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Published on: 07/31/15 3:29 PM

Book review: This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian

This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian.

I have to come at this from left field. Midway through the book, I shut it for a while and as I was doing so, my eye fell on the blurb at the back. `A hugely enjoyable book…` it said. Which stopped me in my tracks for a full moment before I realised the blurb was for Samanth Subramanian’s very entertaining first book Travels with Fish.

Becauseif there is one word that simply does not suit this book at all, it is `entertaining.` Compelling yes, entertaining no.

The divided isle which is the subject of study here is the teardrop-shaped one to India’s south, and the account is reflective, a sad and disquieting one.

Maintaining a fine balance between reportage and analysis, threading the narrative with a gentle line of sentiment, Subramanian picks up where Michael Ondaatje (Anil’s Ghost) and Nirupama Subramanian (Voices from a War Zone) left off, laying bare the stark certainty of the post-war, post-Tiger period in this small but intensely conflicted island.

`I arrived in Sri Lanka,` states Samanth Subramanian, `in the spirit of a forensics gumshoe visiting an arson site.` The gumshoe delivers a heartbreaking report.

The war stopped with the suddenness of breaking dawn in May 2009 but left behind a terrible kind of detritus. Left a people forever looking back, recalling a time when Jaffna taxis served as hearses, where the civilian-army ratio was 5:1, when danger lurked clear and present, in every corner. When men of the gun (on both sides) wept complicated tears. A time when perfectly respectable Tamils lived with small and big humiliations, absorbed these humiliations into their everyday life and tried not to care. A land where Muslims quickly became nobody’s people, not of the Tigers, not of the Sinhalese. A land where Singalese nationalism is a prominent banner that flies high.

All Sri Lanka was wary, writes Subramanian, a country perpetually steeling itself for bad news. He describes the north as a place where the sun and the sea seem to have carved everything up, leaving little that is forgiving or tender; the land in the south feels gentler in comparison, its lines softer and more voluptuous, its colours lush and warm.

Subramanian meets a cross-section of people who stay with the reader. There’s Sana who puts up exhibitions, memories of war, in a building destroyed by that very war. There’s retired Major Ravi, a Tamil who fought the Tigers and now, far away from his motherland, looks back with mixed emotions. There’s retired General Thurairaja, an army doctor who saw it all up close and personal. Very many of these were academics and professionals who lost everything in the war, to the war.

One of them is now a janitor in Staten Island, another learnt how to build temporary toilets during the times they were constantly on the move, shepherded by the Tigers. There’s Ananthy in Kilinochchi, fighting like a tigress to know the whereabouts of her Tiger husband, last seen in army custody. In Colombo, there’s Santhi doing the same, on a dogged quest to find her husband, a dissenting journalist. In Baddegama, the author meets a monk who is politically savvy; in Kandy, he meets another monk who is positively radical, advocating war and death.

Thus the reader gets to see what the author calls the `muscular nature of Sri Lanka’s Buddhism,` a coiled and wary creature, its reflex always to be aggressive in defence. If the history of the Tigers` struggle for Eelam was less a succession of political manouvres than a parade of slaughter, today, it is all about triumphalism.

The language is polished in the most infinite of ways so that sentences shine without standing out, sentences that enable the author to tell the story better. Sentences like:
The riots burned for a week.
The years between 1979 and 1982 were fissile times.
The war was the only game in town.
Many recruits were impressed into the Tigers.
There were short squalls of conversation.
His voice was so bass it bordered on the ursine.
Men on bicycles, pedalling so languorously that their wheels seemed to be rotating through molasses.
Jaffna is a small town made large by the war…it had not fallen into disrepair, it had been shoved hard into decay.
Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.

This then is the tragedy of Sri Lanka. The Tigers sang the siren song of the tyrant most effectively. The singer has been replaced but the song remains the same. It was about exclusionary racism. It is about exclusionary racism.

Related Links:

Book review: Upon a Sleepless Isle by Andrew Fidel Fernando

Book review: Elephant Complex by John Gimlette

Book review: Noon Tide Toll by Romesh Gunasekera

Book review: The Seasons of Trouble by Rohini Mohan


conflict storiesSamanth SubramanianSri LankaThis Divided Island

Sheila Kumar • July 31, 2015

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