After the Tigers
Sri Lanka is now open for business. The New York Times says so, giving this teardrop of an island the place of pride in the inventory of thirty-one places that its readers must visit in 2010. The civil war that tore apart the nation is officially over; last year the Sri Lankan government managed finally to rout the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and proudly displayed the trophies—the images of dead rebel leaders who fought for an independent Tamil homeland. Both sides committed grave human rights abuses in this conflict, with the government carpet-bombing civilians and unleashing a reign of terror, and the Tigers responding in kind, assassinating Sri Lankan and Indian leaders, planting land mines, and using child soldiers, sinking to new depths of depravity. The human cost of the conflict was enormous, but Sri Lanka’s cup of miseries has been overflowing: five years ago, the island suffered significantly when the Asian tsunami unexpectedly emerged from the Indian Ocean. Both the tsunami and the insurgency are, for the time being, things of the past. Tourists and Times readers may now travel there safely.
Adele Barker made the journey before the calm settled. An American teacher of literature, she reached Sri Lanka three weeks after September 11, when many Americans were beginning to discover that many people around the world did not like them. But she found her reception in Sri Lanka unusual. As she notes early in her book—part memoir, part travelogue, part current history—she would often be alone, sitting with her teenage son in a colonial hotel by the sea, when a Sri Lankan would come up and politely tell her how very sorry he felt about what happened in New York and Washington. Barker notes the irony: some forty thousand Sri Lankans died in the civil war from explosions, suicide bombs, booby-trapped mines, and attacks on markets and airports. The toll dwarfs the three thousand people who died on September 11, and yet Sri Lankans sought Barker out to express their condolences.
As a specialist in Russian literature and feminist theory, Barker had a plan on what to teach students at the University of Peradeniya, but nothing can be taken for granted in Sri Lanka, as she had been warned before she arrived. The campus had been closed for some time, and the students were trying to meet targets set by the customary syllabus, which meant that she was forced to teach courses outside her areas of expertise. She had to make other adjustments as well. She inherited a tuk-tuk driver, a gardener, and other individuals willing to serve her, but her Western upbringing and her egalitarian notions led her to reject domestic help. “I didn’t want people who are darker than me fixing our meals and cleaning for us,” she remarks. And then she realized that the jobs that she despised were in fact important for the local people.