Column in Business Standard, January 3, 2015
Sri Lanka has shown a surprising degree of resilience to emerge from the long dark years of strife and economic stagnation
Driving south from Colombo on the coastal road to Galle, the flat steel grey of the Indian Ocean is obscured by villages transforming into towns and towns into prosperous small cities overrun by the tide of commerce. As in India, Bajaj auto rickshaws – painted in vivid reds, blues and greens – are the common urban transport, weaving past street stalls stacked high with papaya, pineapple and the day’s fresh catch of fish. You can easily zip down the smooth four-lane highway, but devotees of the great Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa prefer the leisurely route to pay homage at Lunuganga, the lagoon-wrapped estate where he created his magnificent terraced gardens. Bawa died in 2003 at the age of 83; by then he had long abandoned his training as a barrister to become one of the most influential Asian architects of his day.
At Lunuganga he laboured for 50 years to put his building and landscaping ideas to the test. He tamed 15 acres of a wild rubber plantation to fashion cool spare interiors and sloped and stepped garden wings, punctuated by rain trees, statuary and ceramic jars, to frame vistas of water or dense undergrowth. A visitor to Lunuganga once turned to its creator to say, “But Mr Bawa, wouldn’t this be a lovely place to turn into a garden?” Geoffrey, whose followers call his style “tropical modernism”, said it was the best compliment he ever received. What is remarkable about Bawa’s legacy of public and private architecture is not only his vast output but how much has survived in an island torn by three decades of a brutal civil war and the devastation wrecked by the tsunami in 2004.
Sri Lanka has shown a surprising degree of resilience to emerge from the long dark years of strife and economic stagnation. Tourism has boomed in the last few years, clocking well over a billion arrivals in 2014, including a growing number of Indians, encouraged by a favourable exchange rate and almost instant availability of online or on-arrival visas. An Indian travel agent says that “arranging tours in Sri Lanka is minus the hassles of India”. The country’s compact size, varied landscapes, food, religious sites and shopping seem familiar yet are agreeably foreign. “And Sri Lanka, unlike India, has perfected the art of the well-managed small four- to 12-room boutique hotel.” In Colombo and in and around the 17th century Dutch fortified town of Galle or in hillside tea plantations, such villas and residences – often styled in Bawa’s tasteful tropical modernism – are popular rentals for family holidays.
But the pleasures and perils of Sri Lanka go hand in hand. Political tremors are never far from the easy-going surface tenor of the island’s holiday destination. A presidential election is slated for January 8, called two years ahead of time by Mahinda Rajapaksa, installed in the presidency since 2005. A lawyer-turned-trade unionist-turned-movie actor, the 69-year-old leader is Sri Lanka’s most controversial politician. Depending on conflicting versions of the narrative, he is either the villain responsible for the ruthless extermination of the Tamil Tigers and 40,000 civilian deaths in the last phase of the conflict, or the larger-than-life hero who ended the Tigers’ reign of terror and returned peace to the war-ravaged nation.
In his excellent combination of investigation and travel writing This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War (Penguin; Rs 499) the journalist Samanth Subramanian describes Mr Rajapaksa’s build-up as a latter-day incarnation of the ancient Sinhala Buddhist warrior-monk Dutugemunu. When Mr Subramanian began visiting Sri Lanka in 2009, Mr Rajapaksa’s “face was everywhere, plastered across the country, from tip to toe … even when he smiled, he glowered … every inch the strongman”. Allegations of widespread corruption against his government are bolstered by the president’s brazen nepotism: the Sri Lankan state is stuffed with so many members of Mr Rajapaksa’s clan that it seems “as if it were an ancestral house”.
Mr Rajapaksa amended the Constitution to fight a third term and brought the election forward as a sign of authoritarian might. His image is still plastered everywhere, but disillusionment has set in. Everywhere in Sri Lanka people talk of change. Mr Rajapaksa’s trusted Cabinet and party colleague Maithripala Sirisena has emerged as the main challenger. A jigsaw of opposition parties have come together to put their weight behind Mr Sirisena. An exciting but unpredictable election puts Sri Lanka in the balance, wavering between a fragile reconstruction and closely contested political battle.