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It appears as a misshapen footprint on the bald head of Adam's Peak in the island paradise of Sri Lanka. Depending on who is telling the story, it marks the entry of the first man as he was tossed out of paradise, or the last imprint of the Buddha.
Some people will tell you that it's the mark of Satan as he tumbled in all his flaming magnificence from the heavens, the dark side of the human DNA made manifest on earth. It's this aspect of humanity that haunts Romesh Gunesekera's tale of ugly lusts and intangible longings set in the earthly paradise of the island of Mauritius in the year 1825.
The island is at the crossroads of the trade routes, no less than that of history. 1825 is the year when, as Gunesekera explains, a Kandyan prince named Ehelopola was sent in exile to Mauritius with a small band of helpers. The prince's own morose acceptance of his fate from the Kandyan highlands to the suffocating atmosphere of Mauritius comprising a combustible mix of colonials, both French and British, planters, merchants and indentured sugar-cane workers brought from India, slaves and native servants, forms one strand of the story.
It allows Gunesekera to introduce Don Lambodar, an educated Sri Lankan, (or Ceylonese) who as his name suggests not only has a complex parentage - he is described as a Tamil Moor with a father who traded in bonded labour, until he was cut down, perhaps by his own people, but who has the advantage of an English education to set his mind free. Or at least, free enough to be able to sip at the high table of liberal European thinking while also questioning the reality that separates the subjugated races from that of the rulers. He is Gunesekera's 'coconut-cream soldier' : brown on the outside, white inside. We see him fumbling his way through the colonial drawing rooms, sipping tea in the prescribed manner and falling in love with an English woman, Lucy Gladwell, lately arrived from England, who is painted in the palest of colours, a Victorian heroine with a love of both Keats and Lala Rookh.
She could have walked out of the pages of Mrs Henry Wood though it's doubtful if Mrs Wood would have sanctioned her championing the cause of the native servants who have been so well trained by her aunt Betty Huyton at their English estate at Ambleside - their little piece of paradise - or her un-spoken feelings for Lambodar. These come to a pitch only after the crisis that Gunesekera has been fermenting through the parallel narratives of the novel, erupts as relentlessly as the rag-tag band of humanity surrounding them try to mutiny against their captors.
Gunesekera has deployed his characters so that they detonate with precision. When he trains his guns, however, on an empurpled past we must wonder: is he a colonial manquê ?
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