A schoolteacher penetrates the heart of darkness on a war-torn island resembling Sri Lanka.
Arun, 21, shocks his bourgeois relatives by foregoing his legacy, a family printing business, and becoming a teacher, following the example of his mentor, social activist Mahadeo. Worse, he wants to leave the northern capital and go south to teach the children of this unnamed republic’s “Two-percenters,” or underclass. En route by train to his assignment in Omeara, a small village, he encounters Seth, an aide-de-camp to the general of the military base near Omeara. Once ensconced in his spartan cinderblock digs, Arun meets the town butcher, Mr. Jaisaram, his daughter Anjani, a sardonically witty convent school expellee, and Mrs. Jaisaram, who has remained speechless since their son disappeared years before. Students trickle into the one-roomed schoolhouse built by the army: Two are amputee-victims of the Boys, the insurgent rebel group hiding in the mountains, while the rest are damaged in other ways, the only children who can be spared from work in the fields. The army’s endless war with the insurgents intersects with the bucolic Omeara life in increasingly ominous and gruesome ways. Questions proliferate: Which side is responsible for seemingly random atrocities, including the suicide bombing of a bus owned by fixer-entrepreneur Kumarsingh and the light-pole crucifixion of a drifter? Why does the army stage gunboat shore patrols and town-wide searches and require villagers to witness mass burials? Recruited to teach literacy to soldiers, Arun feels increasingly compromised by his dealings with Seth and the army. His incipient paranoia blooms when Anjani is abducted and the army displays indifference. Omeara becomes a metaphor for Arun’s faith in human goodness, which by novel’s end has been thoroughly shaken, leaving him with only one choice. Bissoondath (The Worlds Within Her, 1998) handles Arun’s third-person narration masterfully, with judicious, just-in-time exposition and eloquent evocation of psychic turmoil.
Politics made personal in a lushly imagined allegory: This Canadian-Indian-Trinidadian (nephew of V.S. Naipaul) deserves a wider U.S. readership.