Song of the Sun God is a timely re-release of Shankari Chandran’s 2017 novel chronicling the modern history of Sri Lanka. Starting in 1932 and ranging through to close to the present day, Chandran explores the history of not only those who stayed in Sri Lanka but also of those who chose to leave, driven out by the growing violence and unrest in the country.
A hint of the violence to come is embedded in the earliest scenes of the novel in which a young Rajan witnesses a Buddhist monk self-immolate on the streets of Colombo and Rajan’s future wife Nala, hears of the growing political tensions between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Hindu Tamils. But this is also a family history and while there is rising tension in the background, Chandran moves quickly to the late 1940s and the arranged marriage between Rajan and Nala. The remainder of the book is the story of their family, and in particular of their daughter Priya and Dhara, the daughter they adopt when Nala’s cousin Mohan is killed in a massacre of Tamils. Chandran follows Priya and Dhara on their different paths – Priya to Australia with her new family and Dhara who stays in Sri Lanka to support the Tamil insurgency.
Chandran draws heavily on the Mahabharata as a metaphoric guide to the political and social unrest in the country. Various stories recur and are retold, given new meaning as they are held against the experience of the characters, adding a richness and depth to the text.
There is a lot of ground to cover in this book which ranges over eighty years of history and an array of characters over four generations. As a result, it can often feel like the reader is dropping in and out of vignettes of the characters’ lives. And yet through all of this Chandran manages to capture the warmth of her protagonists and their struggle to either live in or identify with a country riven by state-sponsored sectarian violence. So that rather than being a deep character study, through her mosaic of people and events, Chandran delivers a poignant and effective picture of a people and their struggle.