An intrepid journey to the famously reclusive island unearths a paradise amid trauma and obfuscation.
Inspired by his intriguing Sri Lankan neighbors in Tooting, London, British travel writer Gimlette (Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge, 2012, etc.) decided to venture to the country formerly known as Ceylon—a tear-shaped tropical island the size of Ireland off the coast of India and made up of 20 million people, mostly Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims, and just emerging from a vicious long-running civil war (1983-2009). Gimlette moves geographically in his work, from Colombo, the teeming capital, to the perilous interior once replete with the sites of ancient kingdoms; the western coast, which was plundered by the Portuguese for pearls and cinnamon; the south coast, which was transformed by the next invaders, the Dutch, into a canal-laden vision of their home; and the eastern coast, which contains the gorgeous harbor of Trincomalee, where the British invaded in 1795. Each of the occupiers left something behind—e.g., the British administration and education network, which swept away feudalism and left a system of tea-growing estates in the highlands and a Pax Britannica lasting more than a century. The northeast still retained a trace of the "rogue state" founded by the breakaway Tamil Tigers in 2002. An effortless, elegant writer, Gimlette chronicles the stories of these truculent, traumatized people. He explores the still-reigning caste system that made the "Tea Tamils," the women tea pickers, the most poorly paid workers in the country. The author was especially attuned to the nuances between Sinhalese and Tamil, a hostility stoked in the 1950s by the Sinhalese chauvinism of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike into civil war. While the war wounds are deep and ugly, Gimlette finds a vibrant country "full of people beginning their thinking again…starting anew, unencumbered by the certainties of war.”
An exuberant, eye-opening travel quest.