One of the most frequent questions I am asked regrading the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is if one can tell the difference, racially, between the Sinhalese and Tamils. One cannot. Despite misleading claims by both groups that the Sinhalese are "fair" Aryans and the Tamils "dark" Dravidians, in reality they look the same, are drawn from the same racial stock and share many common features of caste, popular religious cults and customs. Hence the title of my first recommendation: Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy (University of Chicago Press), by Stanley J. Tambiah.
The author, being Sri Lankan himself, has written what he calls an "engaged political tract" rather than a "distanced academic treatise". The book comes from his lived experience, as well as research and reading. It was published in 1986, and so will not bring the reader up to date on the bewildering and convoluted story of ethnic conflict, one that Sri Lankans themselves can hardly keep track of (and which they despair will never end).
Yet this book acts as a great primer on the beginnings of the conflict, starting in the times of British colonialism and moving forward to the 1983 riots. It provides a thorough background from which to regard all later developments.
What I love about this book, unlike others written on the subject, is its immense goodwill. The chief question the writer is interested in examining (and answering for himself), is how Sri Lankans - literate, friendly and gracious-could have come to such an awful impasse; how an elected majority government committed to liberal democracy could have become so righteously authoritarian; how the Tamil minority which, for the most part, thought of themselves as Sri Lankan citizens, could have bred the Tamil Tigers, a group determined to achieve an independent Tamil state at any cost.
This is no Orientalist treatise, pandering to Western notions of the "barbaric" East. It is written by someone who deeply loves his country and its people, and wants a solution to this problem.
Since the tsunami, whenever I call my mother in Sri Lanka, the one thing she comments on over and over again is how quiet and sombre people are - how the natural exuberance and good cheer of Sri Lankans have been so dimmed by this recent disaster. So, I long for a book that will capture this exuberance and also the breath-taking beauty of the country.
In order to be innovative, I searched my bookshelves for something unknown to the reader, but I have returned to something that is familiar to most of us. For this is familiar to most of us. For this is the time for the familiar. Like those comfort foods of my childhood - like 'seeni sainbol' with bread and butter, like pineapple slices dipped in chili and salt, like cashews steamed in a plantain leaf, like mango accharu, I offer Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family (McClelland and Stewart, 1982) as a perfect antidote to these trying times.
This wonderful book tells of the author's return to his native Sri Lanka at the age of 36 and what he encountered there. It contains not just a vivid evocation of landscape, but also the charming, funny yet also tragic stories of his parents and grandparents. Ondaatje, through a combination of prose pieces, poetry, humour and magic realism, brings 1920s Sri Lanka to life. He captures beautifully the languorous world of the upper classes, where drink, gambling, romance, tennis and billiards were simply a way of life.
I have kept one of my favourite Sri Lankan writers for last. Kumari Jayawardena has written many non-fiction books on various aspects of Sri Lankan history. What I love about her work is that she always managers to find a unique angle on a subject and write about it with great clarity and wit. Here is her take on colonial history: The White Woman's Other Burden (Routledge, 1995).
The common concept of white women during British rule in South Asia is that of the 'memsahib' who submissively supported her husband in his burden of ruling the empire. Her role was to stand as a symbol of European female purity. Not all white women were so compliant. This book is a fascinating account of white women who were anti-imperialists, socialists, communists, divine mothers, holy rollers and anarchists. They crossed boundaries of race, gender and class; and were an embarrassment to the colonial rulers, who regarded them as everything from prostitutes to mad spinsters.
These women have, for the most part, been erased from history in both the West and in South Asia, and they are brought back to life in the pages of this wonderful book. Here we meet a fiercely intelligent, vibrant and often charmingly eccentric array of characters.
Among them; actress Florence Farr, friend of Shaw, Yeats and Pound, who ended her days in Sri Lanka as principal of the first Hindu girls' school; Annie Besant, who championed self-rule in an Indian newspaper she acquired, and was imprisoned for her views and later elected the first woman president of the Indian National Congress; Mirra Richard, of Egyptian-Jewish origin and from France, who became the famous "Holy Mother of Pondicherry" and was considered by many of her followers to be divine; Madeleine Slade, from an upper-class British family, who became Gandhi's devoted follower and embarrassed the British Raj by cooking and washing for Gandhi and acting as his secretary; Doreen Young, who became the first foreign woman to be elected to the Sri Lankan Parliament (on the Communist Party ticket); Heidi Simon, a Viennese Jew who led militant action in the strikes and political struggles of 1940s Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan writing in English has really bloomed in the last two decades, with writers such as Romesh Gunasekera, Michelle de Kretsre, Carl Muller, A. Sivananadan and many, many others. What is offered above is just a tiny sampling of a wonderful body of literature that keeps growing from strength to strength.
(Shyam Selvadurai is the author of two novels on Sri Lanka, Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens. His new novel, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, will be published next fall.)
(The Globe and Mail)"