Book: Noontide Toll
Author: Romesh Gunesekara
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Romesh Gunesekara’s latest is not an edifice constructed on the drama of the separatist war that raged in Sri Lanka for three decades. It is a far more nuanced work that sifts through the embers and chips away at the collective schizophrenia of a wounded nation. Noontide Toll picks from Sri Lanka’s ragged shores tales of loss, uncertainty, guilt and moral choice and strings them together like pearls formed of a hope that has been held under water for too long.
These are beguilingly simple stories — of a migrant who returns after decades to find his ghostly childhood home intact, of priests who pass judgement on a man of war, of foreign tourists and architectural restorers in search of the perfect post-war holiday, of capitalists out to explore the possibilities of a newly-free land.
But the narrative is shrouded in metaphor and crafted with such care that when the veil of words lifts, a strange fear grips you, and the calamity that lurks beneath rises like a tsunami, suddenly real.
The war is over and Vasantha, a van driver who likes logging miles and making conversation, makes a living ferrying “heat-seeking tourists in a daze, home-seeking desperados from the diaspora, freewheelers and business-seekers from erratic states” across the length and breadth of the country. He is like a pendulum set in motion between north and south, a gypsy soul born of a country coasting along “a road between hallucination and amnesia”.
And in his old Toyota, he has found his rhythm. The van is to him a time machine: an “island of peace” in the present confusion, a hedge against future uncertainties — “You don’t have to feel trapped. If you are on the move, there is always hope” — and a peephole into a dark and troubled past.
His journey into the interstices of history is beautiful and sad, rising and falling like a love song. “I know churches get bombed all over the world, from Coventry to Sarajevo, but it was still unsettling to see the results so close up.
This was the damage we had done to ourselves like those drunks down by Union Place who smash their faces in the mirror because they don’t like the reflection,” Vasantha notes, on a trip to the ruins of a fort in Jaffna where “even the grass had been beaten to dust by the bands of Tiger cadres and the boom pah pah of the Sri Lankan army over the last thirty years”. Elsewhere, he finds, on a strip of land facing the Palk Strait, an impossible idyll — trees swaying with the tide, birds diving in and out, “a long, flat landscape and a big sky in harmony”. “We were in another world. It is hard to believe this was once fighting territory.”
Sri Lanka after the war is on a rebound and worlds that had collided are gradually disengaging, revealing the true nature of the land.
Vasantha is a perceptive driver, mindful of his passengers’ needs and eccentricities, ostensibly for good tips. His deeply ambiguous character studies of people struggling to achieve a peace with the past are fresh as a sea breeze.
He instinctively knows when a passenger is preoccupied or aimless, “clutching at fragments in the slow-motion explosion that had been his life”.
Gunesekara couldn’t have chosen a better narrator: Vasantha is at once observant and introspective, curious yet sensitive, an Everyman who may not be as far out of his depth as he appears to be. “But for all the driving I do, I never seem to break out. I go everywhere in this country, but nowhere in my mind,” he says, in a rare soul-searching passage. This too, is allegorical — of the past that Sri Lankans cannot wash their hands of, no more than they can drift sleepily with the tide into a new world.
Noontide Toll ceaselessly shifts gears, backing up a little and then revving forward in the metaphor of an old van. “Every mile is logged in my mind,” says Vasantha, “but it feels like we have all been spinning in sand.”