In the same boat by Channa Wickremesekera – A review

“Everything is Fair on a Leaking Boat”

A boatload of nameless refugees are fleeing their devastated homeland, heading for an unknown destination. As a storm looms ahead of them they run into one obstacle after another, the navy, a boatful of rebels and a leaking petrol tank. In the meantime a stowaway is discovered, a man from a rival ethnic group and the fugitives reveal themselves to be more than just victims.

Then the storm breaks….

The novella In the same Boat is not your usual work on boat people. The asylum seekers from an unnamed country are cast in the role of victims as well as perpetrators, no strangers to the gamut of feelings people long suffering from war are vulnerable to: fear, hatred, self-interest and greed just to name a few. What emerges is a strong statement about asylum seekers. Boat people, we see, are also people, possessing human emotions and qualities like love, cruelty, heroism, greed and fear.

The context may appear to have a Sri Lankan touch it but can easily be related to any “Third World”country. Indeed, the boatload of refugees can be seen as an extended metaphor for any such nation the key actors symbolic of different elements in society. There is the “Red Cap” who perhaps stands for the revolutionary who offers salvation but at a price, the “Dissenter” who represents the naive sentimentality of the well-meaning yet unpragmatic activist, the “stowaway” the quintessential member of the minority, tolerated because he can be useful but expendable when it suits the general interest and of course the nameless, faceless mob that bays for blood and screams for mercy when it suits their interests. Even the captain of the ship that appears in the distant, like a ray of hope for the doomed vessel, appears to have a metaphoric function, illustrating the limits to the humanity of the wealthy West.

The novella is replete with memorable one liners: ‘Everything is fair on a leaking boat’; ‘Madame I have seen as many heroes as I have seen orphans but they are all dead’. The final moments in the dark, stinking, hold are terrifying, the end leaving you with a sinking feeling.

Despite some improbabilities ( a stowaway with a money belt?) the story succeeds in making its point powerfully, leaving the image of the ill-fated boat and its faceless yet immensely human passengers vivid in the minds of the reader long after he has closed the book.

This review appeared in The Australian Development Review

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