The Road from Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva
16 February, 2010
As soon as I landed in Colombo, my father spoke excitedly about a book he had read recently, a book which one of my good Sri Lankan friends had said I must read. My father, who likes to read his books slowly said he finished it in two days. And being jet-lagged and unacclimatised to the the tropical heat, I began to read it that night and finished it in 4 hours. The book, winner of the Gratiaen Prize in 2003, was The Road form Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva. I had seen it last year in the bookshops in Colombo and didn’t feel an urge to read it as it was about a Sri Lankan army officer and a Tamil Tiger fighter (and I’m not such a fan of military stories). But that was precisely what made the book such a thrilling, yet profound read. It was the first book I read that tackled the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and discussed deep rooted prejudices and questions which we have all asked yet were too afraid to voice in public.
The novel begins at Elephant Pass, a strategic base in the north of Sri Lanka where the Sri Lankan army is engaged in a stand-off against the LTTE or Tamil Tigers. Captain Wasantha, a Sinhalese soldier, is given the task of bringing in an LTTE informant who has turned against the Tigers and has agreed to hand over vital information in exchange for a deal. Things go wrong from the start and Wasantha and Kamala, the young female Tamil Tiger activist, have no choice but to go on the run together and try to make it through the Wanni, the heart of Tiger territory, Wilpattu National Park and down to Colombo where Kamala insists on handing over the information directly to the head of the Sri Lankan army. The two, fierce enemies at the start, must work together in order to stay alive and ward off unwanted attention from both sides of the conflict. In addition, there is the constant danger from feral army deserters who have nothing to lose. As Wasantha and Kamala work together and have no choice but to help one another, their hostility towards each other slowly erodes as they learn about their past, losses and beliefs which have led them to where they are in their lives today. Would they make it in one piece to Colombo? And when they do, will Kamala be safe? Can their fragile trust in each other survive the war?
Nihal de Silva has produced a finely written, taut, thriller dealing with difficult and complex issues in an unbiased, unsentimental, yet intelligent manner. I was severely impressed with the way he discussed the Sinhala-Tamil conflict which is so emotive and which has destroyed so many lives in Sri Lanka and the diaspora. And in Wasantha and Kamala, de Silva has shown the strength of both peoples, the horror and sadness each has had to face and the way humans are the same wherever they come from and in which ethnicity they are born.
I can’t recommend The Road from Elephant Pass highly enough. It made me think deeply about the mechanism of war and the destructive nature of hatred. As much as it is about war and has an incredibly fast-paced plot, it is also a love story between two people whose beliefs and paths in life are polar opposites, yet who are given the chance to discover each other and find a fleeting happiness amongst all the chaos and destruction around them.
Sadly, in 2006 Nihal de Silva was killed in a landmine explosion in his beloved Wilpattu National Park in northwestern Sri Lanka which features so much in his book. The Road from Elephant Pass was made into a film titled Alimankada recently in Sri Lanka which I have yet to see, but I have heard that the ending has been altered. If I were you, I’d make sure I read the book first.