A novel pieces together a Colombo family’s struggles to come to terms with the country’s violent past
THE BLOODY civil war in Sri Lanka was crushed by the country’s military and political leadership in 2009, ending nearly three decades of war that claimed tens of thousands of lives. The defeat of the Tamil Tigers, who fought for a separate state, brought peace to the island nation, but the consequences of the long war are still being debated in many forums at home and abroad. The war forced many Sri Lankans to leave their country, becoming refugees in Europe long before the continent was seized by the important issue following a civil war in Syria. The Syrian conflict is still raging, but Sri Lanka’s resolution of its own problems raises the question of how societies cope with the aftermath of their violent past.
Rajith Savanadasa, a Sri Lankan expatriate who lives in Melbourne, Australia, handles the question through five characters of a Colombo family in his first novel Ruins. The family is middle-class and Sinhalese—but not quite. Lakshmi Herath, the wife of newspaper editor Manoratne Herath, is a Tamil, who left her family and roots to become part of another culture. Manoratne himself is struggling to make as much sense of the tensions in his family, as of the restrictions placed on his work by an establishment eager to tie up the loose ends. Their young son, Niranjan, wants to look ahead, while Anoushka, the school-going daughter, is learning her first lesson in politics through punk music smuggled in through the radio and through a cousin in America. Meanwhile, their maid, Latha, is trying to define her allegiance to the family she lives with.
The novel is narrated through these five characters in the last days of the war and its immediate aftermath. Savanadasa introduces his protagonists in the backdrop of the daily chores of the maid, who is baffled by the differing personalities living under one roof. Latha’s radio blares both warnings of bombings by the Tigers on Colombo, as well as the music that initiates her into a different world. “It is about the politics as much as it is about the music,” says Anoushka’s American cousin Shani about the punk music she gifts her on an old iPod. Manoratne is busy making his editorial staff write about the details of war given by the army even as the UN issues warnings against human rights abuse.
When the war finally ends with the killing of Prabhakaran, the chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), it is like 1996 in Colombo when Sri Lanka won the World Cup in one-day cricket. “That mad man has been finished off, shot in the head. Same day as my son’s birthday,” brags Manoratne’s brother-in-law Sumith, while the newspaper headlines talk of liberation of the people of the north and east, the LTTE strongholds. But everything changes for the family when they take a road trip to Latha’s village. Her nephew, a soldier, is killed by a landmine. “It is the Tigers who lost,” says Manoratne to his daughter. “The war was against the terrorists, not Tamils.”
The author, who runs a website documenting the lives of asylum-seekers, measures the temperature of a nation struggling to comprehend a so-called victory through a family divided by their thinking and pursuits. Savanadasa keeps the tension alive till the very end, letting his characters redeem and redefine themselves by their actions rather than their words. Ruins shows how families fight their own wars within their homes, while the soldiers fire their weapons in the battlefield. The guns may have fallen silent, but the thinking grows aloud on the cost of victory. It is eventually left to people, not politicians, to find the answer.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer