Words, they say, are not enough to convey emotions. But for Nayomi Munaweera they come rushing in: each sentence, delivered with poetic elegance, is cobbled together into an emotional quilt that wraps itself snug over us, making us cry and comforting us at the same time.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors is one of those books that cuts through pretences and smartly stacked sentences, letting us deep into the human psyche. It tells us that man may know violence begets violence, but he has no intention of breaking that cycle. It is something he will resort to as long as he exists. Such is the universal language of violence that Island of a Thousand Mirrors could easily be Palestine or Germany or Kashmir.
But in Munaweera’s heart wrenching tale, it is Sri Lanka. And being a Sinhalese who moved continents to escape the fury of the civil war that turned her beautiful country into hell, Munaweera, it is obvious doesn’t really have to try hard in getting across this particular story. There’s a depth to her words that could only come when one sees/experiences the things that is being described first hand.
In Island of a Thousand Mirrors, there’s a lot of guilt as well, despite the fact that she has chosen to take a neutral stand by pulling out characters from both sides – the oppressed and the oppressors.
In an interview to a web site, Satsumabug.com, Munaweera acknowledges that guilt. ‘I grew up in Nigeria but we would go back to Sri Lanka every year for a month and I saw how the war affected people, how people got used to the everyday presence of danger. Once my family and I were at the site of a bombing; there was blood and hurt people but that night we went out to dinner and laughed about the experience. Violence had become normalised,’ she says.
Tucked in those poignant words is anger too. But it is not directed at the man/woman who strapped the bomb on to self and killed countless people – being a Sinhalese, clearly from a privileged background, one would expect that. But her anger, which simmers underneath all those innocent descriptions of life that was, and then later makes itself present more powerfully as words culminate in a crescendo to keep up with the growing destruction, is more towards the act of violence itself, which deprived her – and many like her, irrespective of being Sinhalese or Tamil – of a normal childhood.
Two girls from disparate backgrounds, one a Sinhalese and another a Tamil, narrate the chaos and bloodshed around them. Both is marred for life, but differently. One gets a chance to escape physically, but could never get away really as she had to leave behind everything she held precious and one is pulled into the quagmire and becomes a catalyst of violence herself.
In Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Munaweera’s characters take us to this torn country; trace the beginnings of the pogroms; guide us through the growing unease and then, when the violence erupts, displacing many, the disbelief and the anger; give us the motivation behind those suicide bombings; show us the rape, the pillage and the unthinkable things humans are capable of doing when they shed the garb called civilisation.
Munaweera does not hold back. With a narration that could only be described as lyrical, Munaweera splits open the conflict for us.
And in time, too. Now with Sri Lanka on the verge of being taken to task for its alleged war crimes, for killing tens of thousands of civilians in its attempts to eliminate terrorism, there is no time better than now to read Island of a Thousand Mirrors.