It is 1948 and the last British ships slip away from the island of Ceylon, laboring and groaning under the weight of purloined treasure. On board one such vessel, the captain's log includes the tusks and legs of elephant herds; rubies, emeralds, topaz; fragrant mountains of cinnamon, cardamom, mustard seeds; forests of bony, teak, and sandalwood; screeching peacocks; caged and pacing leopards; ten- foot- long monitor lizards whipping their razor tails; barrels of fermented coconut toddy; the jewel- encrusted thrones of Kandyan kings; the weapons of Chola warriors; priceless texts in Pali and Sanskrit, Sinhala and Tamil.
At the foam- drenched stern, a blue- eyed, walnut- burnt sahib searches for the vanishing island and says to his pale young wife, "A shame, really. Such a nice little place."
And she, only recently having left Manchester for the colony and now returning in triumph, a husband successfully hunted and captured, says, "But so hot! And the mosquitoes! It will be such a comfort to be home again."
The Englishman contemplates the meaning of this word, "home," remembers decades of waving palms, soft sarongs against his thighs, the quick fingers and lithe embraces of burnt brown bodies. He has not seen the dome of St. Paul's for ten years. On his last visit to the frigid metropolis, he had felt an odd creature, neither fish nor fowl, smirked at by elegant ladies, his skin chaffed, fingers stiff and unable to determine between fish and salad fork. A sort of anger rises in his throat.
He tells himself that he will no longer dream of palm trees and sunshine. His wife takes refuge under his arm, her breast knowingly close to his fingertips. She utters a quick, coquettish laugh. She knows she has sufficient charms to distract him from his island memories. He turns his head resolutely away from the fast- disappearing island and toward the other, colder one ahead of him. His eyes are bone dry.
Behind the retreating Englishman, on the new nation's flag is poised a stylized lion, all curving flank and ornate muscle, a long, cruel sword gripped in its front paw. It is the ancient symbol of the Sinhala, who believe that they are descended from the lovemaking between an exiled Indian princess and a large jungle cat. A green stripe represents that small and much- tossed Muslim population. An orange stripe represents the larger, Tamil minority.
But in the decades that are coming, race riots and discrimination will render the orange stripe inadequate. It will be replaced by a new flag. On its face, a snarling tiger, all bared fang and bristling whisker. If the idea of militancy is not conveyed strongly enough, dagger- clawed paws burst forth while crossed rifles rear over the cat's head.
A rifle- toting tiger. A sword- gripping lion. This is a war that will be waged between related beasts.
My name is Yasodhara Rajasinghe and this is the story of my family. It is also one possible narrative of my island. But we are always interlopers into history, dropped into a story that has been going on far before we are born, and so I must start much earlier than my birth and I must start with the boy who will become my father.
As the last British ships slip over the horizon, my seven- year old father- to- be, Nishan, cavorts on beaches he does not know are pristine. He dives into an ocean unpolluted by the gasoline-powered tourist boats of the future.
In the months before the thunderous monsoon, the ocean tugs at his toes, wraps sinuous limbs about his own, and pulls him into its embrace, out until it is deep enough to dive, headfirst, feet overhead, inverted and submerged. Eyes open against stinging salt, he sees coral like a crowded, crumbling city, busy with variously marked, spotted, dotted, striped, lit, pompous, and playful sea creatures. Now and then, he encounters the curious, swiveling eye of a small red octopus emerging from secret passageways. Approached recklessly, the octopus blanches a pure white, and with an inky ejaculation torpedoes away. So he learns to approach slowly, in rhythm with the gently rolling water, until the creature coming to know this stick- limbed biped is lulled enough to allow his quiet presence.
–from Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera (Thomas Dunne Books, 2014)