Mithraka Andrew Fidel Fernando. Picador Publishers, New Delhi, India. (2019)
‘The smiles in Sri Lanka are as wide as the horizon, visitors say.’
With this compliment to Sri Lankans, the writer, ‘slipped out of the front gate… and found himself in a trishaw headed north.’ In the 245-page book, he delves into the history of the ruins in Anuradhapura, Minneriya and Polonnaruwa. Then talks on the people’s plights in the war-hit Jaffna and the East, belief around the sacred places like Temple of Tooth, Adam’s Peak and Madhu Shrine, the beauty of Sigiriya, flora and fauna prospered by the gigantic Mirreyiya lake and Kalawea. Finally, his description of the ‘Parakrama Samudhraya’ shows how his love for the Great King, ‘Maha Parakramabhau’ spills over with patriotism.
Language is full of humour and satire.
The cricket writer in par excellence, Mithraka, cracks his first joke about the lost pitches on the road.
‘Street cricket matches went uninterrupted by traffic for hours, and even when cars did come along, we’d carry on.’ But things have now changed, ‘.…you could not play cricket on the street anymore. You could barely take a step out of your gate before you were carried off by a torrent of traffic and deposited on the pavement somewhere two suburbs over.’ (7)
Sigiri Apsaras were a little more than Dr Paranavithana believed. ‘…I venture that the reason he (King Kashyapa) needed so many concubines was that the women he chose were clearly all so top-heavy, they kept falling off the rock.’
Robert Knox was a prisoner in the Kandyan Kingdom, and his writings shed the lights on extramarital affairs less evident to the ordinary eyes. Mithraka digs up interesting info from Knox with surprise to see how the attitude has changed after the English rule. Promiscuity was far from a secret; the ancient city was like a whoredom and extramarital affairs were common with women, bare-breasted. But ‘attitudes have flipped.’ (55) ‘Following the British conquest, sexual norms became warped, and the island recast its historically liberal Buddhist tradition in a brooding, conservative vein.’ Even a sporty-school girl should have a dress covering far lower than the knee.
The language sometimes encroaches on the borders of sarcasm. For example, Buddhist believe that the Lord Buddha gave up all worldly attachments under a Bo tree. Now ‘Jayasiri Maha Bo Tree’ has become a mythical wish tree in Sri Lanka. The writer saw the prayer flags ‘adoring the Bodhi’s protection wall.’ Interestingly, a few he saw were;
‘May the Sri Maha Bodhi bless my daughter Irushi with a child.’, ‘May Indrajith be bestowed with the wisdom to pass his scholarship exam.’ Some were for the blessing to build a house, relief from kidney disease, to get the visa to work overseas or favour from an employer.’ (125)
The account, about what he realized on his visit to Mannar, is not a satire but a truth that is omnipresent, yet we never dare to see. ‘It is a pity that so many Sri Lankans choose to dwell on the quibbles that divide the nation rather than the struggles that are common to us all.’ We like division, not union, thus helping Sri Lanka to be a ‘divided nation’ forever.
He is far more than a creative writer when presenting some exciting events. But, out of so many, the following one is the most heartfelt. Here, it happened at the time, everybody was eager to glimpse the ‘Sun Rise’ spectacle at the Adam’s Peak summit.
‘Soon, a little boy no older than seven was led to a beanie-wearing policeman a few meters away.
Policeman-(bending) ‘You can’t find your family, Putha?’
Boy-(almost in tears) ‘I can’t find my Aachchi.’
‘It is OK. I will help you. I will help you. Do you know her name?’
‘What is it?’
‘Once everyone in the vicinity had had a giggle, three young men rose and began to move from group to group to inquire if anyone had lost a child. Within a minute, the boy was reunited with his Aachchi… The boy fell asleep immediately and would miss the spectacle.’ (242)
‘…at the temple complex, at the summit, Sri Lanka won me over again.’ Promise Andrew, the reader too.
Thus, ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’ is an excellent page-turner, where Mithraka Andrew Fidel Fernando cleverly uses the trip, though he did go, as a strategic metaphor. It is an invitation to anyone to share his reflections on these indigenous people in Sri Lanka with love, respect and passion.
We, Sri Lankanz, wish Andrew, a Sri Lankan New Zealander, the best in his writing excursion, expecting wonders in the next book.