This Divided Island- Samanth Subramaniam : 55/52

Is It really over?

There are some types of hate that I totally don’t get.

‘If we even step into the country they will kill us’, said the janitor in my Oslo office in that amusing singsong Srilankan Tamil accent. This was in 2008, before the war ‘ended’. Who is They, I wondered.  Are They tracking the movements of this nondescript man standing in front of me with the mop in his hand? How could They hate him so much? I didn’t get it.  He told me about his  annual trip to meet his parents the next month. They would fly in to Chennai from Srilanka and he would fly into Chennai from Oslo. They would meet for a fortnight in a hotel in Vadapalani, laugh , cry, pray, enjoy togetherness as long as they could. Then they would bid goodbyes with  the hope that they would meet again the next year; sametime sameplace, godwilling. And they would go back home. The parents, back to their home in some war torn town near the equator, and he, back to his destined life closer to the north pole.

In another country, a few months before it all got over, a gentleman was just leaving a friend’s house as I entered. ‘He’s a puli. He rushing to meet someone with some money’, my friend whispered to me. Maybe my friend was exaggerating and the man was just a sympathiser, a refugee, but a shiver ran down my spine.

I read Reef this year, it had some mild mentions about the War. And I read Blue before that, it had nothing about the War.  That’s all I knew about Srilanka till a week ago. I blindly supported The Cause, outraged over Rajapakshe’s visits, made the obligatory noises over that John Abraham movie and such things because I felt that it was the thing to do. But now I know.

The Terror travels from Colombo to Canada to London with Tigers, ex Tigers, disillusioned Tigers, resigned-to-fate Tigers and non-Tigers telling their tales. Scattered across the world, they still yearn for the life they dreamed of, the life they left behind.  And then the book moves to The North, the defeated country. Jaffna, a town stuck in an automobile timewarp, haunted by the ghosts from the Terror. Nameboards scrubbed clean of Tamil. Kandarodai is now Kandurugoda, Hindu temples are overshadowed by Buddhist viharayas and Mahinda Rajapakshe’s creepy smile overshadows The Buddha. A mosque that refuses to erase the bullet holes from a Tiger attack, a mosque inscribed with the names of 103 victims of a Tiger attack. A tale of an eight year old boy shot in the mouth by a Tiger.

The Faith broke my faith in Buddhism. I thought Buddhism was a religion of peace. But turns out that it is much like the other Religion of Peace: violent and fanatic. It also takes on the shades of that ideology from Germany when the Sinhalese talk about Aryan supremacy. The Sinhalese are apparently the Aryans who came with Buddhism from North India and the Tamils are the ugly dirty Dravidians who deserve to be wiped out. And it also reveals shades of the current trend of hatred that is taking over India these days with  monks dressed in various  hues of saffron invoking kings and events from two millenia ago to justify the ethnic cleansing today.

The book ends with the Endgames, where the futility of it all hits you. Villages full of families clinging on to the hope that their loved ones snatched away by the Tigers are still alive somewhere. Wives refusing to let go of their missing husbands, either running from NGO pillar to post for answers or challenging the gods by flaunting the symbols of their marriage with the hope that their dead husbands will return. On one hand, you seethe with anger at the Tigers for grabbing unwilling men and women, boys and girls to fight the War, but on the other hand you also wonder at the selfishness of families refusing to participate in the war , a war that is theirs as much as it was Prabhakaran’s.

I was a Tiger sympathiser until I read this book. But I still don’t hate them as much as I feel sorry for them. Like all Causes, this one also started off on the right track, for the right reasons. And went horribly, horribly wrong  somewhere. A war is not lost when the last bullet hits your leader, it is lost when disillusionment sets in. And that, it seems, happened long before 19th May 2009. In every line of the book there was the undercurrent of the frustration and the helplessness of the cornered Tigers, the frustration that made them lose their minds long before they lost the war.

Samanth Subramaniam writes so beautifully. Like  tiny flowers blooming on a battlefield, his metaphors brighten up the depressing storyline. He has traveled the length and breadth of The Divided Island on rickety buses, autorickshaws, motorcycles and on foot to speak to the people whose voices need to be heard; voices of  anger, frustration, sadness. Voices of hope and hopelessness.  He treads carefully throughout the book, telling the tale without revealing his sources, most of them initials and pseudonyms. Because, though it is 2014, They might still get to them. He doesn’t take sides in this book, but at the end, the reader will. And that side will be the side of the civilians. The ones who didn’t have a choice.

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10 thoughts on “This Divided Island- Samanth Subramaniam : 55/52

  1. I realize that I have nothing to say. Everything seems futile. In the face of emotion rational thought just disappears.
    PS: Well written.

    • No. You have to say something. You’re not allowed to not say anything. What do you mean by ‘rational thought just disappears’? Who is being irrational here? Me? Emotional, yes. But irrational?

      • I am not able to say anything, because giving an opinion means taking sides. I abhor taking sides, particularly when it is not clear who is right and who is wrong. I feel comfortable when things are clear, where I know who the bad guy is. Here everyone seems bad, on one occasion or the other. I am not able to give an honest opinion (like what you have done). If the Sri Lankan issue is discussed, I would probably change my stance depending on the group in which I am discussing it.

        Another thing – I so want the Tamils (Tigers?) to be in the right, so that I can righteously say that they were wronged. How do I take a stand where the people I want to support have assassinated a national leader of my country? It may seem strange, but I am able to take a stand in the Kashmir issue, because I am not involved. And here in this case, I support the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination! Then how about the Kashmiri pandits? Of course, they should have a right to say what they want, and be able to go back to their land.

        Is patriotism even a desirable thing? Isn’t it plain jingoism? If I can justify patriotism, then, in principle, I justify every kind of parochial groups and their right right to their ideology. BTW, do I even have the right to talk against patriotism, sitting comfortably in my office / home, when there are thousands of soldiers, risking their lives, to safeguard my comforts?

        Sometimes I just want to run away, where I don’t need to face these dilemmas, answer these questions. I only don’t know where.

  2. I can only say ditto. But this book has drawn a clear line between Tamils and Tigers. So I know whom to support now.
    And yes, patriotism has become jingoism these days. It doesn’t give me goosebumps anymore. Our Moon has Blood Clots is on my list next. I’ll be reading it sometime soon. Maybe I’ll change my views on Kashmir after that.
    Oh well. Armchair patriotism, armchair outrage, armchair empathy. That’s what we are all about now.

  3. Since you mentioned “Our moon has Blood Clots”, pair it with “Curfewed Night” – both are accounts of members of the native inhabitants of Kashmir, but different in just religion.

    Some Kashmiri facts:
    The Kashmiri Pandit and Muslim share the same language, culture, race/ethnicity, everything, except religion. The Kashmiri Muslim has more in common with the Kashmiri Pandit than with the Pakistani Muslim. In fact the only common thing between the Kashmiri Muslim and a Pakistani Muslim would be religion.

    Similarly there is no commonality between the Jammu Hindu and the Kashmiri Pandit, except for religion. The Jammu Hindu probably shares more cultural similarity with a Punjabi muslim than with the Kashmiri Pandit.

    Opinion:
    Given a referendum the Kashmiri people might vote for a separate nation, but would most certainly not vote to join Pakistan. Their order of preference would be Own country > Be with India > Go with Pakistan.

    • I’m afraid to give my opinion on the Kashmir issue because I might get into trouble for sedition ( Arundhati Roy did). I still don’t understand the KP issue fully, thanks for giving this overview. Too much being said on social media these days, so I need to read something myself to form my own opinion.
      And Curfewed Night has been lying in my Flipkart wishlist for a long time. Time to click on Buy?

      • I’m afraid to give my opinion on the Kashmir issue because I might get into trouble for sedition ( Arundhati Roy did).

        If you take her stand.

        Too much being said on social media these days, so I need to read something myself to form my own opinion.

        I haven’t read either, except for excerpts from each. I would say that both accounts would be true, from their respective perspectives. Give them a try.

        The best way to form an opinion – live there for 6 months, or atleast make a visit to both, Srinagar and Jammu.

  4. Pingback: The Rape of Nanking- Iris Chang: 57/52 | The Book Story

  5. Pingback: Our Moon has Blood Clots- Rahul Pandita: 58/52 | The Book Story

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