Book Review: Upon a Sleepless Isle

Book Review: Upon a Sleepless Isle

The book portrays Sri Lanka like never before

Upon a Sleepless Isle, Andrew Fidel Fernand

As I ate a vegetable-stuffed roti sitting on the rock, an East Asian couple spotted me and became transfixed, in the way safari-goers might upon seeing rare wildlife. At first, they viewed and photographed me from a safe distance, wary, perhaps, of sending me scurrying into the bushes. They then inched their way forward, smiling broadly, as if to convey they meant no harm. Each halting advance was accompanied by a flutter of camera shutters. Eventually, coming to realise I was quite tame, the man came and sat right next to me, while his companion took pictures. There were a few photographs of us sitting side by side, looking over the drop, a few more with his arm around my shoulder. Finally, the most intimate pose of all: the man turned his back to me, his body at a right angle to my outstretched legs, then leaned back on his elbows, his back arched over my thighs. When they showed me the resulting snaps, the two of us did look gorgeous, with that arresting visa stretching pout behind us. We could have easily made the next cover of Gay Interracial Monthly.”

This is a passage from Upon a Sleepless Isle, and there’s plenty more where that came from. However, as the saying goes, it’s not all ha-ha, hee-hee; this travelogue combines humorous insights with astringent pronouncements on the state of Sri Lanka today.

Cricket-writer and satirist Andrew Fidel Fernando travels the length and breadth of his beautiful country for all of seven weeks, stopping to meet interesting people, make trenchant observations, take in stunning sights, experience the generosity of his countrymen and women, as well as look at the war-torn, the grotty, the bleak side of his country, too.

Fernando, whose father is Sinhalese and mother Tamil Catholic, is well placed to see things from both sides. Even as he states dryly that, in post-independence Sri Lanka, history that fails to assert Sinhala-Buddhist primacy is often no history at all, he rues that imminent change is not apparent on the horizon.

The author touches on a lot of things: the utter incompetence of file-pushers in government offices; the addictive chaos of Colombo; the Gathering at Minneriya (Fernando spotted about 150 elephants, but at the height of the season, as many as 500 pachyderms converge on Minneriya Lake); the bandit Sura Saradiel who raided merchants on the Kandy road. In Nuwara Eliya, he looks beyond the colonial schtick as he calls it, and tells us about the chieftain Keppetipola who took on the British as far back as 1817; he meets some Upcountry Tamils and paints a straightforward, grim picture of their miseries; in Polonnaruwa, he takes in the spectacular ruins but concentrates on Dr Wolfgang Dittus and his primate project; at Parakramabahu I’s Samudraya reservoir, Fernando meets the ice-cream seller who noticed some old bunds, joined the dots, and eventually discovered that they were part of one single extensive bund that stretched for more than double the present 12.5-km distance of the magnificent reservoir.

He then goes north to Mannar, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, and discovers it is quite another planet there, in terms of post-war deprivation. In Batticoloa, he comes across the minority within a minority, Sri Lankan Muslims, people who have learned the hard way to keep their heads down and live their lives quietly. He goes deep-sea fishing in Weligama and discovers he has absolutely no sea legs.

And over it all, the leitmotif on the lintel is of a country that is trying to move on, past its war devastation, but has not emerged fully out of those woods yet. It’s a pity, remarks the author, that so many Sri Lankans choose to dwell on the quibbles that divide the nation, rather than the struggles that are common to (them) all.

This is a very personal account, with frequent references to the weekend idylls that follow whenever the author’s Kiwi wife comes out to join him. There’s no attempt at walking any middle path for Fernando. In fact, at times, it becomes a bit of a juvenile rant but that is part of the book’s appeal. Even as he derides some things, he proudly praises others.

One particular takeaway for this reader, though not a surprising one at all, was how much India and Sri Lanka had in common: its supine government staff, its warm-hearted, prone-to-gossiping people, its politicians who make an art form of political egotism, resulting in their face ‘plastered on billboards, lampposts, street signs, public transport vehicles, on posters clenched between beaks of crows’, the inquisitive inquisitors one invariably runs across on buses and trains (‘Married? No kids? Why?’), the mountains of litter found at pilgrimage spots, the overt chauvinism the majority community employs towards others. The good, the less-than-good and the bad in Southeast Asia.

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