Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Island
By Razeen Sally
Juggernaut, India
ISBN: 978-9353450601
408pp.

When I started reading Razeen Sally’s Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Island, I thought I would be reading a travelogue, but soon realised that it does not seem correct to call this book simply a travelogue.

It is certainly much more than that. It is an autobiography, a personal memoir, a socio-cultural history, a political critique and a nostalgic journey into past and present Sri Lanka. You can see the landscapes of the island, the flora and fauna, you learn about its history, you meet people of various ethnicities and religions, and you start understanding the current political issues that Sri Lanka faces. After reading the book, one feels almost as if one has lived on this paradisiacal island oneself for decades.

Born in what was then known as Ceylon, Sally defines himself as “half-half”, his mother — to whom he dedicates his book — being Anglo-Welsh and his father Ceylonese-Muslim. His description of his parents’ meeting on board a ship, their whirlwind romance and then marriage in Colombo, almost makes it seem as if one is reading a fictitious love story. It is the 1960s, and a young Muslim man from Ceylon, returning from air force training in Britain, meets an adventurous young woman from North Wales. They fall in love, their romance continues through correspondence, she arrives in Colombo, converts to Islam, they get married and she makes the beautiful island her home.

Sally describes the 10 years of his delightful early childhood in the early ’70s — spent in close proximity to the famous Mount Lavinia Hotel, where his father was the managing director — as enchanting and blissful, “until, one night, our world crashed.”

A personal memoir is also a socio-cultural history into the past and present of Sri Lanka

In a terribly charged political climate, his father is arrested because the country is going through dictatorial regimes and conflicts and no opposition is tolerated, and they lose everything. His mother decides to move to Britain and young Sally finds himself in totally changed circumstances in the cold, wet and unfamiliar surroundings of the United Kingdom. The next couple of years are spent moving back and forth between Ceylon and Britain until his father is finally released from jail and the whole family moves to the UK.

After a period of almost 20 years, Sally decides to return to the land of his birth. During this time, he has been to the island often, but always as a visitor and for short periods. By now, Sally has completed his education and become an academic, spending his time researching and writing books and papers. The pull to return to the place of his birth and the travels that he embarks upon are with a serious purpose in mind: to rediscover Sri Lanka and write both an account of the travels as well as a memoir. The travel account, or the journey itself, is a medium to tell a bigger story, to capture the times and spirit of the place in larger dimensions.

The second part of the book, comprising two-thirds of the volume, is Sally’s experience of his childhood home through adult eyes. This is an amazing visual as well as sensual expression of his feelings about this “paradoxical island”: “Sri Lanka for me is a heaven and hell country consumed by its own extremes, shot through with contradictions.”

Sri Lanka is about the size of Ireland, with a population of 20 million. Sally explores the beginnings of the Arab Muslim settlements going back to the ninth century CE (‘Serendib’ was the name given to it by the Arab traders, and it is from this that the word ‘serendipity’ was coined) and how the Muslims knitted the island together through trade. Even today, the gems and jewellery trade in Sri Lanka is dominated by Muslims.

The family business of the Muslim Sallys was transporting tea through which they made a huge fortune (although the author’s father’s own business career was turbulent, vacillating between great wealth and extreme poverty). It is also intriguing to learn how many family names are Middle Eastern in origin. The author’s own, for instance, was “Salih”, but some family members changed it to “Sally” as it was more fashionable.

In the first half of the 14th century, the famous Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta arrived on this island and wrote about its beautiful seashores, cinnamon trees and innumerable gemstones. Other famous foreign visitors — Hermann Hesse, George Bernard Shaw, Alec Waugh (elder brother of writer Evelyn Waugh), Pablo Neruda, Arthur C. Clarke and many others — have written about the beguiling and bewitching beauty of this island. A famous writer from Sri Lanka is Michael Ondaatje, the Booker Prize-winning author of The English Patient. Like Sally, Ondaatje also returned to Sri Lanka and wrote his memoir, Running in the Family, in which he states that Sri Lanka is “The most beautiful place in the world ... if we lived here it would be perfect.”

The Sri Maha Bodhi in the Mahamewna Gardens, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, is a sacred fig tree and the oldest living tree with a known planting date
The Sri Maha Bodhi in the Mahamewna Gardens, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, is a sacred fig tree and the oldest living tree with a known planting date

Another personality from Sri Lanka is the renowned and globally celebrated architect Geoffrey Bawa. Then, of course, there is the writer Martin Wickramasinghe who is known as the father of modern Sinhala literature, and in his work he celebrated Sinhala Buddhist village culture with all its rituals, religious festivals, myths and superstitions. Though predominantly a Buddhist country, the island has an amazing mix of ethnicities — Dravidians, Aryans, Tamils and Sinhalese, Moors, Burghers — and religious syncretism, including Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims. The author writes in great depth about Buddhism historically and the contemporary Buddhism that he experienced during his travels.

But, in spite of the pacifist religion of Buddhism, there is a history of violence in the country. Sally weaves into a colourful tapestry this history and all the related mythologies that created an “oasis of peace”, but with deep undercurrents of unrest that tore the country apart in a very brutal, ethnic civil war.

His meetings and encounters with prominent figures and old family friends, who reminisce with stories of the past, tie in with the aftermath of the colonial times and the period of the civil war. The long colonial history of Ceylon begins with the Portuguese who captured the island in the early 16th century, followed by its transfer to the Dutch empire and, eventually, to Britain in 1815. It finally gained independence in 1948.

Because of his academic background, Sally obviously did archival and desk research and readings into history, and found historical characters who had written about the Ceylon that they encountered and that had affected them. These include a variety of people who wrote how, over time, the breathtaking beauty of the lush green island, the paddy fields, the tea, rubber and coconut plantations and the spice fields, would change with the island’s colonial history, its involvement in the Second World War and the long civil strife that began in 1971.

He tells us about Robert Knox who, in 1665, boarded a trading ship of the British East India Company and a storm at sea forced him to land on this beautiful island, ruled by a Kandyan king. Living here for more than 19 years, Knox wrote one of the greatest books on Sri Lanka, An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, which notes in great detail the culture, the cornucopia of gods that were worshipped and the religious pluralism that made the society tolerant of other religions. In much a similar manner, in her novel Sita Haran, famous Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder weaves the ancient history of the island with the tale of the self-discovery of her eponymous heroine Sita.

Abundant historical sites, temples, stupas, mosques, churches, natural forests, huge rock faces, palaces, monasteries, pleasure gardens and lotus-filled lakes, alongside spice fields, elephants, ivory, precious stones, medicinal herbs, frangipani flowers, the Sri Maha Bodhi (which is the oldest recorded tree in the world, perhaps 2,300 years old) and the serene, 45-foot long statue of a recumbent Buddha are all part of the magnetic, culturally aesthetic story that Sally unfolds along with his “travels in a paradoxical island”.

We cannot end this review without mentioning the magic of Ayurveda, the traditional herbal-based medicine of Sri Lanka, and an encomium on the coconut tree: “What abundance it provides: nourishing drink and meat; cloth, mats, brooms, brushes and rope from its fibrous husk; timber, thatch, cups and spoons, vegetables and herbal medicines; not to mention honey, toddy and oil.” Amid myriad trees, this is perhaps the most amazing, with its hundred and one different uses.

Perhaps reading this book will make the reader also take an inward journey, something similar to what the author was compelled to make and the discoveries that provided not only “great physical pleasure, but also inner satisfaction, a sense of intense presence in the moment, of prolonged calm, of affinity with the surrounding natural environment, that was not there before.”

The reviewer is a performing artist and cultural activist

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 10th, 2021

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