Noontide Toll – Romesh Gunesekara

Noontide Toll - Bragadeesh Prasanna review

Few things struck me when I read Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekara. In our day to day lives, we try to avoid a lot of questions. We only answer important questions like what movie are we doing to watch this weekend? Or Where are we going to hang out in the evening? In the city I come from, Tirunelveli, we have a lot of junctions which we call as “Mukku.” It translates to the lane but “Mukku” is where two or three lanes fork in a different direction. These places served not only as a place to hang out for local youths but also a place for discussion and debate. I can only imagine what kind of conversations went there during world wars, but I have personally witnessed debates about how communism is way better than Dravidianism and the likes. I have heard people analyze the actions of Clinton and Saddam Hussein with what they read from the newspapers. Remember these were before the internet and international news televisions in our living room. These “mukkus” served as the news center and information center for so many people. Importantly people didn’t stop with the discussion but also went to the library together to refer the books about particular issues to bring in new points to the debate.

The talks ended with the halwa and oma podi in the nearby shop before they dispersed. This mukkus got so much of influence that the political parties set a stage in these places so that to give an edge for their propaganda.
I am not sure the problem with our country or world over now is the lack of such spaces for dialogues and debates or people who think it is futile to discuss such things and distanced themselves from the happenings around the world. Maybe because India is relatively peaceful.

War is nobody’s fault and everybody’s fault at the same time. As far as I know in history, there was no country which had all their men nod for the decimation of a particular race in the country or to wage war on the foreign territory. War was/is and will be used as a political weapon to satisfy one’s ego or to demonstrate superiority. The civilians, who didn’t want the war in first place, are made to feel guilty after the war. If not by others, their conscience questions them. “Could I have done something to help those people? Should I have raised my voice against my government? Should I have provided asylum to people in my house? But how could I trust them not to blow up my house killing all of us?” All that they would be left with are the questions which don’t have any answers.

Noontide Toll is a book by Romesh Gunasekara. His book ” Reef” was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize. The book is about a van driver called “Vasantha” who transports people across the ravaged northern part of Sri Lanka and somewhat renewed Southern part of Sri Lanka. He carries aid workers, guides, soldiers, and exiles, sometimes strike a good natured conversation with them. The book is in vignettes about the people he transports to the different parts of the country, but it is largely about Vasantha’s thoughts, rants, and ramblings. Early in the book we read Vasantha’s thoughts “The past is what leave you as you go. There is no more to it” and “If you are on the move, there is always hope” This ambivalent approach of the narrator doesn’t change throughout the book and we feel that we don’t have to know more about the narrator to enjoy what he is going to say. Because he is one among us already. Like us, he had accepted that we couldn’t change the past but moving on will keep us from insanity.

But his passengers are different stories altogether. They try to make peace with the past sometimes they want to reconstruct the past, or they want to avenge the war crimes, or they just want to give hope to the generation which doesn’t know the war-torn history of the country, rather want to dig deep and bury it there and build a new country altogether.

I can go on about each and every chapter of the book as it had to offer something to the reader. But I will touch upon some important things. The very first chapter of the book talks about how ill-informed the foreigners who come to the island to reconstruct it. They don’t know how and why the civil war happened in the country or how the lives of the people are affected. All they want to do is business and take enough money back home. When a soldier cum guide explains one of his encounters on how he had to shoot a mother who was a commander of rebellion force, the clueless Dutchman says “I didn’t know they had babies.” It only implies how the resistance forces viewed by the world. They didn’t even think of them as human beings who eat, drink, piss, shat and made babies. To the world, they were just rebellions and the terrorists who blew up people. When people who fight for their right weren’t even considered as human beings, there is very slim chance to what they fight for will get any traction in the international arena.

Please don’t get wrong ideas about the book with this dark chapter. It is very heart warming at places too. There is a major who is suspected of a war crime, who beat someone to death but throughout the book, he is the only local who treats Vasantha as an equal and takes a picture with him. Sometimes I think this is why we need to read books and not only the news reports. They paint a very one-sided picture. Humans are much more than that, even if he had beaten someone to death with bare hands and rose up to ranks. But Vasantha is very ambivalent character “What they saw, what they heard, what they thought, what they remembered was their problem, not mine.” He says.
The people who fill Noontide Toll are varied and interesting. Some seek justice, like the investigator in disguise trying to find evidence against a Major, suspected of War crimes in “Mess,” the soldiers taking marketing classes, happy that they are chasing sea whales than Tamil sea tigers in “Fluke.” The soldier in “Ramparts” seeks guidance, and the Dante-reading Romeo at the Jaffna library in “Renewals” seeks an exit. Others revisit the past, like the exiled Tamil father in “Deadhouse,” or conceal it, like the terrorist turned hotelier in “Road kill.”
Overall, it was a smooth ride. Sometimes the Tamil in me came out and pointed out that Vasantha is driving a white van, carrying all types of people in it. Just a few years ago white vans meant abductions and disappearance in Sri Lanka. I hope it had stopped now. But I can’t stop thinking if this is some propaganda. Romesh Gunesekra is at his best when he describes the land, the roads, and the sea. One can see how much he loves them to put it in words. I guess after a few drinks in London bar, if he drinks at all, he would be telling the stories and describing Sri Lanka in the same way as he had written it. The stories about the northern side of Sri Lanka have much more weight than the slightly renewed Southern Sri Lanka. The arguments and question reside in the north part I suppose. I couldn’t help but wonder why Vasantha hadn’t had any customers who wanted him to drive them to the West or the hills.
But again, it is Vasantha’s vehicle, and he can drive where he wants to.
You can buy the book here.

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