Tales of Sri Lanka capture beauty, sadness

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 12, 2012

“The Beach at Galle Road,” by Joanna Luloff. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2012. 278 pp. $22.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY – Sadness permeates Joanna Luloff’s short stories in “The Beach at Galle Road.” It’s a hot, dusty sadness, full of ghosts and shattered dreams, of characters liked and lost.
Despite the sadness, beauty hovers over these words, as Luloff’s descriptions of people and places bring color and life to the pages.
Luloff served in the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka, where the stories are set, 1996-1998, explaining her ability to take readers there with a simple turn of phrase. All her female characters grate coconut as part of their daily meal preparation, leaving an image of women bent over some ancient but efficient device, the rich scent of the coconut filling the air. Luloff lived with a host family and must have spent time in the kitchen, since her kitchen scenes are the warmest and most appealing to all the senses. Along with the coconut comes the odor of cumin and curry and lentils cooking, the sound of brooms sweeping out the dust, of rice bubbling on a stovetop and the image of families around the table.
But what Luloff seems to capture best is a sense of longing, and she infuses it in all her characters, from the Peace Corps volunteers to the Sri Lankans themselves, the Sinhalese and the Tamil. Everyone is in search of something – rarely is it as simple as happiness. More often it is a sense of belonging, of finding one’s place in the world. It comes from the Americans, who find the island country beautiful, the people warm and eager to share their lives. One man stays in Sri Lanka despite his parents’ fears of the continuing civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamil. He continuously avoids talking with them or giving them a date when he will return. Luloff has based this character on one she met while in the Peace Corps.
There’s Carol who loses herself in a high-mountain meditation center to avoid – what exactly? “When her mother had asked, Why Sri Lanka? Carol had answered that she wanted something new. She wanted to go to a place she had never seen before, a place that would challenge her – somewhere people have to look at a map to locate, somewhere with a civil war that newspapers mentioned every once in a while.”
Lucy, who leaves her teaching job in the south to go north, where there’s more danger, wants to be a heroine, but when faced with the reality of maimed children and emaciated women, she finds she has no courage.
It is the people of Sri Lanka who show determination and courage. Imagine that most of them are not involved in the war. Most of them just want to work, raise their children to be successful and enjoy life, maybe with a trip to the beach. They enjoy their family rituals as much as we do; they want their children to be doctors, just like we do.
They open their homes to the volunteers, who are lucky enough to see loving families intact, the children well-fed and well-dressed.
In turn, what makes the book sad is that most of these children will suffer from war or prejudice, as this society has strict castes, like India, and unpredictable violence.
The smart and ambitious Achala is the subject of jealous girls’ rumor-mongering, ruining her chances at higher education. Lucy appears in this earlier story, and does no favors for Achala, singling her out and building even more jealousy.
The characters return in all the stories, so that Nilanthi, whom Sam is vaguely in love with in the beginning, is the subject of the final and most devastating story, though she is also in a story that brings some laughter into this cautionary saga.
Be careful what you wish for, the stories whisper – you just won’t get it.
Luloff says in a publication from Algonquin Books that “All of the narratives, is some way, reflect on exile and the feeling that home has become unfamiliar.” She also says it took her a long time to decide to write these stories, to do them justice. “…It was important for me to try, as best I could, to offer multiple points of view, political positions, and geographic locations in my book.” And as she was writing, certain characters created a “conversation among the stories.”
“The Beach at Galle Road” is a sun-drenched collection of stories that will haunt you, as they haunt Nilanthi and the others in this foreign but so familiar land. You will be moved, no doubt, and left counting your blessings.