July: Karen Roberts
India Today July 2001

The thing about countries like Sri Lanka, Ireland and Palestine is that there is always an 'us' and a 'them'. The problem though is that how does one define who the 'they' are and who are the 'us'.

In 2000, Michael Ondaatje with his Anil's Ghost gave glimpses to the world of the violence in Sri Lanka. The book despite its numerous merits read like a coroner's report. True, grim and cold with neither names mentioned nor conclusions drawn. A year later, Karen Roberts who grew up in Sri Lanka and now lives in California, with her second book 'July' enters the same territory but with a greater sense of belonging and a need to understand the divide between the 'them' and 'us'.

Priyanthi Silva lives in a quiet part of Colombo and most of the book is set in the little street Araliya Gardens with its Tamil Christian and Sinhalese and Burgher families. Priyanthi's parents and their Tamil Christian neighbours are best friends and their boys Hemantha and Niranjan echo that friendship. Until the time Priyanthi and Niranjan fall in love and then all hell breaks loose climaxing in tragedy on a hot July evening.

A simple plot, the book begins promisingly enough. The description of everyday life in contemporary Sri Lanka is brilliant. Every little detail is drawn lovingly, with humour and an occasional ironic eye. The blossoming of friendship between Niranjan and Priyanthi is charming and poignant. It wrenches at your heart and makes you sigh for them just as loudly as their friends, the toddy tapper and his wife do. However the portrayal of Priyanthi and Niranjan as lovers are wanting and they seem like a juvenile couple in a clinch and a clutch situation. And the following chapters filled with family histrionics lack the power of the earlier ones. Then as if to redeem herself for that not-so-great middle and later sections, Karen Roberts draws a chilling and moving picture of a hot July day when Colombo explodes into a frenzy of madness. So that when you put the book down and take a deep breath to exhale the horror away, you realise the grim truth that Karen Roberts has been hinting at all along; that all violence, racial and otherwise is rooted in personal animosities and vendettas.

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