Those Tamarind times | Daily News


Those Tamarind times

This is an interesting read. It is, to some degree, a ‘saga’ of colonial Ceylon’s minuscule ethnic group, descendants of English fathers [whose name they proudly carried] and ‘native mothers,and preferred to call themselves ‘Eurasians’ to distinguish themselves from the Burghers – the other English speaking group of centuries old European origin.

The novelist’s chronology is unusual and interesting. The first section, located in 1967, describes the trials and minor triumphs of the Eurasian Gilmour family settling down in their oft-dreamt English-speaking land, in Canada’s Toronto. The second, chronologically earlier section, describes the life the Gilmours led in ‘Ceylon’ from the halcyon times of 1947 to the violence and turmoil of the 1980s.

Wallowed in nostalgia

The Toronto period is an intresting pastiche of the senior, former tea-planter ,Gilmour’s family and their [ inevitably] multi-coloured children. Interestingly, their mixed-up lives are narrated by the ‘white’ Welsh wife of Aidan, the dark coloured son. This gives an air of sympathetic objectivity to the narrative.

While senior Gilmour wallows in nostalgia for his ‘periya dorai’ days as a planter, BBC newscasts and tattered Union Jack , the younger generation has plunged into an ethnic pool, not available back in Ceylon. Fiona has married a pukkah Prussian in lederhosen , whom she divorces to the agony of her Catholic parents,while Lally has married another German of a ‘lesser breed’. Scottie, the whitest and, as such, most favoured son, is happily slipping into WASP society. Their ‘Sinhalese’ mother runs their parental home redolent of hot and spicy curries. It is quite clear that this mix and match group , and their , inevitably,multi coloured offspring will not hang together much longer.

The story now slides into a rather, labored, narrative seeking to illustrate the multi-etnicity of Canada’s immigrant-rich society. We are introduced to ‘coloured’ Jamaican schoolkids, Chinese neighbours, Pakistan shopkeepers and ‘Ceylon Tamil refugees’ . All this confuses old Gilmour yet stuck in the mindset of a colonial ‘pukka sahib’ – a long lost breed.

The second section, beginning in Ceylon in 1947, a year before Independence, describes the charmed life that the Gilmours and fellow planters – largely British, Eurasian and Burgher- led on their isolated estates. This life that he once led is the albatross that Gilmour carried into mulii-ethnic Canada devoid (almost) of class distinction. Tamil coolies, Muslim shopkeepers and Sinhala peasants play only a marginal role in this life.

Rising chauvinism

All this changed with Independence when politicians assumed the topmost position in administration and society. The author goes on to give a Gilmour-tinted version of Ceylon’s politics, rising chauvinism, riots and civil war – which led the family to flee the land of their birth, to which they never felt really emotionally attached and seek their fortune in an English speaking land of ‘whites’

An unusual and readable book of nostalgia, triumph and confusion.The book is published by Vijitha Yapa and is priced at Rs 1000.

Tissa Devendra


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