The world has suddenly sat up and taken notice of contemporary Sri Lankan literature this week. No prizes for guessing that it’s because the most coveted literary prize, and arguably the most well-known, has been awarded to a Sri Lankan author. But a popular prize means little if apart of course from celebrating the winner’s body of work — (one of the previous columns in this very series is about Shehan Karunatilaka’s debut novel) — it also doesn’t turn the spotlight on diverse writing and broaden the horizon of readers looking for something new to read from another corner of the world.
Though Reef by Romesh Gunesekera was itself on the Booker Prize shortlist in 1994, and according to Wikipedia — “lost to How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman amid much controversy”— it’s a novel that demands to be reintroduced to newer, perhaps younger readers, every few years, such is the sublime, timeless quality of this text.
In the late 1960s, a young kitchen boy named Triton starts working for his master — a scholarly marine biologist, Mister Salgado, in a Sri Lanka that was still considered an idyllic Eden. Triton is eager to please, a quick learner, and soon starts preparing “each dish to reach the mind through every possible channel.” He is on the brink of adulthood at the same time his country is about to experience its first insurgencies. What follows is a lyrical tale about the loss of innocence of both a young heart and a nation perennially on the boil.
Many years ago, I had met Gunesekera briefly in Jaipur. All I wanted was his signature on my 20th Anniversary Edition of Reef. But he said he was free for a few minutes and sat down with me over a cup of coffee. And instead of overwhelming an already wide-eyed 20-something, he gently asked me about my thoughts on the book, and whether I harbour ambitions of writing a novel someday. I came back that day with a signature and several words of kindness, but also much more. It is this sense of tranquility that Romesh Gunesekera’s writing has managed to encapsulate over the past three decades effortlessly. And in these turbulent times when everyone is trying to race ahead of the other, this slowing down for a little while for someone else has been his greatest gift to me and my reading life.