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Travels in the emerald island

  • Cricket-writer Andrew Fidel Fernando’s first book is a thoroughly enjoyable ride through bruised and beautiful Sri Lanka
  • Though a self-proclaimed city slicker, Fernando writes with a feel for landscape and the countryside

The Vatadage temple at Polonnaruwa, a Unesco World Heritage site.
The Vatadage temple at Polonnaruwa, a Unesco World Heritage site. (Getty Images)

Since the game of cricket lends itself to lyricism and a certain literary treatment, the kind of chroniclers it attracts are writers first and cricket writers next. From the time of Neville Cardus, the British patron saint of cricket writing who was also an accomplished music critic, cricket correspondents have produced book-length works that take on subjects ranging from birdwatching to photography.

Now, the shift in the game’s balance of power to the subcontinent is also reflected in the way it is written and reported—some of the best in the business are from South Asia. For many of them, it is ostensibly a short hop from a 7,000-word piece in The Cricket Monthly (in this reviewer’s estimation, one of the world’s best long-form publications) to author-dom.

The latest in this illustrious line of cricket reporters is Sri Lanka’s finest, Andrew Fidel Fernando. And it was indeed a happy day when he decided to turn his evolved eye and narrative nous to his beautiful and flawed homeland. The result is Upon A Sleepless Isle.

Small as the island may be—its length can be covered in a long day’s hard driving—its life has been action-packed. After Portuguese, Dutch and English colonialism, there has been a long and bloody civil war, an improbable cricket World Cup victory, a devastating tsunami, a tourism boom, and, more recently, church bombings. It has definitely not been one of the more obscure countries. As a result, and like cricket, it has not been short of chroniclers in the English language.

The preoccupation of this writing—whether fiction or not—has understandably been war and conflict. The customary ponderous treatment has meant that these works have not been ideally placed to highlight those great and enduring qualities that mark Sri Lankan life at a local level: levity and quick-wittedness. It is why Fernando’s book is a welcome addition to the pantheon, even as it takes the form of a conventional travelogue (six weeks around the island “by bus, cycle and trishaw").

Two of my favourite Sri Lanka books—Shehan Karunatilaka’s dazzling novel Chinaman and Michael Ondaatje’s languorous memoir Running In The Family—share this quality with Fernando’s: They disarmingly walk their readers through quotidian rhythms, giving them a chance to peek into backyards where the washing is left out to dry. Fernando’s characters and scenes will be immediately familiar to the Indian reader: gossipy aunties, town-bred rogue monkeys, somnolent bureaucrats.

That is not to say that Sleepless Isle does not touch upon the major themes. The wheels of ethno-religious conflict and political corruption keep spinning in the background as Fernando more or less circumambulates the teardrop that is Sri Lanka.

Admirably, he leaves the bloated bottom of the country for the last and least. The overpopulated south-western quarter, dominated by the Sinhalese elite (the “Colombo cabal", he calls them) and beloved of tourists fleeing harsh European winters, receives enough love already. Instead, he starts by heading north of the capital to watch the gathering of elephants in the wilderness of Minneriya, on the banks of an ancient reservoir built in the third century. It is also where, ever true to his reporter roots, Fernando engages with locals and wildlife officials about man-animal conflict.

Man versus wild and historic irrigation projects are themes he returns to in Polonnaruwa, home to the world’s longest-running primate study and also a former ice-cream seller who has painstakingly collected evidence to prove the staggering extent of a medieval reservoir.

Though a self-proclaimed city slicker (the opening passages of the book touch upon his growing-up years in the suburb of Dehiwala), Fernando writes with a feel for landscape and the countryside. All that time on the road during long and winding cricket tours—home and away—seems to have helped. As he travels up the north-western coast, he is alive to salt flats replacing paddy fields, forests giving way to scrubland, and the air that “smells of dust". On the road to Jaffna, he surmises the “earth was red, stereotypically East African", because “(that) strip of the island had once rubbed up against Madagascar".

These northern excursions—to areas that were once the stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and often theatres of the ghastly war—offer Fernando the opportunity to touch upon the long tradition of mixing and syncretism that “this divided island" (to use the title of writer Samanth Subramanian’s book on the civil war and its aftermath) wore lightly before the cunning English divided and ruled. The feral donkeys of Mannar are remnants of a roaring medieval trade with Arabia and North Africa; foot-tapping baila music owes it origin to Mozambican slaves brought over by the Portuguese; and the Roman Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Madhu has long attracted Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Protestant pilgrims.

In a bid to connect with his own roots—Fernando is part Bharatha, a coastal community that migrated from Tamil Nadu under Portuguese rule—he joins a crew on a fishing run off the Weligama coast. Of his monumental incompetence on this expedition, he writes with hilarity and honesty. An anti-Hemingway, if you please.

To a couple of quibbles, then. It must be said that the passages on the seafaring trip are one of the few instances where the humour works. In other places, it falls flat—the metaphors are overstretched and analogies slightly school-boyish. And I say this only because Fernando’s cricket satire on ESPNcricinfo has set the bar high. Another minor irritant is the lapses into passive voice (“…on the island did merchants meet") that stick out jarringly in a narrative that is largely bouncy and pacy enough to carry through (to use the inevitable cricket metaphor) to the reader.

But these are only little niggles in what is a sincere and original work by an intelligent observer with a keen sense of place. Fernando returned home to Sri Lanka after several years of living in New Zealand. “Why did you come back?" It is a question returnees from the First World are often asked in the subcontinent. The answer is not straightforward because the reasons can be intangible. Now Fernando can simply point to his book—it has the overall effect of conveying that there is no other place he would rather live.

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