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This Divided Isle

Samanth Subramanian’s stories from the Sri Lankan war.

Considering the amount of ink spilled in its name, the Sri Lankan post-war story deserves a sub-genre of its own. From that moment in May 2009, when the bloodied head of tiger boss Velupillai Prabhakaran was hung on the masthead of every newspaper in the land, words have accumulated to describe the island’s post-war experience. It is a shame that none of those words have been ‘peace’.

Divergent reports of how the North was won have consumed miles of column inches, galaxies of pixels and several works of fiction and reportage. The official story as seen in C.A. Chandraprema’s Gota’s War denies that the government shelled its people, executed its enemies in cold blood, denies that it continues to abduct and torture, and continues to sponsor the suppression of minorities.

This view is orthodoxy only in Sri Lanka and has been refuted on multiple fronts, notably in eyewitness accounts from the war’s last days in The Cage by UN official Gordon Weiss, and in a harrowing series of interviews with war victims in BBC reporter Frances Harrison’s Still Counting The Dead. Both reveal a country still at war and still bleeding. Both have been dismissed by the establishment as foreign propaganda aimed at sinking our floating paradise.

I was curious as to how Samanth Subramanian’s Stories from the Sri Lankan War would fare in this climate, especially since its author is from India and has a name that ends in a consonant. The war is a dicey subject whether it is brought up in polite company or in an online free-for-all. In some circles, mainly those orbiting the Rajapakse clan, to reveal Sri Lanka as anything other than the ‘Miracle of Asia’ is an act of treason. We want foreigners to sun on our beaches, not to dig into our past.

This Divided Island is more travelogue than political polemic. Much like the author’s celebrated debut, Following Fish, here the narrative “I” and its reflections are as much part of the tale as is the subject. This technique could be slight and cloying in the wrong hands, but is served well by Subramanian’s wit, compassion and insight.

Like its predecessor, this is narrative journalism at its most literary, diligently researched reportage presented with poetry and flair. Subramanian has an eye for an image, an ear for an anecdote and an affection for the absurd. His descriptions of the bullet-ridden flatlands of Jaffna are on point, as are his chilling interviews with war widows and ex-terrorists. A close analysis of the conflict’s roots in airbrushed history and foolish legislature is offset with episodes of our hero talking politics with pimps, being chased by stray hounds and watching the demolition of a Muslim shrine in full view of an impotent police force. The tone is supple enough to mix levity with gravitas to fit the shifting rhythms of the narrative.

The characters we meet along the way are myriad and varied. There are Colombo liberals, Jaffna intellectuals, Buddhist moderates and fascists (who both don saffron robes) Muslims banished from the north and gunned down in the east, Tamils who fought for the army, Tamils who helped the LTTE, Tamils who were maimed by both, widows of every shape and stripe, and the shadows of those who have ‘been disappeared’.

The problem with writings on the Sri Lankan post-war is most are quick to identify their villain and thereby reveal the agenda they peddle. Subramanian’s sprawling cast allows him to examine the complexities of a muddled conflict from multiple angles. He finds that the Lankan tragedy features not too many good guys, just selective amnesia, necessary evils and causes gone sour.

“Shrink the humanity of your enemy, and the fighting must seem easier, more just, less complicated. Warfare consists of several psychological tricks, not least the ones you play upon yourself.”

Early on, he eschews the cliché of comparing the island’s shape to a teardrop and instead paints it as a hand grenade with Jaffna peninsula as its pin. He surmises that violence is at the heart of this smiley happy island’s history, violence that is not endemic to one ethnicity, religion or faction.

Too many amateur historians focus on the atrocities of the war’s last phase and not on the 30 years that preceded it. Subramanian’s shrewdest stroke, whether by design or simply by chronology, is to spend the book’s first section dissecting the LTTE and revealing its atrocities. He describes a cause that turned on its own, that conscripted its children, massacred its neighbours and robbed its followers.

“This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf. Once this war was lost, once this earth was scorched, it could have been only a question of time before the Tigers lost the other war too.”

This allows him to balance the scale by turning his gaze on how Buddhist nationalism shaped Lanka’s chronicled history and to document how these same forces use architecture and archaeology to stamp the Sinhalaya’s cultural dominance on cowering minorities, as if more stamping were required.

“One of the shrines… funded by the parents of soldiers who had died… showed the Buddha, radiant with civilisation, seated in the middle of a forest and keeping at bay, through his sheer Buddha-ness, a host of confused, dark-skinned savages. The savages were Tamils, it was quite clear. The Buddha, the personification of love and kindness, had found people to hate.”

There is plenty of room for the surreal. A hyped up Prabhakaran watching the movie 300 multiple times before going into battle, a Jaffna bar that only stocks Lion and Tiger beer without irony, a government turncoat running down a street in his underwear firing his pistol. There’s even room for an analysis of Jaffna’s vintage cars.

It is testimony to the emerald isle’s prolific violence that This Divided Island’s extensive research does not cover all the nation’s divisions. Two barbaric Marxist insurrections and their violent backlash receive scant attention, as does the role of foreign agencies in fanning the flames, most notably our larger neighbour, who once lent a hand and lost its head in return.

My only misgiving was the lack of a big ending, a good old-fashioned conclusion that tells us why we are divided, why we are violent and if there is hope for any of us. But closure is a red herring. In an island that refuses to look its past in the eye, it has become an illusion. Millions will carry their grief and their scars to their graves. Perhaps it is more intellectually honest to end, as Subramanian does, on the farce of Sinhalese triumphalism, the cause of the last conflict and most likely, the root of the next.

“People still lived in fear, and some of them still died in sudden, unnatural ways. Anger still rippled through the island. The state still pummelled its society to submit before its powers. Having acquired the temperament of a country at war, Sri Lanka had forgotten any other way to live.”

“What good will this conversation do for me?” asks a Muslim man recounting his 6-year-old nephew crying to be sent home, before being shot through the mouth. Subramanian answers that these stories need to be recorded and is immediately aware of how hollow he sounds.

I disagree. To record stories excluded from the official narrative is both important and necessary. In a kingdom where history is erased, where mobs override laws, where the past can be traded, where writers get abducted and websites get blocked, it is evident we can’t take what we dish out, that we’d rather point fingers than accept blame, rather break things than make amends.

This Divided Island is an intelligent, nuanced work, that celebrates the beauty of the island next door and warns of the horrors that lie before it. It is a book likely to spark debate in the land it laments. And this can only be a good thing. Because if we spill enough ink and share enough stories, perhaps we can avoid the spilling of more blood.

Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the Commonwealth Book Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. He lives in Colombo where he is nurturing a second novel and a first child. His scribbles can be read at

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