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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 by Shankari Chandran

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.

Review

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?

Song of the Sun God by Shankari Chandran

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.

Food

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
Publication: 2017
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.

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Do you enjoy reading historical family sagas? Recommendations?

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Song of the Sun God
This Post Has 30 Comments
    1. Yes, the book does not seem to be available on Amazon right now. Fingers crossed soon it would be. It is available at some book stores in US (Someone sent me a picture after buying it) but again, we don’t know for sure. Hope you will get to read it when it becomes available

  1. I don’t know if my comment got sent, but if not, once again.

    Thanks for the review. I’ll be getting it as soon as I have some more money to use on books and can find an e-book version of it. I really enjoy intergenerational historial – contemporary adult fiction. It’s one of the only adult genres that I actually like to read!

    1. Yes, this one got sent. Thanks for trying to comment again. I think the comment section is showing some errors.

      You would love the read. The book opened my eyes on the political scenario, food, family structure etc of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. And it is written well too.

      1. Have you read Saree by Su Dharmapala? It’s a similar idea and everything is connected to saree making! I enjoyed it so much.

        I also quite like Shyam Selvadurai’s works, however he does write some problematic scenes which are not called out. He’s half Tamil, half Sinhalese, and this is always mirrored in his MCs, and thus shows a different experience of that time.

  2. This sounds amazing but are there really graphic descriptions of violence? I have trouble with those but the rest of the book sounds so good. As an indication, I coped with The Kite Runner but that was at the edge of what I could deal with (I appreciate that’s a whole different country, just in terms of conflict and violence).

    1. No, there are no explicit scenes of violence. Even in Dhara’s case, the unfortunate incident of rape that happens is limited to few lines and the book mostly focusses on her relationship with the child she bears. I hope you will love the book if you pick it up.

  3. Just did my first ordering on Amazon. Let’s see how this works out. Then I will start ordering some of your recommendations.
    Not too keen on family sagas (or too large books lately) but this one sounds enticing. One of my best friends in Grad school was from Sri Lanka. Not Tamul though.
    As the world speeds up (towards Doom?) I am left wondering why so much now is based on identity, language, colour… Couldn’t we all stick to what is universal? (I may have stated my fondness fro Hannah Arendt before?)
    And thank you Resh for your fascinating and passionate reviews.
    (You tend towards the universal)
    Be safe.

    1. Thank you. I hope you will be able to read many more books now that you have started ordering them online. I remember you being sad about the lack of bookstores selling English books.

      1. Good memory Resh. Though that has never stopped me from reading. E-ve-ry-day! Can’t live v/o reading. 🙂 Brought a few books from Paris this summer. And I have shelves of unread books. So I never run out of material. But I do look forward to see how Amazon works for here. Will let you know. Have a great week-end my dear.

    1. Thank you. Yes, the book doesn’t seem to available right now on Amazon. If you are very eager you can order directly via the publisher’s link given above. Or just wait a while. It might get back in stock. I am sure you will love the book.

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