Ode To Curiosity
Reflections and Thoughts
The kaleidoscopic range of events that mark the childhood years are often birthed in unmarked places—under the shadow of a banyan tree, a quiet corner of a park, by the hidden stream, secret passageways, an attic coated in dust, in the fringes of the city where the outlaws live, at night under a river of stars, under a blanket fort with a book. It is at these untold spots that ghosts appear, ambushes are carried, bandits are encountered, battles are fought, dragons are slain, and princesses are saved. As days mold into months and months burst into years, the boyhood years safely tucked, the adult years are lived. Years pass by, flipping the pages of a calendar, punctuated by rather mundane events, calculated friendships, pompous ceremonies, trades, and stocks. Old age then is often spent slouched on an armchair, looking back into the past, trying to pinpoint the years of comfort and glee—the haven of secret places discovered in childhood.
What is it then that turns all those alike mornings into days of grandeur? Why is it that each passing moment feels never-ending? What is so unusual about the secret places that we protect them with our dear lives? Perhaps it is the surrounding geography filled with strangeness and uncertainty, the newness, and the ever-changing scenery, the countless possibilities that can take shape, the kind and carefree days. But most importantly, it is the ingenious, childlike curiosity that propels life into action. It is this curiosity that is frowned upon, which in the later years of youth is traded for comfort of not-knowing, and is lost to growing.
Romesh Gunesekera’s “Sun-Catcher” is an ode to curiosity and the joy of learning. It is a story of the convergence of lives that would continue in parallel lines, if not for the sudden appearance of Jay in Kairo’s life, one June afternoon, challenging him to a bicycle race. Kairo, a timid but curious boy, lives in a nuclear family—a Trotskyite father and a maverick mother. When his father isn’t dwelling in the pleasures of armchair politics, or rambling about the bourgeoisie and their old money, or sneaking off to the club for a drink, he tries his luck at betting (secretly) in horse-races in England. Contrary to this, his mother, who works at the local radio station, constantly worries about Kairo’s education, her husband’s blithe disregard for important tasks, and tiny hiccups in their routines. Kairo, however, fearing entanglement in his parents’ squabbles, carves his sanctuary—Comic books, Western classics, Mr. Ismail’s used bookstore, and loafing on his bicycle. The tiny household is held together despite family rows and disagreements, by fictitious forces that balance every middle-class household. Jay, slightly older in age, a naturalist, savvy, ungovernable, and wild at heart, belongs to a wealthy family. Distant from his crotchety father and his routinely absent mother, Jay finds solace in heterogeneous interests—birds, fishes, insects, flora and fauna, fishing, machines, and automobiles; a jack of all trades. What then bridges these disconnected islands is the inquisitiveness of Kairo and Jay’s affable nature. It begins at first with Kairo marveling and also the feeling of discomfort over Jay’s dexterity and nimbleness that he lacks. His continual efforts to please Jay and seek his approval are evident throughout the story—researching about birds to sound smart and informed, helping him build an aviary to prove his usefulness, learning to operate shotguns despite his discomfort, and letting him call the shots in their day-to-day adventures. Over time, this relationship fosters, with Kairo’s frequent visits to Jay’s mansion, their visit to Jay’s uncle Elvin’s estate, their togetherness in tiny adventures throughout the city, and Kairo’s constant efforts to prove worthy of their growing friendship. There is also bitterness towards characters who stray into Jay’s life.
This story is not without pandemonium—the political turmoil in Sri Lanka rising from Sinhalese Chauvinism and bigotry, the incompetence of the government to arrive at a solution, and the frequent strikes, curbing of press freedom, rising ethnic tensions, shutting down of schools. Adding to these is the periodic scuffle at Jay’s house leading to the separation of his parents. There is Kairo’s discomfort at Jay’s preposterous acts of violence against birds and other tiny creatures, his disregard towards Gerry, the caretaker’s son whom he wounds on purpose while on their visit to the estate. Unable to fathom this, Kairo remains silent, always on the verge of confronting Jay, slowly losing his innocence, while Jay continues to steer the wheel. The story mirrors our discomfort too, but like Kairo, we are coerced into letting Jay off the hook, outweighing his wild-at-heart behavior with his acts of cruelty.
We, like Kiaro, are introduced to the tweets, the shrieks, the hoots, and the music of birds. We learn of Lanka’s indigenous flora and fauna, minutiae of forests and the woods, the diversity, and the complex ecosystem that we are a part of that which is slowly diminishing. We see these through the eyes of Kairo as he learns them from Jay. It is with this childlike curiosity that we forge ahead, stop to speculate as Kairo does, and advance.
It is only towards the end, with hurried plotlines drawing towards a conclusion, with tiny knots of characters coming together, that we rediscover the title of the book: Sun-Catcher. The most intimate (and vulnerable) moment in the book occurs in the final pages. Jay takes Kairo and Niromi to his haven—a tiny spot by the sea, whereupon dusk, one can remain in awe at thousands of swallows—a cloud of them, dancing and swirling, swinging the sun in flight, before descending into the comfort of palm trees. To allow an outsider to enter your safe place is the ultimate act of intimacy. For Kairo, this is the evening that would change the course of his life.
Most lives are long but forgettable. There are only a few men who leave streaks of light on an otherwise black sky—they burn and burn, unlike any other. As Cormac McCarthy in his novel “The Road” writes: ‘Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.’ They’re the ones who treasure this childlike curiosity. They do not do things because they have to gain something from it. Nor because it brings them wealth and fame. They do it for the sheer joy of it. Jay is one of them.
About the Author
Romesh Gunesekera was born in 1954 in Sri Lanka where he spent his early years. Before coming to Britain he also lived in the Philippines. He now lives in London. His early stories were published in Stand Magazine, London Magazine, and Granta, and his poems in the LRB , Poetry Durham , and other magazines.
His widely acclaimed first novel, Reef, was published in 1994 and was shortlisted as a finalist for the Booker Prize, as well as for the Guardian Fiction Prize. In the USA he was nominated for a New Voice Award. Before that, in 1992 his first collection of stories, Monkfish Moon, was one of the first titles in Granta’s venture into book publishing. It was shortlisted for several prizes and named a New York Times Notable Book for 1993.
In 2008, a collection of his Madeira stories were published in a bilingual edition to celebrate its 500th anniversary of the founding of Funchal in Madeira. His next novel The Prisoner of Paradise was published in 2012.
A novel is nourished by the imagination of readers who renew it and keep it alive — and whose imaginations, in turn, are nourished and renewed by the book.ROMESH GUNESEKERA
Romesh Gunesekera is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has also received a National Honour in Sri Lanka. He has been a judge for a number of literary prizes including the Caine Prize for African Writing, the David Cohen Literature Prize, the Forward Prize for Poetry, and most recently the Granta 2013 list of the Best of Young British Novelists. In 2015 he will the Chair of Judges for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Notable Quotes From Romesh’s Suncatcher
Jay spoke in a rapture of his own: ‘Tens of thousands. Barn Swallows. They’ve flown across oceans and continents to be here. Just to be here tonight. Look. Look how they fly.’
‘Thank goodness. If we always knew what we were looking for, we’d never find anything new, would we? He paused, his gaze shifting between the books and me. ‘The thrill of the unexpected, if it is truly uplifting, is hard to beat.’
My father once asked, ‘How does it compare: the things you have done and the things you have left undone?’ The question was aimed at himself, but I think I should ask it of myself too.
Sometime in the future, I’d like to pick up Romesh’s book: Reef which is a historical fiction novel. Currently, I’m taking the pleasure of reading essays and articles published in the London Review of Books and The New Yorker. The print magazines are a delight to hold and the words, what can I say? They’ve protected me from the world. Like Kairo, I find my recluse in books.