Lines drawn in sand

A review of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island. 


Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island is not a travelogue or a memoir. Nor is it a political thriller, a singular piece of academic oral history, or a journalistic account of someone covering a war. It is all of the above and more. To categorise this book within a single genre would be undermining its narrative and topic. It touches multiple premises within the history, politics, religion and society of a war torn Sri Lanka and unravels the minds and psychology of people affected in the most brutal of ways, by each of the above.

Subramanian delves into the history of Sri Lanka after its independence in 1948, and how the demands of Sinhalese nationalists found voice. The “real commencement of hostilities” in Sri Lanka began in 1975 when Velupillai Prabhakaran assassinated the mayor of Jaffna, and in 1976 created the Tigers. The civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese dominated government began in 1983, only to find an end with Prabhakaran’s death in 2009. Describing the Sinhalese–Tamil divide, and the ‘muscular’ nature of Sinhalese Buddhism (“a coiled and wary creature, its reflex always to be aggressive in defence”) the author sets pace for the rest of the book. He touches on the political violence that gnaws at the nation as a result of the Civil War and Black Friday riots, and describes how historically, the “schisms between the country’s various ethnicities started to dilate – coaxed by the British” and how “Novel ways were discovered to emphasise differences – communal representation in electoral bodies, for instance – and even to define identity, to dice finer and finer the peoples contained within this small island”.

The war and its chronology emerge gently through the book. Never explicit but often meandering in and out of the stories of the people, are the bits of information and facts about Sri Lanka’s political history. The Tamil existentialism in Sri Lanka, the state’s reaction and nationalism, the significance of the Mahavamsa and the legand of Dutugemunu ­(its history and influence on Sinhalese Buddhists and their juxtaposition of Rajapaksa with Dutugemunu), Prabhakaran’s life and its impact on the Tigers, Rajapaksa’s version of nationalism and its political appeal, the significance of temples, monasteries and mosques… each is dissected among others topics. Sri Lanka’s idiosyncrasies often emerge to explain its character. The cars of Jaffna represent its history and inability to move forward. Restaurants serve beer named ‘Lion’ and ‘Tiger’. Feral stray dogs often follow a sprinting Subramanian in the lanes of Jaffna, where one night, his nerves fail him and he decides to take a lift from a stranger rather than dare to run. That aside, the security forces assidiously track journalists, including the author.

Subramanian’s explication of Sri Lankan politics is conversational but at no point superfluous. The violence and brutalities committed by the Tigers, the subsequent and equally brutal handling by the Army and the long-term ramifications of the violence on both the sides are delved into through experiences narrated by people. Subramanian’s talent as a writer emerges through two main points in the book. First, his ability to explore the multiple players on either side of the war­ – The Sinhalese, the Army, the Tamils, the Buddhists, the Muslims– and represent their schisms and simultaneous stories without extreme value judgments. And the second, his portrayal of these innumerable people, who emerge as unforgettable characters within the confines of their narrative, each as strong as the subject the book deals with.

Each person’s experience of the war is distinct. Ravi, a former Sri Lankan Tamil army officer in Canada, whose identity (as a Tamil), and exile constrast his profession and what it had entailed him to do. Ravi’s story of alienation from the army and his own community is representative of the schizophrenic nature of ethnicity and identity in war torn Sri Lanka. Raghavan and Nirmala in London narrate their perspectives from the Tiger’s side and eventually as individuals disillusioned by the armed struggle and cause. A chapter rummages specifically into the Muslims of Jaffna – the spectators and not participants in the struggle – and how within a span of a few hours in 1990, “the tigers emptied Jaffna of its 24,000 Muslims…” A nationalist Sobitha (to whom the faith needs to be defended even at the cost of human lives) claims the Sinhalese Buddhists as Sri Lanka’s most “patriotic citizens because they constituted 99 percent– his statistic­– of the armed forces that had fought the Tigers.” A determined Ananthi zealously hunts for her husband, in the debris of knowing that he will never return after the Army takes him. In Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka, Sandhya desperately searches for traces of her anti-government journalist husband who disappeared one night, while others in the landscape paint hazy dreams of a future struggle. In a country divided between majoritarianism, ruthless bigotry, savage revolutionaries, and fundamentalists of ideology, religion and causes, the violence and its consequences are brutal and condemned. However, who is right and who is wrong is never defined.

The book is divided into four parts– The Terror, The North, The Faith and Endgames, each of which explore multiple fragments of the divided island. However perceiving the book through structures and themes would be unfair to a beautifully understated and sinuous narrative. Subramanian explores complexities that define Sri Lanka’s history and politics and how religion and identity slither into every aspect of a long drawn war, influencing and augmenting it over decades. The book’s strength lies in the amount of information and emotion it conveys without being overwhelming. There is an unspoken resignation of representing the sordidness of life as it is and an underlying frustration at the inability to understand the madness and brutality of the war and its scars on a country. The poignant endings of each chapter strike a fine balance as a sighing closure to the heaviness of the subjects they initially delve into. The author’s empathetic voice is present in every page, but rarely is it judgmental or melodramatic.

 There is no great revelation in this book. There is no seething beginning or a grandiose end. Those looking for a cut and straight one sided opinion, or deep geopolitical insights about the Sri Lanka problem will be disappointed with this book. Instead This Divided Island is a peep into a slice of a nation’s history through its people and an introspection on a miserable age in time. As the author says early on in the book “We all now live in societies injured to violence, but the violence of a full fledged war is unique in its refusal to hide, in how openly it declares its intent to harm other men and women. I wondered how a country transformed when such violence started to feel routine instead of rare– or even whether it could ever feel routine­– and how people tried to reclaim and lead an ordinary life out of all this extraordinariness.” This book is an extraordinary exploration into a life that has become ordinary for Sri Lankans. Divided by each other on the basis of multiple blurry lines, the one thing binding the Sri Lankans through all of this is their individual ideological underpinnings, shared experiences of tragedy and loss, displacement and alienation, and the unfinished endings for each, even after the end of the war. This Divided Island is an intricate and intense read. It should be read in a single sitting and then slowly re-read over a period of time, simply because it is that brilliant.