Born to a Welsh mother and a Sri Lankan Muslim father, Razeen Sally has always been an outsider. First to England where he -aged 12- his mother, and younger brother had little choice but to relocate to, and over the years to Sri Lanka – the island that birthed him. The curtain-raiser of  Return to [...]


Reconnecting and rediscovering

Noted economist Razeen Sally of Welsh-Lankan origin, talks to Shaahima Raashid about his memoir, ‘Return to Sri Lanka -Travels in a Paradoxical Island’ a travelogue cum ode to his growing up years here

A learning journey: Razeen Sally on his travels through Sri Lanka

Born to a Welsh mother and a Sri Lankan Muslim father, Razeen Sally has always been an outsider. First to England where he -aged 12- his mother, and younger brother had little choice but to relocate to, and over the years to Sri Lanka – the island that birthed him.

The curtain-raiser of  Return to Sri Lanka -Travels in a Paradoxical Island, his recently released travel memoir is an ode to Sally’s childhood, the reader bequeathed with an intimate account of the events which shaped his early years-beginning with the shipboard romance of his parents Farouk Sally and Pat Kneen to the life they built for themselves and their family in the ‘combustible mix’ that is Colombo. For the political layman the perfect primer is served up with an engaging overview of the city and country through a charting of its cultural, political, religious, ethnic -and even economic history. All this intermeshed with fixtures of his childhood in the form of people, places, and events.

Now an Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of  Singapore, Chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies in Sri Lanka, and also author of several publications on trade policy, the  noted economist admits he struggled at first to dust off the proverbial blackboard chalk of academia in favour of the ink stains characteristic of more empirical, anthropological observations.

“This work is a product of an entire decade’s labour, and the reason why it took so long was that it was a very different style of writing and researching for me; I had to feel my way gingerly,” confesses Sally of his debut into novel  territory. “Writing in a personal voice was difficult, and I wouldn’t have dreamt of publishing something like this 10 years ago.”

The writer’s cap does, however, fit surprisingly well.

Employing an apt segue to seal the divide between sections -a poignant departure marked with a written promise ‘I will be back’, buried next to a lemon tree on the family’s tea estate in Badulla, nearly three decades later, Sally embarks on an attempt to heal the disconnect.

The title of the book’s second half ‘Sri Lanka Through  Adult  Eyes: A Travelogue’ is self-explanatory:  a conscious decision by the author to re-discover his roots, explore afresh, and attempt to unravel the many complexities and paradoxes of an island so rich with stories to be told -and perhaps re-told.

Razeen’s parents - Farouk Sally and Pat Kneen on their wedding day: July 1961

Armed just with a battered copy of‘The Handbook for the Ceylon Traveller’ and accompanied by either of his two endearing guides, Sally embarks on a series of trips across the island. A comprehensive exploration of Sri Lanka ensues -as much an introspection of identity- that commences down South -from Kalutara to Kirinda, veers upcountry -Horagolla to Badulla, progresses towards Rajarata -Kurunegala to Polonnaruwa, and finally advances North and East -Ampara to Talaimannar.

“Good travel writing to me is not really about the microscopic details of a journey, but rather about using it to tell a bigger story about place and time and to capture something much larger,”says Sally, expressing a particular fondness for this genre of literature.

Return to Sri Lanka in itself is more than your conventional travelogue. Sally manages to truly captivate while delivering a detailed and acutely perceptive account of each trip, every stop offering up rich historical context.

Koggala as a refuelling stop for Catalina flying boats during the Second World War, for instance. Weligama and its horrors during the second JVP rebellion, Mihintale and its significance in the Mahavamsa, Sir Ivor Jennings’ role at the University of Peradeniya, Kattankudy and the LTTE attack on its jum’uah mosque in 1990.

From overthrows of kingdoms to political insurrections, Sally additionally enlivens the book’s pages with the help of a fascinating milieu of characters, threading together politics, history, geography, culture, architecture and memoir with hardly a stitch out of place. Through numerous encounters with well-known local personas, relevant accounts from historical figures with a fondness -or even revulsion-for the country, witty citations from writings both current and preceding our times, the author has also clearly done his homework.

In addition to the soul-searching that Sally professes to have already come from this “both fun and bittersweet” endeavour, the professor apparently known for his“old-fashioned British traits of the pre-princess Diana age”-seems to have also discovered (in the form of comical descriptions of the expanding midriffs of middle-aged men -‘bubble-shaped dagobas from a Rajarata landscape’- or entertaining observations of truly Sri Lankan traits) a sense of humour he admittedly never quite had the chance to unleash.

At home with his mum: In the garden of their house at Hindu College Square, Ratmalana, 1966

“I think this gets back to the distinction between being a policy wonk or writer,” laughs Sally. “An academic setting doesn’t provide much latitude for wit, but of course putting on a writer’s hat gives wider rein to encouraging whatever sense of humour one has.”

Keenly noting the ‘juxtaposition between modernity and tradition’, the invisible border lines that segregate commercial wealth and abject poverty, and a bloody history that defies the country’s innate capacity for ethnic mixing and religious tolerance that goes back to the era of kingdoms, what Sally is able to offer is a ‘half-half’perspective of what Sri Lanka was, and its evolution into what it has to show for itself today.

Though Sally stakes no claim to a central theme the reader can extract through this series of journeys there is discernibly a significant bearing on what he finds most optimistic about the country; and that is its‘mixed-fruitness’– the afore-mentioned seemingly instinctive ability of different communities to live and function so well with each other, having withstood the test of time and occasional tremors in harmony.

Sally himself is pleased to have taken on this ‘rite of passage’ for reasons both personal and for the greater good. One of his biggest peeves, he admits, is the proverbial ‘bubble’ within which most Sri Lankans have chosen to set up camp. “The real stand out feature of Sri Lanka is the enormous variety within a relatively small space,” he explains. “The problem is that most Sri Lankans either take this completely for granted or are blindly unaware of it. It continues to amaze me how little of the country most locals have actually seen, particularly those in Colombo.”

Yet decidedly, this economist’s first attempt at travel writing is not to be his swansong. “Another part of the world I would like to tackle next is South East Asia,” he says. “Of course, I’m much less acquainted with it than I am with Sri Lanka, and I don’t have that childhood connection -which was the real point of departure for this book, but it will be a great excuse to travel more extensively in this part of the world.”

Also, far from done with Sri Lanka, “I consider my relationship with Sri Lanka a learning journey; a work in progress. I think I have a lot further to go to begin with, but I could spend the rest of my life discovering the many nooks and crannies, particularly the back of beyond places the island has to offer.”

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