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Paradoxical Isle: Razeen Sally’s Personal Rediscovery

Fulfilling a long held dream, noted academic Razeen Sally has swapped academic rigour for the fluidity of the travel writer’s pen.

When Professor Razeen Sally told his friends he was writing a travel memoir on Sri Lanka, eyebrows were raised and foreheads furrowed in puzzlement.

The well-known academic, who teaches at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and is the director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, has authored several books and many articles around his specialisation of international trade policy. Still, this project was to be a different beast altogether.

Born in 1965 to a Welsh mother and a Sri Lankan Muslim father, Sally, who acted as a policy adviser to the prime minister and minister of finance in Sri Lanka from 2015-2018, has always felt like a half-outsider in both the country where he spent his early years and the UK where the family relocated to in 1978. Three decades of absence and the death of his father passed before Sally began to rediscover a curiosity about Sri Lanka, its people and its history. He returned to re-explore a country he remembered with the mind of a child through new eyes.

The resulting book, ‘Return to Sri Lanka’, is a travel memoir of Sally’s ongoing reflections during his decade of travels from 2009. Through a lens of personal experience and enlivened by a good dose of humour, Sally delves into the historical, socio-economic and cultural fabric of the Island.

Excerpts of the interview are as follows:

Your book, Return to Sri Lanka, is in two parts; the first is a memoir of your life but also of your extended family. Why was it important to devote so much of the book to the historical aspect?

Sally: Before coming to the present and my journeys in the last decade, I wanted a lead up from Sri Lanka’s ancient past through to the present, and particularly to breathe life into the post 1960s era. I thought the best way of doing that was to tell the story in a very personal way, how my mother met my father in 1955, how she experienced Ceylon when she came here six years later, and my childhood in the very turbulent Sri Lanka of the 1970s. It’s a personal story, but it’s also an evocation of the Ceylon of the 60s, the Sri Lanka of the 70s and those years of my absence in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.

Having grown up in the UK from age twelve, you’re not a local in Sri Lanka but also not an outsider. How does this feeling colour your commentary on the country?
Sally: It’s something I was born with, and I think it’s also in my constitution. Even when I was growing up here, I’ve always felt like at least a half-outsider. I was Sri Lankan, I didn’t know anything else as a young child, but I felt different. As an adult, I came to think of being a half-outsider as an advantage, the ability to have a critical distance to observe in a detached way.

The subtitle of your book is Travels in a Paradoxical Island, could you pick out the paradoxes you think are most pertinent?
Sally: A striking one is the jarring combination of beguiling tourist charm and an astonishing history of violence in Sri Lanka. Many tourists are bowled over by the country and the people; they can’t understand how the riots happened in 1983, why there was a 25-year civil war, or why there are ethnic riots in a land of Buddhism. That’s the paradox I thought of at the beginning of these journeys.

I haven’t got a definitive answer to it. But I think through reading and the journeys and encounters I’ve had along the way I’ve got a little bit closer to the complexity of things. These paradoxes are there all the time; there is this Sinhala Buddhist charm, and yet there’s this seething violence that simmers just under the surface and sometimes explodes. Sometimes it’s organised, sometimes it only takes a little spark. There’s a lot of violence in Sri Lankan culture, including a lot of domestic violence, and that’s not, of course, exclusive to Sinhala Buddhist culture. Drawing out that first paradox is something I tried to do in the book.

Another theme of the book was the combination of abundance and complacency. While not a paradox, they usually go together and that’s seen strongly in Sri Lanka. It’s very much a wet zone culture phenomenon; you see less of it in the north where the topography means people have to eke out a living out of the hard soil. There are also the minorities, earning their living through trade over generations, but that’s not the history of Sinhala Buddhists culture in the wet zone in the South and the middle.

Another side of complacency is a gender issue in Sri Lanka. As a friend of mine put it to a female friend ‘It’s the women who are at least half at fault because as mothers they’re hard on their daughters, but they pamper their sons who will become little Emperors and never grow up.’ It’s a classic sight where you drive through the small villages, and you see women working but men often just lounging around. It gets perpetuated through the generations.

You’ve talked about Sri Lanka’s tendency to ‘miss the bus’. Has the recent Presidential election changed your view?

Sally: The last junction was in 2015, and the bus took a wrong turn, as before. Is this election a watershed? Well in many senses it is, but I don’t think the bus is going to take the right turn this time either. I think it’s a relapse to what you’ve seen before under the Rajapaksas’. Obviously, some things will be new, not least because Gotabaya Rajapaksa rather than his brother is the president. Still, I don’t think the kind of big man politics Sri Lanka has returned to is a credible long term solution to the country’s problems. We’ve had this before, and I suspect the result will be similar to what we’ve seen before not just with Mahinda but with Premadasa and J.R. Jayawardena.

Too much trust invested in one man to sort everything out, to cleanse the nation as it were, and hardly any thinking about really changing the institutions and the people who man the institutions because without that nothing fundamentally is going to change in Sri Lanka. That change has got to be bottom-up, a complicated long term proposition that involves hard work, not simplistic solutions. What history teaches us in most places, including in Sri Lanka, is that the rule of the big man ends up weakening or destroying institutions not building them up. Because it is so personalised and power becomes so centralised.

And as I say in the book, some of my thinking on this was sparked by conversations I’ve had with Bradman Weerakoon that go back seven or eight years. He was arguably independent Ceylon’s most outstanding civil servant. He served under nine prime ministers, and in his retirement, he wrote a book about his home district, Kalutara where he talks about the very rural scenes that still exist five minutes off the modern town’s roads. You have, as he put it, the hierarchy of the robe, and the big man culture that starts in the home with strong cultural deference perpetuated through generations. The hierarchical structure evident, the authority of the robe.

In a nutshell, these things are going to be very difficult to change, and I don’t think the Rajapaksas will be the change agent in the right direction. So in that sense, I don’t see a good future for Sri Lanka.

Was there anything you learned about Sri Lanka that particularly surprised you over your recent travels?
Sally: When I started coming back in 2006 I had a pretty jaundiced view of Sri Lanka, the years of absence had made me more critical, and I looked down on Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, in all sorts of ways.

I think the results of re-familiarising myself with Sri Lanka and going beyond what I experienced as a child is more empathy and sympathy. These are complex human beings, like others elsewhere in the world. And yes, there are maddening insufferable, sometimes really dark and evil traits in Sri Lanka, but there’s also a hell of a lot that’s just very endearing, which gets you hooked as so many have been. Those who get hooked become masochists because they put up with all the insufferable stuff, simply because they love it here and they can’t imagine being elsewhere.

The western business people I know here don’t stay in Sri Lanka because it’s a great commercial proposition, it’s not, they put up with it for the sheer love of a country and its people. I’ve undergone a shift of mentality without really going to the extreme of being rosy-eyed and thinking that this place is some sort of paradise.

What’s the last great book you read?
Sally: I have become a big biography fan. The last great book I read was Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Although written at the beginning of the second century AD, it’s very modern. There’s even one Greek life, Alcibiades that is the prototype for Boris Johnson: the brilliance; the lying; the mythmaking; the drinking; the womanising; the unpredictability; the oscillation from high victories to low defeats; and the oratory, it’s all there.

You’ve wanted to be a travel writer since the age of 25. Are the more tales you want to tell or did this book scratch the itch?
Sally: The former. I thought of this book as the first step, and if it were half-successful, then I would go on to do more travel writing. I’ve been thinking about something on Southeast Asia. The lands in between Southeast Asia are the crossroads of India and China and their two cultures; that would be the historical, cultural and archaeological starting point. There are ten countries, they’re bigger than Sri Lanka, and some are even more complicated, so it would probably be another ten-year project!

(Rachael Cove is an editor at Economy Next’s sister magazine Echelon)

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