Sri Lanka is a fascinating little gem of a country blessed with a seemingly perfect combination of ancient and colonial historical sites, diverse culture, wildlife, beautiful mountain scenery, and beaches. But the country also has its demons, having endured a savage 30-year civil war that ended in a mass massacre in 2011. John Gimlette traveled extensively around Sri Lanka but his book Elephant Complex – Travels in Sri Lanka is more than just a travelogue. Going beyond surface superficialities in understanding this charming and troubling small country, it’s part history, part investigative reporting, and part sociology report.
One of the most interesting things about Sri Lanka is its mix of peoples and its different colonialism periods. There is the majority Sinhalese, the main minority Tamils, as well as a slightly smaller minority known as Muslims. In addition, there are Burghers, who are mixed race descendants of the early Europeans colonialists, and even the “Hill Tamils”, related to the main Tamils but hailing from India. There are indigenous Veddas too, who sadly number just a few thousand amid the country’s population of over 20 million. However, this racial mix is anything but harmonious. The country’s 30-year-old civil war saw Tamils rise up against the Sinhalese-dominated state (international news viewers may have heard of the Tamil Tigers, one of the world’s most fearsome rebel groups in their prime).
Gimlette visits all of these people, in the capital Colombo, the cultural heartland Kandy, the Hill Country, the south and east coasts, and even the wild Wanni. And he also goes to the Tamil north, centered on the city of Jaffna. The book gets very heavy at times, when even the author doesn’t know what to make of things. Sri Lanka is a complex country and the locals clearly haven’t recovered or come to grips with the serious trauma of their recent past.
Going past the 20th century, there are the violent conquests by first, the Dutch, and then the British. It wasn’t easy for the Europeans and the mountainous central kingdom of Kandy held out until the early 19th century, before betrayal by disgruntled subjects led to the fall of Kandy. Going back even further to over a thousand years ago, early Sri Lanka kingdoms built the great ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhaphura.
The chapters on the Tamil north see Gimlette visit sites of the Tamil Tigers’ last stand, when they and hundreds of thousands of civilians were “herded” onto an increasingly shrinking area and bombed to bits. The Tigers were no angels themselves, forcibly recruiting children as soldiers in a desperate means of their replenishing their depleted forces. The Tigers also used the civilians as shields, threatening to shoot anybody who fled.
Elephant Complex is one of the most captivating and moving books about a country I’ve ever read.