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Same-sex love in the time of decolonisation: Historicising hidden sexual lives in Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens

The Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist Shyam Selvadurai has significantly contributed to the increasing visibility of homosexuality in the cultural domain of contemporary Sri Lanka, making way for positive configurations of same-sex love in the public imagination. Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1995) is now counted among contemporary queer classics. As I have argued elsewhere,[1] the emergence of Selvadurai’s novels was contingent upon certain a priori conditions that enabled the production and circulation of such texts – the global LGBTQ movement demanding legitimisation of homosexuality,increasing availability of queer cultural texts, and escalating visibility of self-identified queer people and community solidarity based on deviant sexualities. In other words, certain times allow certain kinds of narratives to emerge.

Cinnamon Gardens, published in 1998, is set in the 1920s & 1930s. The novel, when read in conjunction with Funny Boy set in the 1980s, seems to offer a continuity in tracing a genealogy of homosexuality in Ceylon/Sri Lanka, by inserting into a political narrative of decolonisation, a homoerotic love story, which, incidentally, is inextricably connected with the complex process of transfer of power from the Raj to the natives. The queering of the narrative is not only accomplished by the sub-plot of a same-sex love story, but it is also apparent in the ways the nationalist narrative of decolonisation is deconstructed.Detailed discussion of this aspect of the novel is, however, beyond the scope of this article.

Written in the realistic mode of the 19th century English novel, the plot of Cinnamon Gardens progresses linearly, with a few intermittent flashbacks. Three different time-frames overlap within it: the author time, i.e. the time when it is actually written is separated by 50 years from the plot time, i.e. the internal time of the story. A third dimension, which is not internal to the text, is reader time, the time when it is read. A postcolonial diasporic author, spatially and temporally removed from the time of occurrence of the events within the novel, looks back at those events, with the advantage of having access to a large analytical historical data produced in the meantime. The rendition and meaningful appreciation of the queer dimension of the novel owe much to the spatio-temporal location of the author and his reader– a distance in time which has to some extent dissolved homophobia, as organised movements and cultural texts promoting divergent sexualities have begun to undo heteronormative notions of love and coupledom in a revolutionary way across the globe.

Based loosely on the famed friendship between Poonambalam Arunchalam and Edward Carpenter,[2]Cinnamon Gardens traces a troubled emotional journey of Balendran or Bala, the younger son of the Mudaliyar, a powerful political figure in 1920s & 1930s Colombo.[3]Bound to a double life, on being forced to give up on his love, Richard Howland, Bala struggles to perform husbandly and fatherly duties. Selvadurai, who begins every chapter of the book with a quotation from the Tamil epic Thirukkural, introduces Bala in Chapter 2, prefaced with Verse 68:“A wise man gives joy not only to his father/But to all the world.” While the chapter unfolds to reveal the author’s ironic treatment of the dictum, Chapter 4, beginning with verse 351 that says,“Of the folly which takes the unreal for real/Comes the wretchedness of birth”, delves into Bala’s“folly” of taking “the unreal for real”, at his father’s behest, and entering into a lifelong misery.

Same-sex bonding is allowed as long as it is invisible so as not to upset the hetero-patriarchal foundation of society. Few pages into the novel, Bala, the obedient, dutiful son of the Mudaliyar, now apparently happily married, is shown cruising in the fringes of the city. Bala meets Ranjan on the beach, under the cover of night, pays him money, and engages in sexual intercourse. But once the act is over, Bala regrets it, and he regrets it every time: “Balendran liked to take his time with Ranjan to prolong his bliss as long as possible. For once it was over, he knew he would be visited by a terrible anguish” (82). The double life he leads is perilous, for it may put everything in jeopardy, “his marriage, his family name” (82). His homosexuality to him is anathema, something which can completely destroy everything that matters to his ‘political’ family. The problem with Bala is that he is himself ashamed of his homosexuality, interpellated in his father’s perception of the same, although he was sufficiently exposed to a homosexual subculture in England as a student.

Balendran’s introduction to this subculture was facilitated by his friendship with Richard who once took him to meet Edward Carpenter. Carpenter’s Intermediate Sex revealed to him a whole new world: “There for the first time he learnt that inversion had already been studied by scientific men who did not view it as pathological, indeed men who questioned the whole notion that regeneration was the sole object of sex” (58). When Bala visited Carpenter in Millthorpe, he was intrigued by the different life Carpenter lived with his partner George Merrill –“the comradely manner in which they existed, the way they had carved a life out for themselves, despite such strong societal censure” (59). Bala’s sojourn in England coincided with the gradual coming out of several homosexual men, and the publication as well as clandestine circulation of literature on same-sex love. It was also the time when homosexuals were treated with repugnance, leading, for instance, E. M. Forster to withhold the publication of his homoerotic romance Maurice during his lifetime. Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment (1895) and his subsequent alienation from polite society in London, had already earned homosexual men the derogatory tag, ‘Friends of Oscar’ (111). Embracing an alternative life, that challenged heteronormative ideas of family, demanded immense courage – “Our lives are so fragile. One word to the law can shatter our lives into a thousand pieces” (141).

It was not just the Mudaliyar, Bala’s father, who thought his son had to be rescued from this unspeakable vice; Bala too did not have the pluck to challenge his father and sustain his relationship.Years later, when Richard returns to Bala as a ghost from the past, Bala realises what he has lost by submitting to his father’s diktat. Richard arrives in Colombo as a member of the Donoughmore Commission, and it dawns upon Bala, for the first time in life, that he has been used as a pawn, in a political game of chess his father wants to win. His wife Sonia informs him that the Mudaliyar wishes Bala to take up an active role in influencing Richard to convert Dr. Shiels, the head of the commission, into denying Ceylon universal franchise and self-governance (53).Bala is shocked to discover how the Mudaliyar is using him to further his own interests, despite his abhorrence for the relationship Balahad with Richard (54). When the personal and the political merge in a dramatic way and the Mudaliyar shows his true colours, Bala realises what matters to the Mudaliyar most is power, whether in the public sphere or the private, a power which he exercises over everyone − his wife, his sons, or anyone socially inferior to him.

Despite an emotional encounter with Richard, and a brief sojourn with him on the plantation, Bala fails to go back to him. It is not an option he could even consider, being tied to domesticity, and above all, his image of a law-abiding upper class citizen of the colony. Richard returns, eventually satisfied that Bala does love him. The time is such that this relationship can only remain a secret in order to survive. Yet, Richard’s return and the realisation of his father’s tyrannical nature slowly attribute to Bala an agency which he has lacked so far. As the Mudaliyar’s pretentions fall through, as his ideas of right and wrong appear warped, Bala decides: “He would not let his father triumph over all of them” (314).

The final encounter takes place in the confines of his father’s study, when Bala stands up to the Mudaliyar for the first time. Bala knows he will be mercilessly punished, but he ends up securing his own freedom from the despotic patriarch: “Why didn’t you leave me alone in London? I was content then…I might have been truly happy…I loved Richard. That would have been enough” (367). The Mudaliyar is bewildered at Bala’s uninhibited articulation of the unspeakable, and demands of him an apology. Bala does not relent. The moment marks Bala’s“coming out”, “unashamed” and “assured” (367). By pronouncing the truth, Bala seems to cast off a spell that had bound him so far. Although Bala cannot afford to go back to Richard, he achieves freedom from a lie in which he had so far wrapped his life. Notably, the final showdown with the Mudaliyar takes place at night, within the privacy of the latter’s study, in the presence of no one. Bala’s ‘coming out’, therefore, remains a secret, for it was impossible to survive as a sexual invert in those times; in fact, not even now.

Cinnamon Gardens, looking back on the early twentieth century, reveals the trauma of queer lives, in a country where queerness, family and the state are still irreconcilable with each other. My approach in reading Cinnamon Gardens, reinforced by the authorial intention, has affiliation with what historians sometimes pejoratively, sometimes approvingly, call ‘presentism’ – reinterpretation of history conditioned by present day concerns, events, and values. In this particular case, this presentist approach to history, within the secure domain of fiction, which has the license to be unapologetically imaginative, is necessary in order to rewrite the history of sexuality in Ceylon/Sri Lanka, and strengthen the present-day LGBTQ movement which is struggling to decriminalise homosexuality. The necessity to revisit the past with a knowledge system – namely, queer discourses – presently available has long been a common practice in the West; historicist and cultural materialists have been doing this for the last four decades or so. The political valence of Cinnamon Gardens can be compared to queer historical novels such as Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine (1956) that tells the story of Alexia, an Athenian youth and his lovers, and The Persian Boy (1972) which is an imaginative tale of Alexander’s love for his slave Bagoas.

Although it is not a historical novel, Cinnamon Gardens located in the recent past, historicises various aspects of British cultural imperialism in Ceylon, one aspect of it being the understanding of homosexuality, which under the tutelage of colonial (mis)interpretations of the same, was changing for the worse. Ceylon’s encounter with colonial modernity and its cultivated homophobia was instilling in the minds of the natives a deep anxiety for the homosexual, although in pre-colonial times a more tolerant attitude seems to have existed.  The novel historicises this homophobia, inculcated by the (bourgeois) beneficiaries of colonialism, which replaced the colonisers in positions of power; consequently, this homophobia, in turn, has been inherited by the postcolonial nation-state, which is still opposed to eliminating the draconian colonial law which criminalises homosexuality even 70 years after independence.

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[1]KaustavBakshi, ‘Funny Boy and the Pleasure of Breaking Rules: Bending Genre and Gender in “The Best School of All”’, in Postcolonial Text Vol. 10: 3 & 4 (January 2015), n.pag.

[2]The friendship between Arunachalam, who was knighted in 1913, and Carpenter, “subverted the dominant values of the British Empire”. See, S. Rowbotham, ‘Poonambalam Arunachalam and Edward Carpenter: the ripples of a friendship’ in At the Cutting Edge: Kumari Jayawardena Felicitation Volume. Eds. Neloufer de Mel & Selvy Thiruchandran. Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2007. 220-231.

[3] All quotations from the novel are from Cinnamon Gardens. New York, Toronto, New Delhi, etc: Penguin Books, 1998

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Dr. Kaustav Bakshi is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. His latest published books include, Popular Cinema in Bengal: Stardom, Genre, Public Cultures (Routledge, 2019), Queer Studies: Texts, Contexts, Praxis (Orient Blackswan, 2019) and, Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art (Routledge, 2015).

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