Between the Tamil and the Sinhalese: Best Books About Sri Lanka

Talalla, Sri Lanka, April 2015

A small island nation located just off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka – formerly known as Ceylon – has long attracted tourists with its pristine beaches and natural beauty. In fact, tourism is currently a major economic driver for the country. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is also well acquainted with strife and turmoil. It is a culturally and religiously diverse nation and rising tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil led to twenty-five years of brutal civil war.

For much of the country’s history, the Sinhalese and Tamil largely co-existed. However, following independence from British rule in 1948, tensions began to rise amid a wave of Sinhalese nationalism that saw the Tamils disenfranchised and, in many cases, deported to India. The tensions led to a series of fierce and often bloody riots, specifically in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981, and 1983, as well as the eventual formation of the Tamil Tigers and the push for an independent Tamil State. The resulting civil war proved to be an unfortunately defining event in the modern history of the country.

Combat came to a decisive end in May 2009 when the Sri Lankan Military laid siege and seized the final area of the country still under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – more commonly known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers. Still, Sri Lanka carries the scars of the decades-long conflict.

Threads of the rich history of Sri Lanka – from the strategic value of its harbors to its deep Buddhist tradition, the long period under British Colonial Rule to the violence of the Sri Lankan Civil War – can be seen throughout its literature. The books and novels below, most by Sri Lankan authors, should provide clearer insight into a country and its people, who are still finding their way forward following more than twenty years of conflict.

  • The cover of the book Running in the Family

    Running in the Family

    In the 1970s, Michael Ondaatje – possibly Sri Lanka’s most well-known author – returned to his native country to both rediscover his homeland and trace the history of his Dutch-Ceylonese family. Running in the Family is an eloquent exploration of family and place that is equal parts travelogue and family memoir.

  • The cover of the book Elephant Complex

    Elephant Complex

    Travels in Sri Lanka

    Renowned travel writer John Gimlette turns his eye to Sri Lanka with his most recent book. Venturing into the country as it finds its footing following the Sri Lankan Civil War, Gimlette chronicles a land marked by both beauty and devastation as he travels from one side of the island nation to the other and all points in between.

  • The cover of the book Bringing Tony Home

    Bringing Tony Home

    In this collection of interconnected stories, Sri Lankan director-turned-author Tissa Abeysekara traces four distinct moments in the narrator’s life – a young boy’s attempts to recover his beloved dog, a forbidden romance wistfully recalled in adulthood, a man’s need to reconcile his conceptions of his father, and a consideration of his grandmother’s reminisces on the culture of Sri Lanka.

  • The cover of the book The Road from Elephant Pass

    The Road from Elephant Pass

    This novel from Nihal De Silva won the Gratiaen Prize – an annual award founded by Michael Ondaajte to honor the best Sri Lankan literary works – in 2003. The novel follows a Sri Lankan soldier sent to escort a female Tamil informant. The two are caught up in a massive Tamil offensive and forced to depend on one another as they journey to safety.

  • The cover of the book The Last Colonial

    The Last Colonial

    Christopher Ondaatje, older brother of Michael Ondaatje, recounts his life in a series of essays in The Last Colonial. The writings cover his time in an English boarding school, his early days in Canada, and his travels around the world. But for those interested in Sri Lanka, it is Ondaatje’s childhood on a tea plantation in what was then British-controlled Ceylon that may prove most fascinating.

  • The cover of the book Reef


    This Booker Prize finalist from Sri Lankan-born writer Romesh Gunesekera is a coming-of-age tale narrated by an adolescent Sri Lankan boy. The novel centers on Triton, a houseboy in a wealthy Sri Lankan home, who grows up amid the growing political unrest engulfing the country.

  • The cover of the book Funny Boy

    Funny Boy

    Another Sri Lankan bildungsroman, Funny Boy follows Arjie, the second son of a well-to-do Sri Lankan hotelier. Set against the increasingly violent conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamil, the novel poignantly explores a boy’s recognition of his own sexuality as well the impact of the civil war on Sri Lankan culture.

  • The cover of the book The Cage

    The Cage

    The Cage, by journalist Gordon Weiss, recounts the fierce final days of the Sri Lankan Civil War with vivid and painful detail. According to UN estimates, tens of thousands of civilian casualties resulted as government forces cornered the Tamil Tigers in a small section of the country. Weiss, then a UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka, recounts not only how the war was won, but the price paid.

  • The cover of the book The Story of a Brief Marriage

    The Story of a Brief Marriage

    Set during the final days of the Sri Lankan Civil War, this debut novel from Anuk Arudpragasam centers on a young man named Dinesh fleeing the devastation of the war by agreeing to marry a woman named Ganga. Set over the course of a single day and night, The Story of a Brief Marriage is a poignant examination of the horrors of war and the power of the human condition.

  • The cover of the book The Seasons of Trouble

    The Seasons of Trouble

    Victory for the government forces in the Sri Lankan Civil cost tens of thousands of lives in its final push and displaced countless others. In her debut book, journalist Rohini Mohan examines the lives of three individuals caught up in the brutality and violence of the conflict’s harrowing final years.