Tuesday, February 13, 2018
ELEPHANT COMPLEX - Travels in Sri Lanka by John Gimlette – A Review.
By Srianee Fernando Dias
In January 2017, I had the privilege of hearing John Gimlette at the Galle Literary Festival speak about his book, which was published in 2016. I made a mental note to read it, but it took another year before I got around to reading it. It is a remarkable book and I recommend it, especially for those of us who are living outside Sri Lanka. The subtitle is “Travels in Sri Lanka,” but it is not simply a tour guide.
The author practices law in London when he is not traveling and writing travel books, and has won many awards for his writing. He contributes regularly to several publications, including The Times (London), The Guardian, Condè Nast Traveler, etc.
In his travels and explorations of the Island he interviews people from all walks of life; former presidents, ministers, Colombo socialites, army generals, navy commanders, soldiers, survivors of the war, former LTTE members, tuk-tuk drivers and many others. His travels do not include stops in resorts or 5 star hotels. He takes us through less traveled roads into remote villages and unusual places which really whetted my desire to see such places, but I think I will have to be satisfied with just reading about them.
One such place that he describes, and one I had not heard about, is Ritigala “nestled high in the rocks,” which had been established by a community of ascetics in the seventh century. They rejected earthly wealth and dressed only in clothes that others had thrown away or clothes salvaged from the dead. They also rejected housing and lived in caves, connected by staircases.
Another fascinating section of the book is his attempt to find the “Great Road” which once connected Kandy to the lowlands. It had been abandoned two centuries earlier, but had been documented by several explorers. John Gimlette undertook painstaking research to locate it, and worked backwards from Kandy to the lowlands. His most helpful lead came from the travelogue of Dr. John Davy, brother of Sir Humphrey Davy, the inventor of the miner’s lamp.
The author writes with humor, warmth and affection about the people he meets, even when he makes certain negative observations about some of them! He goes into depth describing some of the events of the war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. He does not pass judgment. There may be some inaccuracies in his narrative, but I think they are forgivable, considering the extensive research that has gone into writing this book.
I found the historical accounts that have been interspersed throughout the book quite fascinating, because the historical events come alive. I was one of those students who yawned (and probably even dozed off!) during the history class at Ladies’ College. But, in my defense, one of the teachers simply had the students taking turns at reading the text out loud. I don’t remember any interesting discussions. I learned a lot of history simply by reading this book, but I also realized what a complicated and violent history we have lived through, in ancient times as well as in the recent past.
I hope that some of the readers of this review will pick up the book and read it. You will not regret it. It is available in paper back on Amazon and can be ordered through Vijitha Yapa Bookshop in Colombo. (Each time they get a few they seem to sell out!)