John Gimlette is a winner of the Shiva Naipaul Prize and a celebrated British travel writer. The natural beauty of Sri Lanka’s wildlife parks, coasts and mountains, is legendary too.
John Gimlette is a winner of the Shiva Naipaul Prize and a celebrated British travel writer. The natural beauty of Sri Lanka’s wildlife parks, coasts and mountains, is legendary too. Putting those facts together, any reader would naturally expect Elephant Complex to be replete with finely-crafted adventure stories including some on one of the nation’s best-loved symbols: its elephant population. The book lives up to that expectation in parts.
In others, Elephant Complex is replete with breezy, superficial and even factually-incorrect observations on cultures too complicated for even many South Asians to fully comprehend, let alone a British writer on his first visit to Sri Lanka. They have done for the average reader in the West where the book has already received glowing reviews as the last word on Sri Lanka, never mind that many Indians and Sri Lankans themselves are likelier to smirk and click their tongues.
To Gimlette, Shiva is the ‘god of war’ and Tamils should actually be called Tamilians. Muslims and Tamils, he emphatically claims, are two entirely different groups. (of course he doesn’t know that Muslims can be Tamils and vice-versa for a variety of historical reasons).
Gimlette is quaintly surprised by what Sinhalese and Tamils have “shared in matters of religion”. (That must be THE understatement of the past several thousand years, since Buddha was born a Hindu prince, created Buddhism and firmly established himself on the Hindu pantheon too as one of the ten avatars of the God Vishnu). Gimlette also dreams of ‘chestnut groves’ in Colombo (chestnuts don’t grow anywhere in South Asia except temperate Kashmir), tells us that mulligatawny soup (an Anglo-Indian invention that has little to do with Sri Lanka other than on restaurant menus) is sold by vendors on Colombo’s Galle Face Greens, that Sri Lankans call their thugs ‘goondas’ (a Hindi word) and that a suicide bomber blew up the ‘Indian president’. (PM Rajiv Gandhi). Finally, he educates his readers on one of the subcontinent’s official languages. “Telagu (sic)”, he informs his readers, “is a mix of Tamil and Hindi”.
Most crucially (and the elephantine cover picture of a war-wreck, not a pachyderm confirms this): Gimlette chooses to expand his knowledge of the events that led to the 30-year-long civil war between the armed separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan state, by consulting with three of the worst possible international sources before embarking on his trip. Sri Lankan Tamils in Tooting, London and controversial foreign writers Frances Harrison and Gordon Weiss.
All South Asians know that for all their tremendous achievements and hard-won successes, members of the South Asian Diaspora in western countries simply cannot — and often will not — paint an accurate picture of ground realities in the countries of their origin.
Even six years after the end of war, some sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, especially in the UK, still persist with separatism in Sri Lanka. Gimlette himself makes that admission: “The civil war in Sri Lanka may be over, but here, in Tooting, it’s never quite gone away”. In the London suburb, Gimlette sees LTTE calendars with pictures of ‘martyrs’, remarks on their annual celebration of the LTTE’s “Heroes’ Day” and even quotes a newspaper that once alleged that this very Tooting Tamil community used to ship weapons to the LTTE under cover of ‘tsunami aid’.
Throughout the book, Gimlette desists from both questioning his own country, the UK, for its dubious role during the decades of conflict and from posing the obvious question: Why and how the LTTE is allowed to be commemorated or sold as a concept on calendars within the UK at all, when the banned outfit is officially proscribed as a terror group by that country
Neither does the writer mention, even in passing, his own country’s key role in favouring Tamils in the civil service of Ceylon for decades of colonial rule, a deliberately meddlesome partiality which unleashed great animosity and growing chauvinism among the majority Sinhalese and ultimately led to the civil war.
The war is long over, there has been astoundingly fast development of the war zones, the country has a new and very popular president and for the first time in its political history, a rainbow coalition of the unlikeliest partners. Much can be criticised about the slowness in finding a political solution for the Tamils of the formerly embattled North and East, but for six years now, Sri Lanka has unquestionably been on a positive, upward graph.
Gimlet however, prefers to ‘learn’ about today’s Sri Lanka from yesterday’s foreign ‘experts’: former BBC journalist Harrison and former UN spokesman Weiss, two of the most controversial foreign writers on Sri Lanka who are widely distrusted by Sinhalese and Tamils alike. Their remarks quoted by Gimlette in his introduction, amply illustrate why.
“Denial,” Harrison tells Gimlette authoritatively, “has become a Sri Lankan habit. The newspapers (Sri Lankan) aren’t helpful either. Most are so full of trenchant...opinion, it’s hard to work out what’s actually going on”.
“I was warned before going to Sri Lanka that when I left I would know the country less well than when I arrived,” says Weiss. “And in a sense this is true.”
In many ways, both ‘experts’ make an inadvertent admission of their lack of in-depth knowledge, making one wonder how it is, that reputed organisations like the ones they worked for, could rely on their analysis of Sri Lanka at all.
So since Gimlette is none the wiser through their counselling, he plays it safe by toeing whatever the international ‘line of the day’ is, on Sri Lanka. One that throughout the war and to date has been marked by persistent ‘big brother’ bullying. Civilian killings by the West’s own ‘coalitions of the willing’ and ‘war against terrorism’ on other people’s soils are largely ignored by all western torchbearers of ‘human rights’. But Sri Lanka continues to stand condemned for defeating armed separatists on its own soil and for — a dubiously-conjured up number of — civilian killings during the last stage of the war.
International rhetoric on Sri Lanka is also marked by annoying neo-imperialism, of talking ‘down’ to the natives, of imagining that somehow, all ex-crown colonies do, is long for the glorious years of the Raj.
Gimlette, too, is not immune to this tendency.
To understand the resurrection of Raj thinking on resources-rich countries that were erstwhile jewels in the crown, one glance at the bristling importance of Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean region is all it takes. The country is located at the most strategic crossroads of shipping lanes through which ply oil tankers between South East Asia and the Gulf and onwards to the West. Sri Lanka’s relations with China are robust and strong, its defense cooperation with Pakistan and Beijing are what helped it defeat the Tigers. Not exactly desirable developments for the UK, the US or NATO.
Gimlette takes the Sri Lankan army’s hospitality, but ungratefully refers to them as the ‘heavies’, or, the ‘goons who sped us around’.
He writes patronisingly about Sri Lankan schools enthusiastically turning out ‘faux Britons’, quite overlooking the fact that the Empire set sail for Blighty 70 years ago and loyalties here lie firmly with the national flag, not her Majesty the Queen. Finally and inevitably (since western nations see themselves as the authors, practitioners and bedrocks of the best and purest form of democracy), Gimlette calls the emergence of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka from its former British colonial avatar, as a ‘sure sign of liberty in trouble’.
When Gimlette sticks to travel writing, his forte, he is wonderful to read.
“A last little bit of England still in their midst, magically preserved in isolation’s aspic,” he writes of the very British hill town of Nuwara Eliya.
His descriptive passages of Kandy and of a pilgrimage to a Skanda shrine in Kataragama, where Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus flock to pray, contain languorous, silky passages of prose dotted by the deadpan humour that most British writers are gifted with.
“Stalls had appeared at the roadside, selling watermelons, bananas and bundles of firewood. Further on, they sold plastic machine-guns and nuts...Two incense sellers were fighting on the verge. A huge fish appeared in the door, demanding a buyer. AVOID ENTERING DRUNK said the signs but it was a hopeless request in a place so spiritually tipsy.”
From his hotel room in Hambantota, Gimlette gazes out.
“I had a view of the horizon and an endless trickle of ships. Some of them looked like islands, huge hulks of mauve, sliding imperceptibly along. By night there was a whole archipelago of lights, constantly changing shape and colour.”
Writers in post-war Sri Lanka cannot entirely avoid invoking the long civil war. Indeed and given its ferocity and intensity, wartime Sri Lanka remain a measuring scale for assessing all aspects of post-war life by Sri Lankans themselves.
But other than those who witnessed the war, few are in a position to successfully delineate that omnipresent juxtaposition. It is not possible for anyone to understand the new Sri Lanka, without having experienced the old and only the bravely foolish would do so. Gimlette takes that chance, and that is the book’s one big failing.
The critic is a veteran foreign correspondent who covered the Sri Lankan civil war for over two decades and is the author of Sri Lanka: The New Country