Book review: This Divided Island - stories of Sri Lanka's war

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:52pm


In Samanth Subramanian's excellent account of the civil war and its aftermath in Sri Lanka, history encompasses the people who lived through that "tragic time", and the land's sole function is to serve as that history's paradigm. There's no getting away, whether you find yourself in Canada or in a time of peace.

Subramanian is an Indian of Tamil ethnicity. Today's regrettable recuperation of caste origins in India in the name of genealogy would remind us that he's a Tamil Brahmin or, in the kitsch-sentimental language of the new Indian elite, which both fetishises and constantly invents pedigree, a "Tam-Brahm".

The Tam-Brahm, progeny of a priestly class, is putatively a secular whizz-kid and achiever, although the upper-caste inflection is never entirely renounced. And, indeed, Tamils have shone in modern India: to take just one instance, India's remarkable space programme is powered by Tamil scientists.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamils did well, too - through a quirk of colonial policy, says Subramanian, which gave them unfair access to higher education and key institutional positions.

So, as is the case with ethnic minorities in other parts of the world, they constituted that unfortunate group that once benefited from the imperial practice of divide and rule.

Still, how much of the rise of the Tamils might be attributed to colonial history and how much to their response to modernity isn't clear.

Subramanian doesn't tell us very much about the caste histories of Sri Lanka's Tamils. What's clear from his book is how much they were resented by the majority Sinhalese for their privileges. By the 1970s, they were being seen as outsiders by a majoritarian Sinhalese nationalism, though Subramanian points out that a foundational Sinhalese Buddhist text, the Mahavamsa, makes it clear that the Tamils had been in Sri Lanka for a couple of millennia.

As with German Jews five decades before (and with those in Malaysia today who aren't bumiputras - literally, "sons of the soil"), the educational and political rights of Tamils began, one by one, to be curtailed.

These developments engendered the utopian vision of the founder-leader of the Tamil Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran - that the north of Sri Lanka be declared a separate homeland. Prabhakaran was convinced there was no way the Tamils could achieve that utopia without waging war.

From 2011, Subramanian spent time in the locations in which the traumatic events gathered momentum; he effaced himself and patiently pursued the participants with questions.

He even went to Canada, and interviewed those who were quietly resettled, including a fascinating and implausible subset of Tamils who were officers in the Sri Lankan army. He suffered in the Sri Lankan heat, which appeared to both slow him down and allow him to grasp, as a narrator, the lack of fixity in the dichotomous narrative - about the Sinhalese and the Tamils - he was aiming to tell us.

Midway through the book, he fell ill; recovering, he read, with that special blurry focus that comes from being out of sorts, the Mahavamsa, in which he discovered the mythic and minatory figure of Dutugemunu, a precursor to present-day Sinhalese cruelty.

By now, the book's reportorial tone has given way to a subterranean reality especially characteristic of South Asian epics: that there are no firm moral positions in a war between relatives.

If the Sinhalese army was savagely punitive, so was Prabhakaran (who believed in unquestioning fealty) towards his own.

This, suggests Subramanian, was essentially how he lost the war, despite having, at one point, almost absolute control over the north: because his pathological distrust of internal opposition, policy of forced conscriptions and fundamental intolerance of democracy alienated his constituency.

Nothing remains of Prabhakaran's house now except "the absence of a house" where "a cat and a chicken were fighting at the back of a plot".

The crushing of the Tigers and the Tamils is captured by Subramanian with exemplary concision; he himself seems unprepared for the impact the survivors' stories have had on him: "They would lose their potency … I had thought at first … But here they were … Time had clarified memory, instead of muddying it."

These closing chapters are not so much testimonials as a distillation of what it means to be defeated.

The book leaves us with a tantalising sense of the ambiguity of peace and victory: of the new and incongruous conservatism of Sinhalese Buddhism. Subramanian withholds judgment, but the precision of the final descriptions is searing.

This Divided Island: Stories From the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramanian (Atlantic Books)

The Guardian