What We Talk About When We Talk About Sri Lanka

How do Sri Lankan writers recreate their country in their fiction?

01 July 2012
Roshi Fernando’s Homesick is a collection of interlinked stories about Sri Lankans in Britain
COURTESY ROSHI FERNANDO
Roshi Fernando’s Homesick is a collection of interlinked stories about Sri Lankans in Britain
COURTESY ROSHI FERNANDO

TEN YEARS AGO, living in Sri Lanka and looking for fiction to read from that country, all I could find in a little stationery shop in the hilltown of Haputale was a travelogue by Christopher Ondaatje. The Man-eater of Punanai: A Journey of Discovery to the Jungles of Old Ceylon (1992) was an account of how Ondaatje, a superrich Canadian financier, decided to turn his back on money-making and return to the old country—a journey into his own past and a search for a lost Sri Lanka. Having read Michael Ondaatje’s lyrical, elliptical memoir, Running in the Family (1982), just before leaving home, Christopher’s book especially amused—as well as moved—me for the pains he takes to highlight the liberties his more famous younger brother took with the Ondaatje family’s history.

I’d also read Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost (2000) before leaving home. This is set in the late 1980s-early 1990s when, along with fighting the separatist war in the north, the Sri Lankan government put down with brutal force an insurrection in the south by the Marxist group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front). The novel dealt with the enormity of the killings by particularising. Forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera’s quest in the book is to unearth the truth about a single skeleton.

It seemed to me then that all there was to contemporary Sri Lankan fiction was Carl Muller, known for his Burgher family trilogy,  Romesh Gunesekera—all of whose novels are set in or hark back to the home country—and Michael Ondaatje or, at least, his book Anil’s Ghost. Reading fiction from or about that country today, it occurs to me that I was also searching then for where Sri Lankan literature stood in relation to Sri Lankan reality. Writing in these pages two years ago about the idea of a ‘national literature’, Pankaj Mishra highlighted the many different ways in which writers have, historically, expressed themselves vis-à-vis their nations. While reminding us that many Asian writers were involved in the political revolutions in their countries, Mishra added:

Anjum Hasan Anjum Hasan is the Books Editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: fiction Sri Lanka Roshi Fernando Ashok Ferrey Romesh Gunesekera Shehan Karunatilaka The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories from Sri Lanka
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