Every traveler in foreign territory wants a good guide. When plunging into a book about an island with thousands of years of human history (a recent twenty-six of which were spent embroiled in civil war), you want a good author to lead you through the landscape.
John Gimlette, author of previous travel books on Paraguay and Newfoundland, opens his book on Sri Lanka with the kind of facts a tour guide might employ to attract a crowd. “Elephants,” he waves his red umbrella, “have loomed large in the island’s history.” He prompts the reader to imagine the havoc just one of the majestic mammals would cause rambling loose in Ireland, yet the teardrop island hosts 5,800 of them. These creatures range around on the same alimankadas, or elephant paths, their entire lives. Gimlette describes Sri Lanka as being “densely criss-crossed with invisible corridors that have remained unchanged for… perhaps thousands of years,” a web of deeply embedded, intersecting itineraries he calls an “elephant complex.”
As he forges across the island, beginning in the capital of Colombo and heading north to the ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, Gimlette slowly unfolds his opening metaphor. Sri Lanka’s history is “a dense mesh of lines and pathways which—like the alimankadas—simply have to be followed.”
For Gimlette, one of these paths is “The Great Road,” once the only entrance to the highland kingdom of Kandy, which resisted colonial rule for nearly three hundred years (fighting off not only the British but the Dutch and Portuguese before them). Gimlette has as much trouble finding the road as his British ancestors, but he describes their eventual triumph over the Kandyan king (betrayed by his courtiers), which led to a new era of colonial rule.
From Kandy, Gimlette ventures east to Batticaloa, a town ravaged by the violence of the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army. Soon the cries of the hapless Europeans massacred by the Kandyan kings are echoed in the fresh anguish of the country’s three-decade-long Civil War. After the Sinhalese government declared Sinhala the official language, disenfranchised Tamils rose up in revolt, determined to establish an independent state. Intense boughts of fighting, suicide bombs, abductions, and torture lasted from 1983 to 2009. “Everyone is traumatized” Gimlette is told again and again. When he seeks out a book on the conflict, an empty-handed clerk tells him “ ‘they’re still being written.’ ”
As history repeats itself in violence, Gimlette writes, “Sri Lankan history never feels quite circular. Rather, there are recurring series of points of arrival and departure, with everything between lying disrupted and broken… No one is quite back where they started, and yet the same story will begin again, perhaps somewhere else.”
Another path opens: the A9. Still the only route to the northern Tamil-dominated city of Jaffna, it was trodden by ox-carts and, yes, elephants, for centuries. More recently, the highway served as a path of war. Mined and booby-trapped, the A9 was under Tiger control for twenty-three years. One can imagine their classic cars barreling along the road, Austin Cambridges and Somersets preserved from the fifties, most of them converted to kerosene. Like Cuba, Jaffna’s vehicles had to be sustained over a thirty-year period when the city was cut off from commerce by Sinhalese troops.
In early 2009 the A9 was conquered by the government army, who decimated the last of the Tiger forces in one of the government’s nominal “no fire zones.” Gimlette travels to one of these zones, on the beaches of Mullaitivu, where thousands of militants and civilians were indiscriminately killed. How many thousands? The Sri Lankan Army says 3,000, while the UN estimates up to 40,000 lives lost, and the Tamils claim 146,000 missing. As he approaches the zone with a military escort, Gimlette sees detritus everywhere: 10,000 motorbikes, 25,000 bikes, countless buses and the odd tuk tuk with a burnt-out and twisted metal frame.
Gimlette calls the road to Jaffna “one of the bloodiest roads in the world.” But as he watches a flock of kites rise up from the side of the highway, he feels reassured to see “nature forming its secret patterns once again, even here by the murderous A9.” Gimlette’s light touch, bemused tone, and eye for beauty and character carry the reader through an otherwise heavy history without downplaying its devastating losses. He sleeps in a tree, toils up the massive 660-foot column of rock that hosts the ancient fortress of Sigiriya, wanders tea estates, makes pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak and the Buddha’s tooth, and bathes in one of the many resevoirs scattered across the inland plains.
The resevoirs were engineered by Sri Lanka’s ancient “hydraulic kings.” By the early thirteenth century they had built over five thousand ellas, or channels, to bring water from the highlands to the arid flatlands, transforming the landscape. “All life had gathered here in a blaze of feathers,” an enraptured Gimlette writes of one of these resevoirs. “There were cormorants and ibises, and those little blue sparks of static, the kingfishers. But it was the bathers I envied.” Gimlette decides to join the swimmers, but when they see him coming, “all the frogs took fright and rose to the surface as one, before bouncing off across the lilies.”
At moments like this Sri Lanka reverts from a place of horror to a kind of ancient paradise, revealing the wild beauty that, perhaps, explains why the island was contested by rival groups over milennia. As early as AD 361 the country was known as “Serendib,” from which the poet Horace Walpole would coin the English word “serendipity” in 1754—it was such a happy coincidence for the ships that tossed up along its shores. The island was “Ceylon” to the British, who, clearly taken with its charms, would tranform the fertile central highlands into rolling tea estates. Leonard Woolf, who spent seven years there serving in the Colonial Civil Service, described the nation’s mystique as a “curious mixture of reality and unreality.”
Pablo Neruda attributed much of his poetry to the island. “Hail Ceylon,” the poet opened his speech at the Colombo World Peace Council in 1957, “pearl of greenness, flower of the islands, tower of beauty!” The writer Michael Ondaatje can trace his Dutch ancestry in Sri Lanka back to the 1600s. “The island,” he notes in his memoir Running in the Family, “seduced all of Europe.” Gimlette goes back even further, quoting a papal legate writing six centuries ago: “From Seylan to Paradise, according to native legend, is a distance of forty miles.”
Gimlette deftly divides his chapters into short, affecting vignettes that interweave the past and present. Each of these brief, poetic passages is a passage into the heart of this island paradise, criss-crossing the centuries until the reader understands the elephant complex of Sri Lanka, a network of intersecting paths within the imagination.