A Book A Week Challenge – Week 23

Sri Lanka played a crucial role in Hindu mythology – and that too in a yuga – that technically supposed to have preached the best practices for human living. It is the only avatar of Lord Vishnu that describes God as a normal human. But, even in this ideal world, Sri Lanka was a land of conflict – the war zone. Many millions of years and two yugas later, Sri Lanka still witnesses a war. As some artistic interpretation of this island’s to be in the form of ‘tear drop’, the existence seems to be on purpose.

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Book #: 23

Title: This Divided Island” by Samanth Subramanian

Pages: 318

Samanth Subramanian’s detailed, eloquent, investigative, psychological narration of this island unravels the life of many millions who fell on the either side of the war. “This Divided Island” would be one of the most researched war stories I have read. The names of interviewees keep popping up every next page. Samanth Subramanian should be proud of himself for putting a war story as brilliant as none out there could do, at least for Sri Lanka.

1914 was when the First World War happened and 100 years of civilization passed ever since. But, the world learned nothing from it – if the data were to be fed into a machine learning tool, it would have directed a much better behavioral patterns than we humans currently do. We are to be the most sophisticated species and so we are complex and so we behave even myopic than the machines with limited data.

Every culture, in itself, associates its behavior to a well-referenced and unique mythology. But, it is strange that every mythological reference more often than not points to violence – man vs. man, man vs. woman, race vs. race, caste vs. caste, land vs. land. The preaching comes at the end quoting not to involve into any of these but we were lost by then. For Sri Lanka, it is even more ironical. It was a culture that was built on the mythological references to Buddha- who renounced the violence and set out in an attempt to enlightenment.

But as Samanth puts it brilliantly in this book:

“Sri Lanka is, as decreed by the Buddha himself, the ultimate refuge of his faith, so any measure- even violence – is permissible in the protection of Buddhism”

We all live now in societies inured 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. The war in Sri Lanka is not a present day one as mentioned above, it goes way back to the Yugas and then to the years of Mahavamsa, the 101 of Buddhism, and to the present day conflicts. The present conflict unfolded at multiple levels – Sinhalese oppressed Tamils (for the land that no one knows who landed first) then Tigers fighting for a separate Eelam and then Army fighting against Tigers (to protect whom?).

The end of it is a history that was marked with tears of millions of lives who do not even know who they want to even trust. “Once the war begins, there are no choosing sides and the lives that fall cannot be distinguished from which side you fell” It takes everyone equally.

Samanth’s narration of this war story and its after effects is as eloquent as a grandmother’s story under the pleasant night sky. The story is not as pleasant to make it to that list of grandmother stories but it keeps the reader engaged all through it.

As years of Sinhalese oppression passed, a youngster with a group that is motivated by “The glamour of the ideological life lived just outside the law, the impossible romance of a fraternity of young men out to change their world” to propose the “only other alternative” for the Tamils. “Tiger” Prabhakaran might be a man of angry blood but he did his homework – he read the war books for techniques and ideologies- he practiced hours together- but that is where the good part of his side of the story ends.

In the early days of “Tigers”, the people seemed to be more comfortable with them than the government itself. As some interviewees put it “There are no crimes, people felt comfortable to walk around the city, the doors were left unlocked” but as with all the movements driven by a man than ideology, LTTE transformed itself into a beast of its own. The objective is no longer the Eelam but the protection of its leader.

The government didn’t do much good to it either – as the governments changed and the army’s power increased – the ends were met with horrible means. The control was to be taken back but it adopted measures that would remind you of George Orwell’s dystopian world in “1984”.

Samanth describes it as: “life becomes an act, to be performed for the satisfaction of the audience”

The war might have ended with the killing of Prabhakaran but the normal lives of people never returned. Physically conditions might have improved, they no longer needed many checkpoints to be cleared, they no longer had to be 2000 rupees to buy a tin of milk but the mental exhaustion might take many years to return to normalcy. Citizens were still under the fear of narrating their side of the story fearing the government.

In the new Sri Lanka, demolition was a vital tool for nation building. But, it didn’t just stop there. The demolition is accompanied by a relief of false success- to make it complete- wipe off all the demolition and physical memories of war. But, who can wipe those years of anguish to losing the loved ones in a war that’s fought where both the sides ended on a losing cause.

The victory monument: A soldier with a flag pole bearing the Sri Lankan flag in his left hand and AK-47 with a dove perched upon it in his right hand. The dove looks as if it might take a flight in any second, its wings, unfurled, but the soldier’s grip upon his AK-47 was firm and unyielding. – summarizes the war situation with absolute brilliance.

Samanth Subramanian’s “This Divided Island” will remain as one of the monumental narrations of life in Sri Lanka for many generations to come. It involves real people pouring their hearts out with their versions of “told truth” and it should be believed as “factual truth” since war never keeps its stories alive by itself.

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