On the first page of Return to Sri Lanka, Razeen Sally endearingly describes himself as a wonk, ie a technocrat. A political economist and policy advisor on international trade, his writing normally appears in academic journals; this is his first attempt to write something more personal. He was born and grew up in Sri Lanka, but as an adult he lost touch with the country. This book is a personal rediscovery and an exhaustive look at the history and culture of the island.
Sally grew up in Colombo in the 1960s and 70s. His father was a Sri Lankan Muslim and a dashing young member of the air force, who briefly met his mother, an adventurous and open-minded woman from North Wales, before they began a courtship through letters.
The family was successful—his father managed hotels for his rich brother—and so his childhood was quite idyllic.
… on a typical weekday, our family driver drove me from Ratmalana to school in Mount Lavinia. I took my lunch next door at the Cabanas, a small beachfront hotel also acquired by Uncle Razeen and managed by Daddy.
But the changing political situation interrupted this idyll. His father was charged with a foreign currency exchange violation. During the second term of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, or Mrs B, as prime minister from 1970 to 1977 it was illegal to exchange Sri Lankan money into foreign currency, a very useful law that the government could enforce to deal with domestic political enemies.
As well as nationalizing banks, schools and industry, Sinhalese nationalist policies began to be implemented. One was ditching English as a medium of instruction in favor of Sinhala. To continue his English language schooling, Sally moved to the UK in 1973; his father, with his passport confiscated, stayed behind. The family moved back and forth between Sri Lanka and the UK several times, before a permanent switch in 1978.
Apart from that of Mrs B, Sally includes a number of succinct profiles of eccentric Sri Lankan politicians. This is one of the strengths of the book, another is Sally’s descriptions of the country’s minorities and where they fit in: the Dutch Burghers, the Muslims, the Malays and the most important minority—the Tamils.
In the ’80s and ’90s, a period in which civil war raged in Sri Lanka, Sally returned to visit family, but until the passing of his father in 2002 did not really reconnect; having some issues with his father caused a mental block. Once out of his father’s shadow he felt free to go beyond the Anglophile world that as a “half-half” he had been brought up in, and get a broader overview of the country. Sally, now conveniently based in Singapore, has taken many extended trips around Sri Lanka from the late 2000s on.
He knows Colombo well and provides a vivid picture of the city before setting out around the island. His travels are a smooth ride with his driver Joseph, focusing mainly on historical sites and Buddhist temples. As an adult he moved away from his Islamic upbringing and lost his faith. He has subsequently become a student of Theravada Buddhism, but this spiritual side to his journey is only mentioned right at the end of the book.
He includes character sketches of prominent figures and old family friends encountered along the road. This part of the book is pleasant but not particularly structured or dynamic. As a travel writer, Sally doesn’t have the acerbic wit of, say, Paul Theroux or the ability to land himself in difficult situations (or at least make them up if they don’t happen) of Ryzard Kapuscinski. On the war and its long shadow, Sally writes well, and we get some good insights about the still poor and war ravaged areas, mainly inhabited by Tamils, who seem to have had a fairly raw deal in post-colonial Sri Lanka.
During the war, while terrorist incursions and fear plagued the rest of the country, the north and the east were the actual battlegrounds, places where the overwhelming majority of casualties, both combatant and civilian, occurred. This is the most scarred part of Sri Lanka, and will remain so for years and probably decades to come.
Return to Sri Lanka is a mine of information about Sri Lanka, its people and politics from someone with considerable knowledge and expertise. Sally’s family history, as it ties in with the aftermath of the colonial period and the beginning of the civil war, is also something that he could expand on to create a possible future memoir to complement this work.
Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.