Cinnamon Gardens, by Shyam Selvadurai, is a meticulously researched account of two distantly related families in an exclusive (and eponymous) neighborhood in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), in the late 1920s. I really enjoyed the book, but I have read much about the British Empire and its colonies. A reader without that knowledge might be somewhat mystified by portions of the novel.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead.
The Mudaliyar Navaratnam, member of the Governor’s Council, rules his large house and the people in it with an iron hand. Twenty-eight years ago, when his eldest son wanted to marry a low-caste servant in the house, he exiled them both to Bombay and forbade the other members of the household from contacting them. Twenty years ago, upon learning that his younger son, Balendran, was living with another man as more than just flatmates, he traveled to England and destroyed their relationship. Now, Balendran’s former lover has returned to Ceylon with an English government research commission.
Meanwhile in the much smaller house next door, Louisa lives with her three daughters. They are distant relatives of the Mudaliyar and moved there after Louisa and her husband, the father of the girls, became estranged due to his return to Hinduism (after being a Christian for many years, like Louisa) and his abusive treatment of his eldest daughter, Annalakshmi. Annalakshmi, against the wishes of her family, has become a teacher and an aspiring feminist.
Mr. Selvadurai does an excellent job of evoking 1920s Ceylon and its oppressive social strictures. Woven throughout the book is an account of the caste and ethnic divisions in Ceylonese society, and how they translate into the politics. I have been rather interested in current Sri Lankan politics, particularly in the recent war between the Tamils of the north and the Sinhalese of the south. I found it fascinating to see the roots of this struggle in the colonial period and how the British Empire handled these divisions.
The book focuses mainly on Annalakshmi and Balendran. They each embody a different facet of struggling against Ceylonese society. Annalakshmi must fit herself into a society that considers women to be less than men, and fit only to be married. She also encounters racism when her beloved teacher and headmistress, Miss Lawton, refuses to promote her to assistant headmistress of the school when the position opens, and instead hires a male clerk. Annalakshmi discovers that appearances are everything, and that she can easily become an outcast of polite society for the smallest, seemingly innocent actions, like riding a bicycle.
Balendran learns that he can acknowledge his homosexuality and reach out to the man he loved in college without endangering his wife and son’s home and position. He does not need to remain in thrall to his father, but at the same time he does not need to run away from his duties that make possible the house his wife loves and the education his son is receiving in England.
Having sent away his former lover because they fell in love again, at the end of the book Balendran writes to him, asking for his friendship even though he, Balendran, cannot offer more because of his obligations to his wife and son. Through this, and earlier confronting his father, Balendran releases himself from the web of guilt and recrimination that has haunted him since his father’s visit to England.
Cinnamon Gardens is an excellent book about finding one’s place in society, and the nature of love, marriage, and family. Four out of five stars.