Travel writings are known for venturing into exotic, unfamiliar and idyllic Oriental terrains, but This Divided Island is a cold-blooded, riveting and multi-layered memory thriller through the interstices of war and peace in Sri Lanka. Told with an unusual candour, impartiality and soul-stirring forensic reporting, Samanth Subramanian, a New Delhi-based journalist raised in Chennai, weaves a chilling tapestry of how violence produces its lasting mythologies, memories, rumours and conversations, and redeems us from what novelist Toni Morrison calls being ?disremembered?.
That is why his travel between 2004 and 2011 through Colombo, Jaffna, Batticaloa, Toronto and London does not only recollect isolated fragments of the past of the civil war, but also translates them in such an uncanny way that the shadowy peace in post-conflict Sri Lanka is prised open by the terrifying anti-climax of violence as both poison and cure.
Following the carbuncled footprints of the intrepid Anita Pratap, who first interviewed LTTE chief Prabhkaran in 1983, Subramanian enriches travel writings with overlapping mongrel narratives of fear, revenge, love and loyalty buried into the entrails of a monstrously-?imagined community? of nation and nationalism. And this recording of memories of war is not without corrosive moral effects. In a confessional tone, he seems to admonish his fellow journalists that the ?work of journalist is that of a parasite, fattening itself on the time and memories of others?. In other words, the book is more about avant-garde phosphorescent memory studies than cliched investigative journalism or hyped travel writings.
Though the world continues to debate on the extent of atrocities committed by the victor and vanquished in Sri Lanka, the deafening silence of the peace in the graveyard reminds the author of ?a case of pox, the toxins coursing below the skin, pushing up boils and pustules that begged to be fingered and picked apart?. No wonder, he admits rather absentmindedly, that he has written his travelogue in the spirit of ?a forensics 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?. Therefore, the rumours about ?Grease Yakas?, who allegedly daubed themselves with grease and attacked women at night in mostly Tamil areas, confirmed to the author why rumour remained the chief currency of conversation about war and peace in Sri Lanka, and how ?old fears continued to throb; old ghosts transmuted into new ones?.
Characterised by a seductive, but false, imagery of ancient animosity between Sinhalese and Tamils, the surrealistic texture of Subramanian?s memory thriller weaves together the ?turmoil of its time? in Sri Lanka. As a seasoned storyteller, he builds his plot around characters rather than archival sources. Consider reading about these characters who would blind you with lightening tales of the effects of violence: Uncle W, a Hindu nationalist, who ran the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh; Mr M, a former theoretician of Eelam; Raghavan (a friend of Prabhakaran?s) and his wife Nirmala, now living in London and who was the first woman arrested under Sri Lanka?s anti-terrorism laws (she was lifted out of the country by the Tamil Tigers in a Bollywood-style, night-time jailbreak); Adityan, a fierce rebel in the 1990s and now a data-entry operator in London, who still feels nostalgic for the Nineties when Kilinochchi and Jaffna resembled a pure ?Tamil Land? under the Tigers; Razeena, who taught at the Khadija college in Jaffna and was, along with other Muslims, thrown out by the Tigers, but not before looting them of all their belongings; Samitha, a Buddhist monk and a Leftist at the same time, who also became the first monk to serve in the national parliament; Omalpe Sobitha, a preacher of new Buddhism, who unabashedly declares himself a ?racist? and ?religious fanatic?; Ravi Paramanathan, now a correctional officer with prison security in Toronto, who still does not believe that every army officer he worked with within the army was a racist; and Douglas Devanada, leader of a rival Tamil faction and a turncoat who
became a minister (the Tigers
tried to assassinate him unsuccessfully 11 times. At one
time, he ran down a street of Colombo in his underwear firing at his assassins).
In short, Subramanian unpacks not only the various shades of institutionalised majoritarian violence of Sinhalese arising out of partly real, but mostly imagined, fear and anxiety of being overwhelmed by the Akhanda Demala Rajya (greater Tamil nation), but also lays bare the darker sides of the Tigers? brutal and megalomaniac utopia of Tamil Eelam. With mordant wit, he narrates how religion and state conspired to convert humanistic Buddhism into a ?coiled and wary creature? of ?muscular and military triumphalism?, and how Sri Lanka?s president Mahinda Rajapaksa has been anointed as the second Mahinda for saving Buddhism by winning the war at the cost of the lives of 40,000 civilians (as per UN estimates). Though in a predictable way, but candidly, he also exposes how Prabhkaran acquired the ?habits of a comic book tyrant and had become the despot of a banana republic that did not yet exist?.
The chapters on ?the Terror? and ?the North? are quite illuminating in the way the violence of conflict ?ingested everything whole, religion, politics, history, geography? in Sri Lanka. The Tigers fought not only Sinhalese majoritarian oppression, but also ?shot rival militants, burned them alive? and ?took upon themselves to kill thieves, rapists, traitors and moonshiners? without any shade of judicial trial. The ?cradle snatching? of children by the Tigers is quite frightening and dehumanising. Passages on riots against Tamils and an eyewitness account by Ismail of the infamous mosque massacre of 103 Muslims by the Tigers in the summer of 1990 in Batticaloa are not only gut-wrenching, but also deeply troubling. However, Subramanian?s silence on India?s failed peacekeeping operation in Sri Lanka and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi?s tragic assassination is not only disappointing, but also intriguing.
As you reach the climax of this enervating thriller, you are not surprised by the disturbingly brutal moral and mortal flaws in the main protagonists of violence. In contrast, you are almost smothered by the intoxicating strange aroma of the sinister ways in which memories of war are being brewed in the famed Ceylonese tea gardens of Sri Lanka. The fugitive nature of war-brokered peace in This Divided Island in the concluding chapter, Endgames, comes across as a terrifying intimate lie?a lie to legitimise the violence of aesthetically-manufactured repression and denial of justice to the vanquished. In other words, social scientists may continue to be tempted to explain the origins and persistence of ethnic violence in Sri Lanka in terms of the failure of ?consociational democracy? or absence of durable civic engagements between warring ethnic groups, but the stories of civil war from This Divided Island seem to corroborate what Sigmund Freud referred to as a novel form of incestuous violence, a violence born out of intimacy between siblings that often results into catastrophic and cathartic experiences. This unusual insight into the much-feared tabooed interiors of humanness lends the book an aura of post-human consciousness.
Therefore, it was no surprise that I experienced, rather silently, an overwhelming fear of being hunted down by the surviving ghosts of war while I was enjoying a plate of idli at the roadside Madras Cafe in Colombo in the wet heat of July 2013. As I wearily limped back to the hotel Cinnamon Grand, I remembered what author Albert Camus meant when he said, ?what gives value to travel is fear?. And this fear is overcome only when we travel fearlessly without suicide bombers or praetorian guards in olive-green. In this paradox of fear lies the redemption of Sri Lanka. To conclude, there is a grave lesson here for India: riots can be brought under control, but violence never ceases.
Ashwani Kumar is the author of Community Warriors and professor and chairperson at Centre for Public Policy, Habitat and Human Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War