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Ceylon Perm?

Scan the cast of characters in the early independent Ceylon and you’ll think you’ve stumbled into a parody of an E.M. Forster novel. On an island once called the most willing colony in the British empire, the folks who guided the nation’s first few independent decades had names like Dudley, Junius, Solomon, and Sir John. The first prime minister, a pipe-smoking Anglophile by the name of Don Stephen Senanayake, died in 1952 after being thrown from a horse during his morning constitutional. Ho Chi Minh he was not.

Even today, the streets of Cinnamon Gardens—the upscale neighborhood of Cecils and Edwins and Kingsleys that lends a title to Shyam Selvadurai’s historical novel—retain names honoring the Ceylon’s old British governors: Barnes, Ward, Horton. Inside the rambling old houses, you’re still as likely to hear English as you are Sinhala or Tamil. I lived in the country now known as Sri Lanka for a year, and it remains the only foreign country I’ve ever visited where I worried about offending some locals by not speaking to them in English.

But after 50 years of freedom, life in the former Ceylon has taken on a tone rather more Southern Gothic than Merchant-Ivory. In the place of Oxbridge congeniality—the state’s founders maintained a parliamentary democracy out of not so much a belief in equality as a belief that Third World authoritarianism was just so tacky—the upper crust these days feels distinctly Faulknerian. The local establishment’s suit of decorous civility, long mocked by critics, is now not just empty but increasingly irrelevant.

The elite’s newer generations—who, like their renamed country, now sport indigenous monikers—still trundle through the old rites: blazer-clad prep schools, English lit, cricket. And yet, like the doings post-Civil War Mississippi, this sweet life carries on against a background of decline more pathetic than anything else. The country’s civil war grinds on. Its economy lags. Even the national cricket team, one of the few genuinely popular institutions of the modern national state, is dominated by public-schoolers from the sticks. What better time for a son of upper-crust Sri Lanka to look back at the world that was?

The fictional action in Cinnamon Gardens begins in 1927, as an imperial commission arrives from England to write a new colonial constitution. This is no small administrative matter. Back when the British got to do as they pleased, one nice upshot was that Ceylon’s internal fissures were somewhat papered over. But now, with talk of expanded democracy in the air, tricky questions arise: Will the majority Sinhalese dominate the minority Tamils? Will the rural poor rein in the plantation elites? Will women win a bigger role in society? Will Christians have to make room for Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims who never converted?

Dealing with these questions are two protagonists tied to the family of the Mudaliyar Navaratnum—a wealthy Tamil planter who lives in a house called Brighton and likes to do wealthy patriarch-style things like banish sons who marry lower-class women, inveigh against female suffrage, and throw himself big birthday parties whose menus feature dishes such as chicken vol-au-vent, charlotte russe, and petit fours.

Years earlier, the Mudaliyar interrupted his younger son, Balendran, in the midst of a gay love affair in London. Shamed, Balendran has played the good son for two decades. But when Balendran’s British ex-lover comes to Ceylon with the constitutional commission, his father sees a chance for influence and orders the son to get back in touch with the man—threatening Balendran’s quiet life of social comfort, appropriate marriage, and surreptitious blowjobs-for-hire from a soldier who waits at a nearby train station.

Meanwhile, niece Annalukshmi contends with her own crises of love and politics. It seems her father has reverted to Hinduism and plans to marry her off to another Hindu, a dolt from Malaya. Her mother, still a devout Anglican, secretly conspires to rush the 22-year-old into marriage with a local Christian. Easier said than done: Annalukshmi’s dowry isn’t Ceylon’s biggest, and her history of reading, getting a teaching certificate, and (once) riding a bicycle has made Cinnamon Gardens matrons worry that she may be “headstrong”—a definite no-no in a society trying its best to out-Brit Jane Austen.

Things, of course, quickly grow more complicated for our two protagonists. Balendran has exhausting baggage with his ex-lover, Richard, startling news about just who outed him back in London, and a damning revelation about his father. Annalukshmi, meanwhile, wonders about the merits of marriage, watches others toy with her reputation, and must reassess her British school-principal mentor. Wouldn’t you know that all manner of discontents fester beneath Cinnamon Gardens’ complacent surface? Whatever will our dutiful heroes do?

Cinnamon Gardens is a strange book. You can’t accuse Selvadurai of romanticizing Sri Lanka’s sepia-toned past—as many contemporaries are wont to do. He paints a devastating portrait of upper-class Ceylon’s social pretensions, cultural insecurities, and willful ignorance of their countrymen. One vignette hits especially close to the elite’s Westernized myopia: When Richard’s new traveling companion tells the Mudaliyar that he wants to see more of Ceylon’s culture than its colonial capital allows, the Mudaliyar suggests that he visit some ancient Buddhist sights. But when the young Briton explains that he’d rather just see where ordinary folks eat and live, the Mudaliyar is baffled. He winds up inviting everyone back to Brighton for a spot of tea.

Yet much of Selvadurai’s writing seems to come straight out of that same culture—full of the conventions of Edwardian Englishmen and the Ceylonese who admired them. In his physical descriptions, which linger sensuously over tropical flora and exotic fabrics, he sounds more like a pith-helmeted colonial correspondent than a native. And a sampling of lines from the book—say, “Richard Howland, his Richard, was going to be in Ceylon in two weeks!” or “She had not envisioned being left unaccompanied with the Macintosh boy” or “When Annalukshmi came in through the gates of Lotus Cottage, she saw Kumundini seated on the verandah alone…she felt strongly the fetters of her own narrow life”—echo, with pomp and a prudish quiver, language that should have died with Cinnamon Gardens’ 1920s characters.

Even the novel’s gay theme, the one aspect of the book alien to the Oxford-educated types that Cinnamon Gardens chronicles (Balendran’s wife, surmising that Richard is gay, calls him a “friend of Oscar”), rings with archaic cliche. So “the thought of Richard’s caress” makes Balendran feel “his blood thud against his temples,” eh? The saccharine is thudding against my taste buds.

In fact, the novel isn’t Selvadurai’s first perambulation down Corny Gay Rite of Passage Boulevard. Funny Boy, his first effort, chronicles—well, you’ll get the idea: He likes to wear girls’ clothes….He isn’t like the other boys….Their pleasant little world isn’t so simple, after all. Selvadurai himself is openly gay, and in Sri Lanka—where gay lit isn’t exactly reading-list material—his fiction has made waves. Yet it does no more than just write gay people into history. Metaphors for societywide chronicles of inclusion and exclusion, his characters work better as metaphor than drama.

But what Selvadurai’s fiction lacks in character depth, it makes up for in vivid historical detail. The semi-autobiographical Funny Boy takes place in Cinnamon Gardens during the run-up to Sri Lanka’s horrifying 1983 ethnic riots, a bloodbath that for hundreds of thousands of Tamils, including Selvadurai, marked the final exclusion from Sri Lankan society. Nineteen years old at the time, he migrated to Toronto. In the wake of the author’s own harrowing tale—along with a droning siren of subsequent wretched news from Sri Lanka—Cinnamon Gardens feels like a snapshot of a society bouncing on the diving board, seconds away from a fateful plunge. This well-dressed bather could have been so beautiful.

The Ceylon of Cinnamon Gardens was rich and successful, the best-run colony in the British Empire, an island whose education and infrastructure were worlds ahead of those of now-wealthy places like Malaysia and Taiwan. The politics surrounding the novel’s main characters leave you to wonder what roles they’d have had in creating the Sri Lanka that chased away Selvadurai—and likely would have chased away many of their descendants.

Each character seems to grasp a piece of the train wreck ahead. The Mudaliyar understands that majority rule will spell minority doom. So he holds out against it, embracing tea-swilling and patriarchy as part of the package. Balendran and Annalukshmi, in their own ways, watch as the social strictures of class destroy creative aspiration, family ties, and political potential. Everywhere in the novel, real love, as opposed to the socially ordained kind, leads to doom.

There are happy twists, of course: It wouldn’t be a cute comedy of manners if there weren’t. But the bigger picture is of weeping-willow’d dissipation, in the plot and in the too-often-trite words that tell it. Unable to turn sad historic metaphor into three-dimensional characters, Selvadurai—the noble prodigal son trying to write the inclusive historical romance—seems more like another of Cinnamon Gardens’ erudite, heartbroken characters than like their author. CP