Book Review: Elephant Complex

Elephant Complex:  Travels In Sri Lanka, by John Gimlette

I am not unfamiliar with the author [1] thanks to being a fond reader of travel books.  Admittedly, Sri Lanka is not a nation I am familiar with myself [2], although my mum and stepfather did visit there one time.  Even so, like the author’s other books I found much to appreciate here and much to think about and ponder concerning the complexities of Sri Lanka as a society in the face of its deep conflicts as well as its troubled and complicated history.  The author appears to be one who is not content to enjoy the superficial but he really wants to understand the places he visits and as much of their history as possible, which frequently involves questions of culture, imperialism, immigration, politics, and related concerns.  In this particular book the author manages to divide his chapters in an interesting way, providing point and counterpoint about a particular part of the country, showing both positive and negative perspectives and letting the reader decide for oneself which perspective to believe in the fact of the writing that follows.  As for me, I found this book to present Sri Lanka as a deeply troubled nation, one not inclined to dig too deeply and all too quick to blame others, especially Americans, for their home-cooked problems.

In terms of its structure, this book is divided based on regions, which seem surprisingly complicated for an area as small as Sri Lanka.  To give some idea of the complexity of the regional geography discussed by this book, the author has chapters on the following area:  Colombo, the elephant reservoirs that were interior kingdoms once upon a time, the cinnamon forts, the the Buddhist “Bible Belt” of eastern Sri Lanka, the high road to Kandy, Kandy, the tea plantations where “Tea Tamils” work despite a lack of citizenship and legitimacy, the wild east where Sri Lanka’s last indigenous people reside, the area o Trinco, the mostly Tamil part of northern Sri Lanka, the Jaffna Peninsula, and the area of Millaitivu where the Sri Lankan army finally defeated the resistance of the Tamils in a bloodbath.  The author explores the complicated human and religious history as well as the origins and tragic course of the conflicts between Sinhalese and Tamils, pointing out as well the sad fate of those who were caught in the middle like Sri Lankan Muslims, who were disliked and mistrusted by both sides, as well as a few decent people on all sides of Sri Lanka’s complicated cultural mix.

Ultimately, this book is a sad one that demonstrates the troubles Sri Lanka faces.  The author does not hide either the horrors and abuses of the Portuguese or the violence of imperialism or the horrors that have resulted from the chauvinism of the Sinhalese in recent decades, where populist political leaders stirred up among Sri Lanka’s majority a disrespect for minorities that has had tragic consequences.  The author even points out the problems faced by India and Norway and others who have tried, unsuccessfully, to encourage peace between the warring cultures of the area who once lived more peacefully before democracy and electoral politics made it politically beneficial to appeal to the basest of instincts among Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority.  This book, and the horrors that it discusses in violence and rapine and destruction in the course of decades of ruinous conflict, are the kind that remind us that even places which may appear on their surface to be beautiful and even edenic often have longstanding and great evils that are only waiting to come to the surface before they cause horrible consequences.  I have no particular plans to go to Sri Lanka anytime soon, but if I do visit, I will likely do so in a more melancholy way than many other visitors likely do, particularly in light of its continuing exploitation of the young in the global sex trade as well as its horrible treatment of minorities.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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