Shyam Selvadurai’s Swimming in the Monsoon Sea
Tundra Books, 2005

You may have noticed that I’m back to starting the reading weekend with kidlit and young adult novels once more. That, along with some of the other regular features was on holiday for the summer, but last week brought Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Adventures of a Part-time Indian to the fore. (Definitely my favourite summer read.) And here we are today with Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, the story of Amrith, who comes of age in Colombo, Sri Lanka in the 1980s.

This young adult novel opens with the following dedication: “This novel, though fictional, is filled with details from my happy childhood in Sri Lanka: as a way to enshrine that time, and to, perhaps, bid it good-bye. I dedicate this book, with great love, to those wonderful companions of my youth: my brother, Tino, and my sisters, Pnina and Revathy.”

It does have the quiet and easy feeling of someone telling you a series of childhood memories; the language is straightforward and the pace measured. What makes the book stand out is its rich setting and the authenticity of the narrator’s voice.

And who is Amrith?

Aah, he is just visiting you, then,” the woman from Australia said disingenuously.
“No,” Aunty Bundle replied, with even greater coldness, “Amrith is our son now.”
In all the years Amrith had lived here, there had never been a need to explain his presence. In Sri Lankan society, all such personal information was secretly passed between people to prevent socially awkward situations from arising. (34)

He is a 14-year-old boy who has come to live with Auntie Bundle and Uncle Lucky after his mother’s death (his mother and Auntie Bundle were best friends before each woman married). It’s significant that a passing stranger questions his presence in Auntie Bundle’s home because Amrith, too, is beginning to ask serious questions about his identity at this time in his life.

Not only is he questioning his place in the family and, beyond that, his role in society, as the son of a man whose family no longer acknowledges Amrith’s affiliation, but he’s also wondering about — well, he’s 14, right? Of course he’s wondering about ::whispers:: sex.

“When they came down to the courtyard, Lucien Lindamulagé’s secretary was waiting for him — a young man in his midtwenties with an olive skin, glossy black hair, and full lips. As Amrith looked at him, he remembered how he had once heard boys in his school mention Lucien Lindamulagé’s secretaries and refer to the old man as a ‘ponnaya’ — a word whose precise meaning Amrith did not understand, though he knew it disparaged the masculinity of another man, reducing him to the level of a woman.”

It’s serious stuff. As Madam, the drama teacher, says to one of the boys who was teasing Amrith (after Amrith was presumably out of earshot): “…I have friends in the theatre world who are that way inclined, and it’s no laughing matter in this country.  I don’t like such things being ridiculed. Don’t ever do that again.”

As in his absolutely wonderful first novel, Funny Boy, Shyam Selvadurai’s narrator is reaching out, testing the ground beneath his feet, looking for his way in the world around him. Both books present some odd but credible characters (family and friends) and both emphasize personal relationships (even amidst considerable political strife).

Ultimately I prefer Arjie’s story in Funny Boy, but perhaps only because I appreciate the degree of freedom the author can exercise in exploring questions of sexuality in a book targeting grown (rather than younger adult) readers. Nonetheless, the value that Amrith’s tale would have for a teenager who discovered this story just when they most needed to read it? That’s no small matter.

Amrith’s story is all-the-more believable for containing a credible ratio of sadness to hopefulness. In Sri Lanka, in monsoon season, on the patio playing games with his near-sisters, swimming in the sea, in the drama theatre rehearsing for Othello, in his father’s office learning to type, in the aviary his Auntie Bundle arranged to have built for him, in the rundown summer house that his mother loved so much: Amrith wholly inhabits all of these places.

Have you read Shyam Selvadurai before? Or do you want to? What’s your favourite?