This Divided Island – Life, Death, and the Sri Lankan War

Samanth Subramanian’s book, This Divided Island, is a brave attempt at chronicling a savage period of Sri Lankan history. It is not a commentary about the war. It is a journalistic narrative of the author’s quest to record the events of the war.

Samanth, in recording the stories of the dead and survivors, stays at arm’s length from reading too much into the war or opining about the rights or wrongs of those involved.

To view the civil strife that ravaged Sri Lanka in the 20th century as having a single cause is dangerous.

Is this a usual purge, a violent rebalancing of a society that has been administered by a colonial power, with imported labor, distorting the ethnic mix of the local population? Does every newly liberated old-world civilization that has been hastily and prematurely evacuated by the colonizing rulers, have such a sacrificial bloodletting, like the gushing pus from a long-festering wound whose fraying skin has been kept in place by a quack’s gauze? Are the colonizers to be blamed?

Or, is this an inevitable liminal phase, a necessary exercise in nation-building, that many democratic republics, like France, England, America, and India, had to go through, a phase that we erase from public memory and history, because we fail to see these mass outbreaks of violence that immediately precedes or follows a newly formed sovereign for what they are, fearfully wishing away these barbaric upheavals because we cannot analyse a war without falling prey to its divisive nature once again?

Mature democracies are susceptible to these questions too, but rogue demagogues cannot overcome state apparatus to precipitate these differences into a full-blown war of national proportions.

There are the usual incendiary factors; colonialism, religion, language, fanaticism, human mania. If not one, then the other of any of these reasons could have likely been chosen by the power barterers, everybody posturing to fight for what was deemed their respective shares, each section goading the other, hoping to claim the biggest share of rights in a fairly new landscape, a new beginning with a power vacuum at the exit of the British, where rules and boundaries were/are being formed. In some form, it must surely have been politics then, as Carl von Clausewitz posited in his influential book On War, war being merely the continuation of politics by other means.

These are questions that Samanth wisely skips. Examining a war is like examining a cadaver of a victim of a horrific crime. Reading about war is akin to watching a recording of that examination.

Samanth downplays his Tamil side, preferring to emphasize his Indian citizenship, to bring about a sense of neutrality when field-researching the prachanai, as the Sri Lankan Tamils call it. He also scrupulously side steps India’s clumsy interference in this fray, another of the many brutal and pointless chapters in a war that had already exploded to manic rituals of killing. If it is true that Indian forces first trained and armed the rebel separatist movements, and then unsuccessfully tried to put them down when things got out of hand (an operation that cost Rajiv Gandhi his life), it was not a negligible role.

Such ommissions raise questions of completion, of whether anyone can ever fully trace the causes and events of the war within this book and in reality.

Even if he does not go into these details, Samanth seems to helplessly acknowledge these shortcomings, as he gets buried under the stories that his interviewees unburden on him. When I first started reading about the victims’ stories I felt sad, and then horrified, and as the stories start piling up, numb at the scale and brutality and senselessness of violence as the fog of war enshrouded every aspect of the lives of the Sri Lankans.

How many mangled bodies does it take to balance the scale for freedom?

In a majoritarian democracy, can an ethnic minority expect equal power sharing? Is Buddhism, the most followed religion immune to being corrupted by numerical power in a South Asian country? How right were the Sinhalese (who were the Buddhist population) in wanting positive discrimination for equal representation for themselves in their own country? As an Indian reader, how much can I read into, or trace the causes of how and why the Tamil minority ended up with a disproportionate amount of resources and government jobs at the time of Independence?

If Prabhakaran’s and Rajapaksa’s military denouement taught me anything, it is buried far too deep under the piles of innocent lives lost and the shattered shards of pain among the survivors for me to grasp.

Then there was Tamil. The faultline through which the lava of hate flowed, but which too neatly seem to overlap religious lines.

Tamil made the read chillingly personal.

Tamil is an interloper language in my family. In a truer sense, my family was the guest in Tamil lands. Soon, there will be no fragrance of Tamil, with Malayalam and Kannada reclaiming hereditary head positions, and English rooting itself through officialdom into my life.

Like snatches of invisible heady fragrance, carried around by wind currents around a jasmine vine, Tamil reminds me of its presence at unexpected times and in unfamiliar places. Whole civilizational familiarities and shared culture blossoms between strangers as the language flows, allowing itself to be phrased, used at will, to build relations and communicate, even if briefly, and when the conversation ends the language is preciously bottled up somewhere within native speakers.

Many times I come across native Tamils whose self-identification as a Tamil supersedes their love for the language or an appreciation of their cultural context.

Tamil’s mythical history, vast body of classical literature, rhetorical flourish, cultural depth, all make it a language ripe for extreme pride.

How far away from rebellion then can a population be, that sought refuge in their culture, language, and religion, in the face of systemic segregation by power hungry politicians? It is this inexorable chess game of narrowing gains, that clearly could lead to no other end, where the recognized state stifled political and structural freedom on one side and the Tamil Eelam movement’s hardline violence and desperation on the other side, herding the civil population into kill-pens, that makes this chapter of human history, one that happened so close home, sink in harder than I realized.

I feel like I have swallowed a war.

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