The government’s tolerance of Buddhist extremism and the clergy’s power in Sri Lanka is feeding an unsavoury majoritarianism, and that never bodes well for any country, says Samanth Subramanian, the author of This Divided Island, in this interview with Zafar Anjum.
Samanth Subramanian is an Indian journalist and writer. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from Pennsylvania State University and a Master’s in international relations from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He has written, among other publications, for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Mint, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Far Eastern Economic Review, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The National and The Hindu. His first book of narrative non-fiction, Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast, won the 2010 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2013 Andre Simon Prize. His new book, This Divided Island, traces the aftermath of the war in Sri Lanka and how it is shaping the Sri Lankan society.
In your first book (Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast), you followed fish. In your second book, the Tigers. What prompted you to pick up this serious subject? Anything else besides the journalistic impulse (as you mentioned in an interview with The Hindu)?
The journalistic impulse was, I have to admit, the strongest motivating factor – but even that journalistic impulse is really just plain, simple curiosity. I was curious about the changes that a three-decade war can wreak upon the psyche of an individual or a country, and about the texture of life during such a long war. It helped immensely, of course, that I’m Tamil, and that I’ve been following the war with varying degrees of interest for nearly two decades now; I speak Tamil, and Sri Lanka is right next door. I’d have been similarly curious about a war in faraway Somalia, say, but it would have been far more difficult for me to write a book from there.
I felt also that there was a genuine need for a book about Sri Lanka that narrated the war from the perspectives of ordinary people. There have been many top-down histories or political biographies or military analyses, but because of the difficulties of reporting during wartime, there were no ground-up narratives. I thought that would lay open this war in greater and better detail.
Did you have any model in your mind while you were doing this book? Any other work that might have inspired you?
My primary inspiration was Anna Funder’s “Stasiland,” which examines life in East Germany under the Big Brother-like eye of the Stasi secret police. It’s a terrific, layered book. Funder does all the due diligence: histories about the East German regime, the background of the Stasi, and so on. But she knits all this so deftly into her stories of the people she meets and interviews, and into the story of her own life, always bringing her own unique eye and voice to the tales she tells. “Stasiland” has the immersive quality of great fiction, but it’s all culled from real life. It’s an amazing feat.
How did you go about researching the book? How many months did you spend in Sri Lanka? Anything that terrified you during the process?
back and forth between Delhi and Sri Lanka for another five months. Living there, I felt, was crucial. I wanted to feel how the country was shaping the rhythm of my life and my thoughts, and that was only possible if I was a fixture there. I travelled within the country constantly, talking to people, asking in them in turn for others I could interview, following up plenty of dead ends, getting lucky on multiple occasions – the usual stuff of journalism. In one way, what was most rewarding was when I decided not to obsesses about the war directly – when I tried to learn about other aspects of Sri Lankan life and, in that way, arrived back at the war in roundabout but revealing ways. I followed my gut a lot. That was important – and again, that was something I couldn’t have done if I hadn’t been living there.
What terrified me the most was the prospect of getting my interview subjects or my contacts into trouble. Lives are often precarious there, and the state does not look kindly upon people criticising it. I always had an exit, but these people had to stay on and lead their lives in the country. So that conferred massive responsibilities upon me – to be fair, to be honest, to be sensitive, to be careful, to be flexible. These are always journalistic priorities, but they’re particularly exaggerated in such situations.
What was the most difficult part of doing this project? And the easiest?
Everything was difficult about this project. I feared the reporting would be hard, and it turned out to be even harder than expected – not only the process of convincing people to talk to me, but also the difficult of hearing heart-rending stories again and again, and the need to balance empathy and objectivity. The writing, I thought, might be easier – and that turned out to be devilishly difficult also, because I was trying to create almost a novelistic, conversational method of narrative in a book that also needed a lot of exposition and background. That balance was very elusive at first.
The easiest part, actually, was just deciding to do this book. It seemed so obvious to me. Here was a war that had ended after three decades, and the end of fighting opened up all these opportunities to travel to places that were previously inaccessible and meet people who suddenly had new freedom to tell what were sure to be amazing stories.
In your book, you talk about the crack between the Tamil Tigers and Muslims that appears at a particular point of time. Why did it happen? What led to the suspicions between the two communities?
There seem to be a number of factors. Prabhakaran started to desire a “purer” Eelam, one that contained Hindus and Christians but not Muslims. The Tigers had many members from Hindu and Christian backgrounds, but very few Muslims; the Muslim community, by and large, refrained from taking sides in this conflict. There was also the suspicion that the army recruiting Tamil-speaking Muslims to work as spies or low-level intelligence analysts, and Prabhakaran was quick to see this as a betrayal by the community as a whole. There were personal frictions between some Muslim leaders and some Tiger leaders, which escalated unnecessarily.
Now that the LTTE story is over, how do you see the future of minorities in Sri Lanka? What is the role of the Buddhist clergy in this connection?
In the near future, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the state’s treatment of its minorities. The end of the war has engendered a Sinhalese triumphalism, and certain right wing sections of the Buddhist clergy have taken care to paint it as a Buddhist victory. The government’s tolerance of Buddhist extremism and the clergy’s power in Sri Lanka is feeding an unsavoury majoritarianism, and that never bodes well for any country. The clergy itself is split, I feel. There are plenty of moderate Buddhist monks who are dismayed with the ways in which their faith is being diverted and manipulated. The more right wing among the monks are ideologically zealous, but they also control immense wealth and influence. It’s an unhappy situation.
Frankly, it’s a mystery. A few years ago, we were all assured that the longform genre had one foot in the grave – and instead, there’s a proliferation of outlets, online but also in print, that seem to want to do more of it! Granted that not all of them have their business models quite worked out, and maybe a lack of revenue can still cripple or kill them. But it’s encouraging that readers seem to want more longform, and that’s not surprising. Our world is ferociously complicated at the moment, more so than ever before, and longform is so perfectly suited to the task of taking a complicated subject and patiently, attractively unpackaging it for us. Attention spans will undoubtedly shrink further. But hopefully there will always be a significantly large group of readers who have the patience and the hunger to read deeply and at length.
Who are your favourite non-fiction writers?
There are so many! Ram Guha, Geoff Dyer, David Remnick, Larissa MacFarquhar, Pico Iyer, Naresh Fernandes, James Meek, Janet Malcolm, Oliver Sacks – and this is just a partial list of the people who’re still alive!
What do you plan to write next?
I don’t have a plan for my next project, that’s for sure. I’m excited by the idea of experimenting with genres while retaining a core of narrative journalism. So for instance, I want to see if I can do a biography, or a science book, or another travel book, or a city book — all nominally different genres, but using the same set of tools that I used for “Following Fish” and “This Divided Island.” But this is, of course, not an idea for a project; it’s just a sort of arc that I see for my writing at the moment.
Any advice for budding non-fiction writers?
Everybody asks aspiring writers to read, and that’s invaluable. But there’s more value still to be found in re-reading. When we read an excellent non-fiction piece or book, we’re rightly sucked into the storytelling, so that we don’t stop to notice how this narrative is weaving its spell. It’s a good idea to then revisit the piece more closely – to take it apart and see how it ticks, so to speak. If you understand the sort of mechanisms that go into a really fine work of non-fiction, you’ll also understand how you can then deploy similar mechanisms in your own writing.