It was in many ways strange to go to Sri Lanka six years after the brutal conclusion to its 26-year civil war. I went with a small freight of questions and expectations, culled from a lifetime of observing the place from afar. Because I was hosted by the Galle Literary Festival, I had a five-star experience. Sheltered in luxurious hotels that looked out on some of the country’s most picturesque locations, meeting people from all over who wanted to talk about books—it was hard to reconcile the long, recent tumult with my direct experiences. In an attempt to bridge the gap between what I could see and what I wanted to know, I decided to read only books about Sri Lanka while I was there. Here are some thoughts on those books:
THE SEASONS OF TROUBLE: Life amid the ruins of Sri Lanka’s civl war, Rohini Mohan
This excellent nonfiction book tells the stories of three Tamil Sri Lankans, starting in 2008, as the war was moving toward its bloody conclusion. The first is Sarva, a young man who, at the book’s opening, is ‘disappeared’—picked up and tortured by the Sri Lankan police for having been, so his accusers say, a member of the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization that was the main militant face of the Tamil struggle for independence. The second is Indra, Sarva’s mother, fighting to find and free her son. The third is “Mugil,” an ex-Tiger combatant, once a fierce supporter of their cause, but now growing disillusioned as she sees the Tigers treating Tamils like cannon fodder in the face of defeat by the Sri Lankan military:
When she had her two sons, Mugil sent them to the movement-run crèches, where they were fed and cared for while she went about about her work. The Tigers clearly valued her decision to serve with them, and she was grateful every time they considered her qualified for a mission. She’d heard that before her time, people were even allowed to resign from the force. She would not contemplate leaving, though. After all they did for her, when her house was on the land they protected, how could she? How would the men and women she had sworn to protect treat her if she threw up her hands one day and said she was too old or wounded to go to the battlefield?
But the new recruits under Mugil’s command, their eyes fixed on the ground, were not what the movement needed. When she was told to keep a close eye on them, that some of them had repeatedly tried to run away, Mugil had allowed doubt to enter her mind… These children were being sent to face a real army when they could barely lift their guns.
The book rotates among the three main characters’ points-of-view, giving their histories and experiences. Mohan also pulls the lens out deftly in places to give readers a wider, longer view on such matters as the war’s initiation, its progress and its complications. I say characters, because the book reads like a novel, with all the narrative thrust and emotional intimacy that implies, but having seen Mohan in several events (I ultimately become friends with her, as I did with a couple of the other writers whose books I talk about below), I know that the book was as accurate to her informants’ experiences as she could make it. In the following passage, she describes life in the bunkers Tamil civilians would dig for shelter as they fled their home villages, and then fled the places they had fled to, trying to escape active shelling by the Sri Lankan army (which the government has continued to deny) in the Tamil-Tiger controlled northern regions:
Wherever it was in the Vanni, each bunker had a character: its own obsessions, its own schedule, its own fears. One page bunker in Uruthurapurum, occupied largely by the elderly, was lined with blue tarpaulin hoarded by the occupants, who felt the rain to be their greatest enemy. The residents of a rectangular trench near what was once the office for the Coir Cooperative Society followed a strict roster to maintain a nightly lookout. A disabled former combatant called Manian enforced this with such fervour that even after pneumonia did him in, the bunker’s inmates followed this routine. Next to the Manian bunker was the ‘ladies’ bunker’. This trench, with eight women and seven young children, had become a kitchen of sorts. They cooked gruel or paruppu at every opportunity and distributed it to others in exchange for milk, firewood, medicines or groceries. For survival, they were counting on the men’s uppu kadan, the moral debt incurred by eating someone else’s cooking.
Packed with splintered households and strangers from different villages, the bunkers created new families with every battle….
Lucid, insightful, marvelously detailed but never ponderous: THE SEASONS OF TROUBLE is a tour-de-force, the best kind of reporting. Even as Sri Lanka continues to grow and change, this book will endure as a close portrait of the war through the lens of its conclusion.
THIS DIVIDED ISLAND: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian
Subramanian is a seasoned reporter and has written this book on post-war Sri Lanka more in the style of a traveler’s account. He says that he started going to Sri Lanka on holidays around 2004, writing short pieces, but that, as the 26-year civil war concluded, he saw a chance to know more: “With the end of the war, a rare window opened up—for reconciliation, but also for people to talk about their lives as they had been unable to for almost thirty years, and for a different history to be stitched out of these stories. Two years later, I arrived in Sri Lanka in the spirit of a forensic gumshoe visiting an arson site, to examine the ashes and guess at how the fire caught and spread so cataclysmically, but also to see if any embers remained to ignite the blaze all over again.”
Subramanian has an astonishing gift for figurative language, so much so that one is tempted to encourage him to take up fiction—as though such metaphors were wasted on journalism, the way people used to say eyelashes were wasted on a boy. This is his description of the Tamil-majority north, where much of the ground war was fought: “I took to staring out of my window, making out dim details of the Vanni’s landscape: its flattened terrain, the carpets of low vegetation that were anchored in place by palmyras standing tall as pushpins. After Kilinochchi, the smudgy light of predawn revealed wrecked houses, buildings with their roofs blown off, and sprawling army camps. Often, the road was bounded, on either side, by kilometer after kilometer of bright yellow security tape with the word ‘MINES’ printed on it in three languages. The bus trundled on stone-and-mortar bridges over a brace of lagoons, past stretches of paddy fields, and finally, under a low morning sky, into Jaffna, which was just shaking itself awake.” It’s a vivid, widely researched, scrupulously balanced account of people trying to figure out exactly what happened—to their relatives, to their homes, to their self-conceptions.
At the Galle Literary Festival, I saw Subramanian in conversation with Rohini Mohan, another Indian journalist, whose book THE SEASONS OF TROUBLE I write about above. This was the topic, in fact, of the panel: Indian Journalists Writing on Sri Lanka. The conversation was good, even if the moderator was a bit of a Sri Lankan Alan Partridge. He didn’t, however, ask about Rohini’s decision to keep herself entirely out of the narrative, contrasted with Samanth’s decision to make his experience of researching the book into the central, abiding narrative.
Subramanian suggested, on that panel, that he needed to make clear his place in the collection, retelling and analysis of these narratives; that to do otherwise would be dishonest. (Obviously, Mohan would disagree.) At times, while reading, I wondered whether his experiences were sufficient to the urgency of his subject. And then, late in the book, this perspective paid off: “One afternoon, I rode with a couple of NGO workers to Iranapalai, a village… where palmyra trees stood beheaded by the shelling of 2009, their long, firm trunks pushing nutrients up to nowhere. I cannot recall now why we stopped at the bombed-out schoolhouse building; one of my companions, I think, had wanted to meet somebody who turned out to be unavailable. We had been driving for a while, however, folded up into the seats of the uncomfortable van, and so we decided to stand under a tree on the grounds of the school, easing the kinks in our spines.” Subramanian and the others fall into conversation with a woman whose son Jude was forcibly recruited by the Tigers; she hadn’t seen him for several years and asked if there were lists of captured Tiger combatants anywhere. “There might be, I said, and I pulled out my notebook to record her phone number and Jude’s date of birth. I wasn’t sure I could help at all, but if nothing else, I thought I could pass on the information to the right NGO.” Someone else in a similar situation overhears and asks Subramanian to take down her brother’s details. “By some atmospheric process, the whole schoolyard suddenly seemed to know that somebody was recruiting the names of people who had been conscripted by the Tigers and still remained missing…Nobody asked us who we were, or which organization we represented, or if we were from the government, or if we even had any power to trace these missing boys and girls.” He and his companions write lists for nearly an hour. Subramanian lists these stories, a heart-rending litany of disappearances. “Then the crowd thinned, although a scatter of people remained even after they had spoken to us, as if they were expecting some sort of promise or announcement. My companions and I looked ashamedly at each other, as if we had engaged in a wicked duplicity. What could we even say that would not be either a lie or an admission of powerlessness? I chose to stare down at my notebook’s pages, as if I was searching hard for some pattern to the information, trying really to avoid the eyes of those who had stayed back.”
It’s a devastating description of the journalist’s power—he has, after all, brought these accounts to his readers—and guilt: he can do nothing specific to help. We feel simultaneously the tearing tragedy that these people endured and our own shame, for failing to see it, at the time, for failing to prevent it. All we can do now, through him, is to hear them out.
AROUND THE FORT IN 80 LIVES, Juliet Coombe
This gorgeously produced book gives short 3rd person descriptions of a number of residents of Galle Fort. It was, for this reason, enormously useful: an excellent way to see this place, at the human level. It does much of what a guide book does—setting destinations and describing them—but attempts to give a human portrait of a famous site. Unfortunately, while it’s a great concept, it’s is not very well-written. Which is to say that, much like a guidebook, it’s not really a book to keep and return to, though a library, or Galle Bed-and-Breakfast, or even a traveler wanting a souvenir, I suppose, might buy it. The photos are very nice.
ISLAND OF A THOUSAND MIRRORS, Nayomi Munaweera
Nayomi Munaweera’s award-winning novel tracks from the 1950’s, when her narrator Yasodhara’s parents were born “…in the usual hours of sweat-drenched, pushing ripping pain before a tiny creature slips forth.” The offhand language emphasizes this fragile idyll: the normal pains of birth, of uneven marriage, even of community strife, the sorts of difficulties that mark the course of life as it should be. These details will stand in stark contrast to the bloody ripping of social fabric, already nascent, that will engender many sorts of far less natural pains. In the 1980’s, after those children born 25 years before have met and engendered said narrator, Yasodhara and her family flee their home, immigrating to America in an attempt to flee the violence of the civil war, now underway in earnest.
Meanwhile, in a northern village, a young Tamil woman, Saraswati, is abducted and brutally raped by Sri Lankan soldiers who are putatively trying to find her elder brothers. They, like so many others like them, joined the Tamil Tigers, violent extremists battling for an independent nation in the north, free from the Sinhala majority whose oppressions they have suffered, particularly since independence. This young woman—“unnamed and unloved,” says Yasodhara, encouraging us to believe that she has imagined Saraswati’s name, family, history and personality—joins the Tigers herself as a result. It was one of the Tigers’ great innovations in terrorism, that they treated female cadre members as though they had an equal part to play in this battle. But Saraswati, for all that she had no choice in this matter, for all that she seems to be convincing herself of the validity of the Tigers’ savagery as a response to the Sri Lankan government savagery, is more conflicted even than she knows.
When she recovered physically from her rape, her parents asked her to leave and join the extremists, who had come to recruit her anyway: she is spoiled, they say—who would have her in marriage now? And so she joins, but, in some of the most heart-rending passages in the book, dreams of her violations nightly, but now, her rapists all have the face of Prabhakaran, leader of the Tigers. She had been tempted to take the same solution as another girl of their village, similarly ‘spoiled’ by a soldier, throwing herself in the well. But she didn’t, and now the well, also, returns to her, differently: “Sometimes when I am by myself, I miss the taste of our well water, filtered through our small piece of earth, its exact mineral consistency, the taste of home. It is the only thing I can allow myself to remember.”
Munaweera glosses quickly the war’s statistics and its bloody end in 2009—the Tigers routed, Prabhakaran killed, thousands of civilians caught in what was called one of the worst humanitarian crises of the modern age. These are adjuncts, in a sense, to this populous novel’s project, which comes home to the reader when Saraswati’s fate crosses Yasodhara’s: to consider what was and wasn’t possible for a good Sri Lankan girl before and after the war, and to consider also the many and varied costs of conformity.
For several years after this book was published, I avoided it. Even a mention of it in the papers would make me turn away. I think I am very uncomfortable with personal stories of loss (I’m reminded here of Francisco Goldman’s memoir of his girlfriend, their relationship and her death by drowning). I think I feel somehow that unless the story is glossed with or motivated by some larger question—of historical circumstances, of social justice—it is simply random, nothing that can help me understand the wider world. Writing it now, I can see how little sense that makes, and it was seeing Deraniyagala in an event at the Galle Literary Festival, where she pointedly refused to play the author or the martyr, where she related Michael Ondaatje’s comment: “I love it—it’s so nonliterary!” and her response, “But Michael, this is as literary as I can possibly make it!” that changed my mind. She seemed so honest and unassuming that I thought, okay, now or never.
And the book is, indeed, excellent. It tells a relatively straightforward story: Deraniyagala and her family were on holiday in Yala, a nature preserve where they went annually, and where Deraniyagala had gone frequently while she was growing up. It was early morning, Dec. 26, 2004; her two boys were playing with their presents, her husband reading the paper in the bathroom, and she spots something strange on the horizon. Her husband joins her, looks at the sea—miles inland of where it’s supposed to be—and they grab the children and run. The tsunami catches them. Everyone—her children, her husband and her parents—dies, except her.
In the early chapters of the book, the writing reflects her desperations. Suicidal, drinking half a bottle of vodka before supper and more after, harassing the family that has moved into her parents’ vacated house—Deraniyagala is a mess, and the jagged, disorganized prose reflects this, her anger, her shame. It reminded me of the other possible reason, a stronger one, that I had avoided this book: I refer to the tsunami in the course of my last novel, which was also about people who lost their entire families, in a terrorist attack. Readers have often been surprised and skeptical at my choice not to interview any survivors of the real-life incident on which my book is based. I have said that it never occurred to me—that I created a family, my characters, and put them through the attack. Why would I try to generalize or extrapolate from others stories? Why would I intrude on their grief? I don’t think they would tell me what I wanted to show: the strange, often unexpected, deeply personal ways that grief is enacted. This is the gift, of course, of Deraniyagala’s book: not that it is a story of loss, but that it is her story, no one else’s, not that of the hundreds of thousands who died, but the story of this one survivor, those she lost, how she survived, and how she tells it.
Her portrait of happy family life pre-tsunami manages to sound ideal without being spit-polished: the kids’ brattiness and brilliance, the alliances of her three ‘boys’ against her, as in this incident in Hampstead Heath, where they often walked: “The hedges along the path are quick with finches, and it’s as though I have never been away… I see that spot where Steve led them to tackle me to the ground as I foolishly ambled over to throw back the ball they’d lobbed at me. The ground was all muddy, I was wearing white jeans, and they were wildly hysterical. Amused I was not.”
Much of the best writing in the book is about nature, their shared passion as a family. In one of the best passages, Deraniyagala goes whale-watching, some six years after the tragedy. At first, she fears being broken by seeing these without her elder son. “I can’t endure whales without Vik,” she thinks, cowering in the bottom of the boat, waiting for the assault of emotions that comes on her at times. But then the whales appear, and she is entranced. “There is a stir in the water, a foamy mass heralds that head that rises to the surface, its shape an ancient arch. The whale breathes, and a flare of water fizzes in the air. I want to see more now, I want the head to lift higher, that huge pleated jaw, or better still, maybe this whale will breach. But I am left wanting, soon the head is submerged.” So in this experience, she learns that she is starting to see again the wonder of the world, carrying within her that past life, the one that was torn away. She doesn’t need to turn off the past to be in the present. “I am unclenched and calmed by the beauty of these creatures, by their pureness, and I savor this relief. Then again I look. This is amazing, now a whale shits. A vast crimson slickly slowly fades into the blue water. Ah, you should see this, Vik. All that krill.”