Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Civil War Tragedy

This Divided Island
Stories from the Sri Lankan War

By Samanth Subramanian

“In its most hackneyed perception, the island of Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop. But it also looks like the cross section of a hand grenade, with the tapering Jaffna peninsula, up north, forming the top of its safety clip.”

We know the history. A beautiful island in our neighbourhood, torn apart by civil war. Years of festering resentment against discriminatory policies lead the Tamils into a violent struggle for self-determination, for an Eelam, a promised land. Prabhakaran and his band of Tigers develop into one of the most feared revolutionary (or terrorist, depending on where your sympathies lie) organisations in the world, assassinating prime ministers,taking control of the north and east of the island, fighting a guerilla war with the Sri Lankan army for decades. Until the tide turns, with a newly elected President Rajapkse, who takes the war to Prabhakaran, in a ruthless exhibition of military might. The Tigers are decimated, Prabhakaran is killed and thousands of civilians are dead in a crossfire of tragic proportion.

That is what we know. What Samanth Subramanian does is take us to the ground level actors in the conflict. The Tamil ex-military doctor in Colombo who still finds it difficult to acknowledge the role of the military in the decimation of his fellow Tamils in the end game of the war. There are the Jaffna-ites - Sundaram, the mechanic who ran a garage at the height of the blockade, converting petrol-run cars into kerosene-run ones because there was no petrol; M, the newspaper columnist, ex-Tiger and possibly part of their propaganda unit, still a Tamil nationalist, and only willing to talk incognito, who tells Samanth of the last days of Prabhakaran, when he watched the Hollywood movie 300 in a loop, willing himself and his troops to stage an endgame like the Spartans. The ones in exile - the ex-military Tamil in Canada, talking about what it was to be a Tamil in the Sri Lankan army, and what drove him out; Raghavan, the ex-Tiger, close friend of Prabhakaran, who bailed out when he realized he couldn’t reconcile himself to the violence of the Tigers; Nirmala his wife, married to a Tiger and whose sister was killed by the Tigers; Adityan, doing boring data-entry work in London, and nostalgic for the days when the Tigers administered Jaffna. Samanth meets some of the victors - right wing Buddhist monks preaching violence, completely comfortable with the contradiction it presents with their faith; also Buddhist monks who don’t agree with the current regime, yet unable to do much about it. He meets Tamil Muslims, not willing to take sides in the war and punished for their non-alignment from both sides. He meets Ismail, who describes surviving the massacre of a hundred Muslims in 2 mosques in Batticaloa by the Tigers. It is a description that is wrenching; and all Samanth can give him in return for his story is the promise that his story will be told. It is one of the most hard-hitting moments in the book.

Samanth meets Tamils in Sri Lanka who hate the Tigers, for forcing children to take up arms, for their cruelty to their fellow Tamils, for their inhumanity in the name of their cause. Ultimately, it is this hatred that leads to Prabhakaran’s downfall. “This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf. Once this war was lost, once this earth was scorched, it could have been only a question of time before the Tigers lost the other war too”

The end game description provides some real kick-in-the-solar plexus kind of moments. When he describes first hand accounts of the Mullivaikal siege, where thousands of civilians are trapped between the army and the Tigers, when the Tigers drag every young person out to join them in a desperate attempt to prolong their fight and when the Sri Lankan army refuses to let any kind of aid through for fear of the Tigers confiscating them for their use. Samanth listens to dozens of these stories, each more horrifying than the other. And you are left wondering if there is anything man is incapable of doing to fellow men.

There is no redemption even at the end, in Samanth’s eyes. The Tigers are subdued. But their cause is relevant more than ever, as Rajapakse’s government goes into totalitarian mode, wiping out any trace of dissent, even among their own. The Sri Lanka after the war is a bleak world, with little grace on the victors’ side and little fight left in the vanquished. There is no reconciliation, South Africa-style. And that ultimately is the true tragedy.

As an Indian though, you notice the one thing that is completely absent - the influence of Sri Lanka’s neighbour in the conflict. No one talks of the tacit support of Indian Tamils, there is no description of or anecdotes about the IPKF foray, nothing about the big assassinations. It is a gap that is quite inexplicable.

This book is a journalistic narrative of a conflict but it is also a travelogue. The names in newspaper headlines come alive - Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Batticaloa, Mullivaikal. The beauty of the land is offset by the horror of the war that engulfs it. A Divided Island is a deeply disturbing book. But one that needed to be written.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


The Bell Jar
By Sylvia Plath

I read this first when I was a completely happy-go-lucky teenager. When my heroes were Rhett Butler and Howard Roark. When I took feminism for granted, when there were no niggling doubts in my head about career or marriage or the future. So of course, I couldn’t quite get my head around The Bell Jar. Esther was a strange heroine, much too melancholic, not liking anyone much, not particularly likeable either. She was the demographic I wanted to be - the independent working girl in the big, bad city. But she showed me a side to this that I just wasn’t prepared to see. So I gave up on the book.

Decades later, I re-visit this. And understand why it resonated so much with so many. Esther is so tangible you can almost reach out and touch her. Her sense of being alone in the midst of the whirlwind that is New York, of the futility of living a life that must ultimately lead to death, of wanting to end the whole rigmarole once and for all… all this delineated so painstakingly, it leaves a mark.

Reading it, you know it is real. Because you know Plath and her history. And the realness of it makes it horrific. Especially since you know that at various points in time, you have had similar thoughts, with varying degrees of intensity. “I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was like sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspectives of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue. It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next. It made me tired just to think of it. I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.”

Growing up is stressful. There are careers to be chosen and husbands to be obtained, decisions to be made and disappointments to be experienced. Esther blanks them out, goes into the shell of the bell jar and when that happens in the fifties, you are taken to doctors who are unsympathetic, put through treatments like painful electric shocks and locked up in institutions where there is little recourse. It is a bit of a scary world and as a reader you experience the horror with Esther, not being able to take your eyes off the descent into madness.

But there is redemption in the form of Dr. Nolan who seems to get Esther in a way she hasn’t been before. And by the end of the book Esther is seeing glimpses of hope in a world gone blank and dark. She is once again looking to live. “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” She is returned, bruised and a bit broken, but whole again. “There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice - patched, retreaded and approved for the road.”

Of course, we know of Plath and of the briefness of the redemption. The Bell Jar was published after she killed herself at the age of 31. We know of the sometimes-beautiful poetry she wrote and the hagiography her death engendered, the feminist interpretations of her works and the almost larger-than-life figure she became after her death. And given all that hype that surrounds her, The Bell Jar is surprisingly a quiet little book, an intimate portrait of a young girl’s descent into a personal hell and her subsequent climb out of it. It reminds you of how little it takes to turn that ennui you feel, like Emily Dickinson, when you see that certain slant of light, into an illness you can possibly never recover from. You read The Bell Jar and realize how lucky you are.