Published by Graywolf Press
Publication date: May 14th 2013
Genres: Cultural, Fiction, Historical
Where does one begin with Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane? On the surface it is the story of the Herath family and their lives in their new home on Sal Mal Lane. They are a traditional Sinhalese family, with a mother whose beliefs on what is right and proper leave her children little room to maneuver in their lives. The oldest, Suren, is a gifted musician but is expected to become an engineer as musician is not an acceptable life. Rashmi, the oldest daughter, is the exemplar of Sri Lankan maidenhood: perfect grades in every class, modest in her dress, and with the proper demeanor and manners. Nihil is the youngest son and yet, in his mind, tasked with the greatest responsibility in the family, that of protecting his baby sister, Devi, a mischievous fount of boundless energy and sunshine but born on a most unlucky date and therefore a source of concern for all.
Within the neighborhood, the Herath’s meet a varied group of people, from the Bollings with their twin daughters, Rose and Dolly, who are Rashmi’s age but who run around in ragged clothes and unclean hair, and their brother Sonna who is viewed as the criminal element in the neighborhood. The Silvas live next door with their two sons, Jith and Mohan, and their not so secret prejudices against the Tamil population whom they see as the cause of most of Sri Lanka’s problems. Across the street are the Niles and Joseph families, one Tamil and one Sinhalese. Kala Niles lives with her older parents and teaches piano lessons to the Hareth children. She becomes especially important to Suren:
What Suren did know, however, was that in Kala Niles he had an adult who embraced him fully, who was ready to support him as well as let his talent guide her.
The Joseph’s are Raju and his mother. Raju is in his early thirties and without a job. His passion is weightlifting but being ignored and mocked for his odd looks and mannerisms has left him a quiet observer. The arrival of the Herath children, with their polite ways of dealing with everyone, opens new doors for him. He becomes Devi’s steadfast companion when Nihil is not around, listening to the tales of woe and secrets of the seven-year-old as if she carried the weight of the world.
Year upon year upon decade of nothing but the same, the same dashed hopes, the same slights and injuries, had emptied hope from Raju. Until the Heraths moved in, until Nihil talked to him, until tea was served to him by their mother, and until Devi visited him. His cup was brimming over, and nothing that anybody could say or do could diminish that.
This is the surface of Sal Mal Lane, moving at the same idyllic summer-afternoon pace of the childhoods being described. But beneath this normalcy, we are privy to the increasing agitation of political upheaval in Sri Lanka, as it is often the subject of the adults. When freedom of the press is curtailed, the conversations in each home become more divisive and removed from the space the children inhabit.
Within such parameters, there was no venue for the airing of grievances or passions, all of which were now tucked away inside homes and hearts that, built as they were for other pursuits, could not contain them for long.
Instead, as the storm gathers, we linger in the disparate hopes, longings and inner voices of each of the children, from the lonely anger of Sonna to Rashmi’s waning desire to be the perfect daughter to the release of Nihil’s anxiety for Devi in pursuit of his own dreams. In the five years the book spans, Freeman immerses us in the innermost hearts of each with their thoughts large and small. It is only in bits and pieces that we slowly see the forces outside their lane working to change them all.
On Sal Mal Lane is an exquisite composition of the intimacy of everyday life juxtaposed against the larger world. Initially, the families are able to interact despite their ethnic and religious differences but as the external tensions of the country increase so do divisions appear amongst the characters. For some this time will bring out the best in them but for others, the weight of their past and their sense of injustice and otherness is too great and cannot be escaped. Freeman captures the complexity of the internal struggles of youth in all its confusion and yearning with the greater forces of family and country, forces far beyond their control but that will shape them irrevocably.