The Boat People

The Boat People

by Sharon Bala


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Globe and Mail bestseller, The Boat People is an extraordinary novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage only to face the threat of deportation amid accusations of terrorism

When a rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees from Sri Lanka's bloody civil war reaches Vancouver's shores, the young father thinks he and his six-year-old son can finally start a new life. Instead, the group is thrown into a detention processing center, with government officials and news headlines speculating that among the "boat people" are members of a separatist militant organization responsible for countless suicide attacks—and that these terrorists now pose a threat to Canada's national security. As the refugees become subject to heavy interrogation, Mahindan begins to fear that a desperate act taken in Sri Lanka to fund their escape may now jeopardize his and his son's chance for asylum.
     Told through the alternating perspectives of Mahindan; his lawyer, Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan Canadian who reluctantly represents the refugees; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese Canadian adjudicator who must decide Mahindan's fate as evidence mounts against him, The Boat People is a spellbinding and timely novel that provokes a deeply compassionate lens through which to view the current refugee crisis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525432463
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/04/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 469,374
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Sharon Bala lives in St. John’s where she is a member of The Port Authority writing group. Her short story “Butter Tea at Starbucks” won the prestigious Writers’ Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize in 2017.  The Boat People is her first novel. Please visit

Read an Excerpt


July 2009

     Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes. He heard the whistle and thud of falling artillery, the cries of the dying. Mortar shells and rockets, the whole world on fire.
     Then another sound. It cut through the clamor so that for a drawn-out second there was nothing else, only him and his son and the bomb that arched through the sky with a shrill banshee scream, spinning nose aimed straight for them. Mahindan fought to open his eyes. His limbs were pinned down and heavy. He struggled to move, to call out in terror, to clamber and run. The ground rumbled. The shell exploded, shards of hot metal spitting in its wake. The tent was rent in half. Mahindan jolted awake.
     Heart like a sledgehammer, he sat up frantic, blinking into the darkness. He heard someone panting and long seconds later realized it was him. The echoing whine of flying shrapnel faded and he returned to the present, to the coir mat under him, back to the hold of the ship.
     There were snores and snuffles, the small nocturnal noises of five hundred slumbering bodies. Beneath him, the engine’s monotonous whir. He reached out, instinctive, felt his son Sellian curled up beside him, then lay down again. The back of his neck was damp. His pulse still raced. He smelled the sourness of his skin, the raw animal stink of the bodies all around. The man on the next mat slept with his mouth open. His snore was a revving motorcycle, so close Mahindan could almost feel the warm exhales.
     He put his hand against Sellian’s back, felt it move up and down. Gradually, his own breathing slowed to the same rhythm. He ran a hand through his son’s hair, fine and silky, the soft strands of a child, then stroked his arm, felt the roughness of his skin, the long, thin scratches, the scabbed-over insect bites. Sellian was slight. Six years old and barely three feet tall. How little space the child occupied, coiled into himself, his thumb in his mouth. How precarious his existence, how miraculous his survival.
     Mahindan’s vision adjusted and shapes emerged out of the gloom. The thin rails on either side of the ladder. Lamps strung up along an electrical cord. Outside the porthole window, it was still pitch-black.
     Careful not to wake Sellian, he stood and gingerly made his way across the width of the ship toward the ladder, stepping between bodies huddled on thin mats and ducking under sleepers swaying overhead, cocooned in rope hammocks. It was hot and close, the atmosphere suffocating.
     Hema’s thick plait trailed out on the dirty floor. Mahindan stooped to pick it up and laid it gently on her back as he passed by. Her two daughters shared the mat beside her; they lay on their sides facing each other, knees and foreheads touching. A few feet on, he passed the man with the amputated leg and averted his gaze.
     During the day the ship was rowdy with voices, but now he heard only the slap of the electrical cord against the wall, everyone breathing in and out, recycling the same stale, diesel-scented air.
A boy cried out in his sleep, caught in a nightmare, and when Mahindan turned toward the sound, he saw Kumuran’s wife comfort her son. With both hands grasping the banisters, Mahindan hoisted himself up the ladder. Emerging onto the deck, inhaling the fresh scent of salt and sea, he felt immediately lighter. From overhead, the mast creaked and he gazed up to see the stars, the half-appam moon glowing alive in the sky. At the thought of appam—doughy, hot off the fire—his stomach gave a plaintive, hollow grumble.
     It was dark, but he knew his way around the ship. A dozen plastic buckets were lined up along the stern. He squatted in front of one and formed his hands into a bowl. The water was tepid, murky with twigs and bits of seaweed. He splashed water on his face and the back of his neck, feeling the grit scratch his skin.
     The boat—a sixty-meter freighter, past its prime and jerry-rigged for five hundred passengers—was cruising through calm waters, groaning under the weight of too much human cargo. Mahindan held on to the railing, rubbing a thumb against the blistered rust.
     A few others were out, shadowy figures keeping silent vigil on both levels of the deck. They had been at sea for weeks or months, sunrises blurring into sunsets. Days spent on deck, tarps draped overhead to block out the sun, and the floor burning beneath them. Stormy nights when the ship would lurch and reel, Sellian cradled in Mahindan’s lap, their stomachs tumbling with the pitch and yaw of the angry ocean. 
     But the captain had said they were close and for days they had been expecting land, a man posted at all times in the crow’s nest.
     Mahindan turned his back to the railing and slid down to sit on the deck. Exhaustion whenever he thought of the future; terror when he remembered the past. He yawned and pressed a cheek to raised knees, then tucked his arms in for warmth. At least here on the boat they were safe from attack. Ruksala, Prem, Chithra’s mother and father. The roll call of the dead lulled him to sleep.

He awoke to commotion and gull shrieks. A boy ran down the length of the ship calling for his father. Appa! Appa! There were more people on the deck now, all of them speaking in loud, excited voices. 
     The man they called Ranga stood at the railing beside him, staring out. Mahindan was dismayed to see him.
     Land is close, Ranga said.
     Mahindan scanned the straight line of the ocean, trying not to blink. Nearby, a young man stood on the rail and levered his body half out of the boat. An older woman called out: Take care!
     After all this time, finally we have arrived, Ranga said. He grinned at Mahindan and added: Because of you only, I am here.
     Nothing to do with me, Mahindan said. We all took our own chance.
     Mahindan kept his gaze fixed on the horizon. At first he saw the head of a pin, far in the distance, but as he kept watching, the vision emerged. Purple-brown land and blue mountains like ghosts rising in the background. The newspaperman came to join them as the slope of a forest appeared. Mahindan had spoken to him a few times but could not recall his name. Someone said he had been working for a paper in Colombo before he fled.
     We will be intercepted, the newspaperman said. Americans or Canadians, who will catch us first?
     Catch us? Ranga repeated, his voice rising to a squeak.
     But now there were people streaming onto the deck, squeezing in for a view at the railing, and the newspaperman was jostled away. Mahindan edged aside too, relieved to put distance between himself and Ranga.
     There were voices and bodies everywhere. Women plaited their hair over one shoulder. Men pulled their arms through their T‑shirts. Most were barefoot. People pressed up around him. The boat creaked and Mahindan felt it list, as everyone crowded in. They stood shoulder to shoulder, people on both levels of the deck, hushing one another, children holding their breath. The trees, the mountains, the strip of beach they could now make out up ahead, it all seemed impossibly big, unreal after days and nights of nothing but sea and sky and the rumbling of the ship. Nightmares of rusted steel finally giving way, belching them all into the ocean.
     Sellian appeared, squeezing himself between legs, one fist against his eyes. Appa, you left me!
     How to leave? Mahindan said. Did you think I jumped in the ocean? He picked his son up in the crook of one arm and pointed. Look! We’re here.
     The clouds burned orange. Mahindan squinted. People shouted and pointed. Look! 
     There was a tugboat in the water and a larger ship, its long nose turned up, speeding toward them, sleek and fast, with a tall white flagpole. The wind unfurled the flag, red and white, majestic in the flaming sky. They saw the leaf and a great resounding cheer shook the boat.
     The captain cut the engine and they floated placid. Overhead, there was a chopping sound.
Mahindan saw a helicopter, its blades slicing the sky, a red leaf painted on its belly. There were three boats now, all of them circling the ship, a welcome party. On the deck, people waved with both hands. The red-and-white flag snapped definitive.
     Mahindan gripped his son. Sellian shivered in his arms, from fear, from exhilaration, he couldn’t tell. Soon Mahindan was shaking too, armpits dampening. His teeth clattered.
     Their new life. It was just beginning.


Inshallah, Mr. Gigovaz

Gigovaz’s Subaru was idling at the entrance of her low-rise when Priya came down from her apartment at 4 a.m. A police cruiser had pulled up alongside and both drivers had their windows lowered like characters in a cop show.
     Standing under the shabby green awning, Priya tugged on the building’s door to make sure it had locked before walking out toward the curb. Wind blew the rain sideways, the drops bouncing in tiny white splashes off the asphalt. The cop pulled away as she climbed into Gigovaz’s car.
     Nice area, he said.
     Priya didn’t know how to reply and said nothing as they drove east on Hastings past hobbled shopping carts and vacant storefronts, sleeping bodies huddled in doorways. She held her travel mug with one hand and fumbled the seat belt into the buckle with the other.
     Gigovaz had the radio tuned to an easy-listening station.
     Avishai Cohen, he said.
     The name meant nothing to Priya, but since she hadn’t wished Gigovaz good morning, she said:      It’s nice.
     He nudged the volume up and Priya took it as a sign she was exempt from small talk. Rain thrummed a steady beat against the roof. The inside of the car smelled like stale coffee and wet dog. Big Mac wrappers were crumpled into paper cups. There was a pilled blanket stretched across the backseat, a fine layer of dust on the dashboard, and a ziplock of Milk-Bones on the floor, half the biscuits crushed to crumbs. It was her first trip in Gigovaz’s car and Priya was thoroughly unsurprised. 
     The rain let up as they drove south past Richmond. In the distance, there were container ships and construction cranes, golden dots of light shining through the fog. On the radio, a three-tone melody announced the national news. The refugees were the lead story 
We took control of the vessel twelve nautical miles off Vancouver Island, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said. The migrants were taken into custody and we are now conducting a deep search of the ship.
     The news reader cut in: The ship bore no visible flags or numbers—a sign, officials say, that those aboard were hoping to enter Canada unnoticed.
     Gigovaz turned off the radio. A massive cargo ship with hundreds of people, he said. I’m sure that was their plan—to slip in unnoticed.
     At the ferry terminal, they were waved into line behind a blue Camry. A Canadian flag was taped to the antenna, waggling in the breeze. It was properly morning now, the sky a mild gray. The lot was nearly empty, only a few commuters out on this holiday Wednesday. Gigovaz rolled down the window to wipe the side mirror and Priya did the same, then dried her hand on her skirt and stifled a yawn.
     Today was supposed to be about sleeping in, eating pulled pork pancakes, and watching the Canada Day fireworks from the beach at Kitsilano. Today was not supposed to be about refugees and Gigovaz and an O-dark-hundred commute to Vancouver Island.
     Gigovaz had been comatose in a staff meeting two days earlier when Priya first spotted him. The partners at Elliot, McFadden, and Lo were congratulating themselves over five columns of numbers on a PowerPoint and Priya was leaning against a wall at the back, ignoring her pinched toes and thinking about an affidavit she was trying to track down, when she noticed Gigovaz, slumped into a chair, chin on chest, a mug dangling off his fingers. In a room full of crisp pinstripes and sharp ballpoints, Gigovaz looked blurred at the edges, soft folds overflowing in every direction. McFadden said, Billable hours rose 47 percent, and the room exploded in a round of applause. Gigovaz startled awake and Priya found herself staring into a squinted pair of bleary eyes. She turned away and started clapping, but a moment later, when she snuck a peek, Gigovaz was still watching her.
     Later, he caught up to her in the elevator and made her labor out the syllables of her last name.
     Raja, she said.
     Raja, he repeated.
     There were half a dozen people in the elevator and no one else was speaking.
     Rajakaran, he said.
     Raja-se-kar‑an, she corrected.
     Her own name sounded foolish to her, all the individual syllables rendered embarrassing and meaningless by repetition.
     You’re Sri Lankan? he asked.
     I’m Canadian, she said, standing up a little straighter.
     Gigovaz turned a dimpled hand over itself in the air and said, Yes, yes. But your family is originally from Sri Lanka, right?
     The elevator stopped and one person got off.
     Yes, she said. They were ten floors away from her desk and every single button on the side panel was lit up.
     Tamil? he asked.
     She compressed her lips and clasped her hands in front of her. Gigovaz was senior counsel, but there was also a chocolate smear on his collar. It was difficult to know how to act around him. But one more ignorant question and she would get off and take the stairs.
     You’re a law student, in your last year? And before she could answer, he asked if she had taken Refugee Law in school.
     The doors opened and they stepped aside so a woman at the back could squeeze between them.
     I’m specializing in corporate, Priya said.
     You didn’t study IRPA? he asked.
     IRPA. She tried to recall what the acronym stood for and came up with Immigration Refugee Something Act.
     We did the Divorce Act.
     Who’s your principal? he asked.
     Joyce Lau, she said. Mergers and acquisitions.
     Joyce Lau wore her hair in a bun and drove an Audi. She was the youngest senior counsel in the firm’s history and Priya had beaten out five people in her class for this job.
     Gigovaz rubbed a hand under his chin. Joyce Lau, he said. Impressive, impressive.
     When they reached her floor, Gigovaz got off too and veered toward Joyce’s office. Pack your things, Miss Rajakaran, he said. You’re moving to the seventh floor.
     Priya stewed as they boarded the ferry, cursing her skin color and the whim that had caused her to glance Gigovaz’s way in the meeting. When she’d asked Joyce Lau why he didn’t want someone who understood immigration law, Joyce had just shrugged and said: Peter requested you. No one had signed up to intern with Gigovaz and now he’d found a sneaky way to rope Priya in.

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions for The Boat People

1. Why do you think the author chose The Boat People as her title? Throughout history, the term “boat people” has been used to refer to different waves of migrants. Who did you think the boat people of the title were going to be? What other examples of “boat people” are you aware of?

2. Consider the book’s epigraph by Martin Luther King Jr.: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” How does this epigraph relate to the plot or set the stage for the themes explored in the book?

3. Author Sharon Bala has said that she wrote the novel as a “meditation on empathy.” Discuss how the novel explores both the need for empathy as well as how it is tested.

4. The novel is told through the perspectives of three characters: Priya, Grace, and Mahindan, both in the present and in the past. What do you think the reader gains by having access to these different points of view? What do each of these perspectives bring to the story? Whose story did you enjoy most? Whose story surprised you the most?

5. Examine the relationships between parents and their children in the book. How would you characterize these relationships? What does being a parent mean to Mahindan, Grace, Kumi, Appa, and Hema? What sacrifices have these parents made for their children? Discuss the expectations the parents have for their children.

6. Kumi is suffering from Alzheimer’s. In what ways does her illness reflect some of the book’s themes?

7. Many of the characters have to let go of certain possessions over the course of the novel. For example, Mahindan has to relinquish his grandfather’s suitcase, and Priya gives away some of her mother’s saris. What do other characters give up, both literally and metaphorically? In contrast, Kumi is constantly losing personal items, while at the same time trying to locate documentation such as deeds and ledgers related to the family’s former home and business. Sellian also manages to hold on to his Ganesha statue. Discuss the significance of what these characters surrender or hold on to, and how it reflects on their stories.

8. Has your perspective on immigrants and refugees changed after reading this book? Is there anything you now see differently?

9. Were you of the same mind regarding whether Mahindan should be allowed to stay or not throughout the novel? At what points did you waver one way or the other? How did you feel in the end?

10. Discuss the book’s ending. Why do you think the author chose to end the book when she does?

11. Some of the book’s most riveting scenes take place in Sri Lanka during the civil war. What other books have you read that take place during a time of war, civil or otherwise? How did those portrayals compare to the scenes in this novel? Had you heard of the Sri Lankan Civil War before reading this book? What were your impressions of Sri Lanka prior to reading this novel?

12. When asked about how the historical events of her novel increasingly appear pulled from today’s headlines, Bala has said that she never expected the book’s plot to “sound like warning bells rather than history lessons.” How is the novel relevant for us today?

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