The great task for a travel writer is to transcend the what-I-did-on-my-holidays subtext of the genre. The Teardrop Island escapes this, somewhat, by being more accurately subtitled ‘What I did on the Weekends During My Work Placement’. Having taken a post teaching English in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, Briggs, to her credit, wanted to find something to keep her from the ex-pat round of escaping the city to the beaches or hills, there to moan about the country that had given them home. She found it in the writing of James Emerson Tennent, one of those extraordinarily industrious Victorians who combined a public life – in Tennent’s case he was colonial secretary of Ceylon from 1845 to 1850 – with artistic and literary endeavour. Tennent combined both in his two-volume Ceylon. An Account of the Island, Physical, Historical, Topographical with Notices of its Natural History, Antiquities and Production and Briggs, having been given the books, decided to follow in his footsteps around modern-day Sri Lanka.
Although The Teardrop Island is entertaining enough, it does not really escape the usual tropes of light travel writing: long accounts of uncomfortable bus journeys, meetings with eccentric locals, a little light history. In comparison, the extracts from Tennent that Briggs rather unwisely includes are enough to suggest that the Victorian was a better writer, a more perceptive traveller and, most surprisingly of all, less patronising about the natives than a modern-day, painfully right-on Western traveller.
Right, I might be being oversensitive here, but let’s lay the cards out straight. My father is Sri Lankan (half Sinhala and half Tamil to be precise). So the country and the people are in my blood. And, frankly, I found this book deeply patronising to the people and the cultures of Sri Lanka. Of course, I’m sure Briggs had no intention of being patronising, and she is clearly completely unaware of doing this, but the deep-rooted condescension becomes clear whenever she attempts to deal with any aspect of religious belief, and shades over into her frankly inadequate attempts to give the history of the long civil conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Briggs had the advantage of travelling the island not long after the final defeat of the Tigers, gaining access to many places that few westerners, apart from agents of NGOs, had seen for a decade or more. Without, apparently, realising it, she also shows quite clearly the cafeteria compassion and cultural imperialism of modern NGO workers – from talking with my Sri Lankan relatives, it’s clear that the big international aid organisations are seen there as being mainly in the business of providing a comfortable, conscience-satisfying living to people who like to justify a tax-free salary (UN and WHO employees pay no tax) and jet-setting lifestyle on the backs of people’s poverty and misfortune. (Apparently, in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lankans took to calling the Toyota Landcruisers that were the preferred mode of transport of NGO workers, vulture wagons.)
There is, though, some entertaining writing to be found here, and it’s a light, quickly read introduction to Sri Lanka, in a field with few other competitors bar the usual travel guides. If you’re not actually deeply rooted in the culture and people of the place, you’ll almost certainly find the book completely fine. For myself, I’m grateful to have been introduced to James Tennent’s writing and it has whetted our anticipation for our trip to Sri Lanka in the summer, so it was a worthwhile read.