The book to read if you’re intent on visiting Sri Lanka
A S H Smyth on Andrew Fidel Fernando’s Upon a Sleepless Isle, winner of the 2019 Gratiaen Prize
Perhaps the last person I saw before COVID-19 bore down on us, at an England vs Sri Lanka selection XI warm-up match, mid-March, was the young and highly-regarded ESPNCricinfo writer Andrew Fidel Fernando.
I had my two-year-old kid at the game – as it was free, and you could wander in and out – and we’d been talking to some visiting psychiatrist who had a day to kill before his flight home. Then Fidel (he goes by ‘Fidel’, his actual first name not being any of the three above) rocked up, bedecked with press credentials, and we chatted for about five minutes, and then my daughter and I had to make a couple of unexpected trips to the loos in rather quick succession (let’s just say I hadn’t packed enough nappies), and by the time we’d gone home and had a change of clothes the ECB had pulled its players off the field, and then the whole world went to cock.
In all, his journey amounts to about seven or eight weeks on the road, and, Sri Lanka being a fairly small place, it’s worth noting that his is an entirely normal tourist itinerary
Last Saturday, in Colombo, after several months of plainly reasonable delay, the Gratiaen Trust committee, custodians of The Gratiaen Prize (for English-language writing, NB; set up by Ceylon-born Michael Ondaatje with the winnings from his 1992 English Patient Booker triumph), having given up all hope of being able to hold a normal event, announced, online, the winner of the ‘2019’ prize from a shortlist of four – one of which was Andrew Fidel Fernando, and his casually-accomplished round-island travelogue debut, Upon a Sleepless Isle (published by Picador India, last January).
Nothing against the other books (or authors) in this year’s short- or longlists: I just hadn’t had the time to read them, if they even exist yet. (It is to the credit of the Gratiaen Prize that many – if not almost all – of these books are self-published, and indeed authors can submit manuscripts, in the hope that potential winnings be used to fund full-time revision work and/or the actual printing of the book. This is how Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman started out, and it went on to win the Gratiaen, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Commonwealth Book Prize, and was voted the best ever novel about cricket by a 2019 Wisden panel.) But in a field routinely heavily populated by novels, poetry collections and short stories, some undisguised non-fiction in any case already seemed like quite a breath of fresh air.
Having returned to Sri Lanka from school and uni in New Zealand, and spent a few years consolidating a career in cricket journalism, AFF (as he is also known) decides to tour the country on a solo self-educational adventure – not least because big chunks of it were basically off-limits during his upbringing, thanks to the 26-year civil conflict with the LTTE/’Tamil Tigers’.
The book begins:
“The smiles in Sri Lanka are as wide as the horizon, visitors say. The nation’s treasures are as boundless as the ocean, many report. But never let it be forgotten that the ineptitude of the government is as vast and as awesome as the heavens…”
At this point, our intrepid would-be traveller just wants the ID card to which he, as a Sri Lankan citizen, is well entitled. But there follow six pages of brutal savaging of the bureaucracy (remember that bear scene in The Revenant…?), and then short treatises on social scandal, unsustainable development, the traffic, tourists, and the glossy travel magazines that bring them here. And we haven’t even left Colombo yet.
But he gets out and about soon enough, and in a punchy 240-page mildly-memoirish survey, utilising pretty much every form of transport barring the bullock cart, he sees the elephant herds at Minneriya, climbs the 1/8-Mile-High Club that was the rock fortress of Sigiriya, explores a highwayman’s hideout near Kandy, the surreal Lego-ish hill town of Nuwara Eliya, the tea estates, the ancient waterworks around Polonnaruwa, the temple-strewn Anuradhapura, the otherworldly Mannar island, the Southern beach towns, and on through the flattened LTTE heartlands up into Jaffna. (Cricket nerds, be advised: there is no cricket in this book.)
In all, his journey amounts to about seven or eight weeks on the road, and, Sri Lanka being a fairly small place, it’s worth noting that his is an entirely normal tourist itinerary – a visitor with even a mid-level budget and modest accommodation demands could cover all of it in a three-week holiday – just done more slowly and, crucially, with better local ‘access’, specifically linguistic.
Like all good ‘city-bred pansy’ writer types, he gets into scrapes (a tuktuk crash), and makes a fool of himself (‘helping’ some fishermen), and the whole thing is narrated with much irreverent humour and ironic side-eye, topped off with a great line in exaggerated street-chat/aunty gossip and the occasional murderously-deft flick of the stiletto: ‘if you had the financial means to inspire a government worker out of apathy…’ – all facets not exactly over-represented in Sri Lankan English letters (non-fiction, anyway. Novels are full of it).
Nor is his apparent economy dependent on foreknowledge on the reader’s part (aided certainly by the author’s more-or-less ingenuous exploratory conceit). Whatever learning AFF was already armed with here is lightly worn, he works in the historical and social context of each leg of the journey with a minimum of fuss (a certain journalistic pragmatism and efficiency paying off there, one assumes), and there’s really no time at which you feel he’s had to throw his bucket down the well of Wikipedia to get through to the end of a particular informative sub-section.
That said, considerable amounts of this material were new to me (which, in a whistlestop tour of the entire island, is not saying nothing). His trip to the abandoned rebel-descendant jungle village of Kumana is as intriguing as the details of the 1817 Uva rebellion are grim. And in particular, I’m grateful to him for introducing me to the life and works of the archaeologist John Still, and clueing me up as to the origin of the phrase ‘white elephant’: ‘after the Thai royal practice of presenting unpopular courtiers with tuskers that were ruinously expensive to maintain.’
Alas for AFF – the curse of writing first-draft history – Upon a Sleepless Isle also offers (or rather offered) two major hostages to fortune. Namely, his repeated and overt enthusiasm about the transition away from the family-oriented regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-15), and his vocal sympathy and support for Sri Lanka’s peaceful and tolerant Muslim minority. Only three months after the book was published, a series of domestic Muslim terrorist attacks took place around the country, killing hundreds, which in turn helped to usher in the present (Gotabaya) Rajapaksa government. These have aged almost so badly that it adds a certain piquancy to read his already-blasted hopes of just two years ago.
With an outsider’s eye, but all the insider’s credentials, AFF is perfectly placed for this kind of curious, contemporary chronicling
But what really makes the book work is not what he says, or even mostly how he says it: it is the way in which he sees things in the first place. With an outsider’s eye, but all the insider’s credentials, AFF is perfectly placed for this kind of curious, contemporary chronicling, not least because, having spent considerable formative time away from here, he doesn’t just shrug at things and say “What to do?”, or pretend that being ripped off by endless tuktuk drivers (less likely to happen in the first place, of course, if you’re a native and a native-speaker) is somehow cute.
There are, one realises, not so many travel narratives on Sri Lanka by full-time, resident Sri Lankans. Most of the attempted synoptic Sri Lankan books of late have been by foreign journalists/travel writers, and tend to be heavily war-inflected. The most enthusiastic perpetuators of the ‘smiling Ceylon’ exotic brand, meanwhile, work (surprise!) within the tourist industry. Neither is much of a reflection of what day-to-day life in C21st Sri Lanka is like.
So by and large – and no doubt this is somewhat presumptuous – what I loved most about the book was the feeling that it’s exactly what I would have said (if not as well) in these same circumstances.
Sri Lankan bus music; the pathological fear of sunlight; the tackiness of the resort towns; political billboards over even the smallest public installations (‘no other professional demands this much attention for just doing their job’); tuktuk drivers’ inability to know where they’re going (or admit to same); the plumbing; tactless and judgemental conversational overtures to total strangers; street dogs; the rampant hypochondria; canoodling teenagers; the Sinhala-Buddhist orange-washing of the national history; the abject horror of a restaurant band approaching while you’re trying to eat your dinner.
While all of this frank and funny stuff is of course just part of life’s rich tapestry (a nation does not exist solely to be attractive to tourists – though this one might occasionally be accused of coming close), and is more than leavened by his sincere eulogies on the beauty of the national parks, the delectable regional foodstuffs, the ingrained Sri Lankan inclination towards charity, etc., much of it might also obviously be categorised as ‘not especially flattering’.
The night of the tuktuk debacle (and subsequent hospital visit), he summarises, ‘had been a showcase of the nation’s extremes. If you catch Sri Lanka in one of her manic, self-sabotaging moods, she will relentlessly screw you over; her establishments will deliver kicks to the gut, thumb their nose at you, and pick your pocket when you are unconscious. But in her own fashion, the island almost always finds a way of redeeming herself, even if only partially, but in the most unlikely and warming ways.’
It is refreshing to see this honest take articulated, in print, by a Sri Lankan. But in the context of such unblinking, warts-and-all assessment, I can’t pretend I didn’t find myself frustrated by two of his more-frequently-recurring viewpoints.
On his trip to Sigiriya, he has only just finished deriding ‘authenticity’-seeking travellers for ‘slavering over’ the quotidian inconveniences of the developing world, when he moves on to the oft-debated dual-queuing/ticketing system at Sri Lankan tourist sites. He chuckles for a while at the people in the ‘For foreigners’ queue, standing in a straight line and apologising if they so much as gently knock each other with their rucksacks, before admitting that the alternative, just a few feet away – a graceless and completely inexplicable mosh – is utter carnage. The only possible sane conclusion from this is that everyone should learn to queue. Instead, a man as smart as AFF appears to derive the lesson that the foreigners deserve to pay ‘close to 70 times as much’ for entry to the national monuments, for nothing more than the privilege of their ‘utopian’ ideal of waiting for their tickets in an orderly manner. Tourism in Sri Lanka is worth approximately 12% of GDP, in normal years. But this often-antagonistic attitude to foreign visitors is in no way limited to writers looking for an easy punchline.
His second and more specific bugbear is Sri Lanka’s former masters, the British (he doesn’t seem too fussed about the Portuguese or Dutch), for the descendants of whom – often referred to generically as ‘pricks’ or similar – this is not, and is not meant to be, a purely comfortable read. Anecdotally (you will be stunned to hear), the cosmopolitan, ‘Western’-educated younger generations here have much more strident views on their colonial past than many of their predecessors. Yet even a relatively sympathetic British source is condemned flatly as the ‘colossal condescension of an Empire-builder.’ This, too, can seem a little short on nuance. As for Sri Lanka’s present woes, if you’re minded to believe that, say, the domestic tribulations of the average tea-picker are, in 2020, still somehow all the fault of Britishers, no doubt you will be pleased to know the incoming Chinese overlords are only a massive, unrepayable loan or two away from making everybody middle-class and free and very happy with their lot in life.
If you’re not British, of course – or personally aggrieved by the author’s views on ‘poofy Victorian beards’ – then you can just ignore that whole strand. But it converges, a little too conveniently, with another slightly irritating theme, wherein Sri Lankans, who can be really startlingly defensive when rejecting criticisms of abundantly-obvious national ‘characteristics’ (homicidal bus-driving, for instance), will then not only complain of the exact same things among themselves but also call for the death penalty on top of it. AFF is no exception. A frequent device is to set up a sort of Blimpish Daily Mail imperialist’s argument – “We gave you the trains didn’t we?” yadda yadda – and then after a paragraph or more of waspish (albeit entertaining and broadly accurate) retaliatory chastisement on that score, essentially agree that, erm, yes, not much has improved in the 70-odd years since. This happens often enough that it begins to smack of having had one’s cake and eaten it.
Just as I was arriving at this curmudgeonly conclusion, exactly halfway through the book, AFF writes of meeting two European backpackers who gush with praise about all things Sri Lankan, even the ‘cute’ street dogs (whom he dislikes), and he wallows in it, indulging the ‘storied Sri Lankan tradition … of embellishing the nation’s virtues’. Then an Austrian Buddhist pilgrim joins them, and is very-noisily less adulatory. That Buddhism here may not be on all eight folds of the noble path all of the time. That there are widespread problems with animal welfare. That the driving is atrocious, and that Sri Lankan tourists litter even the most sacred of their own religious sites. That all the city bars now want to pretend they’re in New York (price-lists to match). That the water can be dodgy. Even the heat is too much. ‘What a prick,’ AFF concludes. ‘Only Sri Lankans should ever be allowed to trash this country to anywhere near that extent.’
I can’t say what the competition was like; but I was rooting for Upon a Sleepless Isle
It’s an amusing and well-crafted scene. But kidding-not-kidding, y’know? AFF agrees elsewhere with all this grumpy tourist’s main objections. Most middle-class Sri Lankans do.
But this is merely envy on my part. Not simply for the quality of AFF’s writing – though there is that – but also for the things that, being local, he’s ‘allowed’ to say. I could not, would not (I won’t quite go so far as ‘should not’), have written a Sri Lankan travelogue like this, much as I might have wanted to. Which makes it all the more important that he’s done so.
Again, I can’t say what the competition was like; but I was rooting for Upon a Sleepless Isle. So I was particularly pleased when, last weekend, AFF was adjudged the winner of the Gratiaen Prize for 2019. Once the world starts going round again, this is the book you ought to read if you are coming to Sri Lanka. It is a book Andrew Fidel Fernando was the right person to write. And it is a book modern Sri Lanka needed. Which is, I’m sure, the sort of comment from a foreign prick he’d hate.
A note on the size of English-literary Colombo (because these things are important, and because nobody talks about them)
A couple of weeks ago, my daughter had a play-date at the beach with Andrew Fidel Fernando’s son. We were both present, as were our wives, and we drank a couple of very small and incredibly overpriced Lion lagers while on duty. More importantly, I got my copy of Upon a Sleepless Isle signed – which I had, essentially, only got round to buying a few days before out of embarrassment that I might be seeing him again, and since I knew the Gratiaen shortlisting was coming up.
That was, in all, the fourth time I had met AFF. The first, after months of people saying “How have you never met Fidel…?!” was at Shehan Karunatilaka’s February booklaunch of Chats with the Dead (forthcoming in the UK, from Sort of Books)… which I was Q&Aing: Karunatilaka and I are distantly related, by marriage(s). The second was at a friend’s party the following night: the friend in question was until about 12 months ago, I think, a member of the Gratiaen Trust.
Earlier this year, another UK publication precluded me from reviewing Chats with the Dead on the grounds that I knew Karunatilaka. We discussed what their criteria were, and I entirely agreed that I fell foul of them; but it’s a tricky business. I am on drinking terms with several outright winners of the Prize, a good few others who’ve been shortlisted (some falling into both categories, Karunatilaka among them), have worked with and/or done lit.-type events with several others, and know the sons of yet another (albeit deceased). Having recently looked them up, I realised I also knew one of this year’s three judges. This is about the size of (English-)literary Colombo – and I’m an outsider. Karunatilaka himself calls this ‘the Colombo bubble’. And, sure enough, who’s blurbed the covers of A Sleepless Isle, front and back? That’s right…
Kidding aside, to not be regularly bumping into these folks would be nigh-on negligent, not to mention impossible. And so, inevitably, as we were finishing up, AFF and I spotted a third friend – a writer, naturally – whom I had last seen in November(?) at a small Colombo literary festival, and went over to say hi to him. “I thought that you two didn’t know each other??” he said. Well, then we didn’t. Now we do. One may as well be straight about these things.
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