This article appeared in Ceylon Today on 10 March 2016
Last week, I reviewed Sri Lanka – the New Country by Padma Rao Sundarji. This week I am taking a look at This Divided Island –Stories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramaniam.You can guess at the difference between the two books just by looking at the titles. Rao is positive; Subramaniam is negative. Rao concentrates on the present and sees hope for the future; Subramaniam focuses on the past and sees dark clouds ahead; Rao wishes for peace; Subramaniam admits nostalgia for a war he did not suffer.
The top army man in the north, Major General Hathurasinghe, appears in both Padma Rao’s book and in Subramaniam’s. A Tamil woman tells Ms Rao that Hathurasinghe heard that her baby needed urgent heart surgery and came with a doctor who took the mother and baby to Colombo by plane. The baby was operated on and has been fine since. “Even today, the officers come frequently just to see how she is faring.” In Subramaniam’s book we see a different Hathurasinghe. He threatens to shoot the children (or so the author is told – he does not ask Hathurasinghe) of a woman who is asking questions about the whereabouts of her husband, Elilan, one of the top Tigers.
Subramaniam’s book received good reviews from distinguished writers –Amit Chaudhuri called it “excellent”; William Dalrymple called it “brilliant” –“a remarkable book by one of India’s most talented young writers of non-fiction”; and Kenan Malik called it “superb”. I am afraid that for a foreigner, like myself, who has lived in Sri Lanka for 14 years, yet another book about Sri Lanka by an outsider with no specialist knowledge has to work hard to justify its existence. I seem to have been reading a different book to the one reviewed by Dalrymple who believes that Subramaniam shows himself “capable of journalistic persistence and occasional moments of real bravery”.
I really do not see where “the real bravery” comes in, although the author tries his best to talk up the dangers. The war ended in May 2009 but Subramaniam did not make his first visit Sri Lanka to research this book to until 2011 (ten years later than me) although he had been for a week’s holiday in 2004. As far as I can tell from a careful reading of the book, he did not witness a single act of violence and was never in any danger. The tone irritated me right from page one when he makes a huge drama out of setting off from Colombo for the hill country at 5 a.m. “The streets glowed of sodium-lit emptiness, and Uncle W’s hatchback skimmed eastwards in silence”.
There is a ludicrous episode where he persuades someone to take him on a motor-cycle to an army base in the north. His companion advises him not to look directly at the camp lest they both be arrested. They do not attempt to take any photos. None of the soldiers takes a blind bit of notice of them. Our brave reporters get bored and ride off.
Early in the book, a snarky tone is set when he describes a meeting arranged by police to deal with the Grease Yakas phenomenon. Subramaniam writes: “Sri Lankans still felt tense, and the peace was already curdling into something sour and unhealthy. Old fears continued to throb; old ghosts transmuted into new ones”. I wonder why the author felt the need to superciliously mock the authorities for doing their best at a difficult time. There was real danger of vigilante action because of the panic. I wonder what the author means by, “before slipping into a little abstract music about communities living happily together”. Throughout the book the author makes it clear that the concept of communities living happily together bores him. War and violence is what he wants to write about. Early in the book he admits: ‘there is now no other Sri Lanka for me but the Sri Lanka of its war.”
Subramaniam gives a reasonably good account of the Tigers’ crimes as well as the army’s, although Sri Lankan readers might raise an eyebrow when he writes of the “manner in which the army had finished the war, rampaging through Tigers and Tamil civilians without distinction”. He covers the massacre at Kattankudy and the expulsion of Muslims from the north. He provides a vivid description of Black July and of the lesser grievances which preceded that horror. He deals with more recent events such the BBS persecution of Muslims. He talks to someone who was abducted in a white van and tortured.
However, he adds no new value (apart from florid prose) to old information that he has gleaned from his reading and interviewing. There are many long passages which consist only of reports of conversations he has had with people who, to my mind add nothing to what is already known, and may be unreliable narrators. The author, bizarrely, vicariously shares his interviewee Raghavan’s nostalgia for the good old days of the LTTE: “suddenly I could see it too: the glamour of the ideological life lived just outside the law, the impossible romance of a fraternity of young men out to change their world”. Just outside the law? The “impossible romance” of butchering babies in the dark?
An Indian reviewer, Mekund Belliappa, wrote, “the use of the word ‘war’ in the subtitle is misleading (or a marketing gimmick.)…There are no ‘war stories’ in This Divided Island: the author witnesses not a single violent act.” Subramaniam writes: ”Sri Lanka was a country pretending that it had been suddenly scrubbed clean of violence. But it wasn’t, of course. By some fundamental law governing the conservation of violence, it was now erupting outside the battlefield, in strange and unpredictable ways. It reminded me of a case of pox, the toxins coursing below the skin, pushing up boils and pustules that begged to be fingered and picked apart”.
“Within our tight circle, the conversation pulsed with nervousness and fear. Above Sri Lanka, the skies brooded and faded to black”. Throughout the book, the author employs this technique of taking a normal peaceful scene and bigging it up with melodramatic vapourings. Is this the genre known as “creative non-fiction”? Kenan Malik did the same thing after visiting Sri Lanka for a few days. He had the gift of ESP in the north: “the ghosts of conflict still haunt Jaffna”. Subramaniam was similarly gifted. He writes of “inchoate dangers,” the “rank odour of menace” and many “sullen” faces. Even when he is comfortably ensconced in Colombo he “would get a glimpse of the hidden warts and scars, the anxieties and tensions.”
Subramaniam claims to be looking at Sri Lanka as a “forensic gumshoe visiting an arson site, to examine the ashes and guess how the fire caught and spread so catastrophically.” The way he finishes that paragraph gives me a queasy feeling: “but also to see if any embers remained to ignite the blaze all over again”. One cannot help but suspect that it would give him a vicarious thrill if the conflagration were to resume.
Sri Lanka – This Divided Island by Samanth Subramaniam was published by Atlantic Books in February 2015. It is available on Kindle.