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

 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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).

PC310768

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!

 

 

 

Applying for an Indian Visa in Kandy, Sri Lanka

So you’ve decided to go to India! The food is mind-blowing, the big cities nerve-wracking, the transport always eventful and never on time. It is a land of extremes, both good and bad – but before you can dive head-first into this mind-bendingly gorgeous mess you have to face one of the more frustrating aspects of India – its vast and stubbornly inefficient bureaucracy.

Since the introduction of the online visa application form (which you then have to print out and submit in paper, aaargh!) things have become more complicated than ever. The form goes into minute detail, including “visible identification marks”, religion, job and education, the names and birth places of your parents and the countries you have been to in the past 10 years. Not all correct answers are necessarily the right ones and your form might be rejected by the guard before you even get to submit it in person.

A very helpful step-by-step guide to filling out the form can be found here.

I’d suggest reading it thoroughly before you start filling out the form, because the form expires if you take too long on one page, which means you have to start from scratch again (at which point I would not blame you for wanting to go over to the visa agency and hit someone over the head with your computer).

At first glance it might seem incredible that all the stoners in Goa ever manage to even get an Indian visa. But, as with most things, it looks more complicated than it actually is.

The rest of this post deals specifically with the practicalities of applying for an Indian visa in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

 

What you need:

TIME – The visa application takes 7 working days to process, but you don’t have to leave your passport there during that time. Also keep in mind that the visa is valid from the date of issue, not the date of entry into India.

MONEY – in cash, and in Sri Lankan Rupees. You can check the fees here – my condolences to the Brits and the Russians.

PAPERWORK – sooo much paperwork

The official requirements for Non-Sri Lankan nationals:

  • An online application form (filled out online and printed out)
  • A FAX reference form (printed out and filled out by hand, just because)
  • Three recent photographs (no, your passport photos won’t do – the dimensions have to be 2inch x 2inch, with a white background)
  • Photocopy of your passport (Bio page and the Sri Lankan visa)
  • Travel and tour itinerary
  • Copy of your hotel booking

Ok, now, chill out. Before you go on a hostelworld booking spree and cement you itinerary in stone read the rest of this blog and then head down to the Kandy train station (and grab a couple of rotis on the way… this might take a while).

Submitting the Application

First of all, don’t even bother with the online application – odds are, you’ll get it wrong anyways. No need to print out the FAX form either.

Take your passport, money (or credit card – there is an ATM near the IVS office), and the details of any hotel you might have already booked in India (if you haven’t, don’t worry). I’d also suggest taking a black-ink pen, since the FAX form has to be filled in black ink and there are no black pens to be found around the IVS office. No, blue ink won’t do. Black! Because it says so on the form! And because the guard checking your paperwork before submission has decided to exercise his one iota of power and authority over you and your blue-ink pen.

With all your documents in tow you can now either get a tuk-tuk down to the IVS office, or just walk to the railway station and flag down a bus going down William Gopallawa Mawatha (the IVS office is on No. 675) – check with the driver that they stop at “Royal Mall” station. The bus fare is somewhere between 10 – 15 Rs. and the ride takes about 15 minutes.

Get off at Royal Mall and ask around for the IVS Lanka office – its on the second floor of a pretty nondescript building.

First it’s time to get your paperwork in order. Luckily there are a couple of kiosks just down the road from the office, staffed with people whose job it is to fill out the online application forms in a way that will be deemed satisfactory by the impenetrable standards of Indian bureaucracy. Take a seat, hand over your passport and leave it to the pros.

For the “Travel Itinerary” section just mention the places you might be going to – “um, so, Kerala and Tamil Nadu I guess, and then kind of heading north?” worked just fine for me.

If you don’t have a hotel booking they will just put the address of a random hotel in the “address in India” section – you don’t have to submit proof of a booking.

If you are a student or currently unemployed just make something up for the form – if you put down “student” you will have to provide your father’s job and address.

There you can also have your photo taken and copy the relevant pages of your passport.

The filled and printed application form, 3 photos and 2 photocopies only cost around 4 Euro and will save you a lot of hassle.

Once you make your way to the IVS Lanka office you can buy the FAX form for 10Rs. Your paperwork will then be checked by a perpetually cranky guard and with some luck he will find it worthy of submission. Once at the counter you hand over your money and get a receipt with the date on which you can pick up your visa.

You are done for the day! To get back to Kandy just flag down any bus going in the right direction.

 

Picking up the visa

You have to submit your passport between 8:30 and 12:00.

If the weather is nice and you’re getting sick of Kandy you could spend the afternoon in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya, about 2 kilometres from the IVS Lanka office. It’s less of a botanical garden and more of a big park and a nice place for a picnic and a stroll, though the prices for foreigners are pretty steep.

You have to pick up your passport between 16:00 and 17:00.

Congrads, you are now the proud owner of an Indian visa! I hope this post was helpful in negotiating the Visa Application obstacle course.

 

K

 

Any questions or tips of your own? Comment below!