17 Feb 2019 17:37 IST

Words that pictures make

The best impressions of travel anywhere are visual and culinary, and they always tell stories

There’s a delicious little exchange between an Indian film director and a Sri Lankan house-owner in a story called ‘The Indians Are Coming!’ in Ashok Ferrey’s short story collection called The Good Little Ceylonese Girl. It goes like this:

‘…naturally, you Sri Lankans invite us over whenever you have anything important to shoot.’

‘Like tigers.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Nothing, just clearing my throat. I have this terrible cough that won’t go away.’

Totally tongue-in-cheek, encapsulating a whole bag of opinions and attitudes of the undiplomatic and political kind, it also put me in mind of the consequences of tourism: the richer the natural resources, the higher the probability of its desecration. This is what we plainly saw at the Minneriya National Park. Situated in scrub forests between Habarana and Polonnaruwa, north-east of the Dambulla cave temple complex, this park with its 2,000-year-old man-made lake, is believed to be where the largest number of elephants gather, anywhere in the world. Although we saw many elephants and the odd wild fowl and peacock on the two-hour, bone-crushing Jeep ride through the scrub, we didn’t witness the ‘gathering’, as the phenomenon is called. As often happens, a gathering of more than 75 elephants had been sighted just the day before!

However, we did see something else: a herd of some six or seven elephants gheraoed by Jeeps carrying tourists from all over the world. For several minutes man and animal sat contemplating each other, the pachyderms showing increasing signs of nervousness as the biped party, caught up in a state of suspended animation, refused to make way for them. In that moment it was revealed exactly how human beings have exercised their power over all things on this planet.

Botanical garden

The Jeeps that take you through the park are open, comfortable and will accommodate only four passengers, apart from driver plus one in the front. They are well sprung and afford good views. But when they launch into the park like a military convoy, one after the other, one after the other, the assault upon the habitat, no matter how diligently preserved, is frightening. Even in a country verdant, fertile and blessed with flora, you fear for soil, air and water.

In this context, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradiniya, some 5-6 km west of Kandy, is a haven. Although it was crawling with visitors the day of our visit, thanks to the February 4 Independence Day holiday, the sheer variety of plant life on display restored some faith in the power of nature to redeem and reclaim its pre-eminence on earth. It also reiterated the ubiquitous existence of coincy-doincies: given just an hour to explore the garden on foot, we found ourselves standing right in front of a small orange jasmine tree (Murraya paniculata) that had been planted by a former prime minister of India, Morarji Desai, on February 3, 1979, almost exactly 40 years ago to the day! It also pointed us in the direction of the orchids which, in another case of the coincy-doincy, happen to be a highlight of these botanical gardens! An amazing view of an avenue of palms and a flash of Jackson-Pollock-esque bougainvilleas concluded a magnificent short walk in the park.


A feast

Only a fool would travel to an island nation and not taste its seafood. However, the world is populated with fools of many hues. Luckily, Sri Lanka suffers them gladly and plies its vegetarian visitors with pineapple, rambutan, avocado, papaya, watermelon and king coconut to supplement their thrice-daily supply of rice and curry or stringhoppers and stew with grapefruit, okra, sweet potato and raw jackfruit on the side. Sometimes, roadside lunches are served with style, as at the Saruketha Restaurant in Polonnaruwa, on banana leaves lining colourful palm mat plates and the food steaming hot in terracotta pots and pans. To round off the meal is Sri Lanka’s favourite dessert: thick curd topped with kithul syrup, called kiri peni. Now, kithul syrup, referred to in ‘English’ circles as treacle, is a story in itself. It is prepared from the sap of the kithul or fishtail palm, collected over several days and boiled down over an open wood fire until it reduces to a thick, sticky, honey-like syrup. Further boiled and set in coconut shell moulds, it becomes hakuru or jaggery.

The most interesting discovery, though, was the anoda, a sitaphal lookalike gone shapeless. It’s hard to the touch, although the flesh inside is as creamy-looking. There the resemblance ends. Where sitaphal is sweet and grainy, anoda, apparently called sugar apple, sweetsop, soursop and even custard apple, or guanabana in Spanish, is soft, juicy and best seasoned with salt. It’s like a distant relative of the good old raw tamarind in terms of the tasting experience even if there’s nothing else that connects them. Or the experience of eating kilimookku mango brushed with salt and chilli powder on the beach. Or maybe, the anoda we ate was not quite ripe. In that case, the kilimookku-on-the-beach analogy works well: once ripe, it would be the equivalent of eating a sweet, ripe kilimookku mango!

The past

Travelling short stretches on the A9 highway connecting Kandy and Jaffna brought into focus Sri Lanka’s recent history. Closed in 1984 following bitter fighting between LTTE and government forces, and opened sporadically after 2002, it fully opened to civilian traffic only in 2009 when the strategic Elephant Pass area was brought under the army’s control. After over 20 years, A9 was finally completely under government control.

We stopped at a footwear store on A9 for a member of our party to do some emergency shopping. As I looked up the road in the direction of Jaffna, my heart beat a little faster. Bits and pieces of all that I had read, including newspaper reports and books by Nirupama Subramaniam, Samanth Subramaniam and Sunila Gallappatti, the stories I had heard from reporters and photographers who had covered the civil war, and bumping into the LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham at our local video store in Besant Nagar, Chennai… all these memories came flooding back.

It was the early 1980s and Tamil Nadu, Madras (as Chennai was called then) was the hotbed of Sri Lankan Tamil separatist activity. All the rival groups had made Madras their headquarters, whether it was LTTE, PLOTE, EPRLF or TELO. Stories of clandestine meetings of various groups at the Neythal restaurant on Elliot’s Beach drove regular customers away. Local residents were fearful of staying out late. Bombs routinely went off in apartments as the groups fought each other for leadership control. A ‘stray incident’ reported at the time involved a shoot-out in the commercial area of Pondy Bazar in T Nagar.

Anna Isaac has written about this incident in a story for The News Minute. She quotes journalist MR Narayan Swamy from his book Inside An Elusive Mind: Prabhakaran, as recounting how on May 19, 1982, Uma Maheshwaran and Velupillai Prabhakaran came face to face in Pondy Bazar and shot at each other in broad daylight. Prabhakaran was caught by policemen as he tried to flee the scene; Uma was tracked down six days later. Although at the time neither had risen to the top in their organisations, they were wanted criminals in Sri Lanka, hiding in India. A photograph of Prabhakaran taken while he was in custody at the time became the first visual of the soon-to-be dreaded LTTE leader. “Fourteen months after the shoot-out in Madras, the LTTE and its chief catapulted into public attention following its ambush, in Jaffna,of a 15-man patrol of the Sri Lankan army, killing 13,” writes Isaac.

Fragments of all these thoughts went through my mind as I gazed upon the road, now humming with seemingly normal traffic: a van, a couple of auto-rickshaws, a few cars, some bikes. Then my eyes went up to a huge billboard showing little children pushing a large van, with the photographs of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe inset. The text was all in Sinhala, so I don’t know what it says. But it was politics, all over again.

What could this picture be saying?