A writer’s window-seat views of Lanka

By R. Stephen Prins

Recently a manila envelope arrived in the mail containing a sheaf of photocopied pages. They were two chapters from American writer Paul Theroux’s latest travel book, Ghost Train To The Eastern Star (published in 2008). The friend who had sent the package had just reviewed the book for a Taiwan publication, and he wanted his friend in Sri Lanka to savour the Sri Lanka segment, in case the book took a while to reach the bookstore shelves here.

The chapters in question describe a couple of days Paul Theroux spent here a few years back, auspicious days for the country as it prepared for the April Avurudu celebrations.

In the book the writer was following in his own footsteps, tracing ground he had covered 33 years previously when he set out on a train journey that took him from England to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia (including Japan), Siberia, and back home. That journey was described in his classic travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar. Two chapters – “The Talaimannar Mail” and “The 16.25 from Galle” – covered the Sri Lanka leg of the writer’s epic transcontinental train ride.

Three decades later Theroux is making the same journey again, curious to see how the world east of London has changed in the interim, and to look within for changes in his own perceptions of life and the world at large. It is to be a journey of discovery, re-discovery and self-discovery. The outcome of that long trip is the travel sequel, Ghost Train To The Eastern Star.
Paul Theroux. Pic courtesy

When Theroux first visited this country, in October 1973, he found Sri Lanka suffering from a food shortage, but otherwise the people were pleasant enough and relatively passive and peaceable. The war that would break out in the North was a full 10 years into the future. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was in power, and although the country had recently undergone a name change, people were still referring to “Ceylon”. On his second visit, made about four years ago, Theroux arrives in a deeply troubled country. He registers the reverberations and reminders of a full-blown war coming at him from all sides – from the morning newspapers, from casual conversations with locals, from tensions in the air, and from the sadly static look of things. Nothing much has changed in 30 years, he notes; largely because of the war, the country has barely moved on. But to Theroux this is not altogether a bad thing. His verdict is that Sri Lanka’s current misfortunes have saved it from the grossness of impetuous growth seen in so many developing countries.

“Colombo,” he observes, “was a forgotten city with little foreign investment and a failing economy, so while it was visibly faltering, it was not cursed with meretricious modernity.”

Theroux arrives in Colombo on his birthday, April 10. With the war rumbling in the background, he sets forth to visit familiar and unfamiliar places and do things he missed out on the first time around, such as calling on science-fiction writer Arther C. Clarke in Colombo and going in search of writer Leonard Woolf’s home in Hambantota.

Theroux’s visit to No. 25 Barnes Place, Colombo 7, home of Arthur C. Clarke, echoes in many ways his visit many years earlier to the Buenos Aires home of the Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. That visit was described in Theroux’s other famous travel book, The Old Patagonian Express (1979), which covers train rides the writer took from North America to the nethermost end of South America.
In both accounts, Theroux is calling on elderly writers, celebrated fantasists who conjure up amazing alternate worlds in their fictions and are revered in their own real literary worlds. Both writers happen to be physically disadvantaged – Borges is blind and Sir Arthur is crippled, confined to a wheelchair. Both writers’ homes – book-lined, picture-hung – are atmospherically evoked with a storyteller’s eye for detail, and the abrupt, drifting, conversational fragments exchanged by Borges, Sir Arthur and Theroux float in odd and unexpected directions, touching on the writers’ own work, other writers’ work, as well as cinema and poetry. People who have visited the late Sir Arthur would recognise the routine that visitors, including Theroux, are subjected to: Sir Arthur would often keep a chat going by turning to an assortment of oddments, conversation pieces, lying handy on his table or around in his study. On this occasion the objects of wonder and comment are a phial of moon dust, a rusted chip from the hull of the sunken Titanic, and a piece of Styrofoam cup retrieved from the historic Titanic exploration dive.

Both visits to the elderly writers end on a wistful, literary note that fades into the night air of two cities worlds apart. Theroux strikes that literary note again several times during the rest of his stay in Sri Lanka. The train rides from Colombo to Galle and from Galle to Matara form a long line that connects a serious of literary dots, each dot standing for a writer, a book, or a book-related event.

In The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux describes a long-ago, three-day seminar on American writers held in Galle, and at which he was the chief speaker. The account is hilarious, with the conference participants described as being stuffed and drunk – more focused on food and alcohol than on Hemingway and Faulkner. That was back in 1973, and Galle was already being seen as a good place for writers to meet, decades before the popular Galle Literary Festival got under way.

From Galle, Theroux heads south to Hambantota. On the way he looks at an island off the coast of Weligama and is reminded of his friend Paul Bowles, the American writer. Bowles and his writer wife Jane, who ended up spending much of their lives in North Africa, lived for a while on that Weligama island, known as Taprobane, in a legendary house built by a fake French count in the 1920s (the house is now a fancy boutique hotel).

Thoughts about Bowles in turn lead to thoughts about Bowles’s good friend, the writer Gore Vidal, who was one of the invitees at last year’s Galle Literary Festival. (In one of his lighter essays, Arthur C. Clarke refers to a near-fatal car ride he and Gore Vidal experienced as they raced down Sri Lanka’s southwest coast in the ’60s.)

Theroux quotes from a letter that Paul Bowles wrote Gore Vidal in 1950: “The opportunities for happy living are greater in Ceylon than anywhere else I’ve been so far.”

On the way south, Theroux dwells on the English writer Leonard Woolf, who came to Sri Lanka in 1904 as a civil servant, and was for a time an assistant government agent for the district of Hambantota. Theroux meditates on Woolf’s “sombre masterpiece”, the “underrated” 1913 novel The Village In the Jungle, and notes that neither Woolf’s wife, the writer Virginia (the novel’s dedicatee), nor their close Bloomsbury writer friend Lytton Strachey particularly liked the book.

Theroux then recalls his gratitude on reading Leonard Woolf’s autobiography during a depressed time in his life. Theroux was a young lecturer at a university in Singapore in the ’60s, and he found consolation in the second volume, Growing, which describes Woolf’s difficult years in colonial Ceylon. The book “gave me heart and helped me to become patient and sympathetic. … he [Woolf] describes the necessity of being efficient – replying to letters on the day they are received, keeping accurate notes, learning to be methodical, developing an interest in the culture.”

Being on the Woolf trail inevitably meant carrying a copy of Sir Christopher Ondaatje’s acclaimed travel book and biography, Woolf In Ceylon, which Theroux quotes from generously. And being in the company of Sir Christopher naturally brings to mind Christopher’s brother, the writer Michael. The Ondaatje siblings settled in Canada as teenagers in the ’50s and then went on to achieve fame in their own respective ways, one as a real estate magnate and philanthropist turned writer, the other as a poet and prize-winning novelist.

Theroux makes arresting literary references all the way, and they pop up in expected and unexpected places. Talking about the Sri Lanka secessionists’ arsenal of weaponry, earlier on, Theroux finds a century-old literary source for the concept of the suicide bomber’s vest: in The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel about anarchists in Victorian London, there is a character who goes about with an explosive concealed under his clothing.

Theroux’s own superior literary gifts – he is equally famous as a writer of fiction – make his travel pages doubly readable. His descriptions of tsunami-struck coastal villages and tsunami burial spots are powerfully evocative and hauntingly sad (“the footprints of houses, the cement slab or a row of boulders, were all that remained of many buildings on the shore – nothing else left except the coconut palms that had fed the vanished family”).

His evocation of Galle town as seen at night from the rooftop veranda of the Lady Hill Hotel is as scented as poetry: “The town’s lights twinkled through the trees, the sky was full of stars; from this vantage I could see the lamps of the fishing boats in the harbour. … I considered this one of the best evenings of my trip: the muted buzz of the small seaside town at night, the soft air, the perfume of the blossoms. No event, no drama, just contentment, as though I had set off from London and travelled for months to be here, at this moment, sitting under the full moon of the Sinhala Lunar New Year.”

Theroux returns to Colombo and then heads to Kandy, where he visits the Sri Dalada Maligawa and the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, walks along the Kandy Lake, and bumps into an amateur palmist who looks at the writer’s hands and tells him that he is a judge, an ambassador, or a writer.

Light and dark alternate in Theroux’s scenes of Sri Lanka, and often the dark is very dark. Reports of violence sparked by the war in the North punctuate the narrative throughout, breathing a smoky, cordite-smelling cloud over the pages, while news of a suicide bombing in Colombo provides the sobering climax to the two Sri Lanka chapters.

But it would be unfair not to stress the cheery, sunny bits. Here is Theroux on the train on his way down the coast:

“I remembered this as one of the most beautiful journeys I’d taken on the Railway Bazaar – one of the loveliest railway lines in the world, at sea level, right next to the beach, travelling along the glittering shore, the blue sea and the palm groves, all the windows open, the ocean breeze blowing through the coach.”

And here he is in summing-up mode:

“It was easy to see how Sri Lanka could capture your heart, as it had Sir Arthur’s. It was especially pleasant to be in a place where not much had changed. …”

Postscript: On this writer’s desk, for reference, are old Penguin paperback copies of The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express, the first purchased in 1978 and the second in 1982. The booksellers’ stamps on the title pages reflect the passage of time. Bazaar was bought from “Charles Subasinghe & Sons, Hotel Taprobane, Colombo 1”; Patagonia was bought from the wholesalers, “All Ceylon Distributors, Importers of Medical , Engineering, Accounts Text Books & English and Tamil Magazines, 371 Dam Street, Colombo 12”.

The former bookshop checked out of the Taprobane Hotel ground-floor lobby years ago, while the latter was destroyed in the 1983 riots, the owner’s boxes of books tossed into the street and the office set ablaze.

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