The Book of the Week is “Not Quite Paradise” by Adele Barker, published in 2010. This is a personal account of an author and university instructor who went to Sri Lanka to teach literature. After her teaching stint in 2001, she returned to observe and write about the conditions of devastation the people suffered in the December 2004 tsunami.
When she first started teaching at the International School at the University of Ceylon in Kandy in the Peradeniya countryside, Barker learned about all the days the university was closed due to holidays, “…election days, election violence days, the religious holidays of four different religions, and university-induced holidays.”
Barker’s American mindset caused her to be stressed by the rat and ant infestation in her rented house, the leaking roof and tropical diseases. “TV has not been possible since the day the monkeys ripped off the antenna from the roof.” She also held the belief that the hobbies she adopted (French language learning and ladies’ football [soccer]) were terribly (British) colonialist, and that bothered her.
The scene at the bank is this: “People conduct their transactions by simply pushing forward en masse to the tellers’ windows.” There is no respect for personal space as there is in the U.S. Someone explained to Barker that in previous years, people got fed up with waiting in line when they were told there was no more of the product– such as garlic– for which they had been waiting hours. Currently, they display orderly patience only in religious rituals.
Nevertheless, “The relief of not being battered by the ongoing emotional sagas of American teenage pop queens and the latest sex scandals that pass for news in the mainstream American press is enormous.”
The presence of four different religions in Sri Lanka has produced civil war on and off through centuries. The author characterizes the country thusly: “Singing geckoes and curries, children in their whites merged with soldiers in body bags and posters of kids in Tiger uniform with their throats slashed.” (As an aside, “Tiger” does not refer to a sports team, but rather, the Tamil Tigers, a mostly Hindu ethnic group.)
Barker writes that in recent decades, the Sri Lankan economy and education system have been adversely affected by various historical circumstances (which has given rise to cultural stereotypes), including but not limited to: colonialism, ethnic conflict and a major natural disaster (the tsunami), that simply perpetuate a vicious cycle.
In 1948, Ceylon (later to be renamed Sri Lanka) became independent from the British Raj. It was then that ethnic strife began. The author met someone who said, “We’re not Sri Lankan anymore. We’re Tamil or Sinhalese or Moor.”
Only two of the three then-national languages (Sinhalese, Tamil and English) continued to be taught in schools. When English was removed from the curriculum, students became less worldly, especially the less wealthy, less privileged ones whose families, unluckily were not listed in the metaphorical “Social Register” in Colombo (the capital of the country). In 1958, a law was passed to make Sinhalese the sole national language. This did not sit well with the Tamil Tigers.
Generations later, the lucky elites continued to obtain lucrative jobs with merely an eighth-grade education. The lower classes have received no guarantee of a bright future, even after completing four years of university education. Therefore, in the 1970′s and 1980′s the latter found Marxism and Trotskyism appealing.
Starting in 1971, the lower classes incited violence, burning tires, jeeps and human beings. Some even attended the Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University in Moscow. A political faction was founded (the JVP), which fought against the Sri Lankan army and common people. There have been student protests, riots and murder raids, with Buddhist monks in the mix, who are not always innocent.
The year 1983 saw a recurrence of the civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil Tiger rebels. The latter began a separatist movement in 1976, claiming that Sri Lanka is their homeland.
Through the decades, political elections have also prompted bloodshed. “The grenade explosions started days before an election.” Sadly, as in many countries of the world, Sri Lanka is a land of natural beauty, but the behavior of some of its citizens has been ugly.
Anyway, education-wise, high school students are required to take two sets of standardized tests, the “O Levels” and “A Levels” in six subjects. The former are taken in what would be equivalent to tenth grade in America, and the latter are college entrace exams. Failure of exams means a future consigned to a low-level job, like selling clothing or other items to tourists in the marketplace.
The Sri Lankan economy was fueled largely by tourism, which basically disappeared due to ethnic violence in the 1990′s, and 9/11. This gave rise to the cultural stereotype that the Sinhalese are indolent. They failed their exams and there are no jobs for them. They might or might not be lazy. They might simply be culturally disadvantaged underachievers.
Read the book to learn about elephants, details of the fighting, why so many Sri Lankans unnecessarily died in the tsunami, and what the author experienced on her return trip in 2005.