Nilwatte Beach, somewhere off the coast of southern Sri Lanka, is a beautiful place. The sea, “with its yearning rising green-blue swell and the deep-blue simmering stillness of horizon” crashes upon a languorous beach that is dotted with shacks selling beer and fish, peopled with a few foreign (mostly white) tourists or posh Sri Lankans — the sort who favour scrappy holidays over five-star comfort that they can certainly afford — lounging on beach chairs, gazing at the sunset. Around them hover a smattering of local villagers, selling “marijuana, magic mushrooms, lottery tickets, trips to turtle conservation beaches”. The economy — and as a consequence, the culture — of the village has been permanently disrupted by the rise of tourism, and the villagers cannot decide if their longing for the outsiders’ money outstrips their loathing of the same people, who bring their peculiar morals, tastes, and the stench of their unimaginable wealth to the area.
Barely a few minutes from the beach and close enough to the village stands Hibiscus Villa, the site of most of the action. The beating heart of Amanthi Harris’s debut novel Beautiful Place, Hibiscus Villa is reminiscent of the regal mansions in coconut estates of yore. With its white pillars, clay-tiled roofs and profusion of trees, it is now an upper crust guest house run by Padma, the beguiling protagonist.
A daughter of that very village, Padma had been brought to the villa by her greedy father, Sunny, a hustler with criminal tendencies, when she was still a child, as an offering to Gerhardt, the brilliant Austrian architect who had designed it. Sunny had no compunctions about what the foreigner might demand of the child as long as he made a quick buck off it, but horrified at the future that awaited a child with such a parent, Gerhardt adopted Padma, and subsequently brought her up in the villa as a single parent. Content with regular pay outs, Sunny and his family did not bother them further. However, now that Padma has returned to Nilwatte again, to run this business — she hated her time at university in Colombo and failed the exams — Sunny, now the henchman of a powerful politician, tries his best to reclaim her.
A deeply absorbing novel of the old school, Beautiful Place is strongest when it portrays the worlds that the author is familiar with: the people who come to the guest house (handsome Rohan, who has emerged from the wreckage of a messy divorce; sassy Ria, looking to reclaim a childhood home she was nostalgic about; runaway lovers Anjali and Dan; and later, in pursuit, Anjali’s conservative parents), the architect and single parent Gerhardt, the dancer-turned-yoga guru-turned-controversial-writer Jarryd — both expats who have made Sri Lanka their home — and Ruth, Gerhardt’s old flame and doyenne of Colombo high society. They are all competently crafted characters, interesting, alive, their lives and worlds rich with detail. As Padma’s story intersects with that of her guests, the point of view shifts from one character to the other, introducing a delicious sense of variety as we see people from different perspectives.
Where the novel enters a somewhat sinister space is when it steps out of the villa, as it naturally must. Around the idyll of Villa Hibiscus — helping the guests heal and come to terms with their own burdens — is the shadowy space of the village, now firmly overshadowed by a vicious strain of politics. Like in other parts of the world, the tide of chauvinistic identity politics is on the rise in Sri Lanka too, and as Jarryd falls into the sinister crosshairs of right-wing Singhalese extremists, the lives of Padma and Gerhardt are set to change forever too.
However, the author’s depiction of the slippery world of the village, where nothing as it at seems and no one speaks the truth, standing in the darkening twilight of the sea, leaves us with a sense of complex unease. Part of it must be deliberate on the author’s part, given that her main characters all — except for the cook, Soma — occupy a liberal upper-class ecosystem that is invariably a rift or three apart from the world of the village, and would be exhausted by the seesawing servility and hostility of the people. But as Sunny’s web darkens, he assumes almost comic book villain proportions. While we understand the author’s deeper critique of rural Sri Lanka, we also feel our inability to truly access the inner life of the village as we do the Villa, as a failure of sorts, not of imagination but of the proclivities that tie us so deeply to the world of the Villa.
Devapriya Roy is the author of five books, most recently Friends from College