Joanna Luloff’s debut work of fiction, The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka, is a collection of 13 interlinked stories that covers a variety of characters and perspectives. From American Peace Corps workers finding love with their Tamil students and tourists in Kandy meditation centres running away from family back home to young Tamil boys conscripted by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and Tamil women attempting suicide after they’ve lost friends and family to the country’s civil war, Luloff uses her stories to cast a wide net.
Luloff is currently an Assistant Professor at SUNY Potsdam and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka from 1996 to 1998. In a note included in the promotional material that came with this book, she maps out the personal and political impetus behind this collection: “It was important for me to try, as best as I could, to offer multiple points of view, political positions, and geographic locations in my book.”
These points of view are indeed abundant. The characters return again and again in various stories as they’re all linked through a chain of events that bring them into each other’s lives, even distantly, through the war itself and the events that lead to it. The Beach at Galle Road starts off with a Sinhalese host family who have opened up their homes to foreign volunteers and English teachers and tourists—a situation similar to Luloff’s own homestay arrangement while she was in Sri Lanka.
In “Galle Road”, Luloff takes the reader into the life of Janaki, the owner of the guesthouse, whose own troubled history involves a sister, Lakshmi, whose Tamil-sympathising husband vanishes one day without a trace. In this story, Lakshmi comes back to her sister’s home in Baddegama after working as a maid abroad in Saudi Arabia, a position she took up after her husband’s disappearance. Lakshmi appears in this small village as spectacle: short hair, short skirt, high heels, brightly-varnished nails. But Lakshmi herself is already in the process of disappearing: the more visible she is to others in the village because of her unconventional feminine appearance, the less visible she is to herself and to her family. She becomes more of a cipher to her sister. Lakshmi wakes up at night dreaming and thinking of her missing husband. “Do you think he can find me here? How will he know where I am?” she asks Janaki. When Lakshmi goes missing, Janaki has her own questions: “Which way are you headed on Galle Road, Lakshmi? What stories will you tell about the journeys you will take?”
Other stories deal with tourists and aid workers or volunteers in Sri Lanka who come to this country to escape something or someone at home—a familiar narrative that’s practically a cliché, but Luloff is sensitive and cautious enough not to mock either their futile ambitions or their privileged sense of Western subjectivity that affords them this ability to run away. When Sri Lankan characters in The Beach at Galle Road disappear, they disappear. When American characters disappear from their American lives, they turn up in Galle, or Colombo, or Kandy, teaching English, administering aid, falling in love with the local people. Luloff writes that she wrestled with her own privilege and position before she was able to write these stories—the multiple points of view in these tales were her way of reckoning with what she had seen and lived with in Sri Lanka.
In “I Love You, Come Home Soon”, Sam is an American living in Janaki’s guesthouse, teaching English and falling for one of this students, a young Tamil girl named Nilanthi. He’s also dating Melissa, a Scottish volunteer working with the British Council. As Luloff writes, Melissa “didn’t know that Sam had accidentally fallen in love with one of his students at the teachers college.” Meanwhile, when Nilanthi and a few other students visit Janaki’s home as part of an extracurricular activity devised by Sam to allow him to be closer to Nilanthi outside of school, Janaki tells him: “Tamils are tricky ones. You shouldn’t trust them.”
Sam is estranged from his own parents in a psychological sense, but unfortunately enough they choose to visit him in Sri Lanka, after which his mom contracts a fever and spends much of her holiday ill and in the hospital, and his father fulfills all that is required of the role of Domineering White Man who is Appalled by the Native Conditions. Sam and Nilanthi never actually touch, or kiss, or confess their feelings and Sam, despite being American who is used to American love the American way, is selfless or considerate enough to recognise this. It’s a liminal love affair. It happens through unsaid words or a glance. Perhaps it was just an infatuation. Of course, nothing comes of it. In the later stories Sam turns up with Melissa in a beach hotel at Unawatuna, and Nilanthi’s life takes a dark and unpredictable turn. In the later stories, she rarely thinks about Sam again.
Oddly enough, Luloff’s stories focusing on American women in Sri Lanka—Carol the tourist wanderer in “Where She Went from Here” and Lucy the Peace Corps worker who rooms in Janaki’s house and then moves on to Jaffna in search of a real authentic Sri Lankan war experience she can write home about—are some of the weakest. In “Up North”, for example, Lucy volunteers at a refugee camp and quails in the face of the actual human faces of the war: faces ravaged by illness, and bodies mutilated by bombs and soldiers and impoverishment, left to fester amidst dirt and germs and lack. Lucy sees this and shrinks.
Lucy likes the narrative, the power that comes from controlling it and creating expectation in her readers—in this case, the people who read her letters. Bored of telling them of her boring activities of teaching English to students, away from the exciting dangers of the war, she goes in search of the war but doesn’t know what to do with it once she finds it.
In “Where She Went from Here”, Carol, wandering about in the Kandy meditation centre while imagining her mother’s disappointment at her daughter’s life, appears a little like the narrator in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love—not a point in Luloff’s favour. While most of Luloff’s stories mine the interiority of its characters, Carol and Lucy both appear curiously detached from life and themselves. In a way, some of this detachment might have something to do with alienation and female subjectivity—especially the white female subject in a brown country—but this is not something Luloff hones in on. It does, however, come out in its worst in the form of Sam’s girlfriend Melissa, berating K., the narrator of “The Sunny Beach Hotel”, about the beastliness of Sri Lankan men. Luloff ends the story with K. trying to convince Melissa of “their shared predicament”—but there is clearly nothing shared in their individual economic predicament, something that’s glossed over in this trite story about gender difference that has Melissa trotting out the conventional anger and platitudes of me-first consumer feminism.
The later stories in this collection are some of the strongest. These are the stories that focus on Nilanthi and her friend, Sunitha, like in “January Tie”, or on Nilanthi’s family members, like “Children’s Games”, which shows Nilanthi’s younger brother’s attempt to run away from the war to which he has been forcibly recruited. By the final shattering story in the collection, “And Now Home Again”, the character that emerges as the lynchpin of this collection and its moral centre is Nilanthi, the young Tamil girl now a grown and bereft woman without family, without friends, and without a voice after a botched suicide attempt in which she drank lye. Her friend, Sunitha, had earlier attempted to kill herself with lye—with greater success. Nilanthi and Sunitha’s stories circle hesitantly but movingly around issues of Tamil femininity and female performance.
By the end of the book, however, Nilanthi, ravaged by grief and finding that her home is no home at all without her family members, turns away her “new husband”, the much-older Dinesh—a family friend and neighbour—who married her by slipping a ring around her finger while she was still in the hospital. “He proposed to her while her throat choked its opposition”, and so Nilanthi attempts to drive him away by refusing to “play the proper wifely role”. As a person who attempted to die but did not, she returns to her family home far different from what she was in her younger days: a proper Tamil girl who was intelligent and clever, who was meant to bring honour to her family by becoming a school teacher and living the proper life.
Now she can only gurgle and drool where before she could recite poems by Keats on the school stage. Nilanthi is seen by the other villagers as a ghost of her former self, a woman riddled with bad spirits and bad luck, with dirt caked around her ankles and under her fingernails, unkempt and unattractive, practically grotesque. She communes with the ghosts of her dead mother, brother, and friend, “comfortably surrounded by her ghostly army”. Her cultivation of her disfigurement works: “Madness was considered an ugly thing, so she would make herself hideous, a grotesque thing tangled up in the village’s pity and repulsion.” Dinesh, who was counting on the village’s envy after his marriage to his young bride, finally disappears from her home. The ghosts, the reader presumes, still hang around.
While certain stories are arresting and moving and particularly astute about the displacement caused by war and exile, The Beach at Galle Road is mainly concerned about the inner landscape of its characters. Luloff’s commitment to multiple points of view means that she rarely allows the narrative to take a particular position, but feels compelled to end each story with some form of closure that often feels weak, uninspired, even trite. In this scenario, the Sri Lankan civil war becomes an abstract evil thing, and the material conditions that lead to it are subsumed under a host of characters we are meant to empathise with. As such, it’s easy for a reader unacquainted with the details and complexities of the war to moralise and make false equivalencies between the Tamil condition with the Sinhalese one through the prism of suffering individual characters.
Although Luloff describes, in particular, the anguish of the Tamil population at the hands of the Sri Lankan army—disappearances, rapes, violations at checkpoints—she also, in the story that focuses on Lalith, the young Tamil soldier, chooses only to show the manipulations and evil stratagem of the Tamil Tigers that paints a one-sided story of Tamil militant extremism. Thus, one comes away from the collection assuming that the Tamil Tigers represented the Tamil nationalist movement on the whole, while the Sri Lankan army’s brutal violence is barely talked about, much less represented. Neither is the Sri Lankan’s government longstanding record of abuses against its non-Sinhalese populations.
In this sense, fictional characters come to the fore while the historical situations into which they’re placed disappear, much like the lost characters that populate this collection of stories. And much like the living who are left behind, the reader is left only with more questions.