The year is 2001. And the country is Sri Lanka. Sam, a poor dim-witted boy, ekes out an existence with his mother, brothers and sisters in a tiny village that has fallen off the map.
His fortunes change when he gets a job as a houseboy in Colombo. But life is not a cake walk as ethnic violence grips Sri Lanka.
Sam is the window to the social and political landscape of Sri Lanka, ravaged by violence for 15 years, in Elmo Jayawardena 's award-winning book, “Sam's Story”, which has been published by Penguin Books-India in June 2009 for the Indian audience.
Elmo Jayawardena, former pilot and the founder-president of AFLAC International, a humanitarian organisation, has written two other award-winning books, “Kingdom of Sinhalay” and “Rainbows in Braille”.
He has featured in Forbes Global for his charity work and was honoured with the Everyday Hero award by the Readers' Digest in 2001.
In the novel, Sam tells us about the days in his life with humour that stems from his simplicity.
He takes the reader on a journey of contemporary Sri Lanka, its urban and rural life, poverty, corruption, egg-hoppers and Christmas parties, boxing dogs, gin and tonics.
Sam, who is in love with the number “25” and “2000” - the year he became a houseboy at the River House - comes across as a sad and “ psychologically bruised” boy, “who is used to getting strange looks from people and questioned about mundane things”- most of which he cannot remember.
The book has a slightly nostalgic feel to it and reads like a lament of the loss of lives and the bullets that have riddled the emerald isle.
Sam's friends at the River House are the tall and thin Lena with her shiny brown coat and the restive Bhurus (distorted from Brutus)- two dogs.
“Bhurus and Lena were my friends. They didn't throw bombs . They didn't kill people,” says Sam, describing the River House, where he works and its inmates.
The River House, which is huge with separate rooms for reading, eating and even talking is in sharp contrast to Sam's hovel in the village.
“Back, where I came from, in our village, most houses had one room . We did everything there, within those four walls. I mean , they were not real walls, more like half- rotten planks. But at least, there was no confusion,” says Sam, pointing out the economic disparity between the rural and urban life in Sri Lanka.
Sam shares the house with two domestic helps- the maid Janet and the cook Leandro.
The book moves back and forth in time and place.
While it begins with Sam's snapshots of life in the River House in first person, it switches back intermittently to life in Sam's village where the boy and his two siblings- an older brother Jaya and younger sister - watch the politics of hollow promises surrounding the Sri lankan election and unfolding of the ensuing ethnic strife that engulfs the trio.
The River House then is far away from the violence - untouched by the rough and tumble of Tamil extremism and the government backlash.
Sam's older brother joined the army because the pay was good and when “the soldiers died, they gave the money to the family”.
The boys in the town did not want to join the army. But those from the villages did, says Sam.
Sam's words prove prophetic. “It was the Madam, who gave me the telephone message. She said someone from the village had called and they wanted me to come home. … But I did not feel all right. Somehow, I knew something was very very wrong at home.”
The soldiers came to cremate Sam's brother Jaya. “They were his friends. The military paid for everything, including the pyre and the firewood. I guess the military men were trying to even the score. Our Jaya had paid them with his life,” analyses Sam.
The book ends with the war coming to town in Colombo. A bomb goes off in the bank and Sam and his friends in the River House realise that the Madam and the Master- the owners of the River House- were in the bank.
The master, who job was to carry people around in an airplane, dies in the blast though “he had nothing to do with the war”.
It marks the end of Sam's “brush with a secure life” at the River House.
The LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran may be dead, but the book leaves the readers wondering: Is the war in Sri Lanka really over?