Book Review: Hernando Villa – A Sri Lankan Love Story

8 May

A new book and writer have appeared on the Sri Lankan English Literary Horizon. Both promise to be rising stars.

Vijitha Yapa publications have recently brought out a new book – Hernando Villa, by retired chartered accountant Terrence Perera. Though the book claims to be a love story, it is essentially much more than that.

It is the story of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans over the last hundred years. Masterfully scripted, the story starts with the description of an upper class family in their ancestral town. They comprise the highest nobility of that region and Hernando Villa is their ancestral home built by the ‘Gate Mudliyar,’ an erstwhile ancestor of theirs in the nineteenth century, still spoken about with awe by the local people.

Using this family as the central focus, Perera masterfully tells the stories of a multitude of different people connected to them – the Tamil friends who escaped the ’83 riots, the Sinhalese friends who had an inter-caste, inter-religious marriage, the surrounding middle class and lower middle people of their area, the fiery but loyal fisherfolk connected to the ancestral village…

With lucid, simple sentences Perera manages to bring various different individuals as well as their different societies and mindsets alive to the reader. No character, however simple or on the fringes of the book, is a cardboard cut-out. The author has taken the trouble to paint all of them as very real people with their stories and backgrounds explained to the reader that they might understand the character and his/her mentality better.

Thus the reader will automatically feel indulgent affection for William, the mischievous but perspicacious youngest child of the family; along with a fondness for his best friend in the house – his great aunt Emma. The relationship between these two is both touching and amusing – but they also serve their purpose in the book, in highlighting the main plot and making us understand it better. Everyone from the annoying and meddlesome Aunt Margie to the old servant Juan Appu have their stories told and their characters well painted for us to appreciate.

The ‘Love Story’ – or rather the main love story, as there are several – is between William’s elder brother Nihal and Padma, the daughter of the Tamil family the Hernandos had rescued in 1983. Post 1983, that family had fled to Canada and since done well for themselves there. But when it is time for Padma to marry, they send her back to Sri Lanka to find a ‘suitable boy’ via the arranged marriage proposal system. They might be Canadian citizens now but they want Padma to marry a boy of their own race, region and caste. Padma who stays with her aunt in Wellawatte, is invited by the Hernandos to stay at their villa too, where she soon strikes up a friendship with Nihal and his sister Manel, who are close to her in age.

While the Hernandos and Rajanathans (Padma’s family) are close friends, both sets of families are horrified by the developing relationship between their son and daughter. It offends the notions of both the upper caste Sinhalese Christian parents as well as the upper caste Tamil Hindu parents. However, as befits educated parents of the 21st century, they bow to the inevitable (though not before various attempts to dissuade the two lovers), and accept the romance with grace.

In contrast, Perera throws in the story of the Gate Mudliyar’s own son William a hundred years earlier, when he falls in love with the daughter of an Earl, while at Oxford. William has to abandon his love when his parents have him called back on getting to know of his romance; his mother threatens suicide if he doesn’t give it up. Their story too is touchingly told within a few pages, so that the reader comes to have an empathetic bond with William and Jane as well as their different spouses. Perera does not go over the top with romantic drama. The beauty of his storytelling lies in the fact that he paints his characters as real and human people. They don’t waste time being dramatically shattered and broken hearted. They pick up the threads of their lives and move on – marrying other people and learning to love them, while still cherishing memories of their first love. The poignancy of their story is in the lack of drama attributed to them by the author rather than because of it a la Miss Havisham in Great Expectations or Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. It is their dignified fortitude that touches the reader, not over-the-top behaviour, as commonly found in literature.

The book is well crafted, with various threads being skillfully interwoven to give a colourful but real idea of Sri Lankan life, spanning different decades, cultures and societies. As if all that were not enough, Perera also manages to interweave aspects of the war, the race riots and the tsunami in, bringing to light different characters and how they were affected by it / acted through it.

It is the ultimate Sri Lankan story, which incorporates a wide variety of Sri Lankan characters as well their trials and tribulations over the past several decades. For so ambitious an undertaking, there is nothing arduous in the book, either in the writing – or for the reader, in the reading. It is one of those ‘unputdownable’ books that will keep the reader turning the pages to know what happened next. I read the book in one night.

The author is a retired chartered accountant who has not had any literary ambitions until retirement. If one were to look at the writing critically, it could be discerned that some of the sentence structures are rather awkward – he flouts most rules laid down in creative writing workshops. He is however not the product of creative writing workshops. He is a man who has lived and experienced several decades of life with keen enjoyment and observation and that is what comes out in the book. Like his endearing creation William, he is perspicacious and witty and there are several laugh-out-loud moments for the reader within the book. While empathetic to most of his characters, he also sports a benevolent creator-like understanding of their many character defects and relays them humorously.

The Book is ultimately a triumph of storytelling – read it, you won’t regret it.

The author signing books at his book launch

Photos by Laksiri Rukman

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