Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Boat People by Sharon Bala

Book Review
The Boat People by Sharon Bala

About 500 plus Sri Lanka Tamilians arrive on the shores of Canada in a boat, seeking refuge from a certain death in their native country during the peak of the local war of the Tamilians. They took this perilous journey across the seas with the hope of starting a new life in a new country. Many of them are not carrying any identification documents. These people are put in a detention centre pending decision to permit them to stay.

There is a hue and cry in Canada, with some politicians branding these people as terrorists. They want these people to be deported back. Many activists take up the cause for these destitute people, arguing that deportation would mean certain persecution and death in Sri Lanka.

As their cases are heard, it seems that a few of these people had purchased false identities, to be smuggled out of the war ravaged country. It turns out that few of these identities were stolen from the dead bodies of LTTE cadres, and carefully sold to people bearing resemblance to the dead soldiers. They are asked pointed questions about their helping the cadres in the fight.

Mahindan, one of the people on the boat, is also looking for a decent and safe life, in this distant country, with his son Sellian. He was a mechanic in Sri Lanka, and is asked if he helped in rigging the vehicles to be used in suicide bombings. He denies and says that he only helped in repairing the vehicles for the cadres. He points out that he and others did not have a choice – either do what the fighters demanded or die at their hands.

Tamil activists fighting for the refugees, a few of the judges sitting on the hearings to decide about the future of these destitute people, also have similar experiences of racial discriminations in their earlier generations.

The novel is thought provoking, but fast paced. Are these refugees terrorists as pointed out by politicians and the media? Did these ordinary people have a choice? One can easily replace Sri Lanka and Canada with any other two countries – the people, the politicians, the media, and the rhetoric is the same.

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