Arjuna Ranawana reviews “Upon a Sleepless Isle” by Andrew Fidel Fernando
Fans of Andrew Fidel Fernando will be surprised, and those who are new to his writings, delighted. The well-known Cricket writer, a returnee to Sri Lanka, has written a book, “Upon a Sleepless Isle,” in which he travels through the country, crisscrossing the island on buses, tuk-tuks, scooters and bikes. In doing so he reveals a deep love for this land and its peoples as well as its most exasperating idiosyncrasies.
The most striking discovery that the reader makes is Fernando’s deep knowledge of the history of the island. Combining this knowledge with a Journalist’s investigative rigor Fernando gives us some surprising tidbits that are absolutely delicious. For instance did you know the names of Saradiel’s siblings? With a keen eye he takes apart the reconstruction of this favorite Sri Lankan Robin Hood character as portrayed in the installation on Uthuwankanda where mostly domestic tourists go to relive the Saradiel tale.
Then there is the Parakrama Samudraya and the Ice Cream seller who made the most startling archeological discovery connected to this, the greatest achievement of the ancient builders of the country’s irrigation systems.
He explores the village of Paranagama in the hill country which was infamous for the ancient tree on which hundreds of villages had been hung as the British fought the Kandyan rebellion. He finds the actual tree and shares his disappointment that there is nothing displayed to mark its’ significance. Then he mines the knowledge of a Buddhist Monk in the area to glean more about the epic struggle that the colonizers waged to fight an enemy that were experts in guerrilla warfare in terrain that the locals knew best.
Fernando revisits some of the touristy sites and gives us a new “take” on them. The most visited site in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya, is one of them. His description of Kashyapa is utterly delightful and contains the funniest observation of the paranoid king on page 40.
Interspersed with all of this is how Fernando feels for the Plantation Tamils. He gives an insight into the perilous journey they undertook to reach the central hills of Sri Lanka from India and the many deprivations they have suffered since.
Fernando’s journey is fraught with the travails of what ordinary Sri Lankans experience when they travel by public transport. Unreliable buses whose crews stop arbitrarily leaving passengers to perspire while they have lunch is among them
On one such occasion Fernando found inspiration to write this haiku “from Sri Lanka’s great propensity to quietly tolerate inconvenience.”
Yes, I’m unhappy
But I’m too scared to complain
Can’t somebody else?
Fernando’s adventures are many. A crash in a tuk-tuk careening down a hill in Kandy in the dark, a paranoid ride through a lonely part of the North Central Province fearful of being surrounded by elephants and the stray dogs that chased him regularly around Dambulla town.
These travails are accompanied by his encounters with eccentric plumbing in cheap guest houses, restaurant managers who refused to serve him because he is a local and a leech had had to be untangled from a most awkward part of his anatomy in Sinharaja.
These deprivations are happily punctuated by the occasional relief afforded by his wife joining him for weekends where the couple relax in tourist hotels, feasting on the breakfast buffets, sipping beer at midday and napping in the hammocks.
Fernando is of mixed heritage, Sinhala, Tamil and Bharatha. He weaves this multi-cultural background through his book with descriptions of various relatives. He also spends time in this journey with his Sinhala and Tamil relatives. Another thing enjoyable bout this book are the characters he introduces. They range from the languidly superior Royalist to his flinty eyed grandmother and the exacting German Primatologist.
The one thing that I wondered about the book is which audience Fernando is aiming at. It is perfect for someone like me – and perhaps the author himself – who has spent half of their lives overseas. Some of the jokes, like the one about forests of Mahinda Rajapaksa plaques and the invertebrate Maithripala Sirisena, will perhaps only be understood by the locals.
Still, it’s funny, heartwarming and insightful. A good read.