HOSPITAL by Noel Nadesan (2020) Amazon USA available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle
REVIEWED BY Jayantha
In recent years a number of Sri Lanka expatriates in Australia have taken to creative writing. Some of the best known like Michelle de Kretser, Channa Wickremesekera and Ranjith Savanadasa are located in Melbourne. Adding to their number is Noel Nadesan from Sri Lanka who is also domiciled in Melbourne, the cultural metropolis.
A Veterinary Surgeon by training and profession, Nadesan published a bilingual Melbourne monthly newspaper called Uthayam and in 2013 turned to fiction with the release of Lost in You. His most recent novel King Asoka’s Veterinary Hospital was originally written and published in Tamil and an English edition has just been released.
King Asoka at one level is biographical, in that its narrator is a Sri Lanka expatriate Veterinarian who lives and works in Melbourne. Its title is drawn from the Buddhist King Ashoka, who ruled India 2,250 years ago, establishing hospitals to care for injured animals, prioritising animal welfare and restricting animal slaughter. In the words of Norm Phelps (), “one of the very few instances in world history of a government treating its animals as citizens who are as deserving of its protection as the human residents.”
While it does recount the trials and travails that migrants encounter in their country of settlement, the novel is only fleetingly autobiographical. It then moves into both the narration of human encounters and the understanding of human experiences. All this is through the eyes of a middle aged South Asian migrant attempting to understand, appreciate and come to terms with modern urban Melbourne life and mores.
Part of this is achieved by introducing the element of fantasy. The injection of the emotions and the commentary of articulate domestic animals. This provides a compassionate counter narrative to the abrasive interactions of the principal human characters.
The protagonist Siva Sundram Pillai had migrated to Australia with his young family to escape the bitter civil war that engulfed Sri Lanka. He takes up a position in a large public veterinary hospital in Melbourne where he initially finds security, friendship and professional satisfaction. This gives him the confidence to set down roots, buying a house in suburban Glen Waverly, socialising with his colleagues and becoming involved in their lives.
The novel explores love and romance, passion and greed, ego and ambition, jealousy and vindictiveness, as well as the abuse of power. The interpersonal relationships portrayed are not limited to the Veterinary Hospital where these emotions are generated. They follow the characters to the pubs, their homes, their professional conferences and their formative past. It is a bold depiction of human emotions and drama at it best and its worst; a path-breaking novel relevant to our changing times.