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Updated on the 26th September 2016


ELEPHANT COMPLEX – travels in Sri Lanka, John Gimlette

The DABAL organized presentation today , by John Gimlette , was sheer erudition and insight – served aptly warm and garnished with the most beseechingly elegant humour .

DABAL  delivered deftly, once again shining  with its’ quiet  efficiency - providing space , spice and sound to accompany the light of John Gimlette’s splendidly impressive presentation ; he did not detain the audience into a lecture ; instead , he guided them on a most thoughtful journey through this island  enigma clad in an enthralling landscape surrounded by golden sands upon which the Indian Ocean laps in eternal rhythm .

Gimlette held the full audience in expectant attention with a flowing, inimitable  metaphor .

Reflecting deeply upon , rather than merely describing , the complexity  of Sri Lanka -  the ever morphing politico-historical puzzle , he gently convinced the audience  that the elephantine complexity  defies the written word in the fullest measure – perhaps because this  emerald serendipity is even more  a state of mind than  it is a geographic entity  , albeit of the most vivacious beauty  . 

Damaged , yet paradise nevertheless …..
.. ……..   My work has taken me to all sorts of places , but none of them quite like this. Sri Lanka has to be the most beautiful country I have ever seen …

These words  give a glimpse of John’s sentiments about the island in his book – ELEPHANT COMPLEX..

But the Cambridge educated barrister ,  with a most impressive collection of awards for his writing   , never lets the resplendent  beauty of his subject, his beloved island of a legend  , becloud his analytical eye . In his fascinating book, one can read , between the lines as it were , his profound , albeit politely silent  , perception of the drums of communal dissonance.

John has convinced me that one can never analyse Sri Lanka in the Marxian sense ; one can only tire , simply rearranging  one’s prejudices all day .

The vote of thanks from DABAL, so lucidly delivered by Dr. Angeline Kanagasooriam, was itself a consummate expression of Gimlette’s brilliance.

I now want to join DABAL – a charity which does so much, so quietly, for so many deaf and blind children in the island , read  all of  John Gimlette’s  books  and  book a one way flight to Serendipity . During the flight and ever after , one thought , I know , will reverberate from head to heart and back again - If the whirlwind stormy tempest  of politics would ever fold the history Sri Lanka into two , where would it put the crease ?.

Ranjit Chandrasena
10th September 2016 _________________________________________________________________________________________________________

John Gimlette

Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) 105 Judd Street, London WC1H 9NE

In this lecture, Elephant Complex, John Gimlette will describe his three months of travels in Sri Lanka.  Few places are as contradictory.  The island is home to over 7,000 wild elephants and yet it’s only the size of Ireland.  It’s rich in culture and resources, and yet it’s given to moments of inexplicable rage.  For the last three decades, it’s hosted not only an alluring tourist industry but also the most savage civil war Asia has ever known (1983-2009).  There was once a time when outsiders felt they knew this island.  Now, we’re not so sure.

During the lecture, he’ll be taking us back through the past; to the great medieval reservoir cities; to the Portuguese cinnamon forests; to the Dutch forts, and to the British tea plantations.  Then, he’ll be heading north, into the crucible of the conflict, finishing on a battlefield the size of Central Park and still littered with over 10,000 burnt-out vehicles.  This is not a place that yields its story easily, but what emerges is an astonishing land of ingenuity and catastrophe.

John Gimlette was born in 1963.  At seventeen, he crossed the Soviet Union by train and has since travelled to over 80 countries.  In 1982, on the eve of the Falklands War, he was working on an estancia in Northern Argentina, branding cattle and planting grass.  As hostilities got under way, he crossed the border into Paraguay, the beginning of a fascination that’s lasted many years.  He returned to England via Bolivia and Chile to read law at Cambridge.
John is now the author of five travel books, and is a regular contributor to the broadsheets.  Four of his books have featured on BBC Radio 4.  His awards include the Shiva Naipaul Prize and the Dolman Travel Book Prize.  Elephant Complex was named amongst the ‘Books of the Year’ (2015) in both The Times and The Spectator, and his last book, Wild Coast, was listed by The Daily Telegraph amongst the ‘Twenty Best Travel Books of all Time.’

What the critics say


Travels in Sri Lanka

  • ‘[a] brilliant new book about an island that has a geography from heaven and a history from hell’  Michael Kerr, The Daily Telegraph

Rich in humour, full of insight and humanity, Elephant Complex is a very fine tribute to this enigmatic island nation.’  Justin Marozzi, The Spectator

  • ‘a gripping account of an under-reported island’  Sara Wheeler, on ‘Books of the Year’. The Spectator
  • Adventurous, intrepid and romantic.’  The Sunday Times (Colombo)
  • Inimitable, rich, colourful prose  National Geographic Traveller

‘Another excellent, flinty-eyed bit of travel journalism.’  Wanderlust

  • ‘A hard book to put down … Gimlette is easily able to draw readers into this colourful land.’  The South China Morning Post
  • ‘an exceptionally interesting and enlightening read’  Sam Clark, Experience Travel
  • Damaged indeed, but for many, Sri Lanka still looks and feels like paradise, and Gimlette guides us on an engaging journey through its many layers.  Geographical

‘From tribesmen to Test cricketers, Sri Lanka’s people are the stars of John Gimlette’s new book, with its towns, jungles and islets a vivid backdrop’  Jane Dunford, The Guardian

  • ‘A book which offers us a non-vicarious and open-ended experience rather than self-aggrandising pronouncements.  And Gimlette came here prepared to listen to a variety of people, and to see, degree by degree, beyond the surface, of a culture which is freighted with complexity.  He achieves this successfully because he did not presume to ‘solve’ the paradoxes or penetrate the mysteries, but has the resilience and endurance to accept the contradictions as they present themselves.’  Ceylon Today


In the country, it’s not unusual to come across sights like this: a man washing down his elephant as if it’s the family saloon.  Although there are only a few hundred elephants in captivity, there are over 7,000 on the island.

The civil war (1983-2009) finally ended here on the beaches of Mullaitivu.  This ship, the Farah III, had been captured by the Tamil Tigers, and would be used as a last stronghold.  But facing an army of 160,000, the guerrillas were utterly obliterated.  Even those who were captured have seldom been seen. - pictures