The Boat People: Safety and its Downsides | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 02, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 02, 2019

The Boat People: Safety and its Downsides

Sharon Bala, ISBN: 978-0385542296, Doubleday, 2018

In the face of dehumanizing discrimination, insurgency is important, but not when it deviates towards inhumanity from humanity, creates more innocent victims than rightful gainers, more scopes for constraint than independence. The Boat People seizes this notion on its pages very well.

When a cargo ship named MV Sun Sea, carrying around 500 refugees reached the shores of British Columbia after a journey of three months across the Pacific Ocean, the passengers wiped the streaks of distress off their foreheads, only to be met with a new kind of distress. Although they were far away from the prospect of getting bombed or being held captives by the Tamil Tigers, Canada, the land of their dreams, brought many other complications. Against the backdrop of some of them being nascent suicidal rebels from the LTTE, it was as though safety meant detention and deportation for many of them as they weren't “harmless refugee” enough. Providing asylums for so many refugees proved to be very troublesome for the Canadian government; mostly because of their manner of handling the situation. Amid all this, Sharon Bala, a Canadian citizen of Sri Lankan origin, found the premise for the fiction that would become her debut novel eight years later.

The cover illustration shows barefoot Mahindan holding his six-year-old son Sellian's hand against a very blue, oceanic landscape. The wet beach creates their inverted reflections, lines of ocean water bleeding into them, as though the whole cover is a beach; whether in Sri Lanka or British Columbia, we don't know. Sri Lanka was infamous for the insurgency that had raged through some of its regions resulting in battle of the insurgents versus the military, locking the blameless Tamil people in between, presenting them in a light that brought them under scrutiny since any of them could be an LTTE worshipper. When the situation was getting out of hand, the Tamil Tigers were hell bent on defeating the army, using the Tamil people as shields, forcing them to join the LTTE, indifferent about those in the conflict zones and their sufferings. Mahindan, like many of his relatives and acquaintances, decided to flee the country in hopes of reaching some safe haven.  On reaching Canada, the men and women were divided for heavy interrogations in detention centers. In the process, Mahindan was separated from his son. The headlines of the Canadian as well as international newspapers brimmed with the news of their arrival, a testament to the worsening conditions in Sri Lanka.

 Like many of the refugees, Mahindan seems highly strung about their getting deported back. Other than Mahindan and Sellian, there are also some crucial characters that shape decent portions of the story, for examle, Priya, a lawyer and a Canadian citizen of Sri Lankan origin, and Grace, a Japanese-Canadian adjudicator, who would be responsible for the refugees' fate.  The Boat People is a narrative of these characters leaping from the present to the past, from Canada to Sri Lanka, fictionalizing history as the readers are placed in the characters' shoes and given a first person view into the journey from homeland to a different country.

While the story is not about Mahindan's life in a rebel held Sri Lanka, in the courtroom it does bring in testimonies from the sufferers. Probably, the more interesting pieces are the chapters where graphic scenes emerge; exposing the lengths humans can go to for survival. For example, gently foraging a woman's corpse for money and taking off her jewelry just to be able to pay the smuggler who's supposed to lead them to the boat destined for a journey across the Pacific Ocean. When it comes to the courtroom sessions, their narratives shed light on the treatment of Japanese immigrants (told from the perspective of Grace's mother, Kumi) and what it was like for someone like Priya, who isn't “Sri Lankan” enough to handle a situation that involved the people of her kind.

Then there are scenes that reflect the aftermath of the army's attack on the Tigers the army's victory, the Tigers' defeat, and the loss of the trapped civilians:  “Trees were snapped in half. A mother sprawled dead on a mat, two babies at her bared breasts, one still mewling. Another child, naked, hung flayed on the chain-link fence.” Despite the risks that loomed over their lives, they would wade through the lagoon that separated the rebel held territory from the army held one. They would get blown up by the landmines laid by the Tigers, or shot by them. But some would witness a few of the rebels' mercy and be allowed to pass to the army territory safely. Those rebels, as described by Sharon, would be particularly female Tigers. There is this one character who voluntarily strips herself of the LTTE's badge when she notices a couple of civilians escaping. She could either shoot them or just let them go. She decides to go with them.

Sharon also captures the helplessness of the UN and the international community amid the soaring flurry of violence caused by the LTTE. The foreign officials, their only hope of stability in the region, packed their belongings and left. The compound's borders were packed with unnerved, helpless civilians, shouting, begging them to stay. One UN official video recorded their chants, as evidence that the people here needed international support and mustn't be forgotten.

In The Boat People, as Sharon Bala says, she gives the voices of the refugees a microphone. Although the details of the refugees and the horrors they had witnessed back in Sri Lanka were “scant,” she weaved this novel through the “bread crumbs” she had found. In her note, she specifies the sources she used to gain insight into life under the LTTE rule. The Boat People is as much a history lesson as it is a sort of reminder that life of a refugee in detention centers is tough, and under a draconian rebel rule, utterly helpless.

Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is an occasional contributor to The Daily Star Literature and Reviews Pages.

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