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Life on a Dead-End Lane

R. Nithya

By Ru Freeman
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2013, pp. 388, Rs. 499.00


A good story will always move you regardless of anything. On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman makes no demand of its readers being associated with one or the other identity unlike the characters in the book. It doesn’t make the readers take sides, which is why it is so easy to let oneself be moved by it.  The story set in Sri Lanka from 1979 to 1983, the years leading up to the Civil War, gives us a look into the lives of the people who live on Sal Mal Lane and are unaware or if aware, who cannot fathom how their lives would change.  The story begins with the Heraths moving into the one empty house on the Sal Mal Lane and inviting the curiosity of the others just as a new neighbour always does. The four Herath children—Suren, Rashmi, Nihil and the youngest Devi—could very well be considered the protagonists around whom most of the action on the lane revolves. It is they, their piano classes, their kite flying, their cricket matches on the lane, and their friendships with the old and the young alike that make Sal Mal Lane what any neighbour-hood with children would look like—ordinary and alive.  Freeman uses up several chapters to set all her characters. It seems as if she wants us, the readers, to familiarize ourselves with our new neighbourhood. Perhaps for this very purpose, a sketch of Sal Mal Lane and a list of all the families welcome us just before the chapters begin, for we must know who our neighbours are. The families on this dead-end lane of Columbia, the capital city of Sri Lanka, are ethnically different. There are Sinhalese Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims, Tamil Catholics, Tamil Hindus, and Burghers. There are adults with petty prejudices and adults with open minds. There are children in anger and children with kindness. There are walls erected to distance oneself from a bitter neighbour, and there are sweets shared during Diwali and after Ramazan. Most of all, it is the kind of time when people tend to their neighbour’s child, in the absence of the child’s parents, when he or she has an injury. As Freeman writes, ‘It was still a time of neighbourliness and small hurts, the kind of reparable injuries that everybody understood and wanted to heal....’ Freeman rarely, if at all, moves away from Sal ...

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