Saturday, March 12, 2016

John Gimlette's "Elephant Complex"

John Gimlette has won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and the Wanderlust Travel Writing Award, and he contributes regularly to The Times (London), The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, and Condé Nast Traveller. When not traveling, he practices law in London.

Gimlette applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka, and reported the following:
By page 99 of the book, my travels find me in what I call the ‘Badlands’ of Sri Lanka; the hot, desiccated north-west quarter of the country. Few people lie up here, and the region was once feared for the animals that live there, particularly the elephants. The Portuguese were the first outsiders to exploit these waterless wastes, in their search for wild cinnamon. Many Sri Lankans would happily tell me the conquistadores had left them with nothing but cake and a kind of dance. I always think that’s odd in a country of de Sousas and Fernandos, and – as always – the picture was more complex than that.

At this stage in the journey, I was travelling with a Sri Lankan war hero, called Ravi Weeraperuma. During the civil war (1983 to 2009), he’d been a naval commander, and, in the ‘Badlands’, he’d seen some of the dirtiest fighting. It was a cathartic experience for him, going back and finding the landscape silent again. For the first time, he was able to clamber into the old Portuguese forts, now abandoned to the crows. We were also pleased to find that the elephants had returned. Once, we ran into a nursery group, bathing in a villu. Although we were quarter of a mile away, our presence clearly spooked them, and – with a flurry of trumpets – they rumbled off into the forest, bawling and bellowing and spouting fountains of dust.

Another time, we stopped to visit an old school friend of Ravi’s. The Pereras had an estate on the scraggy neck of the Kalpitya peninsula. It didn’t look much at first, a bleak expanse of saltpans, and a long, spindly forest of palms. It took a while to appreciate that this was a hub of commerce. All night the trucks ground through the sand, hauling away coconuts and salt. But as well as farming, Perera was also a minister in the government, and a splendidly Falstaffian character: full-bellied, genial, strong in arm and loud in reproof. It wasn’t just his name that seemed Portuguese. In a well-domed polo shirt and baggy shorts, it was easy to picture him in doublet and hose. He had a barrelling walk, as if barging his way through a dense clutter of inconvenience.

But most surprising of all was Madame Perera, or Chrysantha. An opulent figure, she was always exquisitely jewelled and caparisoned in satin, as if in denial of all the salt and husks. Sometimes the whole world would stop as she rustled into view, resplendent in pea-green or a shimmering vision of lemon. She told me that, in Colombo, she spent her days with a personal trainer but, out here, she went to funerals. “Every day! You’d never guess the people who are dying!”

Page 99 finds me struggling to understand the Pereras, the Badlands, and their peculiarly late-medieval world (and, ultimately, Sri Lanka itself). I recognise bits of the past and yet, somehow, this great mosaic never quite fits together. In this extract, Madame Chrysantha explains that she’s off on a holy journey:
She told me she often travelled huge distances, out of devotion to God or her husband’s parliamentary seat. Several times, she’d crossed the country, searching out Kalpitya’s fishermen and bringing them home. Every year, she said, they’d set off during the monsoon, and sail round the island to fish the calmer waters of Trincomalee. It was a round trip of about a thousand miles. For Chrysantha, this was only ever a problem in election years. “They’re all gone, and my husband needs their vote, no? Aiyo! What are we to do? So I set out to fetch them. I take forty buses with me, and I bring them all back! That’s democracy, no? I even went during the war. My children begged me not to, but I went all the same. Not even my husband would go. Ha! He was too scared…”

That afternoon, she was planning a more modest trip: a pilgrimage into the badlands. It was a five hour drive, she said, through the bush to Madhu. “Every month, I go and come. But Madhu us a very holy place, our own little Lourdes, no? The Blessed Virgin is four hundred years old, and she protects us from the wild animals. During the war, the terrorists tried to steal her, but the Holy Father took her and hid her in the forest. He is in direct communication with God, and lays on hands. Before you’ve even met him, he knows your telephone number and where you live! It is a miraculous thing, the Kingdom of God.”
Learn more about the book and author at John Gimlette's website.

--Marshal Zeringue