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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 29, July 15, 2023

Sri Lanka’s natural beauty amid fractures | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 15 July 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



Upon a Sleepless Isle:
Travels in Sri Lanka by Bus, Cycle and Trishaw

by Andrew Fidel Fernando

Picador India (PP, 2023),
Pages: 267; Price: Rs 499

Call it an irony but tourists, primarily from the West, never stopped exploring Sri Lanka all through the period the country was caught up in one of the longest running and blood-soaked ethnic conflicts. The reason was simple. The battle for a Tamil homeland was largely confined to the northern and eastern parts of the country (barring occasional bombings in Colombo) while the tourists frolicked in the rest of island nation. Once the Tamil Tigers were crushed militarily in 2009, the flood of tourists became a tsunami until the economic crisis of 2022 almost killed the booming tourism industry.

But long years of the war also produced broadly two streams of Sri Lankans – the northern and eastern Tamil who did not venture much into the rest of the regions while the battle-scarred northeast remained a distant blur, almost another country, to most members of the majority Sinhalese community. Naturally, when the war ended, there was a sudden urge among the Sinhalese to see the north and east from close quarters, to familiarize themselves with places whose names they had only heard whenever the military and the LTTE fought fierce battles.

Unlike most Sinhalese who ventured into Tamil areas only to see Buddhist viharas (more and more sprouted after the war) and military memorials and preferred to stay and eat in places run by the army rather than the locals, Colombo-based cricket writer Andrew Fidel Fernando, turning 28, decided he would no more be a stranger to the delights of his own land. So, he set out, leaving his New Zealander wife behind in Colombo, on a journey that lasted seven weeks, travelling in trains, buses and autorickshaws (called trishaws in Sri Lanka) while occasionally hiring two-wheeled scooters.

Sri Lanka is indeed a tourist paradise: abundant beaches, mountains, history, wildlife and, to top it all, a very tourist-friendly society. Had Andrew written just about these, this would have remained a simple tourist guide. A passionate Sri Lankan with a mind of his own, Andrew explores all aspects of his country, from the hilariously mundane to politicians who love to enrich themselves, and interacts with countless ordinary people as he stays and travels cheap (except when his wife briefly joins him on weekends, thrice) to produce an extraordinary travelogue that is as delightfully funny as it is informative and deeply engaging.

Andrew has contempt for Sri Lankan bureaucracy whose members’ only source of pleasure besides idleness comes from how to make the public feel small. He has no sympathy for a country that oppressed a minority so badly that it sparked a civil war. He is not sure why politicians in Sri Lanka, like indeed in much of South Asia, constantly remind the public that they exist by putting up giant billboards in all towns and even villages. Even within this crazy tribe, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had "made an art form out of political egotism". The Rajapaksa family rightly gets shabby treatment from Andrew for propping up family rule and dragging Sri Lanka to an unprecedented economic disaster.

Despite persistent poverty and indebtedness so evident on the outskirts of Jaffna although the Tamil town itself has prospered after the war, the author meets people who are friendly and at times go out of their way to help out. Indeed, this is a trait he comes across in other parts of Sri Lanka too. "Where once I had passed kind deeds off as isolated moments of personal virtue, through the course of my travels I had become aware of a common wellspring of goodness. It was those with the least to spare who often drew deepest."

But while sympathizing with the suffering Tamils, including those in the central tea-growing hills who have been historically tormented, Andrew has no love for the LTTE or hate-mongering Sinhalese chauvinists. The so-called nationalists of one side, he reasons, need the opposite set of racists to be hale and hearty; else there would be little reason to rouse the public up. In other words, they were (are?) each other’s greatest allies.

The author praises the dominantly Sufi Muslim community for contributing enormously to Sri Lanka’s development but which in recent times became victims of not just the Tamil Tigers and hardline Buddhists but also from its own lunatic fringe wedded to Wahabi ideology.

But mind you this is no political treatise. It is about exploring Sri Lanka, from top to bottom. Andrew brings alive both the present and the historical beauties of Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa, the islands off Jaffna, Kilinochchi that was the former administrative capital of the LTTE, the historic Madhu church in Mannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa on the east coast, Arugam Bay, Kumana and Yala on the southwest, the Rajapaksa hub Hambantota, picturesque Kandy, the deep south’s Galle and Weligama and of course Colombo, his own city, and neighbouring Negombo. He stops over at the smallest towns, has memorable encounters with locals, sees plenty of wild life including elephants desperate to mate, and at one place gets ejected out of a restaurant because it would not serve Sri Lankans! When Andrew protests, he is consolingly told that even Indians are not allowed to dine. Reason? Foreign women flock to the restaurant dressed "differently", and Sri Lankan men supposedly misbehave with them.

This is Sri Lanka for you, brought alive by one who is inherently supportive of his country but who doesn’t hesitate carpet its shortcomings. For 499 rupees, this book is a steal.

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