I love the selection of Asian authors in South Asian bookstores! This was the second novel I picked up in Sri Lanka, written by a Malaysian Tamil author and published this year. It is set in Malaysia and the story is narrated throughout the 20th century, from when Sri Lanka was still known as Ceylon and Malaya was a colony of the British to when the riots of Indian freedom took place in KL in the early 2000's.
The protagonist of this story is Parvathi, a Tamil girl from a small village in Sri Lanka who is raised as a typical village girl, with no freedom or any awareness of the outside world. She is sent to Malaya as an arranged bride to marry a wealthy businessman, as his second wife. As the story unfolds Parvathi blooms into a sophisticated woman with the help of many people in her lives, including her husband who at first rejected her but later is mesmerized by her dark beauty and naive, religious views of the world.
Parvathi only yearns for true love and to find her purpose in this world. She eventually does stumble upon both, first with the arrival of WWII and her order to become a comfort woman to a Japanese general with whom she encounters real love for the first time, and secondly in her death bed.
The novel is lengthy and basically follows Parvathi from birth to death, introducing very colorful characters along the way. It read like a biography and has numerous philosophical and religious elements woven in. There wasn't anything spectacular about this read; it simply explained a married woman's life on a rich estate, followed by the destruction of the country and her understanding of family trials that come along the way. Somehow the simplicity of this novel is what drew me in, and there were many concepts that I found myself mesmerized by.
My favourite part was near the end, where Bala, Parvathi's son-in-law tries to explain why it's important to be part of the Indian rights struggle in KL, why Indians or dark skinned people need to stand up for themselves -
'Dark skin can be the most beautiful thing. For it tells of a heart that has suffered prejudice and in the process become soft and compassionate. It tells of a person who has yet to call her own skin beautiful, someone who has to be taught when presented with a choice to willingly choose brown, because it is no less than any other color.'
'A mother thinks she is improving her child when she tells him, "look at the Chinese, look how successful they are. Be like them." She doesn't' realise what her child hears is: "you are not that. Pretend to be that because you are not good enough as you are."'
Perhaps it's the parallel world I live in, or the agonizing question of 'why are you so dark?' that I have encountered all my life, but these bits really hit close to home and made me smile.
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