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A Change of Skies, by Yasmine Goonerante.

July 2, 2014

A Change of Skies, by Yasmine Goonerante.  Sydney : Picador Australia, 1991.



A gentle, amusing book about an upper-class couple from Sri Lanka who move to Australia when the husband takes a position at a university in Sydney in the 1960s.

Bharat and Navaranjini Mangala-Davasinha come to Australia when he accepts a temporary teaching job at Southern Cross University. Much they find is new to them, but gradually they make changes and adapt and decide to stay. A Change of Skies relates their reactions both to their new country and to the one they have left behind. One of the first adjustments that the couple made was to change their names to Barry and Jean Mundy because Australians have such a hard time with their actual names.  Chapters alternate between narration by husband and wife and other observers. Interspersed with these is the journal of an ancestor of Bharat’s who had also spent a few years in Australia in the 1880s.

The couple had no compelling reason to leave Sri Lanka; the violence that would engulf the island would come later. They had no economic motivation since both belonged to the island’s elite. The decision had been made by him alone, perhaps because of his vague restlessness. Their marriage had been an arranged one, and both understood that the wife was to be submissive to her husband. She was a Hindu Tamil and a vegetarian. He was Sinhalese, from a family that had held important positions in the colonial administration of Ceylon.

Many of the cultural dislocations the Mundys experienced were relatively minor; the kind of things that make for good stories afterward. Appalled by Australians who lump them together with people from the Far East, they accuse their new friends of being racist. They found life was hard without the numerous servants they had had back in Sri Lanka. Everything and everybody moves too fast. The Mundys made friends with both “native” Australians—who fit the brash stereotypes of their country–and other migrants from Sri Lanka–who are intent on preserving traditions of their homeland. Since Barry was a professor, some of narrative focuses on academic life, which is always a country unto itself. When they return to Sri Lanka, they find it as unfamiliar as Australia had been at first.  When there, they missed the good plumbing and regular garbage pickup they had in Australia.

Despite the saying “he who crosses the oceans may change the skies above him, but not the color of his soul,” the Mundys find themselves changed by their move to Australia. Gradually Barry and Jean become different people than they had been in Sri Lanka. In particular, Jean creates a public persona, authoring cookbooks and running restaurants, but effortlessly being a good wife at the same time. Both come to understand that immigration is about change, and change must be accepted.

Yasmine Goonerante is prolific Australian poet, novelist and university professor specializing in post-colonial literature. In some ways, this novel mirrors her own life. Like the Mundys, she was part of a major family in Sri Lanka where she was born and raised. After education in Great Britain, she came to teach in a college in Australia shortly after the couple in her novel. While not writing autobiographically, she has herself dealt with the issues large and small that the Mundys encountered and has thought about what immigration means to a family like her own.

In The Change in Skies, Goonerante pokes gentle fun at all the groups she describes: British Australians, Sri Lankan immigrants, and those who remain in Sri Lanka.  She does a good job of establishing that neither Australians or Sir Lankans have a good understanding of the world in its diversity, even when they have traveled.  She describes how immigrants may not understand what is going on and misunderstandings may take place, but no real harm is done.  She clearly did not want to offend anyone.  The Mundys, however, never faced the kind of hostility that working-class and students migrants may face.

I might have enjoyed the book more if I had ever lived in either Sri Lanka or Australia and understood the cultural details. As it was, I felt as if the author avoided facing the fact that migration can mean pain. Few migrants find the process as bland as it was for the Mundys. Few have their wealth and social prestige to cushion such a move.

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