The Flight of the Swans
By D. Devika Bai
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Monsoon Books Pte. Ltd. (August 15, 2005)
The Flight of the Swans is a work of literary fiction and is the author’s first book. On the cover of the book, the blurb states as follows:
The Flight of the Swans is a rich and fascinating family saga set in British India and Malaya. Cursed, and with blood on his hands, Captain Ramdas Rao Bhonlse is forced to free Killa Fort, which has fallen to the British. A strange flight of swans signals his flight from Killa; a flight that will drive Ramdas and his family into further adversity. But great adversity spawns great dreams.
Ramdas dreams of ousting the British from his motherland. His sons, the handsome and irascible Nilkanth and the plain and romantic Madhav dream of possessing the same girl, Tara Bai, who is the most beautiful courtesan in the land. And Ramdas’ granddaughter, blind Arundhati, dreams only of seeing one day. Woven into this tapestry is a lone white swan inextricably linked to the ebb and flow of the Bhonsles’ fortunes as they flee across India to Malaya.
The tale progresses along at a sedate pace but, just when you think you can predict what the end will be, the climax of the tale leaves the reader spell bound. It is a fitting end to a tale that has a central theme of family ties that bind. Ramdas’s strength of character is clearly evident when he is willing to risk all for his principles; in addition, his wife’s, reverence and obedience to her mother-in-law, Madhav’s love for his wife, Tara, and her own loyalty to her husband all show just how strong family bonds can be, how far parents will go to do the very best for their children and vice versa. Even Nilkanth, who is disappointed in love, ‘saves’ his parents when they face adversity.
Modern Malaysia faces the challenges of having multi-racial and multi-religious citizens. Sometimes, things get difficult and one does wonder whether there was ever a time when Malaysia’s people were happy. With this story, set at a time when there were many immigrants to Malaya, paints a picture of a land that was stunningly beautiful and whose inhabitants lived in harmony. There was much wealth to be shared, food for everyone and a sense of prevailing peace.
… She listened to Madhav with the curiosity and wonder of a child as he told her of the distant lands where forests kissed the sea, where palaces had golden tiles and ponds golden shores; where the people believed in fairies, spirits and dragons; and where the Tamils of Tamilakam and Klings of Kalinga met the natives, and merchants from far-off China and Arabia.
“What’s Suvarnabhumi?” Tara asked, fascinated by a name Madhav mentioned.
Madhav was only too glad to explain.
“It means Golden Land. A scholar told me it refers to a peninsula, across the eastern ocean, which centuries ago had rivers of gold.”
“And Kadahram? What does that mean?”
“It was a coastal city-kingdom in the peninsula. The Chola kings sent emissaries to Kadahram and all the other city-kingdoms in the land. But even before the Cholas, Indian merchants were carrying on a barter trade with the indigenous people there. They exchanged cloth, gems and beads for gold and tin. Many of these merchants settled along the coast and married native women.”
“What were the natives called?”
“Malaiyur. That was ten centuries ago. History says they are now called ‘Malay’ and the peninsula ‘Malaya’.”
“Malaya. What a lovely name!…”
Being a retired teacher/school administrator, it is, I suppose, no surprise that the author has a very high command of the English language. There are many passages in this book which moved me but the two that I favour the most are these:
A soft breeze drizzled magnolia scent on Ramdas and Mukta. It fired their sensual mood. Soon, they were one, seeking the dizzying heights of their desire. And high above, the stars jostled for a better view and winked at each other, at the show of such raw passion below.
He looked deep into her eyes and gave her that intense smile that had so struck her the previous night.
At that instant, as he claimed her with his eyes, Tara knew she had found her ordinary man.
In a time when most stories are so depressing in the themes of sadness, anger, frustration that many authors choose to highlight, The Flight of the Swans is breath of fresh air. Indeed, the same themes are also analysed in this tale but, there is an air of lightness, joy and hope in it as well. It is what I would call a ‘Feel Good book’ and one I would highly recommend to those readers who would like another view of what Malaya was like.
24 March 2008