5 Great Books Set in Sri Lanka That We Love

5 Great Books Set in Sri Lanka That We Love

Monday, 4 March, 2024

The tropical island nation of Sri Lanka is known for its staggering beauty; there are mountaintop monasteries, painfully perfect beaches, and so many elephants. Sadly, it was also torn by political strife for decades.

From 1983 until 2009, a civil war raged between the government and insurgents. Meanwhile, most Sri Lankans were living their lives under the conflicts’ perilous shadows — cooking food, riding trains, swimming, exploring, loving, and, yes, dying. All against the backdrop of their Sri (resplendent) Lanka (island).

These five novels capture the contradictions of life in Sri Lanka. There are real-life travel adventures, a vibrant cookbook packed with stories and recipes, a crime story with a remarkable storytelling structure, and two dream-like novels set during the Civil War years. Fair warning: You might want to clutch one of the latter to your chest in a hug and then thrust it into the hands of everyone you know.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Sri Lanka: Remarkable, Relentless, Resplendent.


Anil’s Ghost - Michael Ondaatje

Anil's Ghost
> Michael Ondaatje

This dream-like detective story — set during the Sri Lankan Civil War of the 1980s and ’90s — addresses themes like trust and deceit, the futility of war, and the way conflict can forge or dissemble identity. And because it’s by Michael Ondaatje, it does all of that with literary flair.

The heroine of the story is Anil, a Sri Lankan forensic anthropologist returning to her homeland after a 15-year absence. She’s part of a United Nations mission to investigate suspected human rights abuses; the government has paired her with an archaeologist named Sarath.

To say trust between the two is in short supply would be an understatement. Adding to the fraught atmosphere is their work lab, an abandoned luxury liner that once carried posh passengers, but has been moored and gutted, transformed into a dark, clanking home base for their work.

When they discover a recent skeleton buried among much older bones — in an area accessible only to government reps — Anil and Sarath suspect the remains could prove publicly that the government is involved in mass political murders. The first step in this process is identifying the bones. So they nickname the skeleton Sailor and embark on a dangerous mission to find the truth.

The primary character, present in every scene, is Sri Lanka: its politics, scenery, climate, and sense of expansiveness and claustrophobia are vividly drawn. You will be transported to the ghostly ship, the wartime hospital, the empty manor house, and the monastery in the forest.

Although the scaffolding of the story is a mystery plot, it’s a slow burn. A generous amount of time is devoted to revealing (or not) the characters’ motivations, exploring their relationships, and understanding the ins and outs of their work. It revels in the fascinating procedural details. At times the investigation recedes to the background while the characters live in the moment and revisit their pasts. There’s a soft breathlessness, not from the pace of the plot, but from the characters’ charged emotions. When the action comes, it hits hard, with the last act playing out like a thriller right up to its very satisfying, life-affirming ending. {more}

She would have preferred to walk into the streets after dinner, for she loved the closing up of stores. The streets dark, the fall of electric light out of the shops. It was her favourite time, like putting away the senses one by one, this shop of drinks, this cassette store, these vegetables packed away, and the street growing darker and darker as she walked on. And a bicycle riding off with three sacks of potatoes balanced on it into even purer darkness. Into the other life. That existence. For when people leave our company in our time we are never certain of seeing them again, or seeing them unaltered. So Sirissa loved the calm of the night streets that no longer had commerce in them, like a theatre after the performance was over. — Michael Ondaatje


The Hamilton Case - Michelle De Kretser

The Hamilton Case
> Michelle De Kretser

This creative novel by beloved Sri Lankan author Michelle De Kretser tells the story of a lawyer in Sri Lanka during the first half of the 20th century. It’s dark and mysterious, with an entertaining sense of claustrophobia.

The ostensible hero, the lawyer, is Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere, the oldest son of an elite Sinhalese family. Sadly, the family is quickly falling from grace when he’s born. His parents spend money faster than they can make it on a frenzy of parties and bad decisions. Stanley, meanwhile, grows up alone and lonely in the family compound.

What sets this novel apart is its structure. Each of its four sections relies on a different point of view to tell the story.

In the opening, a first-person autobiography, Stanley tells his story. It’s a not-unusual coming-of-age story about his relationship with his parents, money, and insecurity. For the first hundred pages or so, it’s easy to be sympathetic to this poor kid. When he later turns out to be a rather horrible person, it’s clear why that happens.

The next bit is a full-on Gothic take written in an almost omniscient third person. All the tropes are delightfully at work here. There’s a haunted house and a murder mystery with plenty of family secrets. Ghosts haunt hallways, mad women do horrible things, and servants avoid certain rooms. For a few chapters, Stanley becomes a detective, investigating the ‘Hamilton case:’ the murder of a British landowner in the Sri Lankan jungle. His solution to the crime reverberates through the rest of the story.

At the three-quarter mark, the story goes deeper into the characters’ lives and thoughts in the World War II era. Then, to bring it home, the final section of the tale unfolds through a letter, penned by a previously unremarkable character, to Stanley’s estranged son after the primary action has, we think, been resolved. Another author might have used this device to patch up the plot. Instead, we get another telling with much attention given to the notion that truth is frequently subjective. The author writes, ‘The plot does nothing but thicken.’

This is a compelling mystery and an incisive exploration of the often fraught, always complex relationship between colonizers and native people. If you enjoy a knotty novel with a bittersweet vibe, take this trip to Sri Lanka. {more}

And one of the jurors told a newspaper reporter that he had been tormented all weekend by the delicate problem of how a sentence of death might be carried out. That a native should hang an Englishman was unthinkable. But could one count on the government, always unreliable over essentials, to go to the expense of bringing in a hangman from Home? That uncertainty alone was enough, said the juror, to ensure that he, for one, would not have returned a Guilty verdict. — Michelle De Kretser


Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka - Cynthia Shanmugalingam

> Cynthia Shanmugalingam

This exuberant, candy-colored cookbook is an easy way to import the seductive tastes of Sri Lanka to your dining table. Gorgeous photos, conversational essays, and infectious enthusiasm for food and culture — the whole thing feels like a party.

Author Cynthia Shanmugalingam was born in Coventry, England, in 1981. Her Sri Lankan parents left the island in 1983 when the civil war started. But her father kept Sri Lanka alive in their house, bolstered by annual trips to the island to visit relatives, play in the lush landscapes, and eat their favorite foods.

Fast forward to 2021: Shanmugalingam opened the restaurant Rambutan in London and, the following year, released this cookbook. Both Bon Appetit and the Los Angeles Times named it one of the best cookbooks of 2022. That is no surprise at all.

Comprehensive without being overwhelming, this book features recipes from all corners of the country and the different specialties of the Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim, and Burgher communities. So there are spicy curries from the north and kottu, the iconic and ubiquitous stir-fried dish from the east. There’s fragrant coconut rice (kiri bath, from the south), and from the west, lamprais — pronounced like lump-rice — a composite of delicious components like curry, rice, fried bits, and condiments all wrapped in a banana leaf. To eat it, you unwrap the bundle with the leaf doubling as a plate.

Aside from the recipes, there are nine helpful, charming essays about Sri Lankan cuisine and culture. Why nine? In Hindu mythology and Sri Lanka, it’s a special number: nine fundamental emotions, the festival of nine nights, and nine Sri Lankan provinces. She also vividly describes Muslim street food in a way that will make you want to go to Sri Lanka immediately. Then, in the second half of that essay, she recounts a tragic day during the already tragic civil war when Tamil Tigers killed Muslims praying in a mosque. One of the strengths of this book is Shanmugalingam’s transparency about all that’s lovely and all that’s problematic in her home country.

For those of us who didn’t grow up with a Sri Lankan grandmother and access to jackfruit at the local market, there’s a handy guide to ingredients and substitutions, as well as suggested menus for a midweek dinner, big feasts, a Sunday brunch, and a summer barbecue. Our advice: Start with a batch of homemade Sri Lankan curry powder to infuse your kitchen with an irresistible aroma, then crank up a Sri Lankan dance mix on the stereo, and start cooking. {more}

Wise-cracking male friends of my parents noticed developments in my sister and started to ask her — never my brother — ‘What can you cook? Rice? An egg? Dal? before collapsing into insulting giggles. Mocking her for being too Westernised to know even the most basic of dishes, she would roll her eyes, admit she couldn’t cook dal, and go back to listening to Whitney on her Walkman… From all this, we can learn three things. One: listen to Whitney, not to gross dudes. Two: hair is freedom. And three: Sri Lankan dal, or parippu as it is called in both Tamil and Sinhala, is considered an idiot- proof recipe, the hardest to mess up of the Sri Lankan repertoire, and one of the first dishes a young cook learns to make. My sister is now a doctor, a mum of three, she has her own swimming pool and she’s a fantastic cook. She didn’t let the sexist trolls get her down on dal and you shouldn’t either. — Cynthia Shanmugalingam


Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka - John Gimlette

Elephant Complex
> John Gimlette

John Gimlette is a barrister in England with a degree from Cambridge. According to Salon, he’s also ‘the world’s best living travel writer.’ Based on this book, we have to agree.

The author possesses an unlikely combination of traits. He has an extrovert’s need to talk to people and an introvert’s eye for detail. And wow, can he spin a yarn! During his trip to Sri Lanka after its decades-long civil war, he seemingly went everywhere and met everyone.

During his travels, he got close to elephants, slept in the jungle, came perilously close to crocodiles and snakes, and had all manner of conversations with farmers, war heroes, tribesmen, cricket players, terrorists, and a former president.

One of the great gifts of Gimlette’s writing is that he will convince you that you, too, should go to Sri Lanka and sleep in a tree house high above the jungle floor — even as your inner voice reminds you that it’s a terrible idea, some part of you will yearn to do it. And that is all down to Gimlette’s preternatural storytelling ability.

If you want to imagine the call of animals in the wild or the smell of a cinnamon grove, this book is for you — a cracking travelogue and a huge adventure tale with a wildly entertaining barrister as your guide. {more}

‘But what do you do when the elephants turn up?’

‘Ah, that’s when you sing, no?’

A strange evening had suddenly turned slightly surreal. Mahathun had an entire repertoire of elephant-scaring songs, and was soon working through them. These were nerve-tingling warbles, somewhere between fado and a muezzin’s call to prayer. Even more surprising, they drew a response from some distant trees, and soon the whole paddy was singing along. At that point, the fireflies appeared, filling the tree house with their twinkly light. It was like being in the cockpit of a tiny, thatched jet.

At midnight, Mahathun left, to be with his cows. For a while, I lay wondering what to sing if the elephants turned up. Perhaps the Bee Gees would show them who’s boss, if only I could hit the notes. It was exhilarating to be up there, basking in stars. I had hoped for a disjointed night, so that I wouldn’t miss a thing. If there weren’t elephants, there’d surely be wild boar and porcupines. But, in the end, the rocking was too much and, the next thing I knew, it was dawn, and I was plastered in straw. Below me, and all around, the rice was already pale blue and squeaking with peacocks.

Then a jackal appeared, picking its way across the paddy.

There goes obstinacy: 2,400 years of cities and he’s still not a pooch.

The jackal must have heard my thoughts. It looked up, saw me, and — with a doggy sneer — veered off into the ancient scrub. — John Gimlette


The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida - Shehan Karunatilaka

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida
> Shehan Karunatilaka

This is a wildly creative murder mystery mashed up with a historical novel, and it’s narrated — in the second person — by a man who’s just woken up as a ghost. The Maali Almeida of the title is having a very bad day, indeed. And it is glorious.

The opening paragraphs deliver a bitingly concise picture of what kind of man he was in life. The verdict: He was pretty sketchy. A gutsy war photographer with abysmal impulse control, he admits that he quit every game he was made to play, dumped anyone who ever saw him naked, and did many things he can’t tell anyone about. He says if he had a business card, it would read: Photographer, Gambler, Slut.

Now he finds himself in the afterlife. Or, more accurately, in the waiting room of the afterlife. This administrative office for the newly dead has a real DMV vibe about it: grouchy civil servants, meandering queues of bleeding, wailing, complaining people. Maali struggles to process what’s happened to him, then shouts at a jaded female clerk in a white sari that he can’t be dead. ‘This is a mistake. I don’t eat meat. I only smoke five a day.’ When that falls on deaf ears, he protests that he’s an important photographer. ‘I bear witness to crimes that no one else sees. I am needed… These are photos that will bring down governments. Photos that could stop wars.’

He eventually learns that he has seven moons - one week - to stay on Earth as a ghost before entering the Light and moving on to the next life. He could go into that Light immediately if he chose to. But he can’t release himself until he’s answered worrying questions: How was he killed? And who did it? Plus, ego-driven as ever, he’s convinced that his photos could make a difference and help stop the war, if they landed in front of the right people. So he decides to spend his precious seven moons investigating his own murder.

This can be a tough story to read. There’s brutal violence and endless corruption. But much of it is funny, too, thanks to Maali’s jaded but somehow hopeful outlook. Is dark optimism a thing? If it is, Maali has it in spades.

The scene in which the truth is revealed, when Maali finally learns how and why he was murdered, will break your heart. And/but the ending is brilliant and life-affirming and just as it should be. {more}

The thing that makes you most Sri Lankan is not your father’s surname or the holy place where you kneel, nor the smile you plaster on your face to hide your fears. It is the knowing of other Lankans and the knowing of those Lankans’ Lankans. There are aunties, if given a surname and a school, who can pinpoint any Lankan to the nearest cousin. You have moved in circles that overlapped and many that stayed shut. You were cursed with the gift of never forgetting a name, a face, or a sequence of cards. — Shehan Karunatilaka


Top image courtesy of Paul Prescott/Shutterstock.

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If Sri Lanka makes you all daydreamy about frolicking on the beach at sunset, possibly with friendly elephants, you would not be wrong. It's also the ideal place to take an epic train ride or dig into street food.
Oliver Rice's poem tells the bittersweet story of Sri Lanka, contrasting the island's lush natural beauty and peaceful Buddhist practices with its history of invasive colonialism, civil war, and vicious politics.

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