By Archana Arul
Book: This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War;
Author: Samanth Subramanian; Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin); Pages: 320; Price: Rs.499.
Through ages nations have been torn apart and much of it due to internal turmoil that has wrecked civil societies cutting across cultures and civilizations. By the same token families have been put through a lot of torment due to displacement, some of it voluntarily through movement across continents, and a lot others through forced displacement.
Literature and media have seen these issues through different lenses and prisms —the plight of the diasporas, especially of the Indian and Asian sub continents, has been well illuminated in a number of ways, through print and through movies.
The same could be said of the plight of Indians who had voluntarily or forcibly moved during the colonial era of the British. And a case in point is that of the Tamils who had moved in the Asia Pacific to such countries as Burma (Myanmar), Fiji, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Of all this movement of peoples, Sri Lanka elicits special attention for the reason that not only had Tamils found their way prior to the colonial period, but have been witnessing persisting issues in that island nation leading to a nearly three decade conflict that has torn apart that small nation and continues to rip it apart, some five years after a conflict has seemingly come to an end.
Once known for its scenic beauty, this island nation was a dream of many mighty rulers of south India. Historical and mythological bond between India and Sri Lanka is very strong, starting for instance in mythology on the abduction of Sita, Through the enlightenment of Buddha and the invasion of colonisers, this exotic island has never missed an opportunity of being in the limelight.
A war born out of linguistic grudges ripped apart the ‘tear-shaped nation’ and thanks to human rights lobbies the ethnic war in Sri Lanka is being spoken of and debated in most parts of the world. A war lasting three decades is quite disturbing and during the process of reconciliation it is the journalist’s curiosity and thirst for facts that probably leads the author to tour the lands and bring home stories.
“Sri Lanka was a country pretending that it had been suddenly scrubbed clean of violence,” says Samanth Subramanian in his latest novel “This Divided Island – Stories From The Sri Lankan War”. The book, a rich mixture of reflections and historical anecdotes, is divided into four broad sections Terror, The North, The Faith, End Games -- each with its own unique and striking significance laced with a racy style of writing that would cause envy amongst even the seasoned scribes in South Asia and the world. The narration is simple, enjoyable and yet neither simplistic nor sweeping. Set in the genre of a travelogue, the stories recorded in the book leave disturbing images of the Sri Lankan war.
The depth of the anecdotes reinforces the quality of the narrator. In Terror he captures the state of unease and restlessness that is found in abundance in the ‘hand grenade shaped island’. The country is still inflamed he tells us. “The Sinhalese like to think of their Buddhism as muscular.” He speaks of how the country is so engrossed in worshipping the monks rather than Buddha himself. In the later section - The Faith, he tells us of how Dutugemunu was assured by one of the monks that “Slaughtering Tamils is no moral mistake’”, he adds, “according to the Sangha’s official arithmetic, because the Tamils ‘were heretical and evil and died as though they were animals”.
After having read about this legendary tale, the author states that the presence of Dutugemunu is all over modern Sri Lanka. The ardent disciple being none other than the current president himself who smiles all over the nation through posters and other hoardings ‘Sycophants scrambled to fall in line to burnish this link between Mahinda and Dutugemunu.’ The heights of it being the television anchor, Jakson Anthony’s conclusion that “Rajapaksa was not only a direct descendant of Dutugemunu but also related by blood to the Buddha himself”.
There would naturally be the temptation in some quarters to dismiss the seminal work as some sort of an apology for the Tamils. To fall for this easy line of thinking would be quite unsophisticated for Subramanian also records the fashion in which the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam went about its business in the name of achieving the stated objectives. “Ten years, I calculate to myself. That was long it had taken for the Tigers to go from killing out of perceived necessity to killing for sport.”
The rise and fall of the LTTE chieftain Velupillai Prabhakaran, his massive operation, audacity to run a government within a government, large scale destruction, lack of compassion leaves us speechless. In an anecdote later, we are told of how grief struck and terrorized were the civilian Tamils who were clearly displeased with some of the tactics and policies of the LTTE supremo.
The argument has been made by the author — and one that would lend itself to some debate within the community and outside is that the LTTE lost the war much before 2009 when they lost the faith of the Tamils themselves. By the time the Tamils had realized that their struggle for an identity was misrepresented a decade had passed by and enough damage was done. They were sandwiched between the Tigers and the Lions.
The book throws light on the concept of ‘displacement’ in the nation from the inception of the war. People were constantly running for their lives. Either by themselves or they were being chased by both parties. To live in this bedlam, where nothing was constant, one had no clue of the whereabouts of the rest of the family, or safety of the kith and kin, food was scarce and where there was no ray of hope is beyond description.
Subramanian also mentions of how difficult it was for the media outlets to thrive amidst the war. Journalists were intimidated, violated, abducted and at times killed. Press offices were set on fire and the whole world was watching this unable to do anything. In End Games he records the reconstruction of the entire nation, where the Rajapaksa government is trying its best to scrub clean all evidences, challenging the cries and screams of humanitarian voices, rewriting history and archaeology. The book leaves us with mixed emotions. Stories enthrall, entertain, and educate. Samanth Subramanian’s ‘This Divided Island – Stories From The Sri Lankan War’ (2014) does this all!
Put in a current context Subramanian’s work is not just yet another “book” on a period of history that many would like to think did not happen or pretend that it did not take place. To the apologists of the powers-that-be in Colombo that “nothing happened” or what did happen could be swept under the carpet because the “opposition” also did the same will not wash for the simple reason that nation states are held to a higher bar in the process of governance. And invoking the concept of national sovereignty and trying to drum up support on this point from dictatorships around the world does not speak too highly of an island nation that has its roots in democracy and human rights.
After all Sri Lanka needs to get to the bottom line — is genuine national reconciliation possible without coming to terms with the excesses in the last phase of the war? And that is the genuine issue that needs to be addressed. Brushing aside the calls of the international community, throwing up the bogey of a return of terror or going about intimidating yet another community in the hope of further nurturing the triumphalism bodes ill not just for Sri Lanka and India but for South Asia and the world at large.
(Archana Arul is a Research Scholar in the department of Journalism and Mass Communication of the School of Media Studies, SRM University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)