Island of the Cosmos
An Alternative Guide to Sri Lanka
The clue is in the subtitle. It usually is. An Alternative Guide to Sri Lanka. The great bibliographers, and Richard Boyle is one of our finest, have an eye for the subtitle, as well as for the subtext. The line beneath the last collection’s title, Sindbad in Serendib read “Strange Tales and Curious Aspects of Sri Lanka”. And while readers feasted on glorious servings of giants squids, anacondas, mermaids, shipwrecked sailors and dagger-clawed little people, those paying attention also heard a voice whispering between the pages of a lifetime’s scholarship. “Isn’t this island something?”
Like its predecessor, Island of the Cosmos takes us places history textbooks don’t bother visiting. In school, we were taught Sri Lankan history as a laundry list of kings, stupas, tanks, wars, kingdoms, colonisers and constitutions. What was missing, at least for me, was a sense of story, of perspective and texture, of grey shades, of characters who weren’t cartoons. It’s hard to get excited over irrigation and legislature.
And there’s the value of “An Alternative Guide to Sri Lanka.” While Sindbad gave us monsters and myths, this gives us a story that is more nuanced, less unified, but no less compelling. We get to visit the melting pot of Chinese sailors, Dutch mercenaries and Arab traders at Galle Fort circa the 1600s, watch five thousand Boer prisoners transported to Diyatalawa at the turn of the last century, and trip with socialites and surfers in 1960s Hikkaduwa.
Sri Lanka’s ancient history comes courtesy of two impressive chronicles, the Mahavamsa and Culavamsa, both, like other mighty tomes, written centuries after the fact by holy men in robes who believed themselves to be the last word. Unsurprisingly, and with a few notable exceptions, there isn’t much room for minorities or women or nuance in the story of ancient Lanka. Nor a place for a viewpoint that didn’t celebrate the Sinhala Buddhist nation. That’s when the same voice hisses to you from between the lines. What bits did they leave out? What else don’t we know?”Richard’s focus is the colonial era, so he’s hardly plagued by a paucity of sources. We get anecdotes, journal entries, letters and reflections of history’s many visitors to Ceylon. From Marco Polo to Carl Jung, from Ptolemy to DH Lawrence. It’s a compendium of impressions and things you didn’t know about the Island of the Cosmos.
If only we’d been taught history through Jungian visions, diaries of liberated Victorian ladies and tales of science fiction movies that almost got made.
Sri Lanka’s an island not short of guides. From travel brochures painted with glossy brush, (which Richard and I have both been guilty of penning for extra pennies) to nature guides outlining the island’s curious creatures and rare rocks, to more sombre guides revealing the terrors we’ve inflicted on each other over the centuries. The narrative is always a two-dimensional photo. Either Sri Lanka is a magical paradise or it is a pit filled with savages. But as all of us natives know, it happens to be neither.
The Alternative Guide to Sri Lanka addresses this dichotomy by using two large words that contain two larger ideas: Serendipity and Zemblanity. The former describing an unexpected stroke of good fortune, now overused to the point of becoming cliché, is the theme of Richard’s last masterwork. “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings…” This John Barth quote from Sindbad in Serendib, is not just a metaphor for Ceylon’s encounters with world history over the ages, it is also a perfect description of the act of writing and the act of discovery.
In Island of the Cosmos, we meet Serendipity’s evil twin, Zemblanity, an unhappy, unlucky discovery made by design, according to novelist William Boyd. Paying tribute to these darker frequencies, we have a eulogy to Samudra Devi, a coastal train derailed and butchered by the 2004 tsunami, killing thousands of its passengers. We have a lament to Lanka’s disappearing wildlife and thinning flora in a chapter dedicated to the great RL Spittell, poet and chronicler of the Ceylonese wilderness.
Richard also finds time to celebrate the cursive beauty of the Sinhalese script, to marvel at the “magnificent madness” of fire and drums at Kandy’s Perahera and to revisit his fascination for language by once again charting and mapping the influence of Sri Lanka’s ‘word cargo’ on the global lexicon.
But there’s also room for the personal. Like the great Arthur C. Clarke, Richard adopted Sri Lanka as his home many moons ago. And sometimes the home you choose is more yours than the one you were born to. A love marriage as opposed to one arranged at birth. Perhaps serendipity is a metaphor for Richard’s relationship to the island he fell for. And zemblanity an apt description of his dismay at what became of it.
He makes mention of some heroes, Mahen Vaithianathan, the angry young(ish) man, of vast intellect and acid tongue, holding court in Colpetty’s Charles Circus. And the late great Ian Goonetilleke, the bibliographer who saw a library as a “bulwark against the strident swell of an imbecile and vacant materialism.” The man whose scholarship seems to have equipped Richard for his journey, and whose friendship appears to have inspired our hero along his way.
A personal favourite was Richard’s mention of ‘The Boot’, an austere headmaster at Haileybury, a public school with some surprising ties to our fair isle. The cane-happy disciplinarian was also a dead ringer for Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard. I was reminded of a cornerstone of the Star Trek philosophy: the Prime Directive, which deals with the ethics of colonialism, of whether intervention by an advanced race is beneficial to the evolution of that species. The sci-fi universe of Star Trek answers in the negative, and forbids what they call “cultural contamination.” But what about those merry colonials whose imperial gaze dominate the pages of our alternative guide?
Empire builders like Andrew Carnegie, shown on vacation in Ceylon’s tea and coffee plantations, may well have endorsed the Prime Directive, while ‘New Women’ of the 19th century like Bella Woolf and Caroline Corner, visiting Ceylon on ‘civilizing missions’ would perhaps eschew it. Dark sorcerer Aleister Crowley appears to have been in two minds. His impression of the island is peppered with both serendipity and zemblanity and he claims to have “loved it and loathed with nicely balanced enthusiasm.”
So where does our Richard stand? No, not on imperialism or serendipity or zemblanity. That we know, or can guess at. How does Richard Boyle view the Island of the Cosmos? Through what eyes does he gaze upon the land he chronicles? Is it that of the scholar or that of the romantic? That of a visitor or that of a citizen? For me, it is all and none of the above. For me, it is the eye of a filmmaker, a visual tale-teller, one of many roles Richard has played, and the reason that brought him to the shores of Taprobane aka Serendib aka Ceylon, a few lifetimes ago.
His tales of a “mango shaped isle”, “east of Jaipur, west of Mandalay” as a macrocosm of the cosmos, and his descriptions of its warships, its amphibians and the vortex of its holiest mountain reveal a lapsed storyteller with an eye for a well-framed truth.
And while he would cringe at the r-word, I mean it as no insult. His quest may be driven by academic curiosity, but it is also fuelled by a sense of wonder and perhaps, no small measure of love.
On my first travel writing assignment, he told me off for being lazy in my research. And of course, he was right. The depth of his reading and the rigour of his analysis is an example for all us wannabe chroniclers. It takes the method of a scientist to assemble a lost world.
But what gets me excited about a new Richard Boyle book (and I delight that there are a few more bubbling under the surface as I write this) is what it reveals at its heart.
It reveals that there are a myriad stories waiting to be unearthed, hidden amidst forgotten chronicles, each shining a new light upon this fractured pearl. Each telling you that Sri Lanka is much, much more than its moments of serendipity and zemblanity. And for a reader and a writer and a lover of most things Sri Lankan, there can be nothing more inspiring.
Enjoy this collection and may there be many more to come.