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This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War Hardcover – 13 Jul 2014
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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 and Mint. 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.
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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.
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