Updated April 25, 2019​ 

Sri Lanka Express

Book Review

A Sizzler between the covers: Flickering Fortunes

Author Lakshman Ratnapala

Reviewed by Indrani Seneviratne 

(Retired teacher; Ananda College and Devi Balika Vidyalaya)

It is strange for a writer to begin a book with the words "I am a ladies’ man"   but that is exactly what PATA Emeritus President & CEO, Lakshman Ratnapala does in  Flickering   Fortunes. This is not to say that he has recorded a life of chasing skirts, rather in his own words it is,   "a voyage of  discovery" -  of himself.  In the process he discovered his future wife. Felled by Cupid’s arrows at first sight, he immediately declared his love "Honey you are a peach; I shall return to pluck it" and scampered off fearing the wrath of Venus.
The real saga begins with a chance encounter with a wayward astrologer who predicts the author will leave the shores of his motherland "within three months", an idea pooh pooh-ed by him. However, a confluence of pride, prejudice and political horse trading saw him on a flight, within two months, to New York City. There, a hilarious confrontation with a Big Apple taxi driver heralded the author’s arrival at JFK Airport, for what he was promised to be for only "three months, until someone else could be found" to replace him. However, "forty years later, I am still in the U.S." he reveals, in a manner that is matter of fact. He ends the book quoting tributes from colleagues, around the world, on his early retirement from PATA, one such colleague claiming that he being allowed to go so easily is like cutting down the banyan tree under which they sheltered and are now left not only without the shade but also without the wood on which they were carving their names in vanity.

Flickering Fortunes is set against Ceylon’s medieval battles with colonial conquerors and the evolution of the country from feudalism to democracy with the accompanying social and political upheaval in the land. In the process, Ratnapala makes incisive comments on a society weighed down with caste-ism, yet comfortable in its multi-racial camaraderie, and a middle class of indigenous bourgeoisie gradually gravitating towards gathering movements for Buddhist revivalism, cultural renaissance, and national independence. He sees the country’s peaceful passage from pre-independence colonialism to post-independence democracy as a mere passing of the baton from foreign "white sahibs" to local upper class "brown sahibs", a process that was orchestrated in a manner of "persuasive cooperation" to avoid bloodshed unlike in India where "Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation was anything but non-violent".

The author, born to privilege with personal playmates and English educated in an elitist school modeled on England’s Eton and Harrow, asks himself what was the greatest of all the contributions by the British to his country and comes up with an answer that may surprise the reader. Lakshman Ratnapala, an intrepid traveler with an inquisitive mind had, in the course of his voyages of discovery, visited such then forbidden lands as China, North Korea and Cuba, all closed to Americans in the 1950s, an Odyssey which cost him dearly in later life.
Besides the real time vignettes of country life in an easy going era, long gone, the serious student will find in Flickering Fortunes a sociological study of great consequence, which would make the book a valuable addition to any college library. Indeed, this is a volume that should find a prominent place in every reference library and on every Sri Lankan’s book shelf.

In between the critical observations, the author finds time to court his lady love with a vengeance to rattle his family and the spies strategically placed by a paterfamilias unwilling to confront the son, rather preferring to communicate his dissent through intermediaries. Thus the story of Flickering Fortunes becomes also a story of love, romance and obdurate resistance to family dictates.
One is tempted to call this a memoir. The author, Lakshman Ratnapala himself disagrees, saying that this Part I of an intended trilogy is not an autobiography either. He says it is "reflections of who I was, where I was". But, then he is not sure who he was – for, he asks of himself "Who am I. What am I. Where am I?" claiming that he is on a voyage of discovery "to recapture something I have lost, without being sure I have lost anything at all".

Perhaps to discover what he has lost Ratnapala should re-read the addendum to his book, a collection of his published articles since he moved to the United States as Ceylon’s Director of Tourism for the Americas, based in New York City. The book cover informs the reader that from there he joined PATA, the multinational non-profit corporation founded in the aftermath of World War II to rebuild through tourism, the ravaged economies of Pacific- Asia. There, Ratnapala quickly took the reins of President & CEO and from that vantage position of looking in from the outside, he has penned a series of articles, which are even more fascinating than the main story itself. Perhaps that is where Ratnapala himself and his readers should go to discover the real man – who he is, what he is, where he is and whether he has lost anything at all. Maybe, they will find he has gained some!

Flickering Fortunes is a montage of powerful word pictures drawn with bold strokes by the author who unafraid of criticism, paints scenes, pleasing — yet full of candor, much like the vibrant cover illustration by an unknown artist 200 years ago, of two semi naked dusky damsels, which prompts suspicions of a sizzler between the covers.
Author's niece Mahesha launches book with Minister Sarath Amunugama

Flickering Fortunes
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Vijitha Yapa Publications, Sri Lanka; 1st edition (2016)

The book is available in the US.  Contact: [email protected]