Sanskrit chanting- for their funerals. He called this new approach a ‘fad’.”
Cultural and Professional Shock
The book felt more real as I read about the bitter consequences that befall qualified professionals who shift to foreign countries. Stories as these from family friends and my parent’s colleagues have often been conversations at our dinner table.
“Rajan says, “I am a fully qualified thoracic surgeon with two overseas fellowships, and I’m stuck doing locums and shifts no one else wants”. On weekends he had to work as a GP for a radio service.”
Nala is in for a shock in the new country as well. She cannot understand why wedding invite lists have to be so small. Shankari makes you squirm at how every non-white person is treated as the ‘other’ and how Indians and Sri Lankans are treated as if they are the same. There is a restlessness to fit in; but you don’t know where you belong.
It always annoys me when writers write huge books and leave out everything related to food. Food is the essence of a land and its culture and Shankari has some beautiful descriptions that made me crave for some of the food items mentioned in the book.
Mothers and Daughters
Special applause to how heart touching the mothers and daughters in the book are; yet they are raw humans at heart. Nala loves Dhara as her own daughter. But when she has to choose between sending one of them abroad on a scholarship to study medicine, she chooses her own blood even though Priya dislikes training as a doctor and Dhara’s dream is to be a doctor. This incident stings us throughout the book because we wonder if the fates of the two sisters would have been reversed had Nala made a different decision.
Later we see Nala being more lenient than Priya towards Smrithi even though Priya has spent a large part of her life abroad and Nala is technically the ‘old generation’. Similarly, Dhara is more progressive in her views than Priya, which reminded me of the joke that ‘Indian (Sri Lankans here) who stay behind are often more progressive than those who immigrate.’
Usually in family sagas, the last generation is often lost on me. But I was very pleased that Smrithi is a full sculpted character with her own views, and opinions. I loved how her two mothers cared for her in such different ways.
Final Verdict :
Maybe you have heard of this book previously; maybe you haven’t. Either way, jot this down on your list of books to buy, add it to your cart, put it down on your wish list for Christmas. Song of the Sun God is a perfect rendition of the chaos in Sri Lanka that played with the lives of it’s residents. Highly recommended. This is surely one of the gems of today’s relevant literature
PS: If you are a fellow Indian, this is a must-read from our neighbouring country.
Title : Song of the Sun God
Author : Shankari Chandran
Publisher : Perera Hussein
Language : English
Pages : 406
Rating : 5/5
Disclaimer : Much thanks to Perera Hussein for a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.
You can buy a copy of the novel from Perera Hussein Publishing House.
Do you enjoy reading historical family sagas? Recommendations?