Book Review: This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian

More travelogue than political polemic, the author’s second book is a haunting revisiting of the Sri Lankan civil war, says Shehan Karunatilaka in The Mint

srilankaConsidering the amount of ink spilled in its name, the Sri Lankan post-war story deserves a subgenre of its own. From that moment in May 2009, when the bloodied head of Tiger boss Velupillai Prabhakaran was hung on the masthead of every newspaper in the land, words have accumulated to describe the island’s post-war experience. It is a shame that none of those words has been “peace”.

Divergent reports of how the north was won have consumed miles of column inches, galaxies of pixels and several works of fiction and reportage. The official story as seen in C.A. Chandraprema’s Gota’s War denies that the government shelled its people, executed its enemies in cold blood, denies that it continues to abduct and torture, and to sponsor the suppression of minorities.

This view is orthodoxy only in Sri Lanka and has been refuted on multiple fronts, notably in eyewitness accounts from the war’s last days in The Cage by UN official Gordon Weiss, and in a harrowing series of interviews with war victims in BBC reporter Frances Harrison’s Still Counting The Dead. Both reveal a country still at war and still bleeding. Both have been dismissed by the establishment as foreign propaganda aimed at sinking our floating paradise.

I was curious as to how Samanth Subramanian’s Stories From The Sri Lankan War would fare in this climate, especially since its author is from India and has a name that ends in a consonant. The war is a dicey subject whether it is brought up in polite company or in an online free-for-all. In some circles, mainly those orbiting the Rajapakse clan, to reveal Sri Lanka as anything other than the “Miracle of Asia” is an act of treason. We want foreigners to sun on our beaches, not dig into our past.

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