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A Book Written Backwards

Did you know that “[people live in Sri Lanka today in the same way that they have for about eighteen hundred years…, water is pulled from wells, coconuts knocked down from trees, fish dragged from the sea…. eat[ing] more or less the same food, they’ve been eating for the last millennia (curries)… in little houses that are built of coconut fronds”? There have been some changes though. It’s confusing to figure out if changes matter though: “Schooners and brigs in the sixteenth century used to stop here often to take on water, food and wood before moving on….As a result of this traffic, the island attracted the notice of the Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese, who each took turns chasing out their predecessors.” Okay, big pause here. We are learning lots and lots of new things!

“For most of the rice farmers, mahouts and monks,” (that’s so lovely, isn’t it, mahouts and monks?), “these conquests were no more than skirmishes localised within the capital city and hardly had any effect on their lives, if they heard about it at all. Then the British arrived….[and] just before 1900, some metal railroad tracks came slithering out the of the jungle.” Slithering? Well of course, duh, it was a jungle, right? “[I]n the heart beat of a generation, Sri Lankan saw the arrival of industrialisation, and its children: pollution, automation, overcrowding, malnutrition and factory mass production.” It did? Okay, then what about the little houses that are built of coconut fronds, that most Sri Lankan live in, eating those curries? Did that change? What’s odd, if you go back and check, is that the first passage is written in the present tense; it’s not a description of the past, it is the present.

Timeless past
Yes, some things never change. These lines, taken from the opening pages of Mark Stephen Meadows’ travel book on Sri Lanka, Tea Time with Terrorists: A Motorcycle Journey Into The Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War (Soft Skull, New York, 2010) (okay got all the key words in there), have not been commented on or even really been read seriously, it seems, by the many, many laudatory, even gushing reviews of it, that litter the world wild web. It is, I would say, because those who read (and write) such books, are so familiar with these slippery tropes that they’d just be dumbfounded and complain if they were not there, and shut the book forthwith. Yes, you’ve got to have a timeless past and grinding poverty, if you are going to have those bitter enmities and exploding bombs among those teeming crowds. And you do, of course.
Meadows, to be fair, and I want to be, since I was sent a free copy for review, and resolved, very firmly before I opened it to try very hard to like it, is trying very hard to be ‘nice’ to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. He wants to say good things, and he really does try, but the weight of his world is against him. He knows very little about Sri Lanka and I don’t think his tour guides helped at all; piling on one made up story after another, so that he ends up, somewhere in the middle of the book, with this priceless tale that I am tempted to repeat here, but won’t.

Hard questions
Travel writing, doesn’t really, in this mode at least, tell us very much about the place it’s supposed to describe. It tells us much more about the place its coming from. Meadows is coming from the US, after, what in those parts is called 9/11 and thought to be the end of the world. Meadows to his credit, doesn’t really buy into that, and actually asks some hard questions about the terrorising fear generated by governments, in the wake of what’s called the ‘war on terror.’ In fact, I liked his few pages on the FBI’s ‘war on terror’ the best: one of the FBI’s counter terror squads has followed 55,000 leads but never foiled a plot! Dividing the number of plots foiled, with the budget set aside for it, Meadows arrives at US$ 2 billion per plot!
His point about “Tea Time with Terrorists” is a good one to that extent, throwing money at ‘terror’ may, in fact, produce more of it. Those who make bombs and fight wars do so because it makes sense to them; face to face, they are often reasonable people, with hopes and dreams and a difficult past, like anyone else. In Sri Lanka, in this time of relative peace, it would indeed be a good lesson to remember, as we try to keep well meaning people like Meadows at home where they should be.

(Published in print and on the web, in the Nation on Sunday, 20/11/2011)

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