On – Andrew Fidel Fernando’s Upon a Sleepless Isle
What happens when Malgudi Days has a one night stand with A Hundred Years of Solitude, with The Great Railway Bazar for a fleeting ménage à trois, and they part with wry, sardonic smiles and an ever so slight sting to the memories?
Upon a Sleepless Isle is written by Andrew Fidel Fernando, published by Picador India in 2019. The milieu is Sri Lanka set well in to the 21st century. Fernando is an expatriate, who after his peregrinations over two decades, has decided to return home with his New Zealander wife, and currently works for ESPN covering cricket. He looks at the contemporary Sri Lankan society with the eyes of the romantic youth who had left this island of Serendip, which was idyllic then. To add colour to the narrative, and perhaps to fix the geography, the book begins with a child’s or tourist’s map of the island with appropriate icons for the main town, cities and tourist destinations! His digs at the Sri Lankan bureaucrats are vitriolic- “Just about the only thing bureaucrats enjoy more than idleness, however, is making the public feel small”. The narrative, in first person, is usually a comparison of the ‘brash and modern now, as I see it’ and sepia toned, nostalgia tinged ‘days of my boyhood, as I like to remember’. It meanders through encounters with small town bureaucrats and their petty mindedness, boyhood memories of his locality Dehiwala, a Colombo suburb and many journeys across the island. The acceptance of the improvements are grudging, but that he loves his country is undeniable. Fernando mentions, though briefly, his fear of travelling during his growing years, fraught with dangers as it was during the civil war years.
Fernando takes a straight dig at how the affluent western tourist traffic has emasculated Sri Lankans, the pomposity and condescension of the tourists. He is a prodigal who returns with an urge to belong, almost with a vengeance to reaffirm his roots, to make up for the decades he had lost while living in a foreign land. He takes an oblique pride in the social achievements and progress of Sri Lanka, and in keeping with his middle name ‘Fidel’- he is faithful to and loves his country. His vivid descriptions of his train journeys are reminiscent of Theroux’s journeys in similar locales. Fernando makes many trips around the island, to places that he could not have gone during his boyhood days when a brutal civil war was ravaging the country. Throughout the book, Fernando goes back to Dehiwala to mention some incident either recent or past. Fernando’s vitriolage is reserved for the politicians of his country. Time and again, the systematic and savage plunder of the island’s natural resources by the British finds a mention. He throws in vignettes from history, threading together the past and the present to create an evocative collage.
Fernando’s national pride is admirable in that he delves deep in to the syncretic past of Sri Lanka, with Buddhism taking centre stage, and Christianity, Islam and Hinduism finding their place in the large canvas. His determined journeys to unearth past glory in the forgotten, half-buried stupas earn my respect, as do his attempts at righting pseudo-history. His humour is mostly sly, sometimes risqué, when he describes the amorous adventures of elephants in Minneriya or that of feral donkeys in Mannar!
On the family-scape, his maternal grandmother Francisca, the headmistress, features prominently, rather than his parents! The civil war that ravaged the country for decade, appears and reappears in the books with the same pathos laden question- was it worth it?
Fernando’s writing style is racy, the narrative jumps from topic to topic; he uses contemporary words and projects an underlying sense of sly humour, and if at all, charming irreverence! What is irksome is the presence of idealistic watercolour paintings of scenes from the stories he tells! Perhaps these were intended for the western reader, but what was probably a necessity for Malgudi Days, published eight decades ago in 1943, being first of the crop of English literature from the sub-continent, is entirely lost on this book set in 2012, and are distractions at best!
The book makes for an interesting read, provides insights in to the Sri Lanka of today, with vivid descriptions of places and a personal commentary on contemporary society. His travels, associated trials and travails evoke curiosity. After reading the paragraph about ‘Gathering of Minneriya’, the “greatest recurring assembly of elephants on the planet”, I am tempted to visit Sri Lanka, especially Minneriya National Park.
*Gautam Sinha is an educationist, a poet and a biker. He is currently Vice Chancellor of IMS Unison University, Dehradun