Richard Boyle and I sit, staring deep into the eyes of a golden cobra. Balancing high, her hood flared to display the markings on her head, she is made of gleaming bronze; each scale is perfectly delineated, each coil of her body graceful and fluid. She belonged to his grandfather, Richard explains, making no effort to conceal his fascination. In fact, ‘The Cobra Files’, one of 15 essays contained in his new collection ‘Sindbad in Serendib,’ opens with a description of her. “…the extraordinary likeness to the living thing had me spellbound from the first time I peered into those reptilian eyes,” he writes.
We are in his house in Thalawathugoda. At the end of a bumpy, unfinished road, the house itself is off the beaten track – a description that can easily be employed to describe Richard’s own devotion to the odd and unusual. Speaking of his latest work, he says, “What I always tell people is that the key to the book is the subtitle – strange tales and curious aspects of Sri Lanka – that tells you really what the book is about. Sinbad is part of that, and is the lead story, but he’s not the only one of course.” Indeed, reading aside, to simply have a conversation with the author on one of his pet subjects – be it the mountain Ritigala, Galle in its heyday or the Great Ruby of Ceylon – is to be surprised, entertained and provoked to think.
That Richard managed to track it down is unsurprising. He has long been a connoisseur of the unusual, and ‘Sindbad in Serendib’ represents many, many years of diligent investigation. Having devoted part of his life to researching the cultural aspects of the British colonial period in Ceylon after the expulsion of the Dutch in 1796 (especially the literature produced), Richard is knowledgeable in ways paralleled by few on the island. Currently, his range of interests, particularly as embodied in this collection of essays is considerable. Within the essays themselves, time and again he reveals, distant but solid links between the most diverse subjects and this island – so it is that Sinbad is shipwrecked off Okanda, Captain James Floyd departs the harbour at Galle only to encounter a Giant Squid and dugongs are mistaken for mermaids in the Gulf of Mannar.“What makes this book [Sindbad in Serendib] important to me is that I have been able to ferret out a lot of information that has not been in print here before, or was unheard of, or little known,” he says, citing the extraordinary story of ‘The Anaconda of Ceylon’ and the tale of the ‘Three Princes of Serendip’. The latter, a diverting account of the three wise princes, who Sherlock Holmes like, astound the populace with their wisdom and powers of detection, is a rare translation, and has possibly never been printed in Sri Lanka before.
Detective like, Richard has spent a great deal of time and effort collecting the many tales, letters, and often out of print books that he refers to in his essays. Often a footnote in one book will set him off in hot pursuit of the next. “Research can be a bit like that,” he says, “stepping from one stone to another, until eventually you reach that other bank.” He also attributes much of his research to the period in which, as an assistant to the Oxford English Dictionary, he read over a hundred books, beginning with Robert Knox’s book – the first in English on Sri Lanka – and ending with Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. (He is now, the OED’s Sri Lankan English consultant.) Though his analysis of facts and formulization of theories might teeter on the verge of academia, Richard takes great pains to keep his writing accessible. And he succeeds in this, not least because his juxtaposition of solid fact and whimsy make for delightful reading.
But animals, geographical and architectural wonders aside, Richard’s gift is that he brings the people he writes about to startling life. From Horace Walpole, Ernest Haeckel and C.J. Jung through to the Rodi, the pearl fishers and even Sinbad himself, Richard animates history (or in the case of Sinbad, pure fabrication) so that it is once more imbued entirely with the spirit of its times. He does it so well, that it is difficult to imagine him as anything other than a writer. But in what he refers to as a “previous incarnation,” this author was, in fact, a movie maker.
Having been born and brought up in England, he first came to Sri Lanka as a young man in 1973 to work on Lester James Peries’s epic ‘God King’. “I had wanted to get into films from quite an early age, and though I always liked writing, movies were an attraction,” he says, adding wryly, “or possibly a distraction.”
Reminiscing he says, “I was very lucky because in 1973 you could go to anywhere in Sri Lanka without hindrance…as you can imagine it became a very meaningful experience and so it’s not surprising that when that experience ended, I wanted another one to begin.” So here was Richard, in his early twenties, having barely worked on one film, now raring to go, “wanting to leap into becoming a producer, and script writer.” In the years that followed, he would work on several movies including ‘East of Elephant Rock’ and ‘Rampage’ until disillusioned with the industry; he turned to writing full time.
It has been over two decades now, since Richard took up residence in Sri Lanka. He is already at work on a second collection of essays. Tentatively titled ‘Zeylanica Britannica: British interaction with Ceylon (Sri Lanka), imaginary, biographical, historical’, the volume will include (among other things) an examination of how Robert Knox brought perhaps the first cannabis sample to England and explored its properties with physicist Robert Hooke; an account of the early actress Florence Farr, who retired in Ceylon; a description of Dickens’ last novel, Edwin Drood, with characters from Ceylon; D. H. Lawrence’s unfortunate visit; and novels such as Q’s ‘Dead Man’s Rock’ and Dennis Wheatley’s ‘Dangerous Inheritance,’ both set in Ceylon, says Richard. But one had best be prepared for a long wait, as these books are “years in the making,” he adds.
Today, cosy in what he likes to call his “writer’s pad”, Richard is surrounded by the paraphernalia of his passion for the extraordinary – his shelves are filled with rare and esoteric volumes, and on the walls hang historic prints and antique photographs (some of which are counted among the 24 illustrations reproduced in ‘Sindbad in Serendib’) and in one corner his bronze cobra gleams. He is well content, it seems, having found a home in Sri Lanka, and numerous projects that occupy him wholly. So far, tracing the histories of his journeys – both intellectual and physical – one cannot help but suspect, that for this Englishman, there is much serendipity – the subject of yet another of his essays – to be had in life.
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka. on April 20, 2008 Words by Smriti Daniel.