BOOKS ON SRI LANKA

RUNNING IN THE FAMILY

Michael Ondaatje

“ The only occupation that could hope to avert one from drink and romance was gambling.”

This fictionalized memoir is a dreamy and wildly atmospheric foray into the chequered history of the author’s eccentric Burgher family. In trying to understand more of his absent dipsomaniacal father Ondaatje digs through the myths, rumours and scandals that surrounded him, recreating the heady upper class frivolity of 1920s in Ceylon that would make Gatsby wither with envy – skinny dipping at Mount Lavinia and tennis matches in Nuwara Eliya, sudden engagements, reckless affairs and casual tragedies.

It’s an easy book to get into, melancholic and funny in equal measure, with a whiff of magical realism about it. Highly recommended.

 

ANIL’S GHOST

Michael Ondaatje

“I wanted to find one law to cover all of living. I found fear…”

Set against the backdrop of the civil war and the JVP insurrection, Anil’s ghost tells the story of a young Sri Lankan forensic pathologist returning to the island after decades abroad as part of a UN Human Rights investigation.

While I found the writing to be disappointingly bland and haphazard when I coincidentally stumbled across this novel in the summer before my trip, the book sort of clicked into place during my stay in Sri Lanka. It is based on thorough research and does a good job of portraying the undercurrent of brutality and institutionalized denial which marked the civil war era and its aftermath.

 

A VILLAGE IN THE JUNGLE

Leonard Woolf

“All jungle is evil.”

Leonard Woolf (better known as Mr. Virginia Woolf) spent seven years working as a colonial officer in Sri Lanka, which inspired him to write this bleak little novel, first published in 1913. Woolf taught himself Tamil and Sinhalese and travelled widely through his district, learning about the daily hardships of the villagers. The story is told from the indigenous perspective without being patronizing, making it pretty unique for the era, and is peppered by local expressions and speech patterns.

The book is a vivid and thoroughly depressing account of one family’s hopeless struggle against the jungle, fellow men and their own backwardness. It’s a quick read, but one that lingers. You might need some arrack before rejoining society – I recommend Mendis Old Arrack.

 

THE CAGE: the Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers

Gordon Weiss

“States . . . reveal themselves in the way they are defended.”

This book is the first comprehensive, unbiased account of the mass killing of civilians that took place during the final four months of the civil war. Weiss provides ample context and analysis and doesn’t patronise the reader by descending into sentimental hand-wringing but rather explains the inevitable role of civilians as a tactical element in warfare and the ways in which international law seeks to limit it.

The question that the book seeks to answer is “What does the Sri Lankan government have to hide?” and the answer is, in short, “a whole lot”. But this book focuses on understanding the conflict, rather than assigning blame – after all, there is plenty to go around. The conduct of the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers receives the bulk of the book’s attention, but the diplomatic blunders of third party observers (most notably the UN and the IRC) and the self-serving interference of the region’s superpowers are also well covered. Spoilers: nobody comes out clean.

This is a deeply unsettling but in my opinion crucial book for anyone interested to delve beyond the glossy veneer of Sri Lankan tourist brochures.

 

A HISTORY OF SRI LANKA

KM De Silva

This definitive history of the island has 800 pages and you’d have to be very determined to read it from cover to cover, but it makes for a very good reference book, covering events from prehistory to the late twentieth century. My attention span was found lacking, but history buffs should get a kick out of it.

 

That’s it from me – have you read any books on Sri Lanka or by Sri Lankan authors that you would like to recommend? Comment below!

K

 

About Kaja Šeruga

Hi! I'm Kaja - Slovenian by birth, life-long traveller by parentage, lover of words at heart. This website was born in late 2014 when I got my degree in cultural anthropology and used it as an excuse to spend a year and a half travelling from Iran to Indonesia. Currently my MA studies are taking me from Berlin to Buenos Aires and Delhi and it doesn't look like the world will be running out of stories any time soon! Should we ever meet in person: Yes, I know I'm tall. No, I don't play basketball. (More in the About section)

BOOKS ON IRAN

One of the things I enjoy most about travel is the opportunity to research the country I am travelling through and discover new authors that I might never have heard of otherwise. In this series I will be reviewing the books I have read in different countries, in the hope that fellow nomadic booksworms find it useful when preparing for their own trip.

During my visit to Iran my reading mostly focused on non-fiction books since there were specific topics I wanted to research, but generally my literary tastes run the whole gamut of genres – fiction enthusiasts will not be neglected in the future, promise!

And now, without further ado…

Continue reading

About Kaja Šeruga

Hi! I'm Kaja - Slovenian by birth, life-long traveller by parentage, lover of words at heart. This website was born in late 2014 when I got my degree in cultural anthropology and used it as an excuse to spend a year and a half travelling from Iran to Indonesia. Currently my MA studies are taking me from Berlin to Buenos Aires and Delhi and it doesn't look like the world will be running out of stories any time soon! Should we ever meet in person: Yes, I know I'm tall. No, I don't play basketball. (More in the About section)

Sri Lanka by Train

Wherever the Brits went on their colonizing spree, they left behind a frustrating bureaucratic apparatus, an undying love for cricket (the rules of which still elude me) and a country-wide railway system.

Sri Lanka’s railway is one such relic, the shabby but good-natured cousin of India’s impressive train network. With rattling old carriages and stunning views, getting around Sri Lanka by train is a highlight for any train enthusiast or hopeless romantic.

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The trains are slow, often delayed and invariably overcrowded (unless you splurge for a 1st class ticket), but that is more than made up for by the photogenic landscapes, delicious snacking opportunities and ridiculously cheap prices.

A water vendor on the train from Galle to Colombo

A water vendor on the train from Galle to Colombo

Case in point: the 100-kilometre trip from Colombo to Kandy on the hill country line takes three hours, with a second-class ticket (without a reserved seat) costing a measly 190 LKR (1,20 EUR).

While buses might be a tad faster the trains are undeniably the more characterful and comfortable way of travel (if you can get a seat, that is).

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The Sri Lankan railways network consists of three main lines:

THE HILL COUNTRY LINE, which services the hill country and connects it with Colombo,

THE COAST LINE, running along the west and south coast from Puttalam to Matara, and

THE NORTHERN LINE, which now once again runs from Colombo to Jaffna. Trains between the capital and the war-torn northern regions only resumed in October 2014 with the inauguration of the train station in Jaffna – the northern railway network was destroyed 24 years ago during the civil war, effectively cutting the Tamil north from the administrative centres of the south.

On the slow train to Kandy

THE HILL COUNTRY LINE: On the slow train to Kandy

At times the coastal line runs right by the ocean

THE COAST LINE

On the train from Anuradhapura to Jaffna: the northern line is being rebuilt after the civil war.

On the train from Anuradhapura to Jaffna: THE NORTHERN LINE is still being rebuilt after the civil war.

 

For any questions about the logistics of train travel in Sri Lanka the railway guru on seat 61 has your back.

Times and prices can be checked on the official website.

My advice? Charge your camera, pack a good book and travel hungry so that you can sample all the delicious snacks, fruit and drinks that the vendors sell up and down the train!

 

Bon voyage,

K

Pineapples coming my way!

Pineapples coming my way!

 

 

 

About Kaja Šeruga

Hi! I'm Kaja - Slovenian by birth, life-long traveller by parentage, lover of words at heart. This website was born in late 2014 when I got my degree in cultural anthropology and used it as an excuse to spend a year and a half travelling from Iran to Indonesia. Currently my MA studies are taking me from Berlin to Buenos Aires and Delhi and it doesn't look like the world will be running out of stories any time soon! Should we ever meet in person: Yes, I know I'm tall. No, I don't play basketball. (More in the About section)