A review of ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’

Do not buy ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’. The author, Andrew Fidel Fernando, is better known for his sporting columns. This is his first book – described as a labour of love – a term usually reserved for how parents think of juvenile delinquents when they were born & still beautiful. The Lonely Planet inspired cover suggests a saccharine capture of Sri Lanka by ‘bus, cycle and trishaw’, the preferred modes of transport for Instagram influencers and their Ludwig or Crema filtered snapshots of a sleeping dog, crowded train or thambili. As reviews go, this is clearly an inauspicious start. But as the author will attest after covering cricket’s vicissitudes as only he does and can, a terrible start doesn’t necessarily mean a calamitous end.

The recommendation to not purchase this book is anchored to personal experience. I read it in about four sittings over two days. In that short span of time, Fernando’s sardonic, salubrious and sharp prose resulted in spilt coffee, tea and water, nearly choking on a lozenge, actually choking on an Afghan chicken kebab, a near miss with a spill on keyboard, slight stains on book, a bigger stain on sweater, many scarred strangers and very scared birds. I suppose a more accurate capture would be to recommend a warning label with this book – abandon decorum, all ye who read. Nearly three decades after I first read Carl Muller’s ‘Jam Fruit Tree’, Andrew Fidel Fernando’s penned a book that, even though an entirely different genre and lens, is as compelling and effortlessly, gloriously witty. Do not buy this book for a quiet read, or to pose at Barefoot or Kiku with. Buy it to engorge the text as one would a biryani from Hotel de Buhari. The meal stains as much as Fernando’s prose sticks, and in both cases, the experience is worth far more than what one paid for and not easily forgotten.

Through a dozen chapters, covering the author’s journey across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, country, cities, communities and context are captured with an unerring eye for detail. Foreign readers unfamiliar with the country will no doubt appreciate the artful turn of phrase and skill at prose, both of which, astonishingly, are far better than more seasoned authors I’ve read. But the book is by an observant, sensitive, empathetic, domiciled Sri Lankan, for Sri Lankans. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Avoiding the self-indulgent smugness of Samanth Subramanian’s ‘This Divided Island’, and far more aligned with the empathetic gaze of Rohini Mohan’s ‘The Seasons of Trouble’, Fernando’s prose isn’t about proving authenticity or a parade of revelations otherwise inaccessible or unknown to those from Sri Lanka. ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’ is as Sri Lankan as arrack and EGB, written from an insider-partial perspective that, when necessary and effortlessly, informs a Tiresian critique of society, politics, culture, community and country.

Familiar to those who read and love Fernando’s cricket commentary, the book offers an entirely original capture of island life through dexterous device. Government departments are “staffed by people who considered arriving at work their primary task for the day”. Maithripala Sirisena “may well be remembered as one of history’s great invertebrates”. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s personal motto is “making Sri Lanka wildly prosperous, one immediate family member at a time”. And if this is good, Fernando’s capture of Sri Lanka’s real wildlife is even better. Never before have the sex lives of Minneriya’s young bull elephants and Mannar’s donkeys been so engagingly and effortlessly entwined into profound insights on loss of habitat, livelihoods, development, communal relations, the human-elephant conflict and ravages of war. Inhabitants of cities – women, children and men drawn from diverse backgrounds – are captured through both contemporary and historical frames, projecting their worldview, location or livelihood through an empathetic gaze supported by significant scholarship. Fernando’s research is meticulous and offers both original and captivating insights for even the seasoned reader of non-fiction on Sri Lanka. From nuanced capture of historical figures like Saradiel and Keppetipola Disawe to individuals encountered on his travels, the author uses – with great skill – stories recounted to him and the surroundings he finds himself in for a night or two to prise open and lay bare Sri Lanka’s multi-layered character. It is here the book is most removed from say a Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, which would rely on tired tropes to satiate the passing tourist’s gaze, instead of Fernando’s studied, nuanced and ultimately, more honest appraisal – warts and all.

‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’ is part travelogue, part ethnographic pastiche and all wit. With unerring accuracy, the book captures a sense of place and space down to taste and smell. The visitor is offered a complex country that doesn’t quite make sense, but works somehow, much to the incredulity of those who inhabit it as well. The Sri Lankan reader is offered fresh insights into a familiar loathing and love of country, which for many of us unceremoniously co-habit in our negotiation of everyday life. Fernando occupies himself with individuals even I would never encounter or choose to stay overnight with (the descriptions of phantasmagoric lodgings and their trappings were primary reason for spills, choking and belly-laughs).  And yet, in the capture of post-war realities, religious tensions, deep ethnic binds, feral wildlife, febrile politician, imagined place or geographic space, Fernando never once exoticizes.

There are, however, unpardonable errors. Fernando suggests that any traditional Sinhala wedding features a groom dressed up in Kandyan attire, and a woman decked out in an osari. The violence of this is considerable, for which the author must be held accountable by retraction or correction in the second edition. No one, absolutely no one, save for Kandyans – and even then, not without an abundance of hesitation – dresses up on their wedding day to walk like constipated ducks, bedecked in a costume that is in effect a bejewelled condom guaranteeing the impossibility of any conjugal or even convivial relations between the couple till summarily disposed of. The penultimate chapter features a capture of private school alumnus, in which the author invents a new school – St Thomas’ College. As an old boy of S. Thomas’ College, which if Fernando had had the good fortune to attend, would have learnt how to spell correctly, this error could have been forgiven were it not for the unnecessarily unkind and entirely inaccurate capture that follows. Neither have I ever used the truly awful, classist phrases attributed to alumnus from these two private schools, nor have I once heard those who went to either school use this terrible turn of phrase. A fiercely egalitarian spirit deeply ingrained in the DNA of S. Thomas’ is absent in Fernando’s writing, with even a caricature of school rendered unrecognisable by uncharacteristic imprecision.

Chapter 9, anchored to Killinochchi and Fernando’s travels to Jaffna, was for personal reasons particularly poignant. The author is too young to have travelled to or past the Killinochchi or Elephant Pass that existed during the Ceasefire Agreement, from 2002-2005. The pregnant capture of what it is like today, quite unexpectedly, brought a flow of memories of what the city and region were like nearly two decades ago, when I first travelled there. The author’s grandfather, after watching the 7 pm news during the war, we are told, would with a forlorn look and deep sigh say a variation of “Terrible thing no, this war? Whoever they are fighting for, they are all somebody’s son or daughter, isn’t it? Just imagine. All human lives. Our very own people”. I confess I put the book down as I finished this chapter because it was hard just to keep on reading. But what greater measure of an author’s talent, than to unshackle the darkest memory from deepest recess?

A final word on the full-colour illustrations which capture key moments of Fernando’s travel and travails. For reasons best known to Picador India, the artist’s name isn’t mentioned, which is a travesty. The illustrations, resembling the work of Richard Gabriel from the ’43 Group, are beautiful, complementing Fernando’s sublime writing. One hopes that a revised edition openly recognises the significant talent behind these drawings.

Buy ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’. Gift it. If after Easter Sunday, utterly banal Lonely Planet writing by foreigners who parachute into country is what we tweet about and share to make ourselves feel and look good, Fernando’s book deserves much more publicity. Between this book’s covers is a compelling capture of Sri Lanka’s irrepressible character and a textured patina of life, love and loss. Here is a text, like a long-term partner who snores, farts unapologetically and picks nose in public, which is embarrassing at times and even insulting at first blush or encounter, but you grow to love truly. Fernando is Sri Lanka’s karuthacolomban of new authors. Anyone who disagrees deserves a fate no less violent than the peacock towards the end of this book. You simply must read it to find out.


First published in The Sunday Island, 14 July 2019.

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