Sri Lankan writer Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane is an intense, in-depth portrayal of the years leading up to the Tamil Tigers’ demands for their own homeland and the chaos of that year, 1983. It focuses, however, on the children of a lane (not inside the capital of Colombo) and their playing and alliances with neighbors of different sects—Sinhalese, Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, and Burgher, as well as Tamils. With Tamils often wealthier than the others and Sinhalese often the poorest, the prejudice in the neighborhood is particularly against the Tamils. One main example here is a bully Sinhalese child, not recognizing his family’s mixed lineage, who fatefully hates his Tamil uncle. Conversely, two of the child protagonists make strong and unlikely alliances with individual Tamil neighbors. Thus the lane provides a microcosm of the outer society’s tensions, with the writer frequently warning us of trouble to come. This dead-end lane will not be left unscathed.
Freeman’s book is primarily a plea for tolerance, as when the Tamil houses are burned:
Imagine a place isolated by design, nobody there to cry out for help. Imagine fires unhurriedly set at two ends and a neighborhood uncomplicated by difference left to burn. Imagine a ghost town constructed entirely of ash. Imagine houses, still standing, but not one among them that displays signs of human struggle or salvage . . .
But the detail of this novel allows us to see the families and the children as they evolve. Whether a bully or a loving neighbor, the child is realistic in his complicated motivation. The glue for all these relationships is the love and protection given to? one child, the youngest, Devi (from a Burgher family, the Heraths, who move in and transforms the neighborhood). The high-spirited Devi is lovable, but her inauspicious birthdate foretells an early death. And for what happens to her, which devastates all, everyone is implicated.
The Burgher Herath family are the newcomers and from the start transfix the neighbors with their beautiful singing of psalms. This family will offer great promise: Suren, the eldest boy, will inspire the neighborhood Tamil piano teacher with his musical talent; the teacher’s father, Mr. Niles, limited to his wheelchair, will find a son in the next youngest son, Nihil; and Devi will form the strongest affection for Raju, a deformed adult Tamil. Nihil was the first of Devi’s protectors but relinquishes that role to follow his dreams, and Raju takes over at both Devi’s and Raju’s peril. Love is at the heart of the story, though Mr. Niles notes: “Love is for the person who loves, not for the one who is loved.”
There are a lot of “what ifs” for what happens, but also there are no pure villains, not even the bully Sonna. His father beats him up, but Sonna tries to befriend the others and his father actually worries about him during the chaos in the neighborhood. Sonna recognizes himself “despite the unfortunate events that led him to be seen not as he wanted to become, a responsible, caring boy, but rather as he had been, a ne’er-do-well the neighborhood was forced to tolerate.” Even the supposedly most tolerant, Mrs. Herath, reveals her own prejudices eventually. As Mr. Niles notes, with the racial boundaries blurring, each has to figure out who has war inside him: “Nihil did not know what people like us meant anymore. He had thought that he belonged to the group he referred to as good people. But of what use were good people if they could not prevent the bad people from robbing their neighbors?”
After the terrible events in 1983:
If it were possible to look down from a great distance and see a pattern rather than individual losses, we could say that more people lived than died, more homes were saved than were burnt, more friendships endured. But at street level they were all irrevocably damaged, and down Sal Mal Lane that sense of devastation was wrapped up around Devi . . .
It’s this street level perspective that makes the novel so powerful. The children are as vivid as any in Dickens. We know this neighborhood, the houses on both sides of the road, the people’s struggles.
From 1979 to 1983, the children change as they would in real life:
The children were still children, full of wishes, wish-fulfillment still imaginable. . . . Each of them had moved away from a simpler past, one where nothing that happened beyond Sal Mal Lane had ever seemed to apply to them. Some had shifted a small distance . . . some much further . . . and still others, like Suren and [sister] Rashmi and Nahil . . . had traveled an even greater distance away from childhood.
This unsentimental novel is still incredibly moving, with its sadness of some of the characters like Raju, who tries so hard in vain, or even the misunderstood Sonna. We grow to love most of the characters and understand the suffering on one off-the-beaten-path lane in Sri Lanka.