- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd (15 December 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0143425471
- ISBN-13: 978-0143425472
- Package Dimensions: 21.4 x 14.9 x 1.9 cm
- Average Customer Review: 25 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #56,684 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War Paperback – 15 Dec 2015
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About the Author
Samanth Subramanian is a New Delhi-based journalist. He has written for the New Yorker, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Caravan, Mint, New Republic and Foreign Policy. His first book, Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast, won the 2010 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in India and was shortlisted for the 2013 André Simon Award in the United Kingdom. This Divided Island was shortlisted for The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2015.
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Top customer reviews
This is Samanth Subramanian's second book. His first book : Following Fish : Travels around the Indian Coast was a very well-reviewed book and also shortlisted for some awards. The current book has been highly rated by most of the magazines / newspapers in the last few months and I was tempted to buy this book in spite of reading the critically acclaimed 'Still Counting the Dead' by Frances Harrison on the same subject just last year.
The Divided Island is two notches higher than Still Counting the Dead. Unlike the latter which was mostly based on interviews of people who took asylum into Norway and England and have rebuilt their lives and the distance possibly sanitized their feelings towards the war and displacement....in this case the gutsy author at considerable risk to his own life, spent significant time in Sri Lanka…not in the luxury of the 5 star hostelries but deep into Jaffna, and towns around the place and did extensive on-the-ground interactions and investigations before he wrote this book. The feelings are raw as the wounds are still festering.
The book covers the origins of the Sri Lanka Civil War, the emergence of Prabhakaran, his rise and conversion into a cold blooded secessionist with very brutal ( actually cruel) methods in pursuing his goal, the excesses of the government and Sri Lankan army , and the post war conversion of Sri Lanka into a mono-theistic Buddhist Society obliterating the last vestiges of Tamil / Hindus and Muslims and stripping off the last vestiges of the pluralistic multicultural society that the country boasted of for the last few centuries..
This book is an eye opener. While we did read about the excesses, once in a while in the press, Samanth Subramanian takes us into the innards of Sri Lanka and conveys his point thru stories – and there are a whole range of them. With Tigers, Sri Lankan politicians, Buddhist monks, army personnel and a lot of ordinary folks who bore the brunt of this mindless savage war first at the hands of the Tigers and later the rampaging Sri Lankan forces.
While at an intellectual level, I can empathize with the Tamil’s need for autonomy, preservation of their language and culture and consequently their identity – possibly they had the wrong leader. Terror and unleashing of mayhem doesn’t get you independence or autonomy ever – It alienates your constitutency ( in this case, the Tamils ) and also forces the government to respond with all its force. it is prolonged and protracted negotiations that do it. Gandhiji and Nelson Mandela are classic examples of this. Here is a classic case of a reasonable cause of autonomy / independence in the hands of an unreasonable leader…..not really a leader in the conventional sense but more like a megalomaniacal brigand….while the cause had a resonance with the entire Tamil population, his ruthless methods possibly did not….and I have a feeling…that the ultimate end and decimation of Tigers must have been secretly welcomed by the Tamils themselves. I have a feeling that while being a discriminated minority is not a great way to lead a life but it is better than an uncertain life where your children / women are picked up at gunpoint to be conscripted into the LTTE mayhem and butchered at will by the Tigers at the slightest hint of doubt or suspicion.
What is appalling is the government’s single minded determination in converting Sri Lanka into a Buddhist only Sinhalese country. Their systematic annihilation of every thing Tamil might ricochet in the long run. Ditto with what is being done to the Muslims in Sri Lanka…they seem to be caught between the devil ( the Tigers before) and the deep sea ( the Sinhalese chauvinists) now.
Overall a very very absorbing book which is disturbing at times ( most of the times, actually). Samanth Subramanian needs to be tracked…his prose is almost lyrical…did not get the natural biases of a Tamilian born in Chennai come in the way of writing an elegant and balanced book on Sri Lanka.
If there is one book on Sri Lanka to be read to understand– it will be this one…Happy that this is the first book I read this year.
Samanth simultaneously explores the civil war, it's aftermath and the social conditions which led to it in the first place. Although this appears to be a daunting task he pulls it off with spectacular finesse giving one a whole new perspective of the country.
The book starts with a look at modern Sri Lanka as it copes with the aftermath of the civil war. The Sinhalese are in a triumphant and brash mood after vanquishing the Tigers in the bloody endgames of the war while the Tamils are a sober lot learning grudgingly to play second fiddle to the Sinhalese even as they stew in their new insecurities. The urban landscape is undergoing a transformation to reflect the emerging Sinhala majoritarianism where a 'brawny and purposeful' rather than the serene Buddha is making conspicuous appearances. The creation of an overtly Buddhist landscape is also accompanied by cleansing of any Tamil remnants as he ruefully observes - 'where there was nothing Buddhist to reclaim, there was always something Tamil to destroy'.
For novice outsiders like me Buddhist fundamentalism was a revelation. Buddhism is often cited in religious debates as an example of a truly peaceful religion compared to the other lot(the religious minded miss the delicious irony that by making such a case they in fact worsen their brief by accepting the violence of the other religions). This simple minded assumption is credibly questioned in the book as Buddhism employs casuistry to shamelessly legitimize the war effort by terming it speciously as a 'war for peace' effort and the war being carried out in the name of the Buddha himself. Buddhist moral high ground is ripped apart layer by layer as monks are presented as specimens who rival the bigots from other religions.
The book then tracks the origins of the conflict and it's surprising to note that rather than being a recent phenomena it has a 2000 year history dating to the founding of Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa,the Sinhala epic exhorts fellow Sinhalese whom it deems to be of superior aryan stock to actively hate the much inferior wild Dravidian Tamils and stake their claim as the first sons of the soil. The British true to their policy of divide and rule favor the minority Tamil community which angers the Sinhalese further and once freedom arrives the Sri lankans feel it's their time to redress the balance. What begins as preferential treatment for the Sinhalese turns into outright institutional discrimination towards the Tamils by the 70s.
Thus the middle of the 70s is all set for a showdown between the two communities and confrontation does come in the form of riots across the country. As Tamils realize the failure of constitutional methods of their moderate politicians they are drawn to the extremist ideology advocated by the Tigers spearheaded by Prabhakaran. This of course is a catastrophic choice and the remainder of the book deals with this horrific cycle of violence which culminates in the defeat of the Tigers three decades later with the world questioning the purported war crimes committed by the Sinhalese.
The books also holds out a lesson for India which has - thus far - been saved from majoritarian excesses. India proves the need to have a feminine accomodative touch rather than an aggressive masculine approach in handling diversity. Lest we forget it we just need to have a look at our southerly neighbor.
The book in the end explores the psyche of the two communities and arrives at the surprising conclusion that the civil war has rendered both with the same temperament marked by extreme insecurity, fear of the authorities and loathing of the other. It is here that the book ends with neither hope nor despair for what is to come as it leaves time to decide on either path.
Samanth's writing in the best words of Orwell is as clear as a window pane and he peppers it with flourishes of imagination like a novelist. As he describes his intellectual friend M he meets in Jafna he tries to pin him to English to get the 'materialistic' information of the country as he tries to defy him and 'soar in Tamil'. Also the description of the mechanic Nirmaladevan who is so purposeful in his daily chore that interrupting him would be like interrupting a phenomena of nature 'like a disruptive boy stopping the path of purposeful ants'. He is affecting when describing small actions of people that touches you like the 'beautifully futile act of resistance' of a Muslim butcher who hangs the key prominently outside to indicate a degree of ownership as 'he had ceded the house, rather than having it snatched from him'. Or the poignant request of a man who's leg is blown away by a tiger raid as he requests for a copy of the book when it eventually makes it to print. These and other such moments make sure that the book and the people it endeavors to describe stay in your mind for a long time to come.