“Island of a Thousand Mirrors” by Nayomi Munaweera

I was entranced by this book. Not only was it such a gripping story, the quality of the writing was so lyrical that I actually read the book slowly to savor it, which is not something I normally do. Also, the story is set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which, being from neighboring India, was something I knew a little about — but not a whole lot. Any reference to war in India usually brings to mind its long-standing conflict with Pakistan, and to a smaller extent, its conflict with China in the 1960s. Most Indians don’t pay much attention to this relatively small island nation, just south of India’s border, except when the conflict comes to our doors, as with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a suicide bomber from the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Also known as the “Tamil Tigers,” this is the same militant organization that is on one side of the conflict in Sri Lanka, with the other being the Sinhalese, who make up the largest ethnic group in the country.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors follows the lives of two women, one Sinhalese and the other Tamil, growing up in different parts of the country. They never meet, but their lives intersect towards the end in an unexpectedly brutal way. The Sinhalese woman, Yasodhara, grows up in the capital city, Colombo, in the years before the conflict, and has what can best be described as an idyllic childhood, with a loving extended family. When the civil war escalates and the brutality of it comes too close to home, Yasodhara’s parents immigrate to the US and she lives there, shielded from the conflict, until she returns to Sri Lanka for a visit — urged by her sister who has returned before her — to heal from a broken marriage.

In parallel, we also follow the life of Saraswathi, who grows up in the north of the island in a Tamil enclave, and despite the best efforts of her parents to keep her away from the conflict, she ends up being recruited by the Tamil Tigers to join the war for “Eelam,” the independent Tamil state they want. Saraswathi had dreamt of being a teacher growing up, but then she was captured by Sinhalese soldiers and suffered such horrific sexual violence that the only two options she could see before her were suicide — like some of her other friends who had been subjected to the same violence — or joining the Tamil Tigers. She ends up choosing the latter, and the memory of the abuse she suffered makes her a particularly brutal soldier, one who has no problem with wielding a machete and slashing even women and children to death. Her ferocity, cold-bloodedness, and fearlessness make her rise quickly through the ranks of the Tamil Tigers and lead her to become what is perceived as the highest honor for a soldier in the movement — a suicide bomber.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is beautifully written, capturing the magical quality of the island, its tranquility, and its lushness in the years before the conflict, as well as the horrors of the civil war once it starts, the brutality, the riots, the senseless slaughter of people, the atrocities committed on both sides. Seeing the war through the personal lives of the two protagonists who are from the opposite sides of the ethnic conflict, and who get embroiled in it without wanting to, shows that there no winners in a war — everyone loses.

Despite the war being the central thread running through the book — and it is to the credit of the writing that I approached these parts with a sense of dread and foreboding — a good part of first half is devoted to describing Yasodhara’s extended family, starting with both sets of grandparents and going as far back as when the British departed the island in 1948.  This made Island of a Thousand Mirrors a truly multi-generational saga, with details about the lives of the different family members, their houses, their food, their day-to-day activities, family dynamics, family traditions, childhood friendships, first loves, and marriages. Not only was it fascinating to see how life and customs evolved in Sri Lanka — and in my case, to see the parallels with life in India — but also to see it captured in such beautiful, evocative prose. Here is an example, describing an interior courtyard in the childhood home of Visaka, Yasodhara’s mother:

The queen of this domain, an enormous trailing jasmine, impervious to pruning, spreads a fragrant carpet of white. When the sea breeze whispers, a  snowing flurry of flowers sweeps into the house so that Visaka’s earliest and most tender memory is the combined scent of jasmine and sea salt.

Another example, this one describing a dip in the ocean by Yasodhara’s father, Nishan, when he, as “the last British ships slip over the horizon,” is cavorting on beaches he does not yet know are pristine:

Farther out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day, a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a thousand mirrors shattering about him. Then the school speeds to sea and the boy is left in sedate water, a tug and pull of the body as comfortable as sitting in his father’s outspread sarong being sung to sleep.

With prose that is so poetic through the book, reading it was sheer delight. I was sorry when it came to an end.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors
Author: Nayomi Munaweera              
Publisher and Date, US Edition: St. Martin’s Press, September 2014        
First published in Sri Lanka in 2012 by Perara Hussein Publishing House

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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