Tag Archive | Srilanka

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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Asura-Anand Neelakandan : 36/52

The other side of The Story

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I’m always on the Other Side. I’ve never liked that goody two wooden slippers Rama, selfish guy. This book is from Ravana’s side. No, he doesn’t come out as the hero here, not even the anti-hero. He is still the bad guy. But when the sole purpose of someone’s birth was to make someone a god, there’s no winning anything.

As Ravana lies on the battlefield, dying,  jackals feasting on his intestines, he narrates his version of the story. Shunned by his father, insulted by his half brother, with the responsibility of taking care of his mother and three siblings, he vows to restore the Asura supremacy. A meeting with Mahabali proves to be the turning point in his life and he declares himself king, gathers his army to overthrow his half brother Kubera and become the king of Lanka. Ravana comes out as a well meaning but extremely impulsive and immature person, extremely insecure. He makes a deal with a captured pirate instead of executing him and he rushes forward to reward a spy from the enemy side, not realising that such spies should be killed. He follows the rules and ethics of war and judges Rama for the way he killed Vali.  He is several shades of black and white.

In this book, Sita is his daughter, the one destined to bring about his downfall. His object of lust is Vedavati, the brahmin widow whose spirit enters the abandoned baby Sita. Slight Greek tragedy effect here. Mandodhari is the strong woman, educated, mature and independent. Soorpanaka is the silly, pampered younger sister who gets what she wants, be it marrying the revolutionary Vidyutjiva or the revenge she seeks for her nose that was cut off.

There is a  parallel narration by Bhadra, a low asura farmer who has lost everything to the Deva atrocities and swears revenge. I won’t call him the catalyst, but he is the enthu cutlet who is the reason behind everything. He poisons the army and wins Lanka for Ravana, he betrays the revolutionary leader Vidyutjiva, he abandons Sita instead of killing her and so he indirectly becomes the reason behind The End. He immigrates to Ayodhya and becomes that dhobi who plants the seed of suspicion in Rama’s mind.

This was a real story, everything magical and mythical was humanised and explained logically, be it the ten heads or the flying machine or the golden deer or Hanuman burning the city. There are terrible typos and grammatical errors , each mistake was like biting into a stone while enjoying biriyani. The book could have been crisper, there is a lot of rambling in both the narratives.

Makes me want Ravana to be reborn and win the story atleast once.

 

 

 

Reef – Romesh Gunesekera : 1/52

I started the book in 2013, but since I finished it in 2014, it counts. So here is Book One of Fifty Two.

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No plot, no twists, no turns.  Reading this book is like watching someone’s life lazily pass by.  A book filled with understated emotions and unsaid words that stay with you long after you finish it. You have small characters that come and go, like the neighbour who marinated her husband in chillies and  Joseph, the onion hating supervisor- servant. Then there is Mister Salgado’s assistant who ‘grows a beard’ and Dias, whom you could say is the the only other recurring character after Miss Nili.  And there’s  a lot of food.

Triton’s attraction towards Miss Nili just hangs there heavy, and you half wait for something to explode. Foreigners come and go, eat turkey and cake, and again, you wait for something to happen.  The political turmoil gets fleeting mentions and you again wait for something to shake up the idyllic little life in that house.  But though the political situation seems to be just a distant backdrop the strong undercurrent can be felt throughout the book. And in the end you realise that the war ( let me call it that) is the hero and the villian in the book.  It was the war  that made  Triton move into Mister Salgado’s house in the beginning and it is the same war that marks the end.

And in between, a lifetime passes by.

I’ll give Reef four stars.