West on Books: Not Quite Paradise
Recall the popular chin-stroking adage about Hong Kong when the British returned it to the Chinese in 1997: "past imperfect, present tense, future conditional." It immediately came to mind regarding Sri Lanka after I finished reading Not Quite Paradise, Adele Barker's interesting account of living and teaching on the pearl-shaped island 22 miles south of India.
During the last 40 years big events have come snapping down on Sri Lanka like the bars of giant mousetraps: a devastating civil war that had claimed 40,000 lives by 2001 and the horrific tsunami, resulting from the Sumatran earthquake, that hit the island on December 26, 2004, killing upwards of 35,000 people. For this largely Buddhist country, Karmageddan indeed.
A few basic facts: population, 20 million, the same as current Mumbai; roughly 25% Hindu Tamils in the north, 75% Buddhist Sinhalese in the south; area, 270 miles long, 140 miles wide, an island of tea plantations, jungle and paddy fields, an exporter of seven different types of cinnamon, sandalwood, wild indigo, cardamons, other spices; gained independence from the British in 1972, changing the country's name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka ("resplendent isle").
Ms. Barker's literary structure brings to mind that of the French traveler/novelist, Henri Stendhal (who coined the word "tourist" in the early 19th-century), with its emphasis on the feeling of a place through intimate details of daily life backgrounded by more important affairs.
In the house she rented overlooking the tennis courts of a British colonial-era garden club in the ancient capital of Kandy, she soon learned to cope with the abundant Sri Lankan animal life found on the edge of her jungly surroundings: the invasion of ants, tv-antenna-destroying monkeys, Russell's viper, the country's deadliest snake, visiting her bedroom, rats, palm-size spiders, geckos, street-strolling elephants.
Surprisingly, no mention of the scary kabaragoya, a Komodo dragon-esque giant lizard, or its smaller relative, the thalagoya, that Michael ("The English Patient") Ondaatje recalled so vividly in "Running in the Family," his memoir of growing up in Sri Lanka.
Walking to the university where she taught literature, Ms. Barker learned to love hoppers, a diet staple of the island, rice flour and coconut milk made into noodle-shapes, then cooked and eaten with dhal or a coconut/chili dish called sambol. Mangos became a way of life: scrape off the skin, slice, sprinkle with chile and salt, eat. A Sri Lankan best friend is "amba yahuwa," your mango friend.
Back in the states for two years, Ms. Barker immediately returned after the tsunami hit, and in the book's second half, she reports on the natural and military disasters. Waves 70-feet high, traveling 30-to-40 m.p.h., 64 miles long, hit the island's southeastern shore two-and-a-half hours after the earthquake. No warning system for the Indian Ocean exists even today. Thousands died along hundreds of miles of beaches, areas now called "abluvian," meaning things washed away. Over 100,000 still remain in refugee camps.
The civil war in the drier north, begun by the Tamils in 1976 to carve out a homeland, officially ended last year. In Jaffna, the largest city, no building escaped damage, daily life remains fraught with danger. Families were tumbleweeded out of cities and villages by the war, 300,000 remain in refugee camps.
Author Barker also doesn't mention Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who lived in Sri Lanka two years in the late 1920's working at the Chilean embassy. After leaving he wrote in "The Book of Questions,"
"Do tears not yet spilled
wait in small lakes?
Or are they invisible rivers
That run toward sadness?"
Lakes, rivers, monstrous waves of sadness coming from a seemingly indifferent ocean, it was not really a question. The poet knew.
"Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn In Sri Lanka," Adele Barker, Beacon Press, 303 pgs., $24.95.
RICHARD WEST spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he's had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.