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Oct/Nov 2014 Reviews & Interviews

Noontide Toll: Stories

Noontide Toll: Stories
Romesh Gunesekara.
Granta. 2014. 237 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78378 0 150.

Review by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! Vasantha is 56 years old and has retired from the Coconut Corporation in Sri Lanka. He is not inclined to sit around and do nothing, so he has bought a battered old Toyota van and started his own business. "If you are on the move there is always hope," he says. Which in some ways he believes is true of the island itself.

Sometimes he just wants to drive, but mostly he ferries other people around the island. The passengers he tells us about in this book are dazed "heat-seeking" tourists, Dutch developers, "home seeking desperadoes from the diaspora," "Iranian New Age anglers" and, on one occasion, he is flagged down by an armed soldier to pick up an ex-army brigadier whose own transport has broken down. Armed soldiers, along with policemen, are top of the list of people he does not argue with. In his van, however, he is the boss. He controls the air-conditioning and the conversations. And he likes to encourage his passengers to talk—"What we talk about on the road" he says, "is what you feel deep inside. You don't get that deep if you just sit still, whatever the yogis, the barbers and the dentists say."

Vasantha is a philosopher, full of home-spun wisdom, very perceptive about his passengers' foibles and about the state of his country. Sri Lanka's history and politics are complicated. Sepala, "a guide from the ministry" accompanying four Chinese executives who hire Vasantha and his van, sums up the history thus: "Thirty years of war, sixty-five years of independence, three hundred years of colonisation, two thousand five hundred years of Buddhism...." But the recently ended civil war in Sri Lanka and the 2004 tsunami, have left heavy legacies, and Vasantha see and feels the effects of both as he drives around.

"So much is kept off limits these days," he comments: places not to be strayed into, secret guilts, things "we carefully forget." But there are always dreams, and Vasantha is an optimist with a clear-eyed view of the world and a wicked sense-of-humour. Listening to a wife complaining about her husband's snoring, he thinks of recommending sound-blocking headphones such as those some of his passengers wear so that they "manage to avoid any pollution of their inner world with the din of local color." Some of the stories he recounts are funny, some are devastating, but he is a delightful, interesting and articulate companion. In him, Romesh Gunasekara combines humour and sadness, and through him he manages to convey lightly and unjudgementally the feelings of people living in a country where the legacy of war, with its terrors and suspicions, is still very real.

I enjoyed this book but I was left thinking about the many people in many countries in the history of the world, past and present, who have had to come to terms with living with the memories and the continuing suspicions engendered by civil war. The many who have lived through devastating natural disaster, too. As Vasantha knows, the past cannot be wiped from memory, and it must not be forgotten. He knows that to get from one place to another, from the past to the future, "you need a road. And a road is nothing if it does not connect." So, before he forgets what he saw, felt, thought and believed on his journeys north and south, before he drifts "into oblivion," he drives and he tells us stories, because they are "what make us what we are".Vasantha is fifty-six years old and has retired from the Coconut Corporation in Sri Lanka. He is not inclined to sit around and do nothing, so he has bought a battered old Toyota van and started his own business. "If you are on the move there is always hope," he says. Which in some ways he believes is true of the island itself.

Sometimes he just wants to drive, but mostly he ferries other people around the island. The passengers he tells us about in this book are dazed "heat-seeking" tourists, Dutch developers, "home seeking desperadoes from the diaspora," "Iranian New Age anglers" and, on one occasion, he is flagged down by an armed soldier to pick up an ex-army brigadier whose own transport has broken down. Armed soldiers, along with policemen, are top of the list of people he does not argue with. In his van, however, he is the boss. He controls the air-conditioning and the conversations. And he likes to encourage his passengers to talk—"What we talk about on the road" he says, "is what you feel deep inside. You don't get that deep if you just sit still, whatever the yogis, the barbers and the dentists say."

Vasantha is a philosopher, full of home-spun wisdom, very perceptive about his passengers' foibles and about the state of his country. Sri Lanka's history and politics are complicated. Sepala, "a guide from the ministry" accompanying four Chinese executives who hire Vasantha and his van, sums up the history thus: "Thirty years of war, sixty-five years of independence, three hundred years of colonisation, two thousand five hundred years of Buddhism..." But the recently ended civil war in Sri Lanka and the 2004 tsunami, have left heavy legacies, and Vasantha see and feels the effects of both as he drives around.

"So much is kept off limits these days," he comments: places not to be strayed into, secret guilts, things "we carefully forget." But there are always dreams, and Vasantha is an optimist with a clear-eyed view of the world and a wicked sense-of-humour. Listening to a wife complaining about her husband's snoring, he thinks of recommending sound-blocking headphones such as those some of his passengers wear so that they "manage to avoid any pollution of their inner world with the din of local color." Some of the stories he recounts are funny, some are devastating, but he is a delightful, interesting and articulate companion. In him, Romesh Gunasekara combines humour and sadness, and through him he manages to convey lightly and unjudgementally the feelings of people living in a country where the legacy of war, with its terrors and suspicions, is still very real.

I enjoyed this book but I was left thinking about the many people in many countries in the history of the world, past and present, who have had to come to terms with living with the memories, and the continuing suspicions, engendered by civil war. The many who have lived through devastating natural disaster, too. As Vasantha knows, the past cannot be wiped from memory, and it must not be forgotten. He knows that to get from one place to another, from the past to the future, "you need a road. And a road is nothing if it does not connect." So, before he forgets what he saw, felt, thought and believed on his journeys north and south, before he drifts "into oblivion," he drives and he tells us stories, because they are "what make us what we are."

 

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