you explain the name of the street, which is also the name of the book?
street is named for the Sal Mal grove that cuts off the lane at its dead end
and are found in all the gardens of the homes down that road. There is another
significance to the Sal Mal tree - it is the tree under which the Gautama
Buddha's mother gave birth to him, and the four Sal Mal trees surrounding his
bed turned white when he passed away, and it is also a flower said to be
favored by the Hindu god Vishnu, and so it is rarely cut down. Further, the Sal
Mal flower and its stamen and petals are shaped in a way that depicts people at
prayer around the dome of a dagoba. It seemed fitting, somehow, to have this neighborhood
nestled in the heart of a grove of such trees, such flowers.
novel is teeming with great characters, young, old, Sinhalese, Tamil. Do you
have favorites among them?
favorites are Sonna and Nihil. Sonna was, in fact, a very minor character in
the first draft. He came and went very quickly, nothing very important happened
to or because of him. Somehow, though, when I read aloud from this draft it
became apparent that Sonna had a great deal of potential - within himself and
as a character. He resisted being diminished in every revision; he just grew.
Nihil was always the driving force behind this story, the inspiration for it,
really. Together they embody what I am most drawn to contemplating: this drive
we have to keep what we love safe, and the way in which we yearn for things we
are rarely capacitated to deserve, earn, or keep.
heart of the novel is an unlikely friendship, between the young girl Devi and a
neighbor, Raju, a misfit. What was the inspiration for their relationship?
When I was first living in a very upscale suburb in NJ, I found that adults
always assumed I was my light-skinned daughter's nanny. They never even spoke
to me, constantly looking past me to each other. Their children, on the other
hand, never made this mistake. They were paying attention to the relationship,
to the way I interacted with her. Children anywhere are usually able to see
beneath the exterior, to the human being. In Devi's case, she could see that
Raju despite his mishapen body and social inarticulateness held only good
intention in his heart.
street, Sal Mal Lane, houses a really wide variety of people. Was your street
like that in Sri Lanka? Is that typical of the country?
my street, also a dead-end though with guavas, not Sal Mal trees, was very much
like this one. Most of the country except in the North where the Tigers (the
LTTE), held sway, was - and is - thoroughly cross-pollinated. In those areas,
through systematic slaughter of entire villages, the Tigers ensured that only
Tamils, and only the poorest of Tamils (those unable to leave), continued to
live in the North. Elsewhere we lived together, attended the same schools, so
on. In some ways that was the true shame of what happened with the riots in
July, 1983, this way in which all of that had to go on but the insides of
people - their hearts, their minds - were transformed. We went on to live
together and yet be suspicious of each other. To interact and play and attend
each others religious festivities, births, deaths, marriages, and yet there
came into being this reservation, something held back. That earlier time,
before what happened, that is the true measure of peace and that is what the
country is harkening toward again.
children in the novel seem to have fairly free range. What advantages does that
give you as a writer?
it enabled me to follow them to places where they were not supposed to be!
Devi, for instance, crossing the big roads that she is prohibited from
crossing, the children rehearsing their band in a neighbor's house, these were
really interesting for me, as a writer, to accompany these children that way.
As a child I did grow up in that way. We went wherever we wanted except at
night. Somehow at night all the rules changed - I suppose it is the same here,
too, with curfews and such. But in general there was a real fluidity to the
conduct of our days, where we entertained ourselves as siblings and with
friends, often doing precisely what we were not supposed to do. I climbed the
roof with my brothers, stole fruits from our neighbors (because it was always
better tasting when stolen than when freely given), and walked down the
terrible big roads to buy hard red sweets with which to color my lips and
pretend I was wearing lip gloss.
write so well about childhood, and about friendships between adults and
children. Was that easy material for you to write?
don't know if it is because I was raised in a culture that thrives because of
its inter-generational inter-dependence, but I have always been drawn to old
people. Here in the United States, my life has been illuminated by friendship -
both fleeting and deep - with older Americans. I like stories, and older people
have them in spades; they can tell me about places and times into which I can
imagine myself as a story-teller. On the other hand, I also see everybody as a
child. I sometimes catch myself staring at somebody - some man loading
groceries in crates for delivery into the back of a truck in Chinatown, NYC,
and I see that man as a child whose childhood was suddenly ambushed by
adulthood. In everybody there remains that child, utterly bemused by what has
happened to them, and yet soldiering on regardless, putting one foot in front
of the other, trying to live up to this and that thing that is expected of them
(usually by children), trying to forget a righteous path through life.There is
something so utterly poignant about all this. It isn't easy material so much as
it is life.
children play cricket and French cricket in the book. What's the difference
between the two?
(that's one). Cricket is played between two teams where the eleven players on
one side bowl to and field while two players on the opposite side bat and score
runs between the stumps and bails placed on either side of a 22 yard long
pitch. French cricket is played anywhere between any number of people and can
be scored individually or as a team, with one person at the crease holding a
short plank of wood; the feet are placed together and the batsman cannot move
except to hit the ball and then, by passing the plank around their body,
scoring runs. In terms of intensity, French cricket is to cricket what a
pick-up game in the 'hood is to the NBA.
a stellar passage concerning a piano being moved from one house to the other
during the troubles"”apparently this too happened in your childhood?
was a family across the street from us whose piano had to be moved because it
was their source of livelihood - just the one daughter who taught piano. When
it became apparent that there would be gangs roaming the streets and sure to
return in the night, and after several Tamil families, including that, had been
spirited away into our homes, there arose this question of how to hide a piano.
It couldn't come to our house because we already had one, and it was decided
that it would go up the street to the house of a family named Mendis. Everybody
gathered to move that piano - it isn't easy to move one even for professional
movers, and the damage done to that in the desperate fumblings of lay
persons... and still, there was this sense of solidarity and hope that was
wrapped around getting that one musical instrument shifted from one home,
through their garden, out of their gate, up the street, down the driveway and
up several stairs into a place of safety. All the men and most of the children
pushing and carrying and pausing in-between. All but the Tamil families who had
to stay indoors, hidden and silent and trusting people whom they had lost every
reason to trust.
great joy and ebullience in many of the scenes, and examples of great
compassion between the characters. And yet throughout, dark clouds are
gathering, and tragedy, when it strikes, is very real.
think of this book not so much as optimistic but as being a gesture toward what
is good. As a nation we were all left bereft in the wake of these riots no
matter who perpetrated what, who demonstrated compassion, who was violated. We
lost a sense of ourselves, as a collective, being a people whose moral arc
bends toward justice, peace, harmony. And though a family like mine may have
been able to say that we were good people, we also knew that there weren't
enough good people to have made it possible for nothing bad to have happened
"on our watch," and it is impossible not to be tainted by that. Acknowledging
that these terrible events took place, setting it down as it happened - not as
we want to relate these stories for political expediency - is vital to
recovering that equilibrium that we once had as a nation. And so - as has
happened with some of the Tamil people who have read it - this book has the
capacity to lead us both toward accepting what has been while remembering what
once was and there is a great deal of hope in that process, for reconciliation and
of people have heard about the Sri Lankan civil war, but don't really know that
much about it. What caused it? How did it affect you and your family?
go into the history of what caused these three decades would be to unpack a
history beginning from the mythical stories of Hanuman and Ravana and Sita and
Rama and on through the invasion of the Cholas, and centuries of colonization
by Europeans, the advent of the British being the absolute worst of it, and
racial politics exploited by all sides of the equation. So I will simply say
that this war, like all wars (including the war against Chile and Cuba and Iraq
and Iran and Palestine and on), are caused by the powerful and waged agianst
the innocent. It affected my family like it affected everybody. Ramshackle
check-points became highly militarized ones, we became increasingly suspicious
of everybody around us, we avoided crowded places though, really, there aren't
such places in a city like Colombo, and to think like suicide bombers - would I
get into a packed bus? would I pick rush hour? During some of those years, my
school, attended by many of the daughters of the upper strata, was located
between the American Center, the Russian consulate, the Japanese embassy and the office of the Prime
was this sense that if a suicide bomber wanted to blow themselves up, they
couldn't pick a better target. And yet you go to school anyway, you see buses
pulled off and some person-by-person search going on, vehicles being searched
or surrounded by armed personnel, and you try not to dwell too much on these
things, you try to go on.
have other Sri Lankan writers responded to the war? Has a lot been written
Jean Arasanayagam in her collection All is Burning, Shyam Selvadurai in Funny Boy, for instance, have both written about this time. I am partial
to these particular books because whether I agree or not with what has been
written, they are written by people who were living through these realities on
the ground, not peering at it from a great distance. And by that distance I
don't necessarily mean physical distance. I mean the distance of heart. I
believe that when you write about complex and rending conflicts like the one in
Sri Lanka, and certainly when you are sort of spokesperson for a place - as you
are in a country like this where few people know what is happening in this
country let alone what is happening in a country 10,000 miles away - you have
to come to it with a great love for the people of that country or you fail in
the task. You cannot come to it with judgement, some pre-conceived notion of
the ground realities. So, for instance, Naomi Benaraon's Running the Rift, (about the Rwandan
genocide) or Lorraine Adam's Harbor (about the plight of Algerian immigrants in an America girded
by the misguided strategies of Homeland Security and the PATRIOT Act), are
great examples of writers whose hearts are with the people they are writing
about, whose hearts ache for them and whose words are not about figuring out right
and wrong but laying bare human fraility and human potential for good.
miles away from the United States, but do you see any common threads between
the history of your country and the history of ours?
Much of what
happened in the wake of 9/11 is similar to what happened in the wake of the
massacre of those 13 soldiers and the riots of 1983, the suspicion and
profiling that followed after the towers fell. There was a lot of
misinformation and rumors about entire ethnic groups, battles waged over
meaningless things - the Ground Zero "mosque" that was really a community
center, for instance - rather than really looking at our common ground. Instead
of affirming what was good about community and citizenship, there was a massive
move toward fear there and here. The larger lesson, as it were, I think is that
wars can and do end, no matter how intractable they seem; certainly something
that may give Americans hope as they take stock of so many decades of war
(albeit mostly waged on foreign soil). It is possible.
moved to the United States from Sri Lanka in 1990: was that a big adjustment
for you? What were some of the most striking cultural differences?
many things from the way people talked about their parents being some kind of
burden, to the lack of a cultural sensibility around the value of education and
reading, but mostly money and food. Sri Lankans don't argue over food or money.
At college, I was often struck by the fact that only the people who paid for a
pizza would be allowed to eat it. It seemed so utterly crass to me to eat while
someone in your company was not supposed to eat because they hadn't paid for
it. I came to acknowledge (but still not understand nor quite forgive, I must
confess), that in a culture where college age kids are spending money they've
really had to work for, might make them more conscious of making that money
last somehow, and to have a certain lack of regard for those who were
free-loaders. But still. That initial shock has plagued me to this day. I
prefer to pay for all food at all times because I never want to expose myself
to feeling that someone is not going to pay for me, or is going to discuss
payment, particularly men...I'm cringing even as I say this. I can actually
count the number of times I've allowed a man, who isn't my husband, to pay for
my food: twice. Both book people, by the way, a writer, a bookseller.
could import one aspect of Sri Lanka to America, what would it be?
dependence on the collective in every aspect of life. We really do rely on each
other, on our own friends but also friends of friends, to see us through
difficulties. Perhaps this is most apparent in times of bereavement; if the
parent of a student at a college passes away, the entire class boards buses to
go to the funeral even if they have had no interaction with the student. It is
a way of demonstrating to the neighbors and extended family, the regard they
have for the son or daughter of the person who has died. Recently, the father
of a high school student who lives down our road passed away and it was very
strange for me to see that there weren't hundreds of students coming by to
attend a wake (or sit shiva in this case). I think that involvement, however
inconvenient, is what makes us feel grounded as human beings, this sense that
whatever happens is happening to more than just ourselves, that our lives and
our deaths are witnessed and celebrated and mourned by people we don't even
you could import one aspect of America to Sri Lanka, what would it be?
peaceful transition of power between one president and another; particularly
lovely to behold when the elections have been free and fair, where
disenfranchisement and voter suppression and all that kind of stuff has not
taken place or has been limited as far as possible. We don't have that
spectacle back home, where an outgoing president (for a long time
prime-minister) exits with grace and a new one comes in. Whatever the political
differences, whatever the actual sentiments of each of these people, there is
something wonderful about being able to acknowledge the passage of time, the
passing of a torch, to spend a moment there before turning full force to the
agenda of a new administration.