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Rediscovering Sri Lanka through a travel memoir

Island paradise mixes beguiling charm with an astonishing record of violence

Colombo's Mount Lavinia Hotel in the 1960s. One of Asia's legendary colonial hotels, it was managed by the author's father through the political upheaval of the 1970s. "It was a turbulent time, much of which my father spent in remand and jail." (Photo courtesy of Razeen Sally)

Foreign visitors have for centuries rhapsodized about Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was called until 1972: its seashores and landscapes, its governing religion, Buddhism, and its majority ethnicity, the Sinhalese.

Hermann Hesse, visiting in 1911, called it "Paradise island with its fern trees and palm-lined shores and gentle doe-eyed Sinhalese." Two decades later, George Bernard Shaw thought Ceylon "India without the hassle." Well over a millennium earlier, Arab traders called the island Serendib, the origin of "serendipity," which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way."

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