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I’m always on the hunt for travel books and when Upon a Sleepless Isle came my way, my thoughts went to the island country I hold so dear. There’s something about Sri Lanka that makes one want to go back again and again. But to be honest, my knowledge about the country rested upon two things before my first trip: war and cricket.
Reading Fernando’s journey across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka by ‘bus, cycle and trishaw’ comes across as a treat, visual and otherwise. His deep knowledge about the history of the island, combined with journalistic instincts, makes the book ‘hilariously witty yet wistfully sombre’. One can visually imagine (the illustrated map in the beginning helps with a sense of geography) the mood of the island. From the bureaucratic complacency during an attempt to get a national identity card (it is so true that ‘no matter what mishaps befall your travels, nothing could be worse than what you have endured at a government office’) to childhoods spent playing on the suburban streets of Dehiwala, the inability to gauge distance by locals (who hasn’t been subjected to a minimisation of a five-kilometre journey to a mere five minutes when asking for directions?) to the not-so-long-ago political turmoil and its effects today; Fernando teases us with little nuggets from the island—some known, some completely lost from memory.
Take the case of Sura Saradiel. The Sri Lankan Robin Hood is well known, but the author gives us information one wasn’t aware of—the names of his siblings and even the glossed over details about the company he kept. Or Kandy city’s pious status today, in comparison to its not-so straight-laced past. Or how an ice cream seller is connected to king Parakramabahu’s samudraya, a giant reservoir. The author even went so far as to locate the site of the ‘torture tree’ (a cruel British practice during the rebellion) in Paranagama, but was left disappointed to find no conspicuous marker of its historical significance.
While there are usually similarities between neighbouring cultures, it’s always the stories of the people that make them relatable. I laughed out reading how those on the plains journey up the hills, ‘attired for an expedition to the Antarctic’, similar to Bengalis and their love for monkey caps when the calendar officially turns to winter. Or the author’s hypochondriac Tamil grandmother armed with eau de cologne during sickness, which I dare say was the one-for-all remedy for a rather mulish aunt of mine.
Fernando’s adventures here are truly adventurous: crashing a tuk-tuk to receiving a scar as prize, staying at dubious guesthouses, vicious dog chases, unreliable buses… but when he weaves tales, combining history and religion with his multi-cultural family, one can’t wait to keep turning the pages. It’s a heartfelt, compelling read indeed.
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