A quiet evening at home reading "The Winds of Sinhala," a first novel by Colin de Silva.

My mind had been transported back 2,100 years to the island of Ceylon -- or Sri Lanka, as it is now called. The Chola usurpers, Hindus from southern India, control most of the lush island, including the fabled capital of Anu. But the Cholas have never conquered the independent kingdom of Ruhuna on the southern tip of the island. It is there that the native Sinhalas, who are Buddhists, still hold sway and dream of someday reuniting their people.

King Kakkavan, the ruler of Ruhuna, had reached a stage of life where nationalistic visions had given way to a desire to follow the nonviolent precepts of his religion. But when his oldest son, Prince Gamini, was born, all the signs and portents foretold that Gamini would be the greatest Sinhala king, the ruler who would drive the Chola invader back to India.

Now Prince Gamini is 12 years old and given to making statements to his father like, "A Sinhala king can only reign in Anu, sire! We are one race, one language, one religion." Prince Rodana, the narrator of the novel, who had spent 12 years in a Buddhist monastery, has been brought to the palace to tutor Prince Gamini in the righteous path and to tame his youthful impetuosity.

Back to modern humdrum reality. My wife, who had momentarily tired of her own detective story about a missing heiress in the hands of a Manson-like cult in the Caribbean, came over to see what I was reading. She first noticed the battle elephants on the pastel-colored dust jacket and then her eyes picked up this snatch of dialogue:

" 'What . . . what happened?' he breathed. 'Where am I?'

" 'Lucky to be alive,' I retorted."

It was one of those moments that tests the tolerance that underlies a modern marriage. "Why are you wasting your time reading a historical romance?" she asked. "Who cares about Ceylon 2,000 years ago?"

Both questions deserve better answers than I gave at the time. It's hard to explain my enthusiasm for "The Winds of Sinhala," an odd novel that defies glib summary or easy categorization. Even the style of writing itself is elusive. Many of the sentences, when taken individually, are banal: "He would use his brain for this one, too, and his brain was sharp as lightning." But taken as a whole, the writing is as soothing as a cup of mint tea.

My wife was wrong when she assumed that "The Winds of Sinhala" is a romance. There are no beautiful maidens carried off on horseback, no princesses pining over lost love in dark castles. In fact, almost all the major characters are male and many more pages are devoted to the battlefield than the bedroom. True, Prince Rodana's devotion to Gamini -- first his pupil and later his king -- is total, but Rodana is a heterosexual who has taken the vows of celibacy.

The Chola invasion is one of the great events in the history of Ceylon, but "The Winds of Sinhala" owes far more to de Silva's imagination than it does to literal history. As the author explains in the foreword, "I have woven my novel from the bare threads of facts, introducing fictitious characters, incidents, customs and ceremonial to complete the tapestry." With the historical record scanty and the average reader's ignorance of Ceylon almost total, de Silva has broad latitude in creating an ancient kingdom to his own specifications. This may help explain why "The Winds of Sinhala" sometimes seems less a historical novel and more a novel of fantasy.

The story is told in flashback and we learn at the outset that Gamini, a legendary figure in Ceylon, succeeded in reuniting the island and ruled for 22 years. But Gamini remains a one-dimensional figure as he fulfills his heroic destiny. His father, King Kakkavan, and his mortal enemy, King Elara, the Chola ruler at Anu, are far more subtle characters and the reason is that each have strong religious beliefs.

"The Winds of Sinhala" is a novel that grapples with the conflict between the dictates of religion and the realities of politics. King Kakkavan, a devout Buddhist, fails in his efforts to teach his son the virtues of nonviolence. King Elara, for his part, prides himself on his devotion to strict Hindu justice, even to the point of executing his 17-year-old son for accidentally killing a sacred white calf. Elara is a character who appears often in human history -- the good man who holds power illegitimately and learns that nothing he can do can erase the stain of that illegitimacy.

But back to the question of why read a novel about Ceylon 2,000 years ago? My own answer is that "The Winds of Sinhala" made me think. It reminded me of the limits of politics, the limits of power and the limits of human ambition. Not bad for a novel that also featured Kandula, the Sinhala battle elephant.