WHEN I MOVED TO SRI LANKA in the summer of 2011, I thought I wanted to write a book about the island’s past troubles. The civil war had ended two years earlier, suddenly presenting a chance to gather the sorts of personal stories that could neither be collected nor told easily over the previous three decades, when the conflict was still ablaze. But during my time there, Sri Lanka’s stock of strife replenished itself, and fear and violence rode forth from unexpected quarters. The furious swell of Sinhalese nationalism that had closed out the war with such brutality was now starting to poison other relationships in Sri Lanka.
One evening in Colombo, my friend Sanjaya dropped by, intending to collect me on our way to someplace else. I offered him a drink—beer, I seem to remember now, but given how the next two hours slipped clean out of our hands, more likely it was arrack. Arrack did that to you: it greased the passage of time. We sat around my dining table, Sanjaya telling stories and I listening. He told yarns tall and magnificent, embellishing on the run and possessing such a fondness for the absurd that he giggled as if he were hearing the tale and not narrating it. When he laughed, his eyes narrowed into letterbox slits, he quivered noiselessly, and his shoulders heaved. His mirth was tectonic.
“You heard they pulled a Muslim shrine down?” Sanjaya asked.