This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramanian, book review

What starts as a travel book about Sri Lanka turns into an entirely different and far more shocking story
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The Independent Culture

In May 1991, long before he wrote The Divided Island, Samanth Subramanian and his mother were travelling to Madras when their train suddenly came to a halt. His mother leaned out of a window and was told that Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated. Gandhi had sent peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka thereby angering the terrorist organisation, the Tamil Tigers. The suicide bomber who had just killed him was a Tamil woman.

Growing up in Tamil Nadu, Subramanian had always been aware of Sri Lanka "joined like a tugboat" to the huge ocean liner that was mainland India. And so in 2004 he began a series of visits to the island to see for himself what the country was really like. He arrived with few preconceptions, one being that Sri Lanka was shaped like a teardrop. It was not long, however, before this perception changed and the teardrop became a "hand grenade".

I began reading Subramanian's book cautiously. Half Tamil and half Singhalese myself, its gentle opening reminded me of the homeland I can no longer visit. The lyrical prose, the "green banana-tree groves", the suddenness of nightfall, "like a tent collapsing upon unsuspecting campers," was underpinned by a historical account of what happened when the British departed.

Subramanian writes cogently about Sri Lanka's passion to eradicate all traces of colonial rule. This passion would soon erupt into virulent nationalism in which English was replaced by Singhalese, the language of the majority. The minority Tamils spoke fluent English and the hatred against them became so intense that it would eventually drive the country into civil war.

At first, The Divided Island appears to be a well-researched travel book. But reading on I quickly noticed an entirely different narrative emerging. Far more shocking, this other story evolved through a series of vignettes strung together like a necklace of cyanide capsules. Nothing was as it seemed and the real Sri Lanka now began revealing itself through a series of brutalised gestures.

A stone quartet of lions with the inscription "Joyful is the birth of the Buddhas" provides a monument not to the Buddha but to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. At a garage in Jaffna we hear of the "sick cars", manufactured half a century ago. Like the Tamil people themselves, some will be removed to "the morgue". The silent mechanic while refusing to talk to Subramanian places flowers at the garage's shrine before beginning work each morning. In a silent internet café a man on Skype tenderly sings an old Tamil love song to someone far away. And on the edge of a quarry where, at the height of the war, dead bodies burn, a lone elephant watches as the fire consumes everything "except the distressed elephant" itself.

Then there is the artist Sana working in the University of Jaffna from which humanity has fled, emptied like a stopper "yanked out of a bathtub". Sana invites the locals to bring treasured objects to create an installation. One man brings the doll that belonged to his dead daughter and a fisherman, a bottle of water from a sea in which he is no longer allowed to fish.

When Subramanian describes a photograph that haunts him, I am almost undone. His photograph is that of a naked man being tortured in 1983. I too saw a lynching on a Colombo street. My memory dates back to 1958 when I was four-years-old. Subramanian is reminding me how far back this history goes.

Interestingly, Subramanian also tackles the difficult subject of the Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran and his slow transformation from child to terrorist with a messiah complex. On Prabhakaran's orders we learn how the Tigers attacked a mosque in an act reminiscent of the siege of Constantinople. We hear how one guerrilla forces a loaded gun into the mouth of a six-year-old, blowing his head off.

But we are also told how, when Prabhakaran himself is finally killed, his childhood friend "wept complicated tears" of both sorrow and anger. Here as elsewhere the author refuses to reduce facts to mere categories as he exposes the discontinuities in the island's stories.

When he visits a retired Tamil, a major who had once served in the Singhalese army, the contradictions surface again. The Major had fought against the Tigers, supporting the government loyally, believing that if you wanted something you negotiated instead of resorting to violence.

Accepting the "Singhala-only" rule he taught himself Singhalese by reading comic books, hoping this would provide a way to the promotion he wanted. But the Army refused because he was a Tamil. Confused and disillusioned he left the country. He tells Subramanian how he feels:

"Being a Tamil in the army… was like being a bat. Because the bat is a mammal, he goes and talks to the other mammals, and they say, 'No, no you're a bird. Get out of here.' Then he goes to the birds, and they say, 'No, no, you're a mammal, you don't lay eggs. Get out of here.'"

The Divided Island isn't just another book for those interested in Sri Lankan politics. Nor is it a travelogue. Beyond the book's deceptively simple prose there is a complex and traumatic story that resonates with other similar situations well beyond the boundaries of Sri Lanka. The misuse of power, the mis-interpretation of sacred texts for political purposes, the censorship and the murder of journalists and cartoonists all have their ugly equivalent in many other countries.

While the innocent citizens of Sri Lanka, murdered by other Sri Lankans, fleeing with their bundles on their backs, their crying children in their arms resemble so many of the world's refugees who walk the terrifying road between dictator and terrorist. In this extraordinary book, Subramanian exposes the fallibility of human beings, forcing us to see how superficial is the veneer of civilised life. The Divided Island is a book of our times, about us and about what we are capable of doing to each other.

Roma Tearne's sixth novel, 'The Last Pier', will be published by Hesperus in April