Elephant Complex by John Gimlette

Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka is an unforgettable travelogue centred around a wide range of vignettes assembled by Gimlette as he travels around the country formerly known as Ceylon. Providing a wealth of information on the country's ancient history, colonial era and most especially its civil war, this book provides a great primer for anyone looking to visit the country and understand why it is indeed, paradise damaged.

Living in London, Gimlette has always felt drawn and intrigued with his Tamil neighbours living in the borough of Tooting, where more Sri Lankans live than ever were Britons in Ceylon at the height of the British Empire. Fascinated by their history and professing to not really understanding their underlying nature, he feels compelled to learn more and devotes two years preparing by reading and interviewing more than 50 people, before venturing out for three months to this fascinating country.

Gimlette's writing style takes some time to get used to. Rapidly bouncing from one person to another initially makes it hard to retain the thread of the narrative but thankfully, due to it containing some 480-odd pages, there's plenty of time to get used to this style of writing. Given the quality of what Gimlette produces, it is most assuredly worth the effort and very quickly we are rewarded for persevering.

Called Jazirat al-Yakut in Arabic, meaning "The Isle of Rubies", Sri Lanka has always been a much coveted island. While "only" the size of Ireland, this country has been fought over by various European powers, including the Portuguese, Dutch and British. But it is the fighting and in-fighting amongst themselves, the Tamil and Sinhalese, that arguably this country's history is best known for.

Here, Elephant Complex details the reasons behind Asia's longest war that spanned a quarter of a century and only ended as recently as 2009. Gimlette uses an even-handed approach to the main protagonists, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), heralded as one of the worst terrorist organisations in the world and responsible for inventing the suicide bomber, and the role that the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) played. Also outlined, is the less well known Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front) Marxist insurrections that took place in the 70's and 80's, the first of which was coined the Che Guevara Revolution by virtue of its many followers sporting Che Guevara-styled berets and goatees.

Whilst its civil war raged on, Sri Lanka continued to function in a "normal" fashion, possibly best exemplified by it being nominated as a one of Asia's Leading Destinations from 2005 - 2009 by World Travel Awards. Indeed, when I visited in 1998, which really was in the middle of their war, I was guilty for being oblivious to the atrocities that were taking place, simply considering these an inconvenience and preventing me from visiting the central, northern and eastern parts of the country which were off limits. I'd also always assumed that the Tamils were recent arrivals from India, being completely unaware of the rich, long history which they have in this country. Thankfully, Elephant Complex, has corrected these notions and I now only wish this book had been available at this earlier time.

Beyond these conflicts, Elephant Complex also delves into the history of a perplexing country that has always been divided by race, religion, class and caste. Taking a combination of trains, buses, tuk tuks and private car, Gimlette scours the country attempting to understand the psyche's of its Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslims inhabitants. 

In addition to and bound up with Sri Lanka's history, Elephant Complex covers off an enormously large and diverse range of topics. Pearl fishing, the irrigation reservoirs of the North Central Province, Sri Lanka's cinnamon trade, the underbelly of paedophilia and people-trafficking and the life and history of its tea plantations are all covered off, in addition to the obligatory information provided on our favourite pachyderm, of which there are an estimated 3,000 running wild and wreaking havoc amidst the Sri Lankan countryside.

I'd doubt that there is a better primer to Sri Lanka's history than that which Elephant Complex provides. Sensitively written, Gimlette provides a wonderfully researched and impartial account of Sri Lanka's civil war, its history and its people that is essential reading for anyone trying to understand this complex and bewildering country. This is a book that presents Sri Lanka's history and much more in an extremely accessible fashion and unquestionably one of the best all round books for trying to understand more about this fragmented and complex countries. 

4 and a half stars out of 5

Credit: Banner photo by Ronald Saunders