By Jagath Asoka –
Over the last ten years, now and then, I have been watching Bourdain’s shows, even before his “Parts Unknown” on CNN. Bourdain regales his audience with stories about the extraordinary cuisine and people of the countries that he visits. Usually, at the end of every show—some people call him the Indiana Jones of the food world—I often have the same cravings and longings: I feel like visiting the country, eating their food, and having a conversation with them because each episode is much more than just food and people, and Bourdain is much more than a chef, gastronome, journalist, and deipnosophist. Bourdain’s episodes reminds me of a Danish film.
Have you seen the Danish film Babette’s Feast, which was the first Danish film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 1987? Babette wins 10,000 francs and spends all her money to prepare a delicious dinner for a small congregation. Her meal is more than a feast; the meal is an outpouring of Babette’s appreciation, an act of self-sacrifice.
When you share a meal, something mystical and magical happens to the human spirit: old wrongs are forgotten, distrust and animosity are abandoned, ancient loves are rekindled, and a numinous feeling settles over the table. This is the exact thing that happens when you visit a poor Sri Lankan villager. I am certain that those who have visited a Sri Lankan village know what I am talking about. A meal prepared by a Sri Lankan villager enchants the angels. For them sharing a meal is an act of perfect kindness.
It is very rare for CNN, here in the USA, to talk about Sri Lanka, let alone spend one hour talking about its culture and cuisine; usually, on CNN News, albeit very brief, suicide bombers, a devastating tsunami, and Tamil tigers were the topics of Sri Lanka. Most Americans have not heard of Sri Lanka, let alone its civil war, and most Americans find it difficult to pronounce the tongue-twisting word “Sri.”
While I was watching Bourdain’s latest show—Anthony Bourdain goes to Sri Lanka—I sank into despondency. Well, there is only one word that I can use to describe how I felt after watching Bourdain’s Sri Lanka: doldrums. I wonder what others, who had watched the show, would say about this show—I know that some people stopped watching it in the middle of the show.
Usually, Bourdain’s shows make his viewers dream of places that they have not visited before, coerce them to crave for sumptuous indigenous treats, open their hearts to people who seem aliens, arise their curiosity in traditions and rituals that seem ungodly. This latest Bourdain’s portrayal of Sri Lanka seems like a potpourri of incongruous elements, from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 American horror-thriller, the Birds. Instead of birds, now and then, you will see a murder—a group—of ravenous, ominous black crows; a ragtag bunch of actors, attempting to portray Sri Lanka’s civil war like a Shakespearean tragedy; some scenes are reminiscent of the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where Hindu devotees in a trance-like-state perform rituals to appease Kali by piercing their tongues, cheeks, and other parts of their bodies by hooks resembling silver vels. Our cuisine is similar in many ways to that of southern India; in Jaffna Bourdain gets to try sumptuous Sri Lankan crab curry.
Yes, Sri Lanka is peaceful, but Colombo has become a dumpster. Black crows and garbage go hand in hand like vultures and carcasses. We brag about cozy condominiums in Colombo, yet we have not figured out how to dispose and manage our garbage. In hotels, having a fulltime employee to chase away crows with a catapult is not a tourist attraction. Some scenes were depressing or somewhat eerie. Bourdain’s shows also deal with politics.
Sri Lanka, which used to be the land of Yaksha and Naga tribes, has become the abode for mealy-mouthed preta pachyderms—most of our politicians and some of our Buddhist monks. I think every Sri Lankan knows the word preta, an unresting ghost tortured incessantly by hunger and thirst, which is also an English word that most Americans find it difficult to remember or understand.
Compared to Ranil-Arujuna-Aloysius cabal with Cabraal’s sister—a high-level invidious, secretive plotters and their activities—that cost Sri Lankan tax payers additional 1.5 billion Rupees, Rajapaksas’ skullduggery, embezzlements, and extortions seem somewhat primitive; both sides are crooks, one side is more sophisticated insider traders, the other is just thugs.
Can Sri Lankans ever be sanguine? Ethnic problems in Sri Lanka are related to three major events. British colonialism, during which the Tamils were disproportionately represented in universities, private sector, and government jobs; the inevitable repercussions of Sinhala Only Act in 1956 and the primary status given to Buddhism in Sri Lanka in 1972—the Republic of Sri Lanka has given Buddhism the foremost place.
Not a single political pundit predicted that an uncanny alliance of minorities and moderates from the two main Sinhalese parties would kick the Rajapaksas out, electing mild-mannered Sirisena who pledged—Sirisena did not have a concrete plan—to address the legacy of the war, reform the economy, eliminate corruption, and turn the country into a transparent, tolerant democracy. In a nutshell, the war ended in 2009; the country is reunified; now, you can travel to the Tamil heartland by train; Rajapaksas were replaced, but his preta pachyderms managed to stay in power; Tamils in the war-torn Jaffna province are still struggling to rebuild their lives, waiting for redress for the devastations that they have encountered.
I know that Bourdain’s intensions were to visit Jaffna, talk to Tamils in Jaffna, find out about their culture and cuisine, and talk to them about how they feel about the post-civil war Sri Lanka. I think he wanted to find out about the repercussions of the war, which he could not explore in 2008, because Sri Lanka was embroiled in a civil war. Everything Bourdain portrayed was accurate; it seems like Jaffna in 2017 looks like the 2010 Jaffna, whereas foreign money is pouring into Colombo. This is the reality, not Bourdain’s imagination; however, I would call it “Anthony Bourdain goes to Jaffna.” I am somewhat certain that millions watched this program because Bourdain’s shows are popular; however, I do not think, Bourdain’s show would make Americans who had watched it, feel, “Yes, I want to visit Sri Lanka; it looks like a fun place.”