This is a transcription of Episode 49 — Sri Lanka: Remarkable, Relentless, Resplendent.
David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.
Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on earth.
David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.
David: I’m David Humphreys.
David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Sri Lanka. In Two Truths and a Lie, I’m going to tell you a hair raising story of action and adventure, daring and bravery. And it’s all true.
Melissa: Those are some of my favorite things.
David: Yeah. And then we’re going to talk about five books.
Melissa: I’ve got another book that I want to clutch to my chest in a hug.
Melissa: It’s a murder mystery mashed up with historical fiction narrated by a guy who just woke up dead.
David: That sounds great.
David: I read one of the best travelogues I have ever read.
Melissa: Oh, that’s exciting.
David: Yeah. I’m looking forward to telling you about that. But first. We’re going to get started with Mel and the Sri Lanka 101.
Melissa: Sri Lanka is an island in the Bay of Bengal. It’s just off the southeastern tip of India. And at their closest point, Sri Lanka and India are only 34 miles or 55km apart. The island is shaped like a teardrop.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: Or a mango. Take your pick.
David: I like them both.
Melissa: For scale. It’s slightly smaller than Ireland and slightly bigger than West Virginia. The capital is Columbo.
David: The detective!
Melissa: Not the detective, not a rumpled trench coat.
David: Can I ask you just one more thing? (in a Columbo voice)
Melissa: Are you going to ask me, Is Columbo the most populous city? Because the answer is yes.
Melissa: Sri Lanka used to be known as Ceylon. From 1815 until 1972, the island was under British rule and was called Ceylon. That’s where we get Ceylon tea. I need to talk about that for a minute because it is a Thing. The pure Ceylon tea website says, What Rolls-Royce is to cars, Rolex is to watches, Havana is to cigars, and Scotland is to whisky, Ceylon is to tea.’
David: I don’t know that I’ve ever had official Ceylon tea.
Melissa: It is delicious.
David: Is it?
Melissa: It is. Most teas are based on the leaves from which they’re made. But Ceylon is a black tea named for where it’s grown. And there are rules.
David: Otherwise, it’s just sparkling tea. [laughter]
Melissa: Genuine Ceylon tea must be produced, manufactured, and packed entirely in Sri Lanka. It’s marked with a unique logo, the Lion of Ceylon, who also appears on the Sri Lankan flag. This is a lion drawn in an Asian style, and he holds a sword in his paw, as if to say, ‘You must prove you are worthy of my delicious tea.’
Melissa: Since 1972, the island has been called Sri Lanka, which in Sanskrit means resplendent. That’s the Sri and Island (Lanka). And resplendent it is. I feel like resplendent is a word that doesn’t get used enough.
David: And properly so here, though, right? Sri Lanka is resplendent.
Melissa: It is indeed. There are soft sand beaches with gently swaying palm trees. Ridiculously lush tea plantations and rainforests. There are monkeys scampering around and elephants and mountaintop temples. It’s about 85°F most of the year.
David: Yeah. While we were preparing for this episode, I read a few different things about Sri Lanka. None of the writers could get over how beautiful it is. Gobsmacked by just natural beauty of the place.
Melissa: It’s true. We’ll put lots of pictures in the show notes. This seems like a good time to mention if you were a teenager in the 1980s and obsessed with MTV like I was, you are probably more familiar with Sri Lanka than you know. The band Duran Duran shot three music videos there. If you remember John Taylor and Simon Le Bon frolicking on the beach at sunset, you have seen Sri Lanka.
Melissa: Sri Lanka’s two official languages represent the two largest ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Sinhalese people speak Sinhala and are mostly Buddhists. They make up the majority, about 75% of the population. The Tamils speak a language of the same name and are mostly Hindu. They’re about 11% of the population. So a marked minority. The remaining Sri Lankans are Moors, Malays, Dutch and Portuguese Burghers, which comes up a lot for such a small part of the population, and the indigenous Vedda people. All of this becomes important when we get into Sri Lankan history, which we’re going to do right now.
Melissa: Up until the 1500s, Sri Lanka was ruled by various kingdoms of both the domestic and invading variety. Then in the 16th century, the Portuguese showed up. And then the Dutch and then the British. Sri Lanka was a British colony until 1948 when it gained independence, but it didn’t become a fully autonomous republic until 1972. And then the country went through a very long, very rough patch. Sri Lanka had a civil war that lasted 26 years from 1983 until 2009.
David: That is a long time like it’s hard to imagine. That’s what two generations of people growing up during civil war.
Melissa: It was mostly fought between the government and the Tamil Tigers. They wanted to create an independent Tamil state. They use suicide bombing, assassinations, and guerrilla warfare against the government and against other Tamil groups. Returning bad for bad, the government responded with military action, plus human rights violations, abductions, and torture, including civilians. It was a mess. About 100,000 people died — they think. Because although the government was accused of war crimes, they refused an official investigation. All of that ended about 12 years ago. Sadly, Sri Lanka is currently in another state of upheaval. They’re in a massive financial crisis. There are extreme shortages of medication, cooking fuel, gas, and food. And last year, 2022, civilian protests overthrew the government. On July 14th, the then-president fled to Singapore and resigned via email.
David: Isn’t that how Jake Gyllenhaal broke up with Taylor Swift?
Melissa: I think that was a text message. But the vibe’s the same.
David: Yeah, I’m out. Yeah.
Melissa: The sense I get from the articles I read from the time are that he needed to skedaddle and didn’t have time to hand-write the official letter to Parliament.
Melissa: And in the news pieces I read, they weren’t entirely sure that an email would count as an official resignation, like, there was a lot of speculation.
David: Wow. So he’s hearing pounding on the front door and he’s sitting down to write the letter and he’s —
Melissa: Time to peace out.
David: Yeah, I’m out of here.
Melissa: It was announced recently that the IMF is going to give Sri Lanka a $3 billion bailout. They have a lot of work to do to get their country back on track. I found a really good video that explains how all of this happened. I’ll put it in show notes. The one thing that really jumped out to me that I remember is that the president decided that all of the farms in Sri Lanka needed to be organic, and it all needed to happen on a particular date that was not very far in the future from when he made the announcement. Even in the most progressive countries, only a very small percentage of the farms are 100% organic. It’s just really not sustainable to produce enough food for everyone.
Melissa: And so that is one of the dominoes that fell and started the food shortages.
David: That’s too bad.
Melissa: It’s pretty messy. The video was very helpful in understanding what’s going on.
Melissa: Having said all of that, Sri Lanka is still a safe place to visit. A couple of travel bloggers I turned to said that it just requires a little extra patience and diligence, and in exchange there are a lot of awesome things to see and do. As we already mentioned, it’s stunningly beautiful. There are beaches for surfing and diving. You can watch fishermen on stilts during the magic hour at sunset or first thing in the morning.
David: There are some lovely pictures of those guys doing that.
Melissa: They look really magical.You can visit an elephant orphanage. You can see leopards in Wilpattu National Park. You can watch whales, blue whales, off the eastern coast. Sri Lanka is also a brilliant place to take a train journey. The trains chug through the tea fields. They climb hills that are forested with pine trees. They zip along the beach. They pass by dramatic waterfalls. And I read that there are not a lot of rules about the train, so you can open the windows and doors and hang out to catch a breeze.
David: Oh, okay.
Melissa: One of the best routes passes over a viaduct. It’s a big gray brick bridge with arches that are kind of hovering over the jungle below. And it’s all green, but it’s dotted with colorful flowers. And that bridge is called the Bridge in the Sky.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: A train adventure would be my second favorite thing to do when we visit. My first favorite would be to eat.
David: Of course.
Melissa: Sri Lankan cuisine is kind of a cousin to Indian food, but it has the influence of Indonesian and Dutch flavors. The dishes are a little bit spicier, not necessarily hotter, but spiced slightly differently. And they use native ingredients like cinnamon curry leaves and cassava, along with ingredients from other cultures like chiles, tomatoes and cashews. A writer on Serious Eats said that Sri Lankan food has ‘unapologetically, punch you in the face, get the adrenaline pumping flavor.
David: I’m into it. Yeah, let’s do it.
Melissa: One of the most ubiquitous condiments, the one you find everywhere, is called pol sambol. It’s made with grated coconut dried chillies, ginger, cumin, salt, lime juice and fish flakes. So it hits all of the flavor centers: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. You take that stuff and you sprinkle it onto your rice or on top of your curry or maybe on the rice noodles that are called string hoppers. I feel like pol sambol is a very achievable thing for anyone to make in their kitchen, no matter where they are, because as we’re going to see later, Sri Lankan cuisine might be a little tricky to make at home.
David: Yeah, sure.
Melissa: It’s got a lot going on. But the Pol Sambol… easy. Street food is a big thing in Sri Lanka, which I love. One of the most popular dishes is called Kotthu Roti. Roti is a flaky flatbread made with coconut flour. It’s kind of like a Sri Lankan tortilla. In this dish, that gets chopped into pieces, and then it’s stir fried on a hot griddle with veggies, meat and eggs. So it’s kind of like —
Melissa: No, it is not like nachos. [laughing] It’s kind of like fried rice.
Melissa: Only instead of rice, you’re using chopped up roti. And then there’s the spicy curry sauce either mixed in or poured over the top. And apparently it’s customary for the chefs to really clank their spatulas and knives while they’re chopping. So it’s very entertaining and noisy.
Melissa: I’m also fascinated with the wood apple.
David: What’s a wood apple?
Melissa: Okay, here we go. It’s a very common fruit in Sri Lanka. The outside looks like a rotten coconut. Like if you saw it lying there, you’d be like, That is not for me to eat.
David: I’m not gonna eat that.
Melissa: According to reports, the shell feels wooden, and it gives off a very strong aroma that’s sort of like raisins and kind of like blue cheese.
David: You’re really selling it.
Melissa: So I’m already confused. Like, I have a pretty good foodgination: food plus imagination.
Melissa: I’m having a hard time really imagining this. When you crack it open, the pulp inside looks like brown goo. If you’re being generous, maybe it looks like chocolate pudding? And the taste is described as sour, funky, and strong. It can be eaten raw with a spoon straight out of the shell. But it’s usually made into a juice or desserts sweetened with coconut sugar. In a video that I watched, the narrator loved it. He cracked it open. He’s eating it with a spoon. He’s obviously thoroughly enjoying it.
David: Literally eating it up with a spoon.
Melissa: Yes. Yeah. And then he said it smells like raisins, slightly fermented and wet.
David: Huh? So this feels like a like a dare food.
Melissa: It kind of does. But it’s it’s very common there, so it must be good? I don’t know. I feel like my life will not be complete until I try wood apple. And I’m pretty sure the only place to get it is Sri Lanka. So let’s fire up some airplane tickets.
Melissa: I want to wrap up with a quote from the writer Arthur C. Clarke. You probably know Arthur C Clarke.
David: Yeah, science fiction author. He wrote the screenplay for 2001 A Space Odyssey. Right.
Melissa: He lived in Sri Lanka from 1956 until he died in 2008. He went there because he loved scuba diving.
Melissa: This is what he wrote: It may well be that each of Ceylon’s attractions is surpassed somewhere on earth. Cambodia may have more impressive ruins. Tahiti, livelier beaches. Bali more beautiful landscapes, though I doubt it. Thailand, more charming people. Ditto. But I find it hard to believe that there is any country which scores so highly in all departments.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: There you have it. Sri Lanka 101.
David: Awesome. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I will do my best.
David: I’m about to present three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is a lie. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. First statement: So as you know, what is now Iran was once known as Persia. The statement is: A common word in the English language began as the Persian name for Sri Lanka.
David: Second statement. So you can’t walk from Sri Lanka to India. There’s a 30 miles of water in the way, as you mentioned. But here’s the statement: When Joan of Arc was alive, a person could walk from Sri Lanka to India.
David: And finally, statement three: The first commercial flight to circumnavigate the globe accidentally landed in Sri Lanka.
Melissa: You never really want to hear the phrase ‘accidentally landed’ associated with your flight.
David: You really don’t. So in order: a common word in the English language began as the Persian name for Sri Lanka.
Melissa: I know that one is true.
David: That is true.
Melissa: Because I found it in my research, too.
David: So the ancient Persians used to call Sri Lanka Serendib.
Melissa: Which is a great name.
David: They had a name for it because they had some ownership there. They had a trading outpost. I learned the bit I’m about to tell you from a book that I’m going to talk about in a little bit: Elephant Complex by John Gimlette. Gimlette wrote about it so well, I’m going to quote him here in this passage. He is talking about a town in the north of Sri Lanka called Mannar. And warning: I’m about to butcher some Italian: ‘It began with a fairy tale that took four hundred years to creep round the world. [The fairy tale] appeared first in Persia, in 1302. Then it showed up again in Venice in 1557, by which time it was known as Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo.’
Melissa: That’s poetry, babe. [laughing]
David: I’m just going to stick with that too. ‘From there, it went north, briefly attracting the attention of Voltaire before arriving in England. Here, it was seized upon by Horace Walpole, who was impressed by its silliness and had it adapted into English as The Three Princes of Serendip. These days, no one remembers much about the story, but they do understand a recurring concept: the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident, or—as we now say –— serendipity.’
Melissa: One of my very favorite words.
Melissa: Also, I take issue with no one remembering that story. If you’re a fan of Gothic literature, you’ve probably at least read the beginning of the Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which is where he coined the word serendipity.
David: I think you’re in a small group there, babe. Small elite group.
Melissa: I have that book on my bookshelf.
David: Isn’t that amazing, though, that that word comes all the way from what Persians used to call Sri Lanka.
Melissa: I love it so much.
David: Yeah. So second statement. When Joan of Arc was alive, a person could walk from Sri Lanka to India.
Melissa: I’m going to say that’s true.
David: That is true. So Sri Lanka has only been an island for about 500 years. Geologically speaking, that is zero time.
Melissa: It’s a baby.
David: Today there’s a small strip of islands and shoals that stretches that 30 miles or about 50 K from the island to India. The surrounding waters are shallow from about 1 to 10m or about 30ft deep. Depending on your nationality, that area is currently called either Rama Setu or Adam’s Bridge. The evidence is that Adam’s Bridge used to be above the water line, so you could walk from Sri Lanka to India along Adam’s Bridge.
Melissa: That just gave me a mental image of someone skipping from one little island to the next. La la la.
David: Yeah. But then in 1480, a cyclone hit that area, which must have been amazing. And ever since, Sri Lanka has been on its own. The reviews of the area suggest two things. First, that a lot of people go there looking for an actual bridge. It’s called Adams Bridge. Where’s the bridge? The second is that it is a beautiful spot. On the Sri Lankan side of the bridge, there’s an old lighthouse and a small village with tons of tropical seabirds. And on the Indian side, there’s a long white beach and calm blue green waters and a small temple.
David: I suspect that when you could walk from Sri Lanka to India, it was a spectacular walk.
David: And finally: The first commercial flight to circumnavigate the globe accidentally landed in Sri Lanka.
Melissa: That means that one’s a lie. But I bet you have more to the story. [laughter]
David: So a lot depends on the idea of accidentally here. But yeah, this is a story, and I love this story. So in the 1930, Pan Am invested in several Boeing 314 Clippers. These were sea planes. They landed and they took off in the water. But they were also one of the most luxurious ways to travel in the 30s. There were only 70 passengers on a commercial flight, even though they were about the size of a 747. These planes had dressing rooms and a bar. The seats were converted into bunks for overnight travel. Gourmet meals came out of the galley and into a dining room. The windows were large enough you could get a good view outside.
Melissa: The author, Ken Follett, wrote a novel called Night Over Water that takes place on one of those planes.
David: They were the height of luxury and aeronautic achievement at that time. So it’s December 1st, 1941, and a crew of 11, led by Captain Bob Ford, take off on a clipper flying out of Treasure Island near San Francisco.
David: Yeah. We’ve been to Treasure Island. It’s a small island in the San Francisco Bay with lovely views of the city and Marin and the East Bay. It is hard to imagine that it was once an airport, but the world changes. So Captain Ford and his crew are going from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand, which is a ways. A flight like that took some time in the 40. There were no Trans Pacific nonstops in those days. They stopped in LA, in Hawaii, and Fiji and a few other stops to refuel and stretch their legs. Sometimes they stayed the night.
Melissa: That sounds like such a big adventure.
David: And lovely. So it’s December 7th, 1941, when they’re coming into New Zealand airspace. That date might ring some bells for people. That was the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
David: They get a morse code message which is looping, which itself is a bad sign. The message is Pearl Harbor attacked. Implement Plan A. Only Captain Ford knows what plan A is.
Melissa: I’m glad he knew.
David: He reaches into his jacket pocket. He pulls out a sealed brown envelope. He opens it and he reads it. It’s a statement from the Pan Am executives. I will summarize. It says, Hostilities have commenced. You are now flying a strategic military resource. It must be protected and secured from enemy hands. Land at the nearest base and wait for further orders.
Melissa: Wow. So dramatic.
David: Yeah. Just wait. So they shut down the radio and they turn off the lights. And Ford straps a .38 revolver to his hip and they continue to New Zealand. They are in Auckland for a week before they get the next message. That message says: Strip all the company markings and identifiable insignia from the exterior. Proceed westbound at your discretion. Deliver to LaGuardia Field in New York. Good luck.
David: It is hard to imagine sitting in New Zealand that morning with those orders. Ford and his team are to fly west from Auckland to the United States. Nobody has ever done that. They don’t have maps. They don’t know where to get fuel. There’s no support for weather or supplies or emergency gear. It is a sea plane, so it doesn’t have landing gear. And the world is at war.
Melissa: And at this point, are the passengers off?
David: Passengers are off. They’re off. Yes, they disembarked in Auckland. And then, and this is one of my favorite parts of this story, faced by these seemingly insurmountable odds, the team gets their head back into the game and they go straight to a library.
Melissa: Of course.
David: So with the help of a friendly local librarian, they scrounge up maps and marine charts and atlases. They look up information about weather and wind and political alliances. I feel like I could tell this story for another hour or so, but to cut it short: a month later, they arrive in New York. In that month, they visit five of the world’s seven continents, including a stop in Sri Lanka. They cross three oceans. They made 18 stops in 12 nations. None of those people were expecting to see them.
David: They were shot at twice. They landed the plane in a mined harbor.
Melissa: Oh, my gosh.
David: They had an engine problem that they literally solved with a tin can and some baling wire. [laughter] They had an encounter with a Japanese submarine, and they traveled 30,000 miles navigating by the stars and luck and an atlas that they took from a library in New Zealand. When they got home, The New York World Telegram described the flight as the greatest achievement in the history of aviation since the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.
David: Captain Ford said, Every man simply fell into the routine for which he was trained. And everything went like clockwork, every mile of the way. If you want to know more, there is a good Washington Post article. But the best telling I found was written by John Bull for Medium. There’s also a self-published book called The Long Way Home by Ed Dover that has 4.6 stars after 750 reviews. We’ll put links to everything in the show notes. That’s Two Truths and a Lie. Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: 100%. My first book was recommended by our friend and patron Danielle C. So thank you, Danielle, for recommending this book. It’s Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. This is a war story set during the 1980s and 1990s, which was the heart of Sri Lanka’s civil war. As you might expect, this book addresses some pretty heavy themes. Truth and deceit, the futility of war and how war can forge or dismantle people’s identities. Identity is a very strong theme in this story. But it does all of that through a story that’s kind of a detective slash archaeological procedural.
Melissa: And because it’s written by Michael Ondaatje, it does all of that with literary flair. So let’s talk about him for a sec. He was born in Colombo in 1943, and he is of Burgher descent. When he was 11, he moved to England and then later emigrated to Canada to study literature. He has written a boatload of poetry and seven novels, including The English Patient. That book won the Booker in 1992 and was adapted into a really beautiful, tear-jerker Oscar winning movie.
Melissa: His next book was this one Anil’s Ghost. He said he wanted to write about what it’s like to live in a country going through a civil war. And he’d written about Sri Lanka before. He wrote a fictionalized memoir about returning in the 1970s. But he said that book was a romp. And in this one, he wanted to explore how people cope when they’re living in fear. And he was really interested in what a woman would do in the very male world of war.
Melissa: Which brings us to the heroine of this story. Her name is Arnelle. She’s a forensic anthropologist. It’s the 1990s and she’s returning to her homeland after being gone for 15 years. She’s part of a United Nations mission that’s investigating human rights abuses during the war. Her work partner was appointed by the government. His name is Sareth, and he’s an archaeologist. They are a very uneasy pair. There’s distrust and anxiety on both sides of that relationship. Anil is very outspoken and headstrong, and that might have been okay in Sri Lanka before. But Sarath is desperate for her to understand that Sri Lanka now is not the place that she left 15 years ago, and he really wants her to temper her directness and think a little bit more politically when she’s talking to people.
David: I would think that’d be really hard to do.
Melissa: Yes, 100%. And it’s not clear if his motives are to protect her.
Melissa: Or some secret ulterior motive that he’s got going on.
Melissa: Adding to this fraught atmosphere is their lab. It is literally an abandoned ship.
Melissa: Once upon a time, it was a luxury passenger liner, but now it’s been moored and gutted and turned into a shadowy clanking home base for their work.
David: Sounds creepy.
Melissa: So at every step, it’s pretty obvious that the government doesn’t really want this little investigation to succeed. They go on a dig, they’re digging in a sacred grave for monks and they find four human skeletons which did not surprise them.
Melissa: Except three of the skeletons are appropriately old, and one of them is recent. And these skeletons are found in an area that’s only accessible to government employees. This makes Anil and Sarath suspect that the remains were dumped there by someone in an official capacity.
Melissa: So they set out to identify the skeleton and to prove publicly that the government is involved in mass political murders. You can imagine how the government feels about that.
David: Not warmly.
Melissa: They give the skeleton the nickname Sailor, and they leave their ship lab to recruit help in their investigation. Their first visit is to an old teacher of Sarath’s. This guy has become very eccentric. He’s blind, and he’s retreated from the world because he was ostracized by his professional community. And that may or may not be deserved. It’s all very shady. He lives in an abandoned monastery in the forest with only his niece for company. And then he in turn points them to an artist who has, of course, suffered his own massive tragedies. To identify the skeleton they need to recreate his face. And this artist is the only person they trust to do it.
David: There are a lot of gothic settings in this book.
Melissa: There really are. There’s also Sarath’s brother. He’s a doctor grappling with the horrors of the Civil War. And all of these characters — I was going to call them side characters — tThey’re not really they are very well drawn and they add lots of their own interesting, emotional baggage to this story and they are fully rendered. We get their backstories. And all of them are somehow involved in this investigation into Sailor’s identity.
Melissa: This book has a very strong sense of Sri Lanka, both in the politics and the descriptions of the settings. I was transported into that ship lab.
Melissa: And the abandoned monastery and the wartime hospital. And I haven’t even talked about the empty manor house where the team works to reconstruct the skeleton. I want to read you a little bit. This is less gothic, but gives you an indication of the writing.
Melissa: ‘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 pure darkness into the other life that existence. For when people leave our company in our time, we’re never certain of seeing them again or seeing them unaltered.’
David: You said that wasn’t gothic, but that was pretty Gothic.
Melissa: Yeah. Okay. It’s pretty gothic.
Melissa: Although the scaffolding of this story is a mystery plot, this is a slow burn. We spend a lot of time getting to know the characters and understanding their relationships and the ins and outs of their work. It’s very procedural. At times, the investigation kind of recedes into the background while the characters are living in the moment and also reliving their pasts. But there’s kind of a soft breathlessness to it, not from the pace of the plot, but from the character’s fraught emotional states. Fear and unease and tricky relationships are all around.
David: That sounds like an accurate retelling of what would happen after a war.
Melissa: Yeah, I would think so. Michael Ondaatje said this was the most painful novel he’s written. It’s not always pleasurable to read, but it is very compelling. I kept going back to it and picking it up even when it was hard, and it’s really stayed with me. It’s very haunting and shadowy and sometimes it’s a little hallucinatory, but there are also glimmers of beauty and light, and these characters just got their claws into me. The last act plays out like a thriller, straight up. I got to the 90% mark and that thing went off like a rocket. And the ending is very, very satisfying and life affirming. That’s Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje.
David: My first book is The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser. This is a novel that centers around a lawyer in Sri Lanka in the first half of the 20th century. The lawyer is Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere. He’s a native, a Sinhalese. He is the oldest son in an elite family. Unfortunately, his family is quickly falling from grace when he’s born. His parents are spending money faster than they can make it. They are having a frenzy of parties and bad decisions while Stanley grows up alone at the family compound. There are four sections to the Hamilton case, and they almost feel like different books.
David: The first is written as a first person autobiography. Stanley tells his own story, a coming of age story about his relationship with his parents money and insecurity. The author lends their observant eye to Stanley. Some of the details in this book are just razor sharp and super evocative. It’s impressive. For the first hundred pages or so, it’s easy to be sympathetic to this poor kid.
David: But he turns out to be a horrible person.
Melissa: Oh, no.
David: Yeah, but it’s also clear why that happens. The second chunk of this book is a gothic novel written in an almost omniscient third person, and it is full on Gothic. There’s a haunted house and a murder mystery and family secrets. Mad women do horrible things. Ghosts walk through the second section of this book. Servants won’t go into certain rooms, that kind of thing. For a few chapters, Stanley becomes a detective. He investigates the title Hamilton case. A British landowner is murdered in a jungle. Stanley’s solution reverberates through the rest of this book. The third section is also third person. But now the narrator enters the character’s thoughts. Here we get a deeper look at Sam and the rest of the people in his life. And then World War II comes and goes through here. The last section is a letter written by a secondary character to Stanley’s estranged son years after the primary action is over. Another author might have used this to patch up a plot, but here we just get another telling. And a lot of talk about how the truth is frequently subjective. The author writes, The plot does nothing but thicken.
Melissa: I love that.
David: Yeah, it’s a great line. And that’s one of the overall messages of this book. Right? The truth is complicated and it never fully arrives. One of the reasons we love mystery novels is that there’s there’s an answer. We receive a solution. The Hamilton Case subverts that. We arrive at what seems to be the truth a few times, but it always bounces away again. There is some really excellent writing in The Hamilton Case. The author’s eye and memory for detail are just astonishing to me. He will explain the contents of a room so that I can see it. She’s also good at summarizing complex relationships in just a few words. Early on, Stanley describes his relationship with his parents. So he’s a young boy and there’s a paragraph about him watching them have a fight. The paragraph itself is beautiful and horrible, but that paragraph ends with this line: But what I remember most about my parents is that they weren’t there. Which just, like, hit me in the gut.
David: There’s another section later where a wife has lost a child and her husband doesn’t have an emotional reaction at all to it. And that section ends with this sentence: She understood then with awful clarity that the reason he displayed no grief was that he felt none.
David: A lot of this book is about the tragedy of how natives are taught to think about other natives through the eyes of their colonizers. We’ve seen that a few times through the show, maybe most notably in South Africa. But it’s true here too. There is a particularly hateful form of tribalism there that people who adopt the ways of the colonizers look down on the people who are not adopting the ways of the colonizers. And even though they are almost genetically identical. And they should be hanging closer together. Maybe in a more perfect world. And then in this case, the colonizers leave, but they hate plays on. The author, Michelle de Kretser, was born in Sri Lanka but has lived in Australia since 1972. Many years ago she was an editor for Lonely Planet and she sits written eight books. One of those, The Lost Dog, was on the longlist for the Man Booker. The Hamilton Case sounds like your first book; it’s a pretty intense book. I imagine reading this is like walking into the jungle, right? It is dark and mysterious and increasingly claustrophobic, but there are some really beautiful parts to it. This might be your thing if you like a nice, knotty, bittersweet novel. It’s the Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser.
Melissa: My next recommendation is a cookbook called Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka by Cynthia Shanmugalingam. The author was born in Coventry, England, in 1981. Her Sri Lankan parents left the island in 1983. That’s the year that the war started. But her dad kept Sri Lanka alive in their house, and every summer they went back to the island for a holiday, even during the war. When she grew up, her parents returned to Sri Lanka and she kept up the annual tradition of visiting them, and she started to cook.
David: That seems like such a gift to a kid growing up, right? Keeping the old traditions. Because as the kid, of course, you’re going to want to reject all that stuff. But later on, you also realize that your parents are telling you where you’re from. Yes.
Melissa: And that really worked for her.
Melissa: There’s this really great passage in the book about how she got recipes from blurry iPhone photos of her grandmother’s handwriting and also from instructions her mom was shouting to her over the phone from Sri Lanka. I could see that so vividly.
David: Yeah, that’s beautiful.
Melissa: So fast forward a little bit. In 2021, she opened the restaurant Rambutan in London, and the following year she put out this cookbook. Both Bon Appetit and the LA Times named it one of the best cookbooks of 2022. I’m not at all surprised. This is a great book. Even though Sri Lanka is a pretty small island, the different communities — Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim, Burgher — all have different cooking styles and specialties. So the North has the spiciest curries and the east is the birthplace of roti, which means that’s also the home of Kotthu stir fried dish I mentioned earlier. If you go to the south, there’s a special coconut rice called Kiri bath. And if you go west, the cuisine there is influenced by the Dutch burghers. They make something called lamprais.
David: Lump rice.
Melissa: Lump rice. That’s like almost a Sri Lankan tamale. They take a banana leaf and put all kinds of stuff in it. Curry, rice, sambol, fried things. Some things are meat, some things are fish. And it all gets tied up in this banana leaf. And then when you’re going to eat it, you unwrap it and use the banana leaf like a plate.
David: And you eat it with your hands, right?
Melissa: Yes. Right hand. Yeah.
Melissa: So this book includes recipes from all parts of the country. There are lots of really gorgeous photos. The colors are really saturated. They’re like candy colored. It looks like a party. One of my favorite bits in the book is a list called Nine Things About Sri Lankan Food. In Hindu mythology and in Sri Lanka, things often come in nines. There are nine fundamental emotions, the festival of nine nights, nine Sri Lankan provinces. So the author included nine short essays that each explain an aspect of Sri Lankan cooking. There’s advice on how and why to temper your spices when you’re cooking. Tempering is when you throw the spices into hot fat. It kind of blooms the flavors. There’s a breakdown on the different types of Sri Lankan curry. She explains how Sri Lankans eat at a party. In short, there’s a lot of food. There’s a big dinner. But before dinner there are snacks, fish croquettes, spicy potatoes, beef patties wrapped in fried dough. Basically everything fried.
David: Frying is a cooking technique honored around the world.
Melissa: With good reason.
David: For reasons. Yeah.
Melissa: She also vividly describes Muslim street food in a way that made me want to go to Sri Lanka immediately. But the thing that is really powerful is that in the second half of that essay about the street food, she recounts a tragic event during the Civil War — of Tamil Tigers killing Muslims who were praying in a mosque. One of the strengths of this book, I think, is that she’s transparent about everything she loves about her country and all that’s problematic.
Melissa: Her voice is great. She really notices little details that give the perfect meaning to her descriptions. And her writing style is sometimes a little gossipy, which is really fun. It’s fun. She’s sarcastic. Here’s a snippet from the essay on Tempering spices. She’s been telling a story about how in the 1980s her sister was mocked for having short hair, for fangirling over Whitney Houston, for not knowing how to cook the lentil dish called dal. This is what she writes: ‘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 is considered an idiot proof recipe. And one of the first dishes a young cook learns to make. My sister is now a doctor, a mom of three, and she’s a fantastic cook. She didn’t let the sexist trolls get her down on dal. And you shouldn’t either.’
David: That’s so good.
Melissa: This book has recipes for every part of the meal, including condiments and desserts. All of them have helpful headnotes with details and personal stories that make it feel like she’s in the kitchen with you. I particularly like this: Breadfruit really does taste like toasty, freshly baked bread. When you crack open the skin, the insides are gloriously fleshy with a single white stone in the middle, the smell like someone has smashed bread pudding into a tropical green body.’ I have never seen or smelled a breadfruit, but now I feel like I can imagine it.
Melissa: The back part of the book includes suggested menus that show you how to put it all together so you can have a Sri Lankan dinner party if you want to. So I read this book from front to back like a memoir, and I really enjoyed it. The recipe techniques aren’t hard, but there are a lot of ingredients, and there are a lot of steps to making these recipes. So for some people, this might be more of a reading book than a cooking book. But if you do enjoy playing in the kitchen, this cookbook tells you everything you need to know to do that.
David: Are the ingredients hard to get?
Melissa: I think in like larger cities in the United States that have pretty robust international sections in their grocery store, it would be okay.
Melissa: I don’t know that we could make authentic Sri Lankan food here in Prague.
Melissa: But we can make the pol sambol from coconut and lime juice, right? So, yeah, I think if you’re if you are very curious, as you could make it work.
David: And if you have access to a Whole Foods, you’re golden.
Melissa: Yes, right. The book is Rambutan Recipes from Sri Lanka by Cynthia Shanmugalingam.
David: My next book is Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka by John Gimlette. John Gimlette is a barrister in England. He lives in south west London. He’s got a degree from Cambridge and presumably one of those English lawyer wigs that Americans like to make fun of.
Melissa: I was going to say, he wears a wig.
David: Yeah. By the way, sort of completely derail myself before I get going. Do you know why they wear those wigs? It’s to make themselves anonymous and separate and uniform.
Melissa: Yeah. And how else would you do that except a really silly wig?
David: Yeah, The wigs are what they wear when they’re cosplaying as the law.
Melissa: I have noticed that they’re not particularly careful about tucking their own hair inside. They do wear it like a hat.
David: Yeah, a little bit. Anyway, John Gimlette is an English lawyer, but he’s also a travel writer and he is really good at it. In 2010, Salon called him the world’s best living travel writer.
David: Yeah. And that was four books ago.
Melissa: Jeez. I feel like I need to read all of his books.
David: I would encourage you to do so. He has written books on Paraguay, Newfoundland and Labrador, Guyana and Suriname. He traveled the European battlegrounds of World War Two with an American vet named Putnam Flint.
Melissa: Whoa. Sp manly.
David: He wrote about that in a book called Panther Soup. Gimlette’s latest book is Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka. I’m unsure if he’s the world’s best living travel writer, but I wouldn’t be surprised. He has an extrovert’s need to talk to people and an introvert’s eye for detail. He is a fantastic storyteller. He gets to Sri Lanka and goes everywhere and meets everyone. This book has, among other things, the cleanest description of the Sri Lankan civil war I’ve read. It’s short and punchy, and I walked away understanding the different perspectives. The Civil War is a confusing jumble of names and dates in Wikipedia, and here it is a good story, well told and an ongoing tragedy. The article from Salon that I mentioned put it this way: It can be said that the truly gifted travel writer is the one who makes your life feel incomplete through prose so compelling that the reader is unable to forgive himself for not visiting whatever country or region the writer is tackling, no matter how uninviting such a place would ordinarily seem.
Melissa: Right on.
David: I think it’s totally true. The the best travel writers make me think I should absolutely be doing what they’re doing, even though I know myself well enough that I also believe that whatever it is would probably be a poor idea for me.
David: So I’m going to read you about a page from this book that really did that for me. I think this, more than anything I could say, will give you an idea of whether this book’s for you. And it’s a beautiful piece of writing. I need to tell you three things before we start. The passage mentions a man named Mahathun [ MA - ha - thun ]. He’s a farmer, who lives far enough out in the bush that he needs to worry about elephants. There’s a mention of the palu tree, which is a local hard wood tree that bears fruit. Sloth bears love the fruit of the palu tree. And, three, Gimlette uses the word ‘ali’ as a sign of respect for the elephant.
David: Here’s the passage:
My last night, I slept in the treetops.
Mahathun had been happy to find me a massa, or watch-hut. That evening, we’d walked out through the rice fields until we came to a lone palu, with a tree house about thirty feet up. It was about the size of a double bed, and had a thatched roof and a long ladder wriggling down the trunk. Mahathun had said that, although he couldn’t stay, I was welcome. Climbing up to the platform, he’d lit a small fire to flush out any snakes – and I’d laid out my mat. It would take me a while to get used to the swaying, but, for Mahathun, this was home. He’d usually spend six months of the year up here, defending his rice.
As the day drained away, he explained how tree-life worked. It’s about persuasion, and letting the Big Bulls know what’s yours. You can’t relocate them, because they just die. Electric fences work, but they’re too expensive. So you have to let the ali know you’re here, and worry them a little. Some people use crackers, but the Big Bulls get used to them, and then you need guns. So the old ways are best.
“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.
Melissa: That was amazing.
David: Isn’t that great?
Melissa: And I totally get what you were saying because I’m listening to that, and I’m like, Oh, I would love to do that.And then the other half of my brain is like, Girl, no, you would not. You would see the ;adder and that would be the end of that. And the fire to chase away the snakes?
David: Yeah, right.
Melissa: I mean there are so many obstacles between me and that experience, but that is a fantastic piece of writing.
David: Isn’t that great? Yeah. So one of the joys of this project for me has been finding a new writer where I want to read everything they’ve written. Jason Reynolds was like that for me from our Halloween episode and John McPhee in Scotland and Kei Miller from Jamaica just a couple episodes ago. And now John Gimlette. This is a bang and travelogue. I would recommend it if you’re just generally interested in travel writing. But if you’re also interested in Sri Lanka, you’ve got to give it a chance. It’s Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka by John Gimlette.
Melissa: My last and best recommendation is the Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka.
David: This is the book that inspired this whole episode.
Melissa: It is indeed. It won the Booker Prize in 2002, But that’s not why I read it. I read it because Ron Charles from the Washington Post loved it. This is a wildly creative murder mystery and historical novel. It’s narrated in the second person by a man who’s just woken up as a ghost.
Melissa: Yes. The man who has just woken up dead is the Maali Almeida of the title. The first few paragraphs give you a very concise picture of what kind of man he was in life. And I got to say, he was kind of sketchy.
Melissa: He was a gutsy war photographer with very poor impulse control. On the first page, 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.
David: So many sketchy choices and he doesn’t think well of himself about it.
Melissa: Yeah, he really doesn’t. It’s one of the heartbreaking things in this book. And now he finds himself in the afterlife, or more accurately, in the waiting room of the afterlife. He is an administrative office for the newly dead, and it’s got a real vibe about it.
Melissa: There are grouchy civil servants behind counters. There’s a meandering queue of bleeding, wailing, complaining people. As he’s trying to figure out if he’s sleeping or tripping or what is happening, he shouts at a jaded female clerk in a white sari about how he can’t be dead. This is a mistake, he says. I don’t eat meat. I only smoke five a day. When that doesn’t work, 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. All of this falls on deaf ears, of course.
David: I think that they probably hear that a lot at the recently dead DMV.
Melissa: Right? He finds out that he has seven moons or one week to stay on earth as a ghost before entering the light and moving on to the next life. He could go into the light immediately if he chose to.
Melissa: But he can’t let go of his questions. How was he killed? Who did it? Plus, he’s convinced that his photos really could make a difference, that they could help stop the war if only he could get them into the right hands. So he decides to spend his precious seven moons investigating his own murder.
Melissa: The worldbuilding in this novel is complete, immersive. It feels so real. The author has created a whole world of what he calls the In Between, with rules for how it works and how physics and characters behave there. And that is on top of drawing a very vivid picture of real life Sri Lanka and the war years. And as we travel around with Maali, we experience both of them. It felt to me sometimes a little bit like a Sri Lankan version of A Christmas Carol, only instead of Maali being led around by the ghost of Christmas Past and Present, he’s being guided by a dead kid in a garbage bag cape. As he’s trying to recreate the timeline of his last day, he runs into all manner of dead people. Some are trying to help him. Others are trying to harm him. There are ghosts of people he’s photographed because he’s a war photographer. Some are glad to see him. Some are not.
Melissa: There’s a headless atheist that is just urging him to go directly into the light. There are dangerous demons and other ghouls who inhabit the In Between. He spies on the still-alive people who live in the Down There. That’s what they call it: the Down There.
Melissa: So he sees the dudes who clean up the many dead bodies found around Colombo. They’re called the garbage Men. He watches his mother bribe the cops to look into his disappearance. And we watch him watching his best friend, Jaki and his lover Dilan, mourn his death. Some parts of this novel, as you might expect, are very tough to read. There’s brutal violence. It’s all matter of factly described because Maali is pretty matter of fact about it all. But still.
Melissa: There’s corruption everywhere. And I was always rooting for Maali, even though he is a very flawed human. But he was really cruel to the people he loved when he was alive. He put his immediate desires and his work before everything else. But a lot of it is really funny, too. I mean, the DMV thing, it’s got built-in black humor.
Melissa: And the author’s imagination is just delightful. I had to keep reminding myself that this was not nonfiction. Maali and these other characters are not real. The In Between is not real. The author made all of these things happen. He put these funny, heartbreaking, fanciful words into all of their mouths.
Melissa: hat is a special kind of magic. What a gift to be able to do that! When Maali finally learns how and why he was murdered, it just about broke my heart.
David: Oh, no.
Melissa: Yeah, it — I didn’t expect it. It made perfect sense, but I did not expect it. And, oh, so sad. I’m very happy to say this book made me cry three times. And the ending, I thought it was just brilliant. It is very life affirming, and it felt exactly how it needed to be. This is a really special book, and I really look forward to reading it again sometime. Maali was a total smart ass in life, and death didn’t temper him very much, but it did teach him important things. And it’s really a gift to travel along with him and learn as he learns. That’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka.
Melissa: Before we close, there are two more things I need to mention.
Melissa: oThis book won the Booker. And the Booker Prize put out a free reading guide to go along with the novel that includes great discussion questions, background on the Civil War, and more books to read if you like this one. I found it a great companion to read after I’d read the novel to just kind of solidify my thinking about it.
Melissa: Number two. The author doesn’t only write literary novels. He and his brother, who’s an illustrator, collaborated on the children’s book Please Don’t Put That In Your Mouth. He said that he’s experienced many traumatic moments involving toddlers eating dangerous things. ‘My daughter once mistook a wet paint brush for an ice cream and started licking it. My son is known to pick up dead insects and munch on them. I intended to write a cautionary tale, but silliness overtook it.’ The book is really cute. Links for all of these things will be in show notes.
David: Those are five books we love set in Sri Lanka. Visit our show notes for all kinds of cool stuff.
Melissa: So many things. If anyone out there has had wood apple. Please, I need to hear from you.
David: Report in.
Melissa: The flavors of fermented raisins and wet. It doesn’t sound good, but yet I want to try it.
David: Let us know about your wood apple experience at strongsenseofplace.com. Or just take a look at our show notes and stuff. We got a lot of good stuff up there.
David: Mel, can you tell us where we’re going?
Melissa: We’re getting curious about Lebanon, the tiny country with Mediterranean beaches and fragrant cedar trees.
David: Awesome. Thanks for listening and we will talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Kevin Olson/Unsplash.
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