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Published on: 03/21/16 7:09 AM

Book review: Elephant Complex by John Gimlette

Elephant Complex by John Gimlette (Quercus Publishing).

This book came out just a few months ago, in the winter of 2015, so I`m not too behind time with the review. However, even if I were, I`d still be writing about it because the book is such a rewarding read.

This is travel writing that delves a little deeper, into the place, into the psyche of the place and its people, or at least as much as both  will give up to the casual if keen observant visitor. And they don`t come keener or more observant than John Gimlette.

Such a small teardrop of an isle and it has seen so many invaders: the Portuguese, Dutch, British. And when freedom came, it brought in its long wake internecine conflict between the Sinhalas and the Tamils. The always simmering fire burst into flame in  1983 and lasted till  2009, killing around 40,000 people, displacing 800,000.

And now, after the war, there is the  assiduous forgetting,  something adeptly chronicled in this book.Then amidst the fighting, there was the tsunami of 2004. Poor Sri Lanka, Emerald Isle, Serendib.

As Gimlette methodically visits the south, east, west and north of the island, the reader goes along on the trip, and picks up the most interesting nuggets. We learn of the reservoir kings of 250 BC whose engineers built amazing water tanks, Dutugamunu being  the greatest of the `hydraulic` rulers.

Gimlette visits one particularly beautiful tank at Tonigala and watches people bathe, men to one side, women to the other, amidst cormorants and ibises and kingfishers. Every Sri Lankan, he says, believes the day should end like this, in water as cool as stone. However, when the reservoir cities of old collapsed, a belt of vicious flora, impenetrable bush,  divided the island in two, Tamils to the north, Sinhalese to the south. This giant hedge was peacekeeper, till it was inevitably and irrevocably breached.

We go with Gimlette to the oyster-shell graveyard beyond Arippu and read of the hapless pearl fishers during the Portuguese rule, men who risked  life and lungs,  some divers doing 50 descents in one shift to bring up huge amounts of oysters…and there were three to four pearls for every
three tons of oysters!

We discover that the Portuguese were utterly miserable at landing postings in Sri Lanka; apparently, as they rounded the Cape, they threw their spoons overboard knowing that for the rest of their lives, they would be eating with their fingers.

We head to Negombo (this land`s Gomorrah, says the author) where Gimlette tries to part the tightly closed curtain on the pedophiliac rings the  island is notorious for; we read  of the killings and counter- killings in Matara, we go with him onto the muddy track aka the Great Road.

We find the ancient Kandyans had their own Styx River, the Mahaveli Ganga. We hear stories of Kandy’s violent historical past. We learn of the Japanese airstrikes over Trinco in 1942, 129 planes that poured out of the sky , piloted by veterans of Pearl Harbour no less, pounding the port for forty minutes, setting the docks ablaze. With the author, we take a small boat to a small islet off  Jaffna called Delft, home to cows, wild horses and islanders!

We learn that there was no clearly defined territory for the Tamils or Sinhalese; both lived amongst each other. Tamil artefacts have been found in the far south of the country, the language was all over the landscape too, the Tamil-Sinhala genes are strikingly similar, so are their homes, clothes, certain rules. We cringe at the horror of the January 1987 killings at Batticaloa and wince as the author describes it as a crippled town.

Up north, Gimlette tries to understand the Tigers and their war and carries us with him every inch
of the way,  word for word. He talks of how the IPKF  was left totally outfoxed; they outnumbered the Tigers but the latter came and went `like vapour.` We revisit the white vans concept, the horrific last days of the war between the `Boys` and the army, with all those Tamils caught between.

Here and there,  the turn of an elegant phrase makes the reader pause in appreciation. There is wry humour (one tries hard to not say `typically English`),  there is a strong undertone of irony  all through. Civil war in Colombo at least,  had become a habit, Gimlette reports, a long wait for an enemy who`d vanished.

As for books on the conflict? The author embarks on a search for them and is told that they are still being written. The facts presented in the book ride on the best of vehicles, via the people Gimlette meets. Lanka has 5,800 elephants at last count (once warhorse, limousine and executioner) and Gimlette meets quite a few in passing.

However, Gimlette`s fact- checkers seem to have let him down at times. Dhanu is stated to have blown up the Indian president. Locals keeps saying `chee` and this reader for one, is sure they mean `cheh,` an exclamation of exasperation. There is mention of Bangala roofs…?

One could well argue that to understand the recent conflict, one needs a historical perspective but at its heart, John Gimlette`s account is primarily a travelogue. And a very absorbing one.

Related Links:

Book review: Upon a Sleepless Isle by Andrew Fidel Fernando

Book review: This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian

Book review: Noon Tide Toll by Romesh Gunasekera

Book review: The Seasons of Trouble by Rohini Mohan



Elephant ComplexJohn GimletteLTTESri Lankatravel writing

Sheila Kumar • March 21, 2016

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