BANGALORE: Quite a bit has been written about the Sri Lankan civil war. We have read long op-ed pieces, watched hour by hour updates of the war on television, even watched documentaries and movies about the same (though not all were allowed to be screened here). But how much do we really know about our neighbour, with whom we share so much, culturally and otherwise?
Samanth Subramanian's sophomore book, This Divided Island, goes deep into the heart of a country that's been ravaged by a war that lasted more than three decades. Part travelogue, part historical enquiry, This Divided Island seeks to understand the texture of a land that has very recently seen freedom from war. What makes this book a great read is Samanth's ability to turn journalism into literature and his ability to write with compassion and affection. In This Divided Island, you'll meet a whole lot of people, telling you their story, so you can put together for yourself what actually happened. You'll meet Buddhist extremists and moderates, Tamils who fought for the LTTE, Tamils who fought for the State (which came as a surprise), youngsters, children, widows, pimps, mercenaries, old men who have lost their homes and families, Muslims who watched their entire families being gunned down within a mosque for no apparent reason. It's when you hear their stories that you slowly develop this bad taste in the back of your mouth, the distaste for thoughtless war, in which the unassuming civilian loses everything for a fight that's not ultimately his.
City Express caught up with the journalist and author for a quick chat.
"I'd visited Sri Lanka three times before 2009. In 2010, I went for another short visit to begin work on the idea for the book. I spent 2010 and most of 2011 reading about Sri Lanka. In August 2011, I moved to Sri Lanka. I stayed there till May 2012. After that, I went back and forth between Delhi and Sri Lanka, spending two weeks out of every two months there. I did this until September-October 2012. Totally, I guess, I must have spent 10 to 11 months there," he says.
What drove him to write this book, we ask. "I don't think there was a moment or an event. The predominant thought was a very journalistic thought: the realisation that with the end of the war, large areas of the country were suddenly open again for reporters, and large numbers of people were able to speak with a freedom they hadn't had in many years. This was a good time to go listen to their stories I figured. I was curious to hear those stories - stories of people who had lived with and through a war that lasted the better part of three decades," he explains.
But how does one investigate a country, where does one start? "Living there is a start," he says. "I'm glad I made the decision to move, bag and baggage. I needed to feel like I had somehow integrated myself into the life of the country — however briefly. It enabled me to make friends, to go off on travels on a whim, to pursue lots of leads that turned out to be dead ends. I was lucky as I already had a few good friends there," he adds.
Samanth reveals that he didn't have a clear plan before he left for Sri Lanka. "I thought I wanted to write about the last couple of months of the war and the years that followed. This was the obvious book to write, given how current it was. But I found that the end of the war wasn't a watershed event per se. You couldn't delineate the country's history into war and post-war as neatly as that. To understand why the war ended the way it did and what the country had become, I needed to know what came before it. Which is why the book is a journalistic history of the war as well as a narrative of present-day Sri Lanka. The past illuminates the present and gives it context," he says.
Not taking sides also came naturally to the author surprisingly. "I am Tamil, but I haven't felt keen sympathy for the Tigers at all The Eelam cause is more understandable, but even there the history is complicated, and certainly when you start interrogating the sources of the conflict, you can spot blame on both sides. Above all, when you talk to the regular people of Sri Lanka — the civilians who suffered the most, lost the most — you quickly develop a disgust for the casual violence perpetrated by both sides, the Tigers as well as the state. I suppose that helped me, in a way, to refrain from taking sides," he notes.
Reading through This Divided Island and his first book, Following Fish, one of the first things that strikes the reader is the prominent presence of Samanth within the narrative. We see everything through his eyes and that's not a bad place to be, considering he has a keen nose for visual detail and his words paint a vivid picture. "It's a fine balance, really. In Following Fish, although I am prominently present as the narrator, I don't think the reader gets a very deep sense of who I am, what kind of person I am. Partly, that's a result of the tone of the book. The tone in This Divided Island is entirely different, and the material is different too. In a way, letting the reader deep into the narrator's mind is in itself a narrative technique — it helps to drive home the horror of this war. At the same time, the narrator can't be front and centre; he has to allow his subjects and their stories to speak most dominantly. So there's an optimum distance in such situations, and I had to figure that out through trial and error," he explains.
Is there another book on the way? "Not at the moment. I've spent the last six years working. I need a little break to think about what I'd like to write next, and where my interests will take me," he adds.