Refuge by Gopal Gandhi

Refuge by Gopal Gandhi is a novel that I picked up twice, and abandoned each time, after reading a few pages. Despite the appealing sonorous lyrical prose, written effortlessly in the most impressive manner, I was somehow unable to relate to it.

But, the childish romantic journal by Chocoholic Shadow left me craving for an intense, mature novel and in a moment of weakness, I grabbed ‘Refuge’. And, as I said earlier, my feelings and emotions do play an important role in my understanding of written work. Reading this novel in the light of my bruised and hungry intellect, I could value it much better this time.

The novel is set in the Tea Estates of Sri Lanka, and revolves around the lives of Tamil laborers and Sinhalese owners, belonging to altogether different strata, ethnicity and countries. However, both the communities are bound together by their needs. Tamilians want food and the owners want cheap labor. These basic needs force them to co-exist, to bear one another. However, both the communities consider their traditions and customs, superior to the other, and thus, strive to protect their individual identities by marrying only within their own communities, shunning the other.

refuge-by-gopal-gandhi But, is it really possible for youngsters to live such cocooned lives? What would happen, if the invisible boundaries are crossed and love blossoms? Would it shake the entire society and bring about a revolution or would it just die a silent death? Well, the novel explores all these possibilities and much more in the beautiful vistas of the Mardeniya Tea estates.

The Refuge explores the tragic lives of estate workers, manhandled by the urbane, rich, educated owners, running a feudal system. The victims face a double edged sword, as they are working in the lowest stratum of an alien society. The novel thread-bares the cruel profit making strategies of the tea company owners, who lure poor Indians, promise them huge money and get them smuggled into Sri Lanka, to live a life of neglect and back breaking hard labor.

The first character to be introduced in this dark novel is that of Velu, a deaf mute, whom Gopal brilliantly describes as one on whom “after seven years of sounding silence from silence, a tranquility had settled”. Velu is the official conch blower(a desi version of siren), to signify the beginning and end of days. And, I must say, he is one character, who shines throughout the novel as a mute, but worthy spectator, and plays an important role in setting the mood of the novel and invokes readers’ sympathy at the beginning and rises to the level of a somewhat semi hero at the end.

Slowly, several other characters living on Line No. 7 of Craigavon estate were introduced – Kandan, his parents Perumal and Peramai, his daughters Valli and Thieva, the supervisors and the Oxford educated, morally upright, but ambitiously confused Nimal Rupasinghe.

In the beginning itself, Valli shows the capacity of being a heroine in this otherwise hero less novel. I am saying hero less, as there is hardly any character, who becomes more prominent than the others, with limelight shifting from one to another rapidly, in this ironically equal footed novel, showcasing the glaring differences between the rich and the poor.

The story moves through several peaks and valleys. before settling down to the plains of a love story, between Hindu Valli and Buddhist Soma, a fish vendor. The romance brews and attains the finality in the monsoons. However, the villainous supervisor, Jayasena, plays spoilsport, and the animosity ends with his murder by Soma in a fit of passion.

The love story takes a tragic twist, and the inevitable circumstances propel workers towards strike, that further deteriorates the impoverished laborers. The gulf between poor and rich widens, the atrocities increase and culminate with the mass murder and rape. The novel ends with the transformation of Nimal Rupasinghe, the Superintendent of Craigavon, whose guilt conscience drives him to seek refuge in the deep recesses of deadly seas.

The novel that began with the showcasing of labors as victims and refugees, ends with the rich and powerful biting dust and seeking refuge from their own bruised egos and confused intellect.

A good story coupled with beautiful prose, written in the perfect analogy of nature and humanity, soothed my frayed nerves and satisfied my hunger. Gopal’s metaphorical language enchanted me with a creative visual imagery. After a long time, I could derive such aesthetic pleasure, and believed Gopal Gandhi to be somewhat akin to Amitav Ghosh.

However, despite all the good things, I can not help but point out a few flaws in Gopal’s novel. The story begins too late. Gopal takes up a lot of time in descriptive nuances of characters, and forgets to conjure up the readers’ interest in the novel. The narrative runs from one event to another, with little correlation. The philosophical digressions by some good Samaritans further disintegrates the reed thin story. Perhaps, this was the prime reason for my two previous aborted attempts.

I was not able to feel the pathos or the need to consistently read the novel till the very end. In my opinion, Gopal wasted too much time in building up the intro, with the result, that the actual story begins almost in the middle of the novel, and by the time, I got interested, Gopal was already winding up the novel.

Another, small irritant was the incoherent structure of the novel. The narrative runs continuously, without any divisions, chapters or breathers. Given the longish time, I took to read this novel, I had a tough time following the time and space. Perhaps, the author avoided the divisions to present a continuous story, however, the trick seems to have backfired and just confuses the readers.

Despite these two minor flaws, the novel is extraordinarily beautiful and presents tragedy in the most convincing, matter of the fact style, sounding absolutely natural and real.

Go for it, if you enjoy reading tragedies. Just one advice though, be prepared to spend a lot of time on the creatively aesthetic, but, slightly obscure, highly philosophical, round about tale, so that you can savor each flavor individually and derive maximum pleasure out of this exotic cuisine.

Book : Refuge
Author : Gopal Gandhi
Published by : Penguin Books India
Edition : 2010 (Paperback)
No. of Pages: 203
Price : Rs. 250/-

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