Song of the Sun God

Sri Lanka’s complex story has been told by people as various as rapper and singer M. I. A., playwright S. Shakthidharan and authors Niromi de Soyza, Anuk Arudpragasam and Shehan Karunatilaka. All extrapolate personal and political histories to portray an island nation marred by greed and the struggle for political power – and a population that has dispersed globally as a result.

Shankari Chandran’s novel Song of the Sun God is the latest addition to this canon of diasporic literature. It begins in 1932 Colombo, before my parents’ birth and British Independence. It’s a time I know little about anecdotally, which made this book all the more interesting. The narrative follows married Tamil couple Rajan and Nala, who – like my own parents – grew to adulthood in Sri Lanka before their eventual migration to Sydney. Spanning multiple generations, it explores their evolution as parents and grandparents to their daughter, Priya, and adoptive daughter, Dhara – custodianship between families is a common practice in Sri Lanka – and their respective children.

Though Chandran’s narrative is chronologically linear, readers are transported, through differing character perspectives, between different countries and provinces. The world she builds branches outward with vivid regional descriptions. From Jaffna, the heartland of “Eelam Tamils”, where I was born, to Kandy, the birthplace of my father, it was exciting to read about places I hadn’t visited since my birth. The mention of Strathfield Plaza in Sydney, which housed a library of Tamil literature that my father forced me to visit as an adolescent, overwhelmed me with nostalgia.

The novel sprinkles familiar references like flecks of childhood memory: the sweet taste of the rose syrup beverage faloodah, the lullaby Nila Nila Odi Vaa (a call to the moon to return) and the exclamation kaddaval saithe (meaning for god’s sake) that’s often uttered by adults. It’s comforting to read that despite geographical and generational differences, some cultural touchstones remain constant.

Rajan and Nala’s family narrative humanises the conflict between Sri Lanka’s reputation as a tourist haven and the headlines that depict the civil conflict post-Independence. These tensions are instilled in subtle everyday dynamics, or emerge in stories of racially motivated gendered violence, natural disasters and heart-wrenching life decisions. The couple’s anxiety for their children stems from their desire for unity after their experiences of violent separatism.

Shankari Chandran’s Song of the Sun God is an intimate portrait of Sri Lankan life and intergenerational trauma from a Tamil perspective – an emotive and insightful read.

Ultimo Press, 400pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
November 26, 2022 as “Song of the Sun God, Shankari Chandran”.

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