Sep 24, 2014

This Divided Island [Book Review]

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There is a line in This Divided Island that reads ‘In the new Sri Lanka, demolition was a vital tool of nation-building.’ The author Samanth Subramanian could not have summarized the country and his experiences in the country better.

I was in Sri Lanka in 2013 during the Christmas and New Year time. While I had a whale of a time relishing the way the monuments in Sigiriya and Kandy were protected, I really had an urge to see how the war-striven areas were doing. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance back then since I decided to stay back in Colombo and interact with the locals there to get a perspective of their life there. This book by Samanth Subramanian definitely helped fill the void that I had carried with me following the trip.

The division of the book into its four parts, called The Terror, The North, The Faith and Endgames, is a masterstroke in itself and one can witness the amount of research (and interviewing) that has gone into the writing of the book to ensure that it is a coherent read. What makes this book fascinating is the fact that Samanth has numerous first-hand accounts of the pre-war life (assuming there is something like that), the duration of the ‘prachanai’ (the problems/troubles), and the post-war ‘recuperation’. It is difficult to draw strict lines differentiating these three parts, considering one has a long lasting influence on the other, but Samanth ensures that there is good emphasis on the lives of each of the people featured in the book.

Be it Raghavan (a close aide of Prabhakaran) who was based out of London after a brief stint in the Tigers’ camp, or the fitness conscious doctor Thurairaja, or the Canada settled Ravi, who feature in the Terror part of the book, the perspective of the minds that operated for the Tamils was indeed fascinating to get into.

The North, which is perhaps the most engaging and also the important part of the book, features people working on automobile repairs, a very mysterious yet outgoing character M (one whose identity is cleverly hidden), and the Muslim community. The Muslim community are sort of neither favored by the Sinhalese nor the Tamil, but face damaging consequences in the conflict. This reminds me of the Parsi community that faced similar troubles during the India-Pakistan partition.

The Faith part could very well be the Sri Lankan counterpart of the William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives. Be it the Buddhist Monks who take up violence and turn against the Tamils, or the monks that get involved in politics, or the history of the Buddhist influence in Sri Lanka’s growth, this part gets into something that many authors may shy away from. The fact that the current president Mahinda Rajapakse is perhaps be placed on the same pedestal or even higher than that of the historical king Dutugemunu in Sri Lanka owing to his ‘illustrious’ victory and wiping out the ‘demelas’ is interesting.

The most moving part of the book for me was the one called the Endgames, which featured instances of the Tamil families who had at least one family member missing post the conflict. The missing here corresponds to them being ‘made to disappear’ by the army. The stories of the frequent relocation of the families, thanks to the war and its aftermath, is indeed heart-wrenching. In addition, this part presents a variety of discomforting truths including how the families had their kids recruited into the Tiger army and how there is no ‘youth’ in the current generation of the Tamil population. No one type of family is spared. Not a journalist. Nor a tea shop owner. The hope with which a lot of these families await the return of their (possibly dead) loved ones is beautifully presented.

To summarize, this book is a book about Sri Lankan people: people affected by the war; people who took part in the war; people who believed the Sinhala Buddhists were the only real Sri Lankans; people who just followed the Tiger leader blindly or otherwise, despite knowing that they were on the losing side; people who are leaders and refuse to acknowledge their inebriated state being drunk with power.

This Divided Island is completely worth undivided attention!

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