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Of Turtle Images and Exotica

Eunice de Souza

By Chandani Lokuge
Penguin India, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 241, Rs. 275.00


A search-for-identity and roots story, Turtle Nest by Chandani Lokuge is the author’s second novel.  Aruni, the adopted daughter of a Sri Lankan couple who have migrated to Australia, returns to the beach people of Sri Lanka to find out what she can about her real mother.      The novel begins with shades of Tennessee William’s play Suddenly Last Summer. “…far out, among the rocks of Lihiniya Island, dozens of baby turtles hatch under sand, and crawl out.  They search blindly, and scramble to the silver sea.  The eagle swoops.  In mid-air the infant splays its limbs and reaches trustingly into the shell-crushing talons.”  Inevitably, poor beach women succumb to white tourists, small local boys to paedophiles.  There is no work for the fishermen during the monsoons, and their move East for work during these months has been thwarted by the violence of the Tamil Tigers.  Priests and nuns help the poor, but beyond a point there is nothing they can do.      To underscore these brutal facts, images of turtles, which function both as detail and symbol occur from time to time.  The boys throw a baby turtle from hand to hand, as if it were a beach ball. The child Mala cries a bit, but soon forgets it. There is an image of a turtle being slaughtered for its meat:  “They say the turtle lives through it all, mourning and writhing in agony, until the carapace is almost empty, until at last, the very heart has been cut out.  They know it is alive because it keeps snapping its mouth, and opening and closing its eyelids…”      This is powerful writing. Unfortunately, it is only in these images that this power is achieved. The rest of the novel is awash with a kind of  somewhat facile poeticizing.  Lokuge is addicted to the word “lonely” which she uses frequently and not always appropriately: “They watched the lonely eagles swoop down from the crags.”  “The wind played with her hair, and flicked a bit of sparkle off a lonely star.”  Mohan, along with his wife eventually adopts Mala’s baby.  It turns out that the baby is Mohan’s.  She was seductive, and he was drawn to her.  But a great deal of  pseudo-poetic fuss is made of this:  “He was lost between one birth and the next. He couldn’t find his way.   He met a butterfly and she led ...

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