Only subscribers may read this in its entirety. What follows is a free preview, truncated midway through.I am with Ayathurai Santhan in Jaffna, just off the southeastern tip of India, a spot of land in the Indian ocean that is sometimes described as the â€śteardropâ€ť of the subcontinent: Sri Lanka. At the side of a modest grass field not far from a Hindu temple that sits above a pond choked with lilies, at evening time, the light in smears of pink and orange across a low sky with bats flying in from the east in leathery squadronsâ€”and I mean large fruit bats the size of flying foxesâ€”next to a group of boys playing a game of cricket with sticks and a homemade ball behind the community center that also serves as an impromptu fish market, surrounded by goatsâ€”scaling the sides of the palm-leaf fences to chew at whatever their mouths may findâ€” and watched by three stray cows whose mooing erupts with startling urgency, as bicycles, three-wheelers, rumbling trucks, UN vehicles with darkened windows, and the occasional ox-cart creaks past on the narrow, poorly paved street, we are speaking about writing.
But before you can begin to understand Sri Lankaâ€™s literature, you first must know a bit of its history. Sri Lanka is not the largest of islands nor is it the most important, though it does occupy a strategic-enough swath of earth and Southern Indian Ocean that it was colonized by Europeans three times. For roughly two thousand years before the Europeans arrived, Sri Lanka enjoyed a series of basically feudal kingdoms that ruled from different parts of the country, sporadic incursions from Southern India notwithstanding.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to find Sri Lanka, making their mark early on in the sixteenth century but sticking mainly to the coasts. The Dutch came next, giving the Portuguese the boot in 1656 and trying to convert everyone to a rather severe form of Protestantism that suddenly made the forced Catholicization of the Portuguese look congenial. Finally, with tiresome colonial efficiency, came the British, who settled in around 1796 and did the hard labor of ridding the Sri Lankans of whatever was left of their native kings, kingdoms, ways of life, and most other things not sufficiently British.