The Prisoner of Paradise
Romesh Gunesekera is the celebrated author of `Reef’ (1994), an elegiac and subtle work of fiction that was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Born in Colombo in 1954, his myriad works (Monkfish Moon, Heaven’s Edge) explore the variegated terrain of his island world. Like before, this new novel too is about a desecrated and despoiled paradise. His purist mind is disturbed by colonial currents that historically churned a heady brew of power and exploitation. The place is Mauritius, the year 1825, and the British have just defeated Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France. The wave of revolutionary spirit in America and Europe has laced the transcontinental air with cries of `Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. Slave trade is, as a result, abolished. This lush island too has just changed hands. Enter Lucy Gladwell, fresh from gray foggy England to the bright luminous warmth of the island where her Aunt Betty and her bigoted Uncle George Hugton, the British Superintendent of Administration, reside. Sugar cane is the main business of the island. But the newly acquired sugar plantations are now dependent on convict labour from all over the British Empire. Indentured labour from India was yet to exploited, and the island’s mixed population of Creoles, French, English and Indians co-exist on a precarious equilibrium. Lucy, an orphan, takes to helping her aunt run their beautiful colonial bungalow, Amberside, with its large, profusely resplendent garden. In the first few chapters of `Paradise’ Gunesekera paints this idyllic life with seasoned craftsmanship and deft prose, so that his words bring to the imagination a compelling sensual world. He describes too the social scene with the French and English living amicably, with balls, races, and parties to entertain them in the season.
But the seeming serene existence has deep dark undercurrents which surface slowly. The exiled Kandian Prime Minister (Ceylonese) and his entourage, along with his translator Don Lambodar witness a growing unease. Their activities become an expose of British colonial imperialist designs. Writes a letter for Narayan an Malabarese ex Hindu slave for George, asking for the rights of Hindu slaves for a temple they have built on land not theirs. Unrest leads to rebellion of the Indian workers which is suppressed (Kishore an ex troubled convict brought from Malaya) brutally. Don Lucy sympathizes –Don’s father a Muslim Tamil slave runner for British in Ceylon (Kandy) killed mother
Against this larger backdrop Aunt Betty tries to find Lucy a husband, a French plantation owner as no suitable Englishmen are available. Lucy resists, for a marriage of convenience is not for her. She finds her aunt’s choices and that of other women like her distasteful. For Lucy is waiting; in two years she will come of age, and secure an independent means of livelihood, which she thinks will give her a chance for a freer life. Meanwhile the physical and emotional attraction between Lucy and the Don are brought out obliquely. The surface calm of Paradise is finally both figuratively and literally torn apart with a small hurricane—a violent labourer’s strike, and a symbolic party by Betsy. Here east meets west in a final declaration of mutual love by the chief protagonists, Lucy and Don which ends with Lucy then seeking freedom in a overwrought dramatic gesture.
This book review was published in India Today, here.